Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NFL week 9 – the Velvet Bear

I don't really want to write about the Indianapolis v New England game, but it is hard not to lead on the most hyped game in NFL history. For the first time, two teams who had gone unbeaten for the first eight weeks of the season met and the US media simply couldn't get enough of it. In fact, so overblown was the hype surrounding the game that even football analysts were saying by Sunday morning that they just wanted the game over and done with.

This, you will appreciate, is saying something.

In the end the game was something of a letdown. There had been much talk of a game where over 95 points were scored, largely based upon the potency of the Colts' offense and the fact that the Patriots hadn't scored fewer than 34 points in any game this season. Inevitably, though, the game failed to live up to expectations. Both sides were far too familiar with one another and the Colts proved that, even with a defense missing two first choice players, they could handle the Pats' much vaunted attack. Indeed, score of the day came from Colts running back Joseph Addai, who ran through the entire Pats defense for a 60 yard score – helped by an attempted tackle by Patriots' linebacker Rodney Harrison which missed Addai but took out three teammates.

Ultimately, the Pats ran out 24-20 victors, with Tom Brady keeping up his streak of throwing for three touchdowns in every game this season. Fittingly, the winning touchdown was scored by Wes Welker, the Patriots' undersized wide receiver who is already a strong contender for player of the season, despite the large number of better known players on his team.

Far more exciting was the game over in Minnesota, where the Vikings entertained the Chargers. Everything pointed to this being a thoroughly awful game – a team that can't pass (San Diego) against one who can't defend the pass. What it did have, though, was the first match up between the NFL's finest running back, LaDanian Tomlinson, and its fastest rising star – the Vikings' rookie RB Adrian Peterson. Tomlinson, playing for a side which, on paper, is vastly superior, was widely expected to win this contest. Instead, Peterson wiped the floor with him, running in three touchdowns on his way to a league record 296 yards of rushing.

LT had the consolation of going over for the game's opening score, his 107th career touchdown, taking him to 4th on the all-time NFL list. Victory to the Vikings by 35-17 also featured a concussion for Tavaris Jackson after he unwisely attempted to steal a first down and collected both of Shawn Merriman's knees to the back of his head instead, a touchdown for the NFL's youngest receiver, Sidney Rice, thrown by 3rd choice Vikes QB Brooks Bollinger, and Antonio Cromartie setting a record which can never be beaten with the longest touchdown run in NFL history, running in a missed field goal from the back of his own endzone – 109 yards in total and you can't run for more without going out of bounds.

Elsewhere in the NFL

- The Lions destroy the Broncos 44-7 and in doing so almost end Jay Cutler's season, as the Denver QB suffers a badly bruised leg in a tackle;

- Another setback for Cincinnati as they lose yet again, going down 33-21 to Buffalo and have star wide receiver Chad Johnson taken off with a neck injury which could rule him out of next weekend's matches;

- A fourth straight win for a resurgent New Orleans as the Saints beat the Jaguars 41-24;

- Life for the Carolina Panthers keeps on getting worse. First, Vinny Testaverde injures a foot and they are forced to bring back David Carr, then Carr ends up with concussion after being sacked 7 times by the Titans, of all people;

- I'm getting slightly bored of writing about Brett Favre records. After this weekend's win over the Kansas City Chiefs he has now beaten every other side in the NFL at least once during his career. Only Messrs Brady and Manning have managed to do that;

- The Chiefs also lost their star running back Larry Johnson with an ankle injury which threatens to put an end to his season;

- Kicker Sean Suisham's career to date has been distinguished by him appearing to be the only kicker in either league who was actually afraid to kick the ball. Hopefully, a 46 yard field goal in overtime to bring the Redskins a much-needed victory over the Jets, coupled with four other goals in ordinary time, will help cure him;

- 'Pacman' Jones and his lawyers have met with NFL Headmaster Roger Goodall with a view to getting his suspension reduced. Frankly, this is optimism at its highest. Jones is still being investigated by police after a nightclub bouncer was shot by one of his entourage back in February – although that has led to one of the year's funniest lawsuits, with the bouncer suing the NFL for allowing Jones to be paid so much that he could afford to visit a strip club!

