Monday, 15 November 2010

Long Live The King

Not for the first time, the phrase “You’ll never win anything with kids” was dispelled with ostensible conviction this weekend, as Formula One bowed to a new world champion. At the tender age of twenty-three, Sebastian Vettel has achieved his inevitable billing as “the next Michael Schumacher”, having displayed stellar maturity beyond his raw youth to snatch the title from under his opponents’ noses. His adversaries Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber showed a glaring lack of pace throughout the weekend, allowing Sebastian Vettel an unchallenged race at the Abu Dhabi circuit from pole position on the grid. The young German’s immaculate drive was enhanced only by the inspiring precision of the Red Bull mechanics, who have barely fluffed their lines throughout the entire season. Conversely, Vettel has too often been the architect of his own downfall. His erratic and often careless driving earned him the nickname “the crash kid”, coined after spectacular collisions with Jensen Button and teammate Mark Webber, in which Vettel was entirely culpable. However, since the halfway point of the season, the man from Heppenheim has found the pace, confidence, commitment, and skill that would put Schuey to shame.

The pre-race predictions oscillated solely between the favourites Alonso and Webber, with Lewis Hamilton and Vettel barely being acknowledged due to the slightness of their chances. The German defied the odds though, lurking in the shadows of the media spotlight that quite conceivably dazzled his rivals, going in for the kill when everyone else was transfixed by the Alonso-Webber joust. Following his triumph, Red Bull would surely have invited the Renault team to join their celebrations; Vitaly Petrov produced a masterful performance to hold off Alonso in seventh, when the Spaniard required a finish of fourth or better to claim the title should Vettel win the race itself.
Critics of the Ferrari team and neutrals alike highlighted Alonso’s petulant gesticulating towards Petrov during the warm-down lap, the Spaniard ostensibly blaming the Renault driver for tarnishing his shot at a record third world title. This was further evidence of foul play from Ferrari, following their reprehensible team-orders debacle at Hockenheim in July.
Even the most passionate supporters of the prancing horse couldn’t fail to be touched by the Vettel’s perma-grin on the podium, beaming with delirious joy. Equally warming were the sincere congratulations and embraces dished out by Hamilton and Button to Vettel as the joined the new champion on the podium. It was a deserved victory for what was indisputably the strongest driver/car combination of the 2010 season. The majority of Vettel’s victories read from the recipe followed by the greatest drivers: take pole position, grab the lead at the start and stay in front all the way to the chequered flag. This is how such masters as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher in his prime used to do it - that way you stay clear of other men's problems. If Vettel continues to mature and eradicate his own teething problems, he has the potential to win many more titles.

Long before Michael Schumacher crashed out on the opening lap in Abu Dhabi, it was clear the seven-time world champion relinquished his reign long ago.
The King is dead. Long live the King.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Money Never Sleeps

The phrase “live fast, die young” could not be truer. As the saga surrounding Wayne Rooney thunders into its second week, it does not take a genius to observe that his metamorphic acceleration to fame at just sixteen years old has facilitated some momentous character flaws. Rooney’s inherent egocentricity was promulgated in no small way by the £26 million that Manchester United paid Everton for his services back in 2004. Since then however, it seems Sir Alex Ferguson’s authority has diminished perceptibly. No stranger to ruthless squad culling, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistelrooy represent high-profile casualties that were jettisoned by Ferguson in acrimonious fashion. Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2009 lingers in the memory because the Portuguese international maintained a level of respect and gratitude for his manager right up until the moment he pulled on the Real Madrid shirt.
While it has been revealed today that Rooney has now signed a new five-year contract at United, one must surely wonder if the player’s relationship with Ferguson has been irrevocably damaged. The whole saga reeks of “publicity stunt”, with Rooney recently losing his starting place, his sponsors, and his dignity, it took something incredible to turn the headlines back in his favour. It also represents something of a shift in the power circles at Old Trafford, with Rooney ostensibly holding his own manager ransom; it is therefore difficult to believe that this whole affair is motivated by anything other than money. Moreover, one cannot think that the United supporters can possibly reverse their furious death threats back into the loving adulation that once reverberated for Rooney.
Sir Alex Ferguson meanwhile would do well to quote Monty Python at his next press conference: “He’s not a messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.

