Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Dabble on the Turner Prize

Over at The Dabbler I share some thoughts on the contenders for this year's Turner Prize.  Not to give too much away, but I wasn't particularly impressed.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Can O'Neill's men change gear for Luxembourg

Just a very quick pre-match comment on the progress of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland. 

The trip to Russia ended in disappointment, but not disgrace.  There were tentative signs that O’Neill is beginning to drill some organisation into his side defensively.

The team kept its shape quite effectively while the Russians played their fluid passing game and the best chances were created because of individual errors.  That said, Northern Ireland gave the ball away much too easily, and there were few signs of the clever, mobile offensive tactics which O’Neill wants to introduce.

2-0 was as good a result as the fans had a right to expect, especially since Russia’s second goal was a contentious penalty (although Cathcart’s challenge on Kokorin was clumsy).   They will demand more against Luxembourg tonight.

Under Nigel Worthington Northern Ireland failed to change their defensive game when they played weaker opponents, or to dominate possession.  O’Neill’s task this evening is to show that his side knows how to play against minnows, as well as sides like Russia.

On a tangent, the trip to Moscow, via Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod was amazing.  But that's for another day. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Michael O'Neill's tactical quandary ahead of trip to Russia

Northern Ireland’s home friendly matches are notoriously boring.  Therefore last night’s 3-3 draw against Finland, which not only saw plenty of goalmouth action but was also played at a reasonable tempo, is attracting descriptions like ‘thriller’ and ‘classic’. 

Hardly - but in new manager Michael O’Neill’s 3rd game, it was nice to see his players finally score some goals.  Their previous two outings were 3-0 and 6-0 defeats against Norway and Holland.

Michael’s positive approach to the game, his openness with the press and his easy manner with players, are a refreshing change from his negative predecessor, Nigel Worthington.  Although O’Neill must already be acutely aware that he faces a difficult task to produce respectable results.  The Northern Ireland team he has inherited is rather short on quality, morale or ideas.

The new young manager wants to implement a fashionable, flexible tactical system nonetheless.  To dip into technical jargon, it is best described as 4-3-3, although, when the team is being forced to defend, it can look more like a 4-5-1. 

The key aspects are that it doesn’t include conventional wingers or a traditional pairing of centre-forwards up front.  It does require the players to remain in a compact formation rather than being strung out loosely across the pitch, and it depends upon swift, accurate passing and quick, instinctive movement to break down opposition defences.

It would be wonderful to think that O’Neill can coach Northern Ireland to play this way, and it may even be fun watching him try (as it was for the first 20 minutes last night when his players gave it a darned good attempt).  I wonder, though, whether there are not already signs that he’ll eventually be forced to abandon his favoured tactics.

For a start, the shape the team is currently adopting is anything but compact.  Three crooked, incoherent lines of defenders, midfielders and attackers are ungracefully splayed out, with yawning gaps in between them.      

Secondly, if a team is to maintain any width at all playing this system it needs its full-backs to be willing to push on up past the midfield on occasion.  Last night Lee Hodson looked desperately reluctant to adopt this style, even though one foray saw him create a good opportunity for Kyle Lafferty to score, and Ryan McGivern was simply not prepared to give it a try at all. 

Despite a good opening period for Northern Ireland, the football was not particularly pretty. 

Any possession which was retained went sideways across the three unlovely lines (particularly the defence) and tended to break down when an attempt was made to advance, or interplay the ball between them.  The team didn’t look like a tight unit.  Yet there was also very little width, because the midfield and forward players were unwilling to go too far out unto the wings and Hodson and McGivern were reluctant to overlap and provide their midfielders with an extra option.

The outcome?  Possession was often lost with some very hopeful and unrealistic straight balls over Kyle Lafferty’s head, which he was supposed to chase, but had no realistic chance of retrieving. 

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this lack of shape for Northern Ireland was that the defence was desperately exposed.  Hence Finland, an average side, managed to add three goals to Holland’s 6 and Norway’s 3. 

That defensive record is extremely worrying as Northern Ireland prepares to face Russia in Moscow in the first World Cup qualifier.  Although we eventually claimed a draw last night, after a doubtful penalty, if Finland had won 6-2 it would not have been an unfair reflection of the balance of play.

The team simply has to be set up in a more compact fashion, if it is to avoid an embarrassing scoreline at Lokomotiv stadium.  Then, of course, an away tie looms with Portugal. Terrifying. 