- With a nice symmetry, the Bengals' wide receiver Chris Henry is allowed to return from suspension in the same week that the league's other Chris Henry, the Titans' player of that ilk, gets a four game ban for failing a drugs test;

- Also visiting the Headmaster this week were the Jaguars' Marcus Stroud, who got a four match ban for the same reasons, plus LaRon Landry of the Redskins and LaJuan Ramsey of Philadelphia, who both were fined for unnecessary roughness during this weekend's matches;

- And waiting anxiously outside the study door, exercise books discreetly placed down their shorts, are Jaguars pair Justin Durrant and Richard Collier, who both managed to get arrested over the weekend;

- Tank Johnson's ban is also over and he'll be a Cowboy this weekend;
Finally, such is the interest in the Patriots' unbeaten run, the NFL has now moved all of their remaining matches to Sunday evening prime time, presumably so that they can ensure Tom Brady is well rested after a heavy night impregnating models.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sporting perfection - Bluedaddy

I cannot consider myself a rugby fan. I played just once at school, and my fading memory won’t permit me to recall what age. All I can vividly remember of that ‘lesson’ was a more experienced and muscular boy employing what I later came to know is called a hand-off, to repel my dismal attempt at a tackle.

It was cold, I touched the ball not once, and I have never really properly engaged with the sport ever since, as either player or spectator. For some reason that causes me regret.

It shouldn’t really matter. There are plenty of other sports to get excited about, and several that I have played to greatly differing standards.

At school I loved badminton, with its thrilling speed and its delicious balance between powerful smash and deft drop shot. Table tennis was great too: a game that seemed to reward practice quite unlike any other, and drew me in to its metronomic rhythms and its trademark pops and squeaks. Plus I could play at home on our pull-out dining table.

Cricket was always more fun on the driveway down the side of our house than in the park. My brother and I could cut, pull and drive to our hearts’ content knowing that the slowly disintegrating fence, garage door and garden wall across the road were tireless fielders. Only our justifiably angry neighbours Mrs and Mrs M could halt our endless test matches, as we perfected the Derek Underwood splay-footed delivery or Alan Knott’s tics, stretches and sweeps.

And of course football was my daily bread.

But today a thread on GU reminded me of why I regret neglecting rugby. I revisited one of the greatest sporting moments in my lifetime, up there with Maradona’s second goal vs England in 86, the Headingley test in 81, Coe vs Ovett in and around 1980, and Ali vs Foreman in 74.

From the almost miraculous pick-up and mesmeric side-stepping of Phil Bennett, to the Dawes dummy, the determination of Tom David’s last gasp slingshot allied to Quinnell’s uncanny catch and release, and finally Gareth’s Edwards’ express train denying a last desperate All Black attempt to tackle, topped off with a magnificent dive into the corner.


It never fails to bring a lump to my throat, and often, like this morning, a tear to my eye. I don’t know if the fact that the Barbarians are a composite team rather than a national side makes a difference to the intense humanity of the moment. Clearly nostalgia for the carefree innocence of my childhood also burnishes the memory. But whatever it is I can never tire of watching it.

Maybe that is the problem; rugby could never be that good again.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Old Age Pensioner left breathless by exotic Babes - premcorrespondent

The current incarnation of the Arsenal are picking up notices reminiscent of those handed out to Matt Busby's youthful charges some 50 years ago. With Wenger as Philosopher King and Cesc as a 21st century Duncan Edwards, those plaudits are not too fanciful. Of course, Busby's Babes weren't to see out their destiny, cut down at Munich. When the 50 year anniversary rolls round in February, look out for one of your correspondent's favourite football clips. At an Old Trafford re-opened less than eleven years earlier after wartime bombing, representatives of the German medical staff who treated the victims of the crash are introduced to the crowd. They walk around the perimeter to tumultuous applause from the terraces as they sheepishly wave, palpably overcome with the reception. And there's a lump in my throat just writing that.

So it was High Noon at Highbury (well 12.45pm at the Emirates, but that sounds like an appointment with a powerpoint presentation) for this week's Match of the Millenium as the Wenger Babes faced up to the Old Age Pensioner's XI. After a dull first period, the game came to life with Little Cesc's clever equaliser just after half-time. Quite how the Boy-King was left alone on the penalty spot to pass the ball into the net is anyone's guess. Sir Alex stopped swearing at the officials long enough to introduce ace-card Louis Saha, who soon played in Evra to give Ronaldo an open goal for 1-2 and that looked like the match, with just some bullying for the officials from Sir Alex (preparing the ground for the return match you see) to occupy us. But up popped Willam Gallas' silly haircut for a smart finish (and a smarter call from the linesman) and it's 2-2, honours even and off to a whinging press conference for the managers and the pub for the fans. The quietly impressive Avram Grant's Chelsea, 0-2 winners over a eerily passive Wigan, proved to be the beneficiaries, along with the inevitable one billion viewers who saw a fine game in the end. (Are they the same one billion viewers who tune into Miss World and the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics?) Such passivity at the JJB cost Chris Hutchings his job - nobody was surprised; everyone was sympathetic.