Friday, 1 October 2010

PGA Ryder Cup 2010: The Greatest Game Ever Played?

On the dawn of the 38th Ryder Cup, the stage is set for Europe and USA to lock horns in what will surely be the most tantalising tournament of the year. Team USA Corey Pavin deployed a precursory barb on Tuesday night by recruiting Gulf War pilot PGA Tour professional Major Dan Rooney to motivate his troops. Colin Montgomerie opted for a more traditional pep talk by bringing in the Welsh rugby union hero Gareth Edwards, as he continues to prime his players for combat. Team Europe were also treated to an inspirational speaker-phone call from the magnanimous Ryder Cup legend, Seve Ballesteros, who continues his battle against cancer after being struck down by the affliction in 2008.
The onus lies firmly with Montgomerie and his men to wrestle the trophy from the grasp of the Americans. Team Europe will be hoping the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, can form a formidable partnership, while the two effervescent Northern Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell can convert their friendship into a pernicious pairing. Such has been the astute level of Montgomerie’s preparation and assiduous handling of the media that there has been little insight into the faring of the world number one, besides the visible lack of “birdies” accompanying him at Celtic Manor. It is rejuvenating to consider the huge popularity of the Ryder Cup in the current sporting context of astronomical winners fees, bonuses and sponsorship deals, that the world’s golfing haiso, continue to be romanticised by this tournament.

One sport however, is becoming increasingly bereft of its amateur sporting ideologies. The Tour de France precarious reputation was dealt another blow after this years’ winner, Alberto Contador, was recently revealed to have failed a drugs test during the Tour. Professional cycling has been palpably rife with doping since the sport was established in the 1890’s, but the International Cycling Union should be credited for its continued viability over the years. The ICU has remained true its professional ethics by disclosing similar offences by Ezequiel Mosquera, Li Fiyu and Floyd Landis, despite the somewhat perverse effect on the sport.

However, as Ed Smith investigated in the BBC documentary “Is Professionalism Killing Sport?” the weight of professionalism can often stifle creativity due to its emphasis on performance and results, although some sportsmen are unaffected by such pressures. Usain Bolt continues to mesmerise audiences worldwide with his Herculean performances on the track, regardless of the opaque doping allegations that plague him. Bolt’s congeniality comes from his inherent enjoyment of athletics that has been sustained since his childhood. It is a similar kind of joy that we reap from seeing the childish grin of Lionel Messi every time he scores a goal. Other sportsmen such as Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton, Ryan Giggs are successful because they maintain that child-like enthusiasm throughout their careers, playing principally for enjoyment rather than fortune.
Perhaps this is why Colin Montgomerie carries an unbeaten record into the tournament that holds no cash prize. The question is, can Team Europe profit from “Monty’s” magnanimity?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Rain Man Reigns Supreme

For most drivers, it is their kryptonite; it depletes their super-human abilities with exciting truculence. As the Formula 1 paddock returned from its mid-term haitus with a smorgasbord of bangs and pirouettes, only one man could make his machine dance in the rain at Spa-Francorchamps, and he now leads the World Championship.

The series of showers that engulfed the Ardennes region gave way to safety cars, delectable drama, and title contenders dropping like flies. Fernando Alonso’s retirement means both Scuderia drivers are out of the championship, in spite of the “Ferrari-gate” debacle that plagued the German grand prix. Mark Webber and Robert Kubica stayed on Lewis Hamilton’s tail commendably throughout Sunday’s enthralling race, ensuring a close finish between the first three drivers.