Michael O’Neill did perform miracles at Shamrock Rovers, getting a limited set of players playing a tricky technical system and achieving excellent results.  Who’s to say he can’t do the same at international level? 

Unfortunately he won’t have the luxury of working daily with Northern Ireland, or even selecting the same personnel for each squad, so his opportunities to coach players in the intricacies of his strategy will be more limited.

Whoever was appointed Northern Ireland’s manager quickly had to come to terms with the limited available resources.  Many of the players who contributed to memorable results during the Lawrie Sanchez era have retired, struggled with injuries or simply didn’t reach their full potential. 

The international team is moving into one of those natural slumps which all countries as small as Northern Ireland are forced to suffer from time to time.  Michael O’Neill’s job is either to manage that decline or deliver creditable results in spite of it.     

He’ll need to be hard headed and pragmatic to do either.  I wonder whether the first compromise may be to change his team’s tactics.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Rodgers reign will require patience.

Am awful lot has changed since my last post about developments at Anfield. 

Kenny Dalglish joined Daniel Comolli and others in being given the sack by Liverpool’s owners.  It was an unpopular decision with supporters, who were loyal to ‘King Kenny’ to the end.  A tortuous period of rumour and speculation followed, before Brendan Rodgers was prised away from Swansea City, becoming the 2nd youngest manager in Liverpool’s history.

The Carnlough man has impressed with his forthright press statements, and now that the season has officially started, he will get an opportunity to make improvements on the pitch.

It could be a slow process, but Liverpool fans (and the club's owners) must be patient.  Rodgers needs to be given a number of years to implement his system, barring all but the most unforeseeable disasters.

The manager has made two signings over the close season.  First to arrive was the young Italian striker, Fabio Borini.  He marked his competitive debut at Anfield by scoring with an adept volley, after clever play from Luis Suarez.

Last week he was joined by Joe Allen, captured from Swansea, after a £15 million release clause in his contract was triggered.  At that price his signing is a gamble.  I suspect that the fee was inflated by the fact that Allen is a British player.   

Still, Rodgers has a high regard for the midfielder’s ability and the system which he intends to implement does require mobile players who are comfortable on the ball in the centre of the pitch.

The manager’s preferred tactics have been described variously as 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and ‘tikka takka’.  As I noted previously, it is a strategy which is likely to suit Luis Suarez in particular.

So it’s an exciting time for Liverpool supporters, but a note of caution.  The manager can make some improvements straight away, but the current squad is still in need of renovation.  Allen and Borini have arrived, but the likes of Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and Stuart Downing remain.  They have also, rather worryingly, played a notable role in pre-season matches. 

The hunt for a wide player continues.  The Uruguayan, Gaston Ramirez, has been mentioned, while Portugal’s Ricardo Queresma is viewed as a possible alternative.  Though Liverpool has a notoriously patchy record in the transfer market, where it comes to wingers.

As ever, the manager’s season will be considered a success if the club is in next season’s champions’ league.  Cup success is regarded as an optional extra these days. 

A top 4 finish is achievable,  but if it is not attained, it will be time for the owners to demonstrate some patience.   

Friday, 10 August 2012

Put Pussy Riot in context

The British press, as a rule, covers Russia badly and the Pussy Riot trial is no exception.  In many of the articles which I’ve read, there is precious little distinction between reporting and comment. 

Now, I would not for a minute suggest that the three young defendants should receive the three year prison sentence which prosecution lawyers are seeking, but the notions that the proceedings constitute a ‘show trial’, represent a return to Stalinism or are purely politically motivated don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Read Mercouris’s carefully researched post which looks at the legal issues and some of the lazy assumptions which have been reported persistently by newspapers in the UK.

The law in a particular country reflects quite properly the values of the society in which it operates.  If a protest were to desecrate a mosque in a devout Muslim country the punishment would most likely be severe.  International opinion would not be appalled.  If an anarchist collective performed a profane song at the altar of St Peter’s, and if its members had a history of other provocative and criminal actions in the Vatican, it would not be surprising if they were tried, convicted or even imprisoned.  Any outcry would be muted.