The Toon Army had barely sat down at St James' before they were up again and storming out as Portsmouth took advantage of defending that would have shamed a Beach Football team to take a 0-3 lead in the first 11 minutes. It ended 1-4 with Big Sam looking as out of place in the North-East as Happy 'Arry looks suited to the South-West. With Jose Mourinho still not employed, Rafa Benitez picked a bad week to shuffle his pack (though forced by injuries) and serve up a monochrome performance, as Liverpool racked up a fifth draw in their last seven league games. With Rafa's team treading water in seventh, would it be wrong to claim that Liverpool's entire season could finish with a midweek draw against Besiktas? Even if a win is secured, Liverpool appear too reliant on the goals of Torres to mount a challenge for the PL or CL.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, there were some fine goals and empty seats. Tottenham welcomed Juande Ramos by typically conceding a lead to draw with Middlesborough - Dimitar Berbatov, left out of the starting XI, was unavailable for comment, but might be available for Liverpool. Injury-hit Fulham picked up a much needed win over Reading at the Cottage, where Mark Clattenburg showed no feel for the game at all in sending off an 18 year-old debutant for a marginal second yellow in the last play of the match - I hope Clattenburg enjoyed that frisson of power. It was Villa's turn to beat Derby, which they did by a predictable 2-0, but Everton left it late to run out 3-1 winners over Birmingham City, the last goal coming from James Vaughan on his return from injury - mark that name.

Sunday's game saw West Ham live up to the stereotype by conceding a late equaliser to a desperate Anelkaless Bolton - who might just have the dog in them to fight their way safety. Sunderland's manager has the dog in him, but does his team? After their 1-0 reverse at Eastlands, they hover above the trapdoor with the fatal "points fewer than games" ratio and overly dependent on Kenwynne Jones for goals. Manchester City, incredibly, are third just two points off the lead - Sven knows his football, as well as his babes.

Why Chelsea and Liverpool are what’s wrong with Football, and other rants - Kokomo

No, it’s not what you think.

Last Saturday, Chelsea and Liverpool were drawn together in the quarter finals of the Carling Cup. These two teams are undoubtedly two of the best in Europe over recent years, having won, or been runner’s up in the four major competitions 11 out of 24 possible occasions in the last three years (and it would have been more if one of them hadn’t knocked the other out of a competition at semi final stage three times in that period). Both are within a handful of points of the top this time round too, having only lost two games between them. Yet, I defy anyone (myself included) to have reacted with anything more positive than a mildly disinterested groan when that draw was made.

Why? It is true that they have played each other many, many times of late, but we have had two ridiculously tense European semi finals, a high quality FA cup semi final, and a five goal thriller in the final of the Carling Cup. Make no mistake, when these two meet in a knockout game; it is high drama, high quality, or both.

Familiarity has clearly bred contempt; let’s also make no mistake, there have been some pretty turgid league and group stage encounters in that time.

However, surely we should all be a little less jaded? But then, have two teams ever been as criticised while being so successful?

Let’s look at Liverpool first. They haven’t won the league since before Theo Walcott first spat out his dummy, and were truly terrible in the latter years of Houllier’s reign. For the last three years they have been managed by a Spaniard who has delivered a lot of success to the club, added at least five top class players to the first team, and developed another into one of the top defenders in Europe. He had to sell his best forward, but there has clearly been a massive improvement in the squad. He has won two major trophies, in very entertaining fashion it has to be said, and been to two other major finals. He also delivered the best league points performance at the club since 1988, and finished third twice in a row, which is better than an any time since 1990.