But once again, Sebastian Vettel’s youthful exuberance has irrevocably damaged his title chances, while simultaneously erasing the chances of Jensen Button. The Brit was comfortably nurturing his damaged McLaren around Spa in second place, before Vettel lost control speared Button’s flank. Careless accidents, despite their spectacular nature, are becoming something of a trademark manoeuvre for the young German. Vettel’s collisions in Spa and Turkey, along with the drive-through penalty in Hungary are proof of the chronic inexperience that blemishes his enormous potential.
Mark Webber, his Red Bull team-mate, epitomises the perfect balance of experience and ability, a blend that makes him joint favourite to take the championship title, which one hopes will be contested until the last lap of the final race. However, in head-to-head duels, Hamilton’s sheer pace and fearlessness render him the victor, as Kimi Raikonnen, Alonso, and Massa have found to their disdain over the years.

It is pleasing to see the emergence of two more German talents – Nick Heidfeld and Adrian Sutil – both of whom overtook Michael Schumacher with disturbing ease, as the Regenmeister’s appears increasingly pedantic as the season progresses.

Germany may soon be able to boast a number of championship contenders. I just hope it rains in Monza next Sunday.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Old Habits Die Hard

In the heat of battle, sportsmen employ ruthless, choleric tactics to manufacture the most minuscule advantage over their opponents, but no-one could ignore the events that unfolded on lap sixty-five at the Hungaroring, overshadowing what had been a truly enthralling Grand Prix.
The harsh, cold light of day has hit Michael Schumacher hard during the season heralded as comeback time for, statistically, the greatest Formula 1 driver in history. Deep down past his steely nerves, Schumacher must know his time is up. His teammate Nico Rosberg sits on 94 points to Schumacher’s 38, hard evidence of how far the The Baron has fallen from grace. Conspiracy theorists may highlight that Rubens Barrichello recently dethroned "The Stig" from his pinnacle on the Top Gear lapboard, thirteen months after Stiggy removed his helmet to reveal his true identity as, yep, Herr Schuey himself. While Top Gear portrays about as much serious motoring advice as Pineapple Dance Studios, the issue of ramming adversaries into concrete walls at 180mph is no laughing matter.
Like Monaco 2006, Jerez 1997, and Adelaide 1994, Schumacher still toils to apologise or admit transgression. He is clearly a passionate, ruthless competitor whose hunger shows no bounds, but even the most fervent Schumacher fan would struggle to refute his seemingly inherent malevolence. For that reason, it was warming to see Barrichello finally wrestle his way past the inexorable Mercedes GP driver as retribution for five years of faithful service as Schumacher’s back-marker at Ferrari.
In contrast with the nauseating events of Hockenheim the previous weekend, Ferrari’s current darling Fernando Alonso produced a solid drive characteristic of his profound raw talent, which merited his second place finish and thwarted a Red Bull rout.
Despite team director Christian Horner’s sustained proclamations of calm and civility between his duelling drivers, the body language of Sebastian Vettel towards his teammate suggests otherwise. While Mark Webber’s victory saw him vanquish the championship lead from Lewis Hamilton, Vettel apparently lacks the experience required to devise an effective racing strategy when all the tools at his disposable have proven fruitless. Conversely, Webber possesses such knowledge in abundance, and has the car and mental strength to take the championship flag. He is one of the good guys - one accolade that Michael Schumacher will struggle win.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Open Championship 2010: Oosthuizen victory signals new democracy

The man they call “Shrek” could easily have been mistaken for an impassive tourist on the West Sands such was the humble level of ostentation radiated by the South African on Sunday evening. Louis Oosthuizen’s Open victory at St Andrews represents more than a tournament condemned by certain quarters of the media as “boring”, and it would be foolish to underestimate the feat of Oosthuizen’s achievements. The South African’s performance over the four days were characterised by his infallible composure, in direct paradox to the wild gales that battered the Fife coast. Had it been Tiger Woods in Oosthuizen’s shoes, the entire planet would be genuflecting reborn beguilement for the World Number 1. Woods’ delusion was evident in the aftermath of the Open, as he mewed: “I played well, but I didn’t make any putts”, as if to insinuate that putting doesn’t constitute any part of ‘playing well’.