The difficulty with much coverage of Russia in British newspapers is that every story is used to build a case against Vladimir Putin and is not, therefore, treated on its own merits.  There is very little attempt to provide context, balance or even full disclosure of the facts.  Reporting is often bent into a shape which suits comment writers and the newspaper or broadcaster’s editorial line.

It would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the Pussy Riot case.  The defendants may well be acquitted or dealt a less than draconian punishment.  However the fact that the case has come to trial is certainly not as absurd as it has frequently been portrayed.  

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Return to sense and sanity: a guest post by Dr Phil Larkin

Dr Phil Larkin returns to provide a thoughtful post on the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic.


Every so often certain sections of the media, Irish and British, seem to “lose the run of themselves” in relation to a particular issue. For a sector of the Irish media (north and south of the border), the current cause for hysteria is the seemingly unstoppable rise of Sinn Fein within the body politic of the Irish Republic, a frenzy fuelled by the recent referendum campaign on the EU Fiscal Reform Treaty. If one were to believe all that has been written over the last few weeks, we would see Gerry Adams as alternatively the next Taoiseach or Irish President, Sinn Fein forming a majority in the Dail at the next election, holding all the cards to Ireland’s political future in their hands. Every utterance that a party figure makes is hailed by some as a piece of profound political wisdom, and there appears to be no limits to their ability as political strategists. The young and educated are supposed to be rallying to the party banner in shoals and legions, sweeping all before them. None of this is entirely new: SF’s advances in the Irish General Election of last year were greeted with similar fanfare in the same quarters.

Happily, out of the general hysteria came a voice of reason, in the form of a Belfast Telegraph article by Henry McDonald, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 30 May. McDonald brought a good dose of insipid common sense to commentary on SF’s position in the Irish Republic, and helps burst the balloon which has continually been inflated by other journalists over the past year or so. It is the aim of this article to take up and expand upon some of the themes alluded to in his newspaper piece, and make some parallels with an issue of concern on this side of the Irish Sea.

McDonald uses the EU referendum campaign in the Republic as a point of focus, and notes how Sinn Fein was undoubtedly the largest single player in the “No” campaign. Even if (as appears likely at the time of writing) the Irish electorate returns a narrow “yes” in the vote, he concedes that the party will have further made in-roads into parts of Middle Ireland they have never reached before. However, he proceeds to make the following important qualifying statement:

Much of Middle Ireland is turned off by the northern-based leadership, tainted as it still is by the Provisionals' blood-soaked paramilitary past. A new leadership of southern based politicians would undoubtedly make the party much more attractive to middle class, economically conservative Irish voters. That in turn would require Sinn Fein to dilute its leftist, autarkic policies on southern economic issues and at the same time risk alienating its older, poorer base.

This succinctly summarizes the upcoming trouble ahead for Sinn Fein in the Republic. It has long been acknowledged that the biggest single task facing any political party in mature Western democracies is to capture enough support of the “squeezed middle” of the electorate (which, after all, comprises the bulk of the population) to gain an overall majority, or form a coalition government, which is the usual situation in the Republic.  Sinn Fein, however, is effectively trying to be all things to all men, and it is likely that Middle Ireland (highly literate, informed, and interested) will recognise the sheer hollowness of their economic policies before too long, if they ever bought it in the first place. This is evident from some of the comments made by Irish voters preceding the referendum: one retired accountant from Tipperary made the extremely pertinent observation on the BBC News website that while Gerry Adams said that funds would be available for Ireland even if it rejected the new fiscal compact, he did not state where such funds would come from. It is true that younger SF TDs such as Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald may have a greater superficial grasp of the language of political economy, and a southern SF leadership almost certainly will wish to modify somewhat the party’s left-wing and autarkic policies in order to appeal to Middle Ireland, but this is likely to alienate the niche areas of the Irish electorate where they have spent so much time and effort seeking to capture. In addition, if the party does go down the path of moving to the centre ground in terms of economic policy, how will it then be able to claim that it is so very different from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour, the mainstream parties which SF professes to detest? The middle ground of Irish politics is already a crowded field, and SF are very much newcomers: yes, they come across at present as something new, flash, and exciting, but how long can the fireworks and fun last for? A diet of rhetorical candyfloss and quasi-Poujadism becomes very sickly after a while.

