Wednesday, 30 May 2007

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Thursday, 24 May 2007

Champions' League disappointment

With no headache to nurse after celebrations proved unnecessary, I’ve had a less impeded chance to consider the action in Athens last night and the task that awaits Rafa Benitez in the summer.

The final was in actual fact a relatively low key affair, the frantic pace of the first 35 minutes not withstanding.

Benitez tactical decisions were certainly spot on. He started with two wingers, but selected Steven Gerrard to play in the hole. This allowed Liverpool to exploit Milan’s lack of width but enabled the midfield to be compact enough to prevent the Italians outnumbering them, as had happened to Manchester United in the semi-final 2nd leg.

These tactics worked. Gerrard was a constant threat with his surging runs from deep, Mescherano was able to sit in front of the back four and restrict Kaka to a few moments of brilliance and Xabi Alonso found his range of passing relatively early on. Similarly the predicted space for Pennant and Zenden was apparent. And it is the limitations of these pair that caused the Champions’ League bid to falter.

Benitez was tactically correct, but he simply didn’t have enough quality in these positions. Zenden is industrious and positionally aware, but he is slowing badly and his first touch can let him down. Pennant is youthful and quick, but his delivery is frequently poor, he isn’t aware enough to track back when threats present themselves down his flank, and he doesn’t always have the ability to beat capable defenders. Given two high quality wingers, I believe Liverpool would have won the game comfortably.

After an impressive opening period, punctuated by the great positions being squandered by Jermaine Pennant, Liverpool were hit by a sucker punch, in the form of a deflected Pirlo shot “converted” by Inzaghi on the stroke of half-time. There was a grim inevitability to the goal. I said that it would undoubtedly hit the net, and sickeningly I was proved correct. At that point I simply knew that the European Cup wouldn’t be coming home this year.

That goal dictated the rest of the game. Liverpool were forced to chase a lead and this eventually led to Mescherano being sacrificed for the introduction of Peter Crouch. Four minutes later, Kaka, freed from the shackles of his Argentinian rival, was allowed enough freedom to thread a through ball to Inzaghi who finished clinically. Despite a late Liverpool rally, and a goal from the industrious Kuyt, Liverpool’s fate was sealed.

Liverpool might easily have won the game, given some fortune. Certainly Milan did not look the superior outfit. But realistically the match reaffirmed what Rafa knew about his squad and about the task which awaits him this summer. In a number of key positions his players are simply not good enough. And to mount a serious league title challenge there must also be strength in depth. This depth is not yet present in the current squad.

Crucially a top class winger, perhaps two wingers are needed. The wide berths have hamstrung Liverpool for years and every apparent solution has ended up in disappointment. Neither Kewell nor Pennant has any future at the club in my opinion. Both have talent, but neither possesses enough application and Pennant has obvious frailties in his game, which he doesn’t seem inclined to labour to overcome. Simao, Alves and Shaun Wright Phillips are all names that spring to mind should Rafa decide to spend to solve this problem.

Likewise the current crop of strikers are neither prolific enough, nor sufficiently talented to take the club where it needs to go. Fowler will leave in the summer and Bellamy has neither the temperament nor the ability to remain at Liverpool. Rafa has moved to sign a journeyman Ukrainian, Voronin, whom it is difficult to see impacting the Premiership greatly. Kuyt and Crouch have roles to play and should be utilised as part of a freshened squad. Neither are the free-scoring, pacy, world class forward required of a championship winning side. Benitez is likely to look to Spain for these qualities and certainly David Villa or Fernando Torres could fit the bill.

Personally I would like to see the squad bolstered in other areas as well. Centre back springs to mind. Can Sami Hyppia provide adequate cover should Jamie Carragher or Daniel Agger suffer injuries next season?

Losing a Champions’ League final is a crushing blow, but it clarifies to the manager exactly how much work remains to be done. Another win may have contributed to the delusion that the current squad are the finished article – after all Champions of Europe two out of three seasons would be about as much achievement as some of the greatest ever sides have mustered.

Liverpool did remarkably well to reach this stage, so soon after being champions in 2005. Benitez is an extraordinary tactician and it is in Europe where his abilities become most apparent. But the current squad at Anfield still retains weaknesses and contains mediocrity and Rafa must put the American dollars to considerable use in the close season if we are to mount a challenge for the title next year.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The Champions' League, beer and domestic complexities

Tomorrow night sees my personal culmination of the football season, as Liverpool and Milan clash in what is sure to be an epic Champions' League encounter. I have already committed myself to a frantic headlong dash from work to home (and the donning of Liverpool FC replica top) to the pub.

With the excitement of a possible sixth European Cup, the heady nervousness of a one-off final and my insatiable lust for beer, I fully intend to put employment, relationship and health in jeopardy should the night climax in Steven Gerrard once again hoisting that big-eared beauty into the Athens night. Should that happen, the drinking will run into a test-match cricket weekend, a 3 day session will become 5 and my depleted reserves of capital may well not stretch to the next weekend and some previous commitments. The complications may be endless, but this is no time for caution.