While it is difficult to condone that Woods’ has been very much the architect of his own downfall, his fall from grace is not unprecedented. The lesson of St Andrews, it seems, is the lesson of Pebble Beach, Bethpage, Hazeltine and Turnberry, four recent majors that produced unexpected winners. Professional golf is a more democratic arena these days - anyone can win – and that makes it all the more endearing.

The sport is struggling in traditional heartlands, such as the UK and the US, where golf club membership is down significantly, but in Asia its popularity is growing. China, South Korea, and Thailand are countries to which the European Tour, and increasingly so, the PGA Tour are looking to in the search for sponsorship.

Professional golf is therefore encompassed by a period of flux and uncertainty, headed by a roll call of major winners that caught everyone by surprise.

This is the post-Tiger Woods era, and I welcome it.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: Spanish sun keeps on rising

No amount of smoke and mirrors could disguise the 2010 World Cup Final from what it was – the clash of two footballing pioneers garrotted by a tactical battle shorn of blood and thunder. It was fetching that a tournament so concerned with unity and concord should bow out in such an rancorous manner, but ultimately, eloquence conquered pragmatism as the Spanish were deservedly crowned world champions. Victory against Brazil proved that the Dutch were capable of playing their native Total Football when it mattered, but against Spain the Netherlands sacrificed beauty for brutality in hope of subduing their illustrious and superior opponents. Van Marwijk deployed his destructive midfield duo of De Jong and Van Bommel, who set about the Spaniards with tenacious bone-juddering challenges, while Howard Webb worked overtime to keep temperatures below boiling point. The cynical Dutch tactics paid off as Spain operated hurriedly and wastefully, in fear of being chopped down by the orange scythes, only for Arjen Robben to squander two golden opportunities to put Holland in front. After the half-time interval, Spain re-emerged to play the mesmerising, captivating passing game that spectators across the globe know and love. This was the pivotal moment when the Dutch accepted their dream was dead. The famous Holland squads of 1974 and 1978 did not believe in their own ability to succeed; the team of 2010 believed in themselves too much. No one can condone that the Dutch were somewhat inferior to the craft and guile that oozes from every sector of the Spanish team. The two central defenders have been insurmountable throughout the tournament; Sergio Ramos bombs forward and tracks back with equal panache, while Pique safaris up-field and pings a multitude of flawless sixty yard passes towards the predatory David Villa who lingers on the left flank, before incising deep for the kill. The king of the team is undoubtedly the Catalan colossus, Carles Puyol. He is a defender’s defender, magnanimous to his colleagues and biblically unceremonious, often playing on a knife’s edge of what one would deem legal in the rulebook. It is Puyi whose thunderous header edged Spain past the stoical young Germans in the semi-final, most likely the last of his three international goals as he ponders retirement to concentrate on club duty.
However, Spain’s showpiece comes in the form of their midfield quartet, which also holds the key to their triumphs. As the raw Sergio Busquets continues his apprenticeship by efficaciously protecting his back four, Xabi Alonso becomes the heartbeat of the team. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta interweave in the final third while Alonso supplies the imperative yet seemingly innocuous short passes to them from his deeper holding role; he is the conductor to the orchestra, the drummer of the rock band: less glamorous than those around him, but provides the cadenced spine of the team’s operations.

Total Football’s prodigal son, Johan Cruyff, castigated his countrymen for playing hermetic “anti-football”, stressing that Holland still lost despite their coarse tactics. The Dutch betrayed their heritage, and it gained them nothing. For the good of football, one hopes the victors stay loyal to their beautiful passing philosophy, because nothing can halt the ascendance of this Spanish sun.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: The future's bright - the future's Oranje