Perhaps this is a naïve view to adopt, but I simply did not buy the hullabaloo prevalent last year about the permanent demise of Fianna Fail as a force in Irish politics, and their eclipse by a rampant Sinn Fein. I simply do not believe that over 80 years of history can just be obliterated by the results of one (admittedly disastrous) election. The reality, as it appears to me, is that SF is currently riding high the wave of dissatisfaction with established political parties which is prevalent in the Republic: the draw of their outdated and threadbare economic policies are emphatically not the cause of this dissatisfaction. Many of the gains made by SF in the south are based on protest vote against the political establishment, hardly a solid basis on which to build a road to government.

This has provoked the question in some quarters about why Fianna Fail is not carrying on a more vocal and active role in opposition. One leading commentator has described SF as the cock which rules the opposition roost at present in the Dail. He goes on state that like the cock, SF does plenty of crowing, but lays no economic eggs. Having grown up on a farm, however, I know that even the most virulent and aggressive rooster will exhaust himself after crowing for an excessive amount of time. Quite apart from needing some time for regrouping and healing the wounds of defeat, I suspect that Fianna Fail have been in the political game long enough to know that their rehabilitation will be a long term project, to be achieved over the next decade or so. Michael Martin has made a quiet, but significant beginning to this process by supporting the Fine Gael/Labour Government on the EU fiscal referendum, and by facing down Eamonn O’Cuiv within the party. The next general election does not have to take place until 2015, and it is possible that by that stage the Irish economy may be on the road to some form of recovery. In addition, by that date the SF roadshow of bluster and empty economic promises will be beginning to look tired out and shop soiled – and the mainstream parties will hopefully be ruthless about subjecting their policies to an unrelenting glare of hard light.

I also have a hunch that for much the same reasons the anti-Scottish Independence campaign has been quiet in comparison to the bluster which we have come to expect from the Nationalists. By 2014 the hope is that, the anniversary of Bannockburn aside, the pro-Independence campaign and rhetoric will have run out of steam, and then be vulnerable to attacks from the much greater intellectual and financial reserves of the unionist camp.

For those who are worried by the triumphalism of Sinn Fein in Ireland, and by the Independence campaign in Scotland, the above are just some things to bear in mind.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Dalglish has major rebuilding to do in the summer.

Another weekend, another home defeat for Liverpool Football Club.  This time Kenny Dalglish’s side managed to lose to West Bromwich Albion at Anfield - for the first time in 45 years. 

Just weeks ago I had the misfortune to witness a similar capitulation to Wigan Athletic, but the WBA defeat stings a little more, because former manager, Roy Hodgson, is now in charge of the Baggies.

Liverpool’s owners, FSG, showed their unhappiness at the club’s progress over Easter week when a spate of sackings were announced.  The highest profile departure was Damien Comolli, the ‘director of football strategy’ who was charged with overseeing transfer policy. 

It’s true that the Frenchman did a terrible job by any standards.  When Liverpool cashed in to the tune of £50 million, by selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea during last season’s transfer window, Comolli set about spending the loot with all the restraint and foresight of a drunken sailor.

Officials from Newcastle United were privately astonished when Liverpool tabled a £30 million opening bid for Andy Carroll.  In the end the Geordies were able to hold out for a mammoth £35 million.

In recent weeks Carroll has begun to look like a worthwhile option, scoring late winners against Blackburn and Everton.  Had the big striker cost closer to Newcastle’s valuation of £12 million, he might yet have a chance of being regarded a good buy.  However with the pressure of a hugely inflated price-tag, he has suffered a torrid opening season and a half at Anfield.

For that misjudgement and others – Jordan Henderson, Stuart Downing and the woeful Charlie Adam – all of which involved hefty fees, Comolli got the sack.  Kenny Dalglish, though, was quick to emphasise that he had had the final say on all transfer deals.  There is a suspicion that the next time FSG show their impatience with Liverpool’s progress, the buck could stop with the manager, who still enjoys enthusiastic backing from the club’s fans.

Dalglish’s dreadful league results have been redeemed somewhat by a successful season in cup competitions.  Liverpool beat Everton at Wembley last weekend, to secure a second cup final in 3 months.   

In February the Carling Cup was added to the club’s considerable trophy cabinet, albeit that penalty kicks were required against second tier Cardiff City. 

Should Liverpool overcome Chelsea in the FA Cup final, Dalglish will have won two major prizes in his first full season back in management.  It would be difficult to portray that achievement as anything less than success, however persistent poor form in the league suggests that there are still underlying problems with strategy and personnel.