He must be universally loved by his own fans, and respected by opposition then? You would think so, but instead we have the likes of ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce telling us that, if he hadn’t won a load of trophies he would be in trouble now (sometimes the mind really does boggle). There are many accusations consistently levelled at Benitez, by his own fans, opposition fans, the media, ex-players, the chuckle brothers at match of the day, and probably the Lord God himself. These tend to be one or more of the following; he rotates too much; he doesn’t understand our league; he has wasted loads of money on expensive Spaniards; he has had hundreds of millions to spend and should have done better; zonal marking is crap; he misuses his captain; he doesn’t know his best team; his team plays ugly football. All of these are easily refuted (and don’t worry, I won’t do it here) with cold hard fact, except for the last one, which is subjective, and we will come to later. It is also an undeniable fact though, that he has not won the league yet with Liverpool (is there anyone, by the way, who expected that Liverpool, in the state they were in, would win the league in his first three seasons?). And until this fact is reversed, it seems that he is always on trial, and fair game for any criticism you care to take from the top of your head.

Chelsea meanwhile, have had unprecedented success in three years under Mourinho, including two titles, an FA Cup, two Carling Cups, and two European Cup semi-finals. They also scored more goals, and garnered more points than any team has ever done before in the modern era. But that was apparently not enough entertainment for his paymasters.

There are many theories as to the motives of Roman Abramovich in buying Chelsea, but for me he seeks two things through this venture; glory and to be loved. And don’t try to tell me that he is a football purist. No football purist would force players on a coach. Mourinho wasn’t sacked because his boss wanted more pretty triangles, he was sacked because the media and public didn’t love Chelsea. And the media and the public doesn’t love Chelsea because they decided that the team was not entertaining (only true in the sense that they won most games comfortably and with little tension).

And the media and the public did that, because the media and the public are idiots quite frankly.
The modern, instant access age has some plus points. It has made Gary Naylor a minor celebrity among left wing cricket lovers for one thing, but it also allows journalists to tell as that Liverpool are ‘pathetic’ because they are not attacking much when one nil up against the league leaders. It allows knee jerk opinion pieces that tell us that Chelsea are more entertaining when they thrashed Man City than they were when they thrashed lots of other teams because Mourinho isn’t in charge anymore. Ultimately, it has taken what little objective, considered analysis there was in the game, and replaced it with ill-considered, dumbed down groupthink.

And everyone reacts in kind. When a team is not playing perfectly, there are in crisis. Manager’s are castigated and mocked when they make big game winning substitutions. Chairman, who have never been the most savvy football men, react to external pressure to create internal pressure. Players are told that they are unsettled, and it unsettles them.

And where has all this got us? This process, which I personally trace back to Andy Gray’s white pen, via Townsend’s tactics truck, has given us inpatient players, inpatient agents, inpatient fans, inpatient managers and inpatient clubs. Which means that only four clubs can win the league (and most likely the cups too) for the foreseeable future. The Martin Jols of this world are sacked for not taking a desperately poor Tottenham team from the bottom three to the top three in three seasons, but who would have?

I am all for the knee jerk "why did he shoot there the inbred ****" terrace moans, but I am not all for booing your team off when they are only drawing at half time away to a team that have previously won their past seven games.

And finally, when did teams only become truly champions when they not only won games, but also had to win them with a bit of fancy footwork? In fact, in many quarters a bit of fancy footwork is better than actually winning games, because apparently we are more entertained by a nutmeg than we are by a net rippling. I blame Pepsi challenge keepie-uppie culture for this one. If all the people who prefer to see fancy skills but little tension want to fuck off and watch Basketball slam dunk competitions, then I think the rest of us who prefer a bit of tension and pressure would be most grateful.

Again, I am not against skilful players. I can enjoy a Peter Crouch step over just as much as the next middle class fan, but I would prefer my team to win before it starts thinking about the purity of the beautiful game, as dictated by the Guardian/Pele/some Spanish big cheese/Alan Green/internet chat rooms frequented by hardcore ‘EPL’ (arrgghhhh) fans from the US, India, Africa and China etc.

I am determined to end on a positive note. On Sunday I watched the last half hour of Roma’s game at Empoli. A thrilling match ended 2-2 with a last minute equaliser from the home side. Now that was a football match. Neither team was particularly expensively put together, but the skill level was high, very fast paced (I think the difference between Italian fast paced and English fast paced is that English teams generate pace by kicking the ball hard, while Italians generate pace by running quickly with it), and both teams committed, and hardly even moaning at the ref (yes, even those dirty Italians). The fans were waving flags that didn’t have to be installed under the seats, and the chairman nearly had a fist fight. At last, here was an advert for football, not the overwrought battle of machismo at the Emirates (THE EMIRATES!!! Some things really make me want to scream, and naming your stadium after a Saudi Arabian airline is one of them).

Yes, football has a future, and it is in Empoli. Or something.

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