The veneer of objectivity is never strong among Scotsmen when their eternal foe is slain in battle. However, after the England team palpably fell on its own sword at the hands of Germany, I couldn’t help but watch with glee as the Barmy Army lambasted the pitiful performance of their heroes.
The derogative amblings expressed by Franz Beckenbuaer may have riled the English players prior to the conflict, but once again the Kaiser was proved right. As journalists and fans alike aimlessly castigate their way through one scapegoat after another, from Uruguayan linesmen to FA grassroots coaching, there is no masking the hard facts. Throughout the World Cup, Capello confided in what was, unmistakeably, ‘kick and rush’ football. England deservedly reaped futile rewards for persevering such an ineffective strategy, and exited at the hands of a youthful German side.
One feels deluded towards believing we have witnessed the contrasting performances of an omnipotent German team, rather than an astonishingly sub-standard England side.
In fairness, this chimera has some substance. Germany’s current crop of players boasts an average age of 22, while captain Phillipp Lahm is already chasing his second World Cup semi-final at 23 years old. South Africa has been the proving ground for Joachim Löw’s arsenal of raw, but abundantly talented young sorcerers, namely Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller. While the immortal utterance by Alan Hansen of “You don’t win anything with kids” is somewhat obsolete, achieving the correct balance between youth and experience remains as paramount as ever. But when kinder play with such precipitant effervescence, allowing youthful impatience and ignorance to flourish ahead of fear and caution, the world should bask in their glory. South Africa has been the first world cup of recent memory where the German side relinquished its ubiquitous, clichéd stereotypes. Terms such as “ruthless” and “efficient” were replaced by “adventurous” and “spontaneous” – qualities one would have expected from Brazil or Argentina. As such, an identity crisis emancipated among the elite European nations; while Germany played fast, free-flowing, counter-attacking football, Spain stumbled and scraped their way past opponents in an uncharacteristically pedantic manner. The exception was their semi-final victory over Germany, where the Spaniards finally reported for duty, flaunting the passing master-class that won them the Euro 2008. The omission of El Nino Fernando Torres notably revitalised the Spanish heartbeat, overwhelming the obstinate Blitzkrieg of their opponents. One hopes Spain carry their revitalised verve and elegance into their first ever final, although it remains to be seen who Paul the physic octopus predicts as victors.

Juxtapositioned and playing the “German way”, ironically, are the Dutch. Rather than aspire to the “Total Football” philosophy pioneered by Rinus Michaels, Holland have been staid and restrained in their unyieldingly pragmatic approach. The attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder utilised for harrowing and shadowing their opponents into surrendering possession. Not since Iceland supermarkets sacked their bright saleswoman, Ms Katona, have individuals played as close to the white line as Kuyt and Robben. Nevertheless, the Flying Dutchmen find themselves in only their third World Cup Final since 1974 and 1978, and victory would be the perfect send-off for Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. One thing though. If the Netherlands win on Sunday then Ryan Babel will retire with more World Cup medals than Johan Cruyff. Think about that.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: England in-fighting leaves campaign in tatters

As Rose highlights in the hit American sitcom Two and a Half Men, “schadenfreude” refers to feeling pleasure at the misfortune of others, which is exactly how I felt when I got wind of John Terry’s latest solecism. There is no denying the murmurings that have emerged from all quarters of the England camp regarding Fabio Capello’s unyieldingly strict regime, which has ostensibly eroded team morale. Sundays’s press conference began with Terry defending his manager in an archetypically loyal fashion, which is something of a regularity for him at Stamford Bridge. By the time the conference concluded, Terry had painstakingly dismantled the armoury of Capello’s authority and personally promised to challenge the rules put down by his manager. The fact that the players and staff were allowed to drink beer following the draw with Algeria suggests Terry may have dealt Capello a formidable blow. However, it is notable that the other squad members were unhappy with their ex-captain’s decision to elect himself as their spokesman, and revealing intricate private details about the team. Yesterday, Capello retorted that the centre-half had made a “big mistake”, forcing Terry to lumber out in front of the press with his tail between his legs and issue a somewhat futile public apology. Clearly, the relationship between Capello and the Chelsea stalwart has soured since Terry was humiliatingly stripped of his captaincy four months ago. As a result, the plight felt in the England camp is now only a wayward Jabulani away from descending into the infantile anarchy that engulfed France’s impalpable stay in South Africa.
As of 5pm this evening, I expect to be feeling more “schadenfreude” as Mr Capello finds his reputation thoroughly extirpated at the hands of Slovenia.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: "If Carlsberg did team selections..."