The most glaring weakness of the current Liverpool team is its inability to turn possession into goals.  Although the midfield is incomparably weaker than the Mescherano / Gerrard / Alonso combination which Rafa Benitez had the luxury of selecting, the chief problem, as I see it, is that Carroll and Suarez are mismatched up front.

It would be easy, and unfair, to blame this incompatibility on the Englishman.  The truth is that Luis Suarez is not a conventional strike partner.  He does not like to play off Carroll and rarely drops a little deeper to benefit from the big man’s knock downs.  He prefers to operate further forward, off the shoulder of defenders, or drifting wide, before plunging back infield on another slaloming dribble.

It’s wonderful to watch, but it doesn’t exploit Carroll’s aerial ability, nor does it provide ammunition for Suarez’s strike partner. 

For his country, the little Uruguayan spearheads a three pronged attack.  The system suits him, because he is flanked by similarly mobile forwards.  On the rare occasions that Dalglish has started Suarez alongside Craig Bellamy, the pair look like they could establish a similar dynamic.

Indeed the manager does have the option of changing his preferred system to accommodate Liverpool’s star striker.  He could line-up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Suarez at the head of an attacking trio which includes Bellamy and Maxi.  It is likely that the result would be an improvement in the goals scored column.

Of course the difficulty there is that Comolli’s £35 million would’ve been invested in the world’s most expensive bench warmer. 

Dalglish might alternatively opt to play more to Andy Carroll’s strengths.  Liverpool currently set-up quite narrowly, with even the supposed wide players preferring to cut inside and play tricksy passes, rather than act as conventional wingers.

With Carroll in the team this strategy makes no sense, particularly when the worst offender is Stuart Downing, the former Aston Villa wide-man, who’s only discernible talent is the ability to deliver a cross with his only operational foot.  It is infuriating to see Downing persistently deployed on the right flank, when he is so debilitatingly one footed.

If he is to be included in the team, pin him to the left flank and tell him to hit the by-line and hit Carroll’s head.

Better yet, Liverpool has a bright, young winger, Raheem Sterling, whom Dalglish has chosen not to blood.  The youngster had a few minutes at the end of the Wigan defeat and provided the one bright spot of a depressing afternoon for the reds.

There are other frailties in the team which Dalglish must address urgently, if Liverpool is to mount a challenge for a Champions League position next season.   Lucas Leiva should return from a lengthy break due to injury and his comeback won’t be too soon for Liverpool fans.

Jay Spearing has unfortunately proven that he isn’t of the standard expected at Anfield.  He does not command the midfield from deep positions or adequately protect his defence.  Indeed, other than Steven Gerrard, who is now well in his thirties, Liverpool could do with completely renovating its midfield over the summer.

The painfully slow, ploddingly average presence of Charlie Adam should be chalked down to experience.  The Scot should be sold to any if any realistic bids are received.  Downing’s sale wouldn’t occasion many protests either and the likes of Dirk Kuyt have already been informed that their contracts will not be renewed.

Worringly, Liverpool’s previously impermeable defence has also been creaking since Christmas.  Despite his many years of heroic service, the team now looks sounder at the back when Jamie Carragher is excluded.   However Martin Skrtel’s rugged skills are not matched by his positional sense and, in Carragher’s absence, he sometimes looks a little lost.

Either Sebastien Coates will develop into the extra option which Liverpool needs at the back, or the club will have to go shopping for another centre-half. 

In fact, Dalglish will need to do rather a lot of rebuilding in the summer, which is disappointing, given the investment which FSG have put in.  Otherwise the new season which starts in August could see more underachievement at Anfield.  

Friday, 24 February 2012

The alternatives to Putin are not viable

With the Russian presidential election looming in just over a week's time, Vladimir Putin's supporters held a huge rally yesterday in Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Many newspaper reports went to a great deal of trouble to mock the event and question the credentials of its attendees. 

 However there is one detail which will tell you more about the upcoming poll than all the rather patronising commentary.

Among the banners which were carried by the crowd, the slogan in Russian ,”If not Putin, then whom?', was one of the more prominent.

Not a sign of resounding enthusiasm for the former President's return to office admittedly, certainly not an endorsement of Putin's decision to stand, rather than allow the incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev, his chance at another term in office. But still, a political truism which neither the protest movement in Russia nor its enthusiasts in the western media have countered.