Whether Rafa can oversee such a victory, and my descent into unemployed singledom, remains a moot point. Milan are not the side they were two years ago, but must remain nominal favourites. Liverpool's strengths are manifest. A strong defensive unit and the dynamics of Gerrard in midfield - complimenting the slick passing of Alonso and the stolid pivot of Masscherano. Weaknesses are still equally apparent however, in particular the lack of real attacking threat should Gerrard have a less effective night in midfield.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Power, nationalism and the DUP

With the media hysteria that has accompanied the restoration of Stormont, it would be easy from a distance to misconstrue the reaction of the Northern Irish population as being one of heady optimism, rather than the indifferent scepticism which is closer to the truth.

Unless my circle of family, friends and workmates are chronically unrepresentative, the “fresh new start” heralded around the world, went by remarked on by people here only with a few cynical asides and weary expressions of overwhelming apathy.

The new dispensation, if it can be described as such, succeeds only in forging an understanding between two competing nationalisms, neither of which carries any commitment to the idea of the United Kingdom as a multi-national, multi-cultural political entity based on shared citizenship, values and responsibilities. Whilst Irish nationalists can interpret the assumption of power by these twin nationalisms as a diminution of Britishness in Ireland, there is little for those unionists for whom a belief in the Union is still a principle to adhere to.

Paisley’s DUP have always been unionists in name only. Their commitment to Britain extends only to an amorphous concept of loyalty to the crown, otherwise their true instincts lie with advancing the interests of the Ulster protestant “Volk”. Any lip-service to the political union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is already being dissipated as Paisley courts the SNP and propounds the notion of a federal UK of “states”. Paisley’s hypocrisy is as total as it is jarring. Given the trappings of power he has abandoned thirty years of wrecking in a sickening tempest of smiles, gut laughs, platitudes and brazen about-facery. The trail of devastation he has contributed to and his “deputy” participated in has been utterly forgotten by the fawning sycophants who queue to heap laurels at the feet of these “peace-makers”.

The chief political casualties of recent years have been the UUP and the SDLP, who can only rightly protest from the sidelines that they have been vindicated, and that power-sharing ideas dating as far back as Sunningdale have been implemented in the form of the Good Friday Agreement which both parties were pivotal in bringing about. The fact that St Andrews was merely an aesthetic exercise designed to spare DUP blushes is a blatant fact, but one largely ignored by the electorate.

As supporters of the agreement since 1998, it may be churlish of those of us with true unionist beliefs to disapprove of the goings on at Stormont too vehemently, but having been destroyed by Paisley’s invective, only for him to follow the exact path we’d been setting, the scenes from up on the hill cannot help but stick in the gullet. As proponents of devolution and the de facto architects of the current political dispensation, we can only argue that the institutions are correct, even if the electorate’s choice of who to work them is not.


The DUP went to the country in March with a disingenuous mandate, refusing to state whether or not they would go into government. With their deviousness now exposed, with their ministers making a hash of government, with their lack of commitment to the rest of the UK manifest, with the reality of an unholy nationalist alliance with SF becoming apparent – there is fertile ground for proper unionism, unionism focusing on a liberal, secular and inclusive United Kingdom, to re-emerge and become a vital force within the Assembly and within the United Kingdom as a whole.

Pandering to ethnic nationalism

The furore regarding Russia's so-called cyber-war tactics against Estonia makes for sensational headlines. Raising the bogeyman of an insurgent and beligerant Russia certainly makes better copy than exposing the extreme nationalism and institutional racism of many post-Soviet states.

Ethnic Russians, deprived of citizenship, language rights and employment in Estonia and Latvia, enjoy no sympathy from the West's media, still enthralled by the notion of these plucky states standing squarely against the might of Russia. This attitude of course ignores the realignment which has given these states the means to recover economically whilst failing to impose the norms expected of other EU states as regards protecting minorities.

Rampant national chauvinism an demotic right-wing posturing is ignored when manifested in Europe's newest states.

Northern Ireland and the search for a new manager


It seems only appropriate that I kick off this blog with a post about my first unambiguous love - the Northern Ireland football team.

In the wake of Lawrie Sanchez's resignation, the success of the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign lies in the less than capable hands of Howard Wells and Jim Boyce of the Irish Football Association. This pair of inepts have been tasked with head-hunting the next Northern Ireland manager, a position which will be assumed with the side top of their group and fresh from wins against Spain and Sweden.

Ominously Graham Taylor has been the latest figure linked to the job, a man so discredited in the world of international football that his name has become synonomous with the least palatable type of root vegetable. Rather than trying to maintain the momentum which Sanchez has brought to the campaign, allowing his backroom staff to see out the final five games without changing tactics and personnel, it would be typical of the IFA to throw money at an inveterate tinkerer who would in any case be a stop-gap.

If the Sky millions are to be spent on a managerial appointment, it is the charisma and enthusiasm of Jim Magilton which should be given a chance to provide our first qualification in 22 years.