As John Barnes vexingly preaches: “You got to hold and give but do it at the right time. You can be slow or fast but you must get to the line”.
It seems Signore Capello has been fortunate enough to avoid Mars pretentious marketing campaign (for the duration of the World Cup all Scots will disassociate themselves from Carlsberg, Mars, and their partners in crime, Kasabian). England fans forever regard their national team as the perennial, gritty Underdog at every major tournament, which is fair enough. But the persistent attribution of Wayne Rooney’s scatter-gun aggression and John Terry’s reckless tackles to the fatuous “island race” label would cause Winston Churchill to sorely regret making that famous speech. The Scots, Irish and Welsh constitute the same “island race” and they didn’t even make the final tournament. Although Fabio Capello is unquestionably the ideal tactician to guide England to success in South Africa, his personnel choices for the final 23-man squad are somewhat perplexing. No one can refute that the squad selection process presented anything other than a conundrum for the Italian, one that will likely prompt journalist to switch their current optimistic tone to one of sanctimony after England bow out before the semis.
The principal concern for England supporters, at least momentarily, is of course the omission of Theo Walcott. I didn’t heed Gordon Strachan’s plight at the last World Cup so now I have a yoghurt in the fridge that needs eaten (it is an apricot Petit Filous so you can understand my distress). Capello has opted for Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips in the position that many felt Walcott and his supersonic pace fitted like a glove. Following his hat trick against Croatia, an element of complacency has shrouded Walcott’s season. Combine this with his injury problems, and it becomes apparent why Capello opted to leave him behind. His positional adversaries Lennon and Wright-Phillips may not get to the by-line quite so sharply, but both have seen more first team football this season than you can shake a vuvuzela at. An added impetus in choosing Wright-Phillips comes in the shape of the diminutive winger’s stepfather, the grinning ignoramus that is Ian Wright. While “Live from Studio Five” may portray Wrighty to possess the same level of intellect as Dappy from N-Dubz, he carries enough weight in the British media for Capello to appreciate that leaving Wright-Phillips at home would constitute a PR suicide.
As for the other casualties, Darren Bent and Michael Dawson should rightly feel disappointed at missing the cut. Bent’s seat on the plane is occupied by the maladroit behemoth that is Emile Heskey, who is under no delusions that his sole purpose will be to feed on scraps in order to supply saviour Rooney. Although Heskey may well be more effective as a second striker, Bent has scored 25 goals this season while Heskey hasn’t hit the net since February. If selection should be dependent on fitness then Capello could just as easily have omitted Ledley King instead of Dawson but picked the former on the basis that he is the more gifted player. Stephen Warnock has played only 90 minutes for England since 2005 but regained the position following Leighton Baines’ desperate performance at left-back against Japan on Sunday. Capello is a man too astute and experienced in world football to make rash decisions or perilous gambles regarding his playing personnel. However, it remains to be seen if his choice to hold back Walcott and Bent bears fruit, and if the decision to give Wright-Phillips and Heskey a place on the plane backfires, like I hope Carlsberg’s ostentatious advertising does