The frustration of city dwellers in Moscow, St Petersburg and a few other towns with the Prime Minister and with United Russia is understandable. It may even eventually help shape Russia's politics for the better.

But although the protesters are against Putin, they have not offered any viable alternative, and that's why, however many people come out unto the streets, he will become President and his election will, largely, reflect the will of the people.

Daniel Kalder wrote a marvellous, tongue-in-cheek article examining Putin's rivals in this electoral race. The strongest challengers, by some distance, are Gennady Zyuganov, who leads the communist party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party espouses bone-shaking, nationalist populism.

Not even the most adamant of Putin's opponents in the West could advocate either of these alternatives.

In fourth place is Sergey Mironov, from Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin party which lies to the left of United Russia. As for the various and disparate so-called liberals, they often draw their most prominent political figures from the ranks of asset stripping oligarchs. Their man in the Presidential race is Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the wealthiest billionaires in Russia.

As Kalder says in his article, 'who would you vote for? Be honest now.'

Of course there is an argument that Russia's political scene has been stunted by a lack of competition. That may be true, but can you blame Russians for preferring a flawed but orderly system, to the anarchic free for all which lies, for example, just across the border in Ukraine?

Certainly, when Russia goes to the polls next week, it will be confronted with a depressing set of options. Vladimir Putin, as the pre-eminent force in politics since 2000 must take his share of the blame for that situation. But it is wrong for western commentators to mock his siren call of 'stability', particularly bearing in mind the country which he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.

Until there is a viable alternative for Russians to rally behind, they will stick with Putin, because the alternative seems so much less predictable.   

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ulster will fight - but Ulster will (probably) lose

A guest post by itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit, who looks forward to Ulster Rugby's weekend clash with Clermont.

The Heineken Cup.  If you’re Irish and a rugby fan - don’t you just love it? 

Unlike the 6N where Ireland are generally less than the sum of their provincial parts with the Heineken Cup the provincial parts usually suggest a much better performing Irish team than we generally get to see. This year we have the full compliment of 4 provinces with Connacht qualifying for the first time.

Last week with Leinster and Munster both qualifying for the quarters finals it was Irish success as usual. But it was Ulster who were the real Irish heroes smashing Leicester 41-7 in what had been billed by most pundits as the tie of the round and for all the talk of Ulster’s foreign (South African) contingent Leicester had 10 overseas players in their squad and Ulster had only 5. Before the match those same pundits gave Ulster the edge – but ruled out a repeat drubbing for Leicester by anything like the margin of 33 points which was the margin of their defeat when they last visited Ravenhill in the Heineken cup. Well they were right it wasn’t  a margin of 33 it was 34. Quite incredible.

So now to the final weekend of the pool stages of the competition. Having just demolished the English powerhouses of European rugby in the proverbial pool of death Ulster are now required to overcome Clermont in Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin on Saturday at 15.40 to avoid elimination in what is again the outstanding Heineken Cup  match of the weekend.  In fact Ulster can go through as pool winners with a defeat, provided is it by less than 5 points and they score the same number of tries as Clermont. Ulster can also progress as one of the two best pool runners-up even if they lose, but that is dependent on an unlikely slip up by one of Toulouse, Harlequins, Edinburgh or Cardiff. 

In the handicap betting the bookies (Paddy Power) are giving Ulster a 12 point head start.  For Ulster to win, even for this outstanding Ulster team to win, it is probably asking too much.   Quite how Clermont have not won the Heineken Cup by now is a bit of a mystery - partially explained by the fact that as relative Johnny-come-latelies to the competition they initially suffered from poor seedings and then repeatedly found themselves in really difficult groups.

If Ulster fans want to lessen the pain of (probable) defeat they could do worse than have a punt on Clermont to win the competition  at 7/1 (William Hill) which looks like really generous odds for a team packed with world class talent, including Rougerie, Parra, Vermuelen, Malzieu, Bonnaire, Sivivatu.  Leinster  at 15/8(William Hill) are the current favourites. 

If Ulster can somehow win in Clermont then there will be no doubt that they win can the competition (for the 2nd time) and their odds will collapse from their current 50/1(William Hill). 

But sadly I just can’t see it as Clermont have not lost at home in any competition since November 2009.

C’mon Ulster.