Friday, 21 May 2010

Don't Teach The Old Dog New Tricks

Less than half a season gone and the Formula 1 World Championship is already beginning to look conclusive. Sound familiar? Exactly twelve months ago, Jensen Button was well on his way to championship title after more than a decade on the grid, playing an integral role in the fairytale that encapsulated Brawn GP’s maiden season.
After Mark Webber strolled to victory at Monaco last Sunday with his team-mate Sebastian Vettel in close pursuit, a number of his rivals lamented that the Red Bull team are simply too technologically advanced for the other teams to compete. In contrast with the Brawn GP, who succeeded on a shoestring budget overseen by the parsimonious guidance of Ross Brawn, Red Bull receive abundant financial backing from billionaire owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who demands his team take the championship flag this season. It is too soon to foresee which driver will take the championship crown but the Red Bull team, astutely marshalled by Christian Horner, must be the favourites. Following a piquant opening to the 2010 campaign, the prodigal young German Vettel has been transcended by Webber, ten years his senior, who has utilised his experience, wisdom and raw ability to ruthless effect. The rest of the field, led by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso appear perplexed and left stranded in the Red Bull slipstream. Other heavyweight contenders for the title such as Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button of McLaren have been made to look somewhat languid as they struggle to overcome the reliability problems that have plagued many of the grid forerunners this season. The one-time insuperable titan Michael Schumacher has toiled throughout the season as it becomes ominously apparent just how far the seven-times world champion has fallen from grace. Nevertheless, Schumacher provided a glimpse of his vintage characteristic guile as he audaciously leapfrogged Fernando Alonso on the final corner of the Monaco circuit just as the safety car pulled into the pits. It is refreshing to observe the potency with which less fashionable drivers such as Kubica, Rosberg and Sutil all drive, seemingly incited by the failure of their leading adversaries to pull away from the rest of the grid. A repeat of the 2008 season finale, when Hamilton was crowned World Champion only after the final lap of the final race of the campaign, is every neutral’s wish. While Red Bull hold an undoubtedly large lead, it is one which is most definitely assailable, as Jensen Button proved last year when the championship fate was decided with one round to spare. I hope Webber maintains this early momentum to take the championship which the old dog so thoroughly deserves.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Season of discontent: What does next term hold for the SPL?

Should Gordon Brown be re-elected as the British Prime minister on Thursday, he will be required to address a multitude of issues in order to get the Labour party back on track. In comparison with the enormity of the tasks facing Neil Doncaster and his SFA colleagues at Hampden Park, the murky waters of Westminster represent something of a tranquil haven.
The controversy surrounding the recent league split contained tenacity more akin to the nature of a pitbull terrier. Despite retaining the SPL title last weekend at Easter Road, Walter Smith was noticeably riled by the post-split fixture list that requires his team to make play three consecutive away matches. As they did exactly 12 months ago, St Mirren are destined to travel north to take on Falkirk, who are again their relegation rivals, for a third time this season. Likewise, Motherwell are unhappy at the prospect of playing two extra games away from home, although the players may see this as a blessing in disguise given the current state of the Fir Park playing surface.
To rectify the deficiency of “sporting integrity”, Walter Smith threw his weight behind the idea of restructuring the SPL to accommodate 18-teams to replace the current 12 club format. The notion of not playing the same team four times each season is understandably appealing on footballing terms, as the lack of familiarity between teams would facilitate less predictable results, and ultimately result in more compelling viewing. However, the influx of six first division clubs into Scotland’s premier league will culminate in fixtures such as Queen of the South against Hamilton Academicals, which is unlikely to entice neither fans nor TV revenue. The recent proposals of a 14-club top flight encompassing the play-off structure currently exercised in the First Division appears to be the more pragmatic approach. Along with ending the annual plight posed by the league split, the probable improvements in playing styles and gate receipts renders this solution an attractive proposition to supporters and broadcasters alike.

As the media frequently remind us, (messrs Traynor and Leckie among others) this season has been the worst season for Scottish football since Moses asked Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Under the admirable control and discipline of Walter Smith, Rangers have stretched their resources to an impressive measure both on and off the park, allowing them to saunter to another league victory. Of course, it needn’t have looked so effortless had it not been for the turmoil that currently engulfs the East end of Glasgow. Few other teams outside the Old Firm are so fixated by the challenge of beating their local rivals to the championship year in, year out, which is why Tony Mowbray was dismissed from Celtic with ruthless immediacy. When successfully deployed, his principles of attacking football provided a refreshing contrast with the callous and gritty win-at-all-cost approach taken by Walter Smith that attracted regular recriminations. However, Smith’s record of six trophies in three years is beyond reproach. While Tony Mowbray looks for a new job, Neil Lennon has assumed the position of ringmaster as he seeks to overhaul the circus that has encapsulated Celtic’s season. Aside from the Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Ross County, Lennon and his assistant Johan Mjallby have successfully nursed the ailing team towards the finish line while circumventing the threat of slipping to third place behind a pertinacious Dundee United side. Despite losing head coach Craig Levein midway through the season, Peter Houston has assumed managerial duties with remarkable adroitness, and produced a side oozing impetus and vivacity. Houston’s impeccable blend of uncompromising physicality in defence with an efficacious, peripatetic midfield supplying the prodigal David Goodwillie allowed for the easy dismissal of third place challengers Hibernian. At the other end of the table, Falkirk appear favourites to be relegated after narrowly avoiding the drop last season, despite coach Steven Pressley’s best attempts to lament, exasperate and inculpate his way to safety. Following the most enthralling first division title race in years, Inverness Caledonian Thistle managed to bounce straight back into the top flight when Dundee, Dunfermline, Queen of the South and Ross County were all serious promotion candidates.

Witnessing Henry McLeish speak at the Scottish Football Debate last September, I was impressed by the ambition and integrity in his proposal to conduct a meticulous review of Scottish football. The compiled findings of the review released last week made for pessimistic reading, suggesting that a complete overhaul of the system is required from grassroots up if Scotland should ever again produce world-class players. This may be the case, but this season has seen the gulf between Scotland’s elite clubs diminish somewhat, meaning next season should be a much more unpredictable affair.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Victory for Evil over Good

Last night’s contest ended in a manner that is becoming increasingly synonymous with ‘The Special One’. Sprinklers were never going to be enough to douse the explosive pandemonium that Jose Mourinho precipitated on Catalonia, from the prerequisite mind games to his post-match grapple with Victor Valdes. Along with the psychological jousts, Mourinho has lifted another powerful weapon from Sir Alex Ferguson’s arsenal in the perennial underdog mentality, and instilled it in his Internazionale side with perturbing effectiveness. Thiago Motta’s unfair dismissal before the half-hour mark was the perfect compliment for Mourinho’s ‘us against the world’ mindset, and undoubtedly catalysed Inter’s unsightly but admirable robustness. The white-clad warriors, led laudably by Samuel, Lucio, Zanetti, and Cambiasso soaked up the pressure exerted by Barca’s playmakers of Xavi, Pedro, Toure Yaya, and Dani Alves with discernable content. Consequently, Ibrahimavic looked woefully alienated, while Cambiasso and Chivu quickly shackled Messi’s habit of cutting inside onto his left foot. For all their possession, Barcelona appeared hopelessly casual and unimaginative, sending cross after cross into Julio Cesar’s penalty area, when a white shirt was always first to every ball. There is no exonerating Inter repulsive tactic of hooking the ball into Barcelona’s half with frustrating constituency, waiting for the resultant wave of attack, before winning the ball and repeating the cycle all over again. However, the discipline and organisation with which Internazionale operate is reminiscent of that among armed forces, which is how ten protagonist’s, most of whom are in their thirties, managed to subdue a Barca side that Catalan fans claim to be one of the best in their illustrious history. As every neutral would assert, Inter’s victory came against everything that symbolised the aesthetic joy provided by football at its elite. At optimum performance, Barcelona’s scintillating ball-playing should surely be classified as one of the world’s great wonders. The seamless and ravishing beauty of Barca’s ‘Total Football’ permits their defenders, midfielders and strikers to interchange and reciprocate impeccably, exemplified by the dexterity of Pique’s stunning finish.
Mourinho’s tactical astuteness will likely win Internazionale their first European trophy for forty-five years, having strategically outplayed and conquered the two most potent threats of the tournament, Chelsea and Barcelona. But for all his narcissistic egotism, I hope Arjen Robben can produce another flash of brilliance in Madrid to bring Mourinho back down to earth.