Friday, May 23, 2008

Football is over, bring on the whites and Lycra - Mimitig

Welcome to MY summer!

Hello readers. As May races to its conclusion, the thoughts (and lusts) of all well-adjusted sports fans hasten to the sunshine domination of men in pristine whites and lots and lots of lycra – hopefully plenty of it pink.

Thanks to the inevitably pitiful performances of the Home Countries' badly-dressed football players, there is nothing to distract you all now from the glories of Test Cricket and Pro-Cycling. Well, yes I know there’s still Euro 2008 and some of you may have teams to support, but let’s face it, you lot have all had a long season with your home leagues to be keen on, and it’s time to embrace the PROPER summer sports.

And it is starting now. Well, not really – cricket has been underway for a month. The county season is almost a quarter of the way through, and my local season began on a freezing cold Saturday a month ago when Lossie played a triangular Twenty20 against Elgin and Fochabers at the really pretty (when the trees have leaves) Fochabers ground beside the Spey. We’ve even had the first Test match – last week at Lord’s, but the weather cost two days of play and England the win, so we forget that and start again at Old Trafford tomorrow with the second New Zealand Test.

For the men in lycra, they’ve done some of the hardest kilometres (outwith Le Tour) already. They warmed up as usual with the stuff like Qatar, Langkawi, California (that one was a little bit silly this year as Michael Ball – no not the singing one – attempted to make cycling the new rock and roll but it all went wrong and Cipo went off in a huff), and the Tour Downunder. Actually that wasn’t a bad show – except for wet weather round Adelaide way, but it will be a long time, maybe even a lifetime, before any of these races are regarded as anything other than warm-ups for some or desperate attempts at publicity for some others.

If that seems a harsh judgement on colonial/out-of-Europe racing, well, it is and there’s a reason for it. Cycling is desperately reaching out for new global markets, but its heart and soul will always belong in the north. Will belong on the harsh, unforgiving paves of Belgium and northern France, will suffer the desperate weather so often flung at the Paris-Roubaix (The Hell of the North) and no early season races in clement climes will ever change that.

So, we had the skirmishes. Astana’s Levi Leipheimer won in the US of A, Tom “Beloved of the Belgians” Boonen took honours in Qatar, and Cadel Evans attacked, yes attacked, at the Ruta del Sol. Moving back to Europe Philippe Gilbert took the Het Volk, Fabian Cancellara triumphed in Italy (twice) and one of my favourites, Alejandro Valverde, won the tour of Murcia and Liege-Bastogne. Tom triumphed at Paris-Roubaix and his team-mate at Quick Step, Stijn Devolder, took the Tour of Flanders. Oscar Freire won at Ghent and Kim Kirchen was splendid winning the Fleche Wallonne.

In all, the proper season has started, well, properly. Boonen is back on form, with some pomp, and Quick Step are right there in the team standings. For those with a GB interest, Mark Cavendish (The Manx Express) has come out of the blocks all guns blazing with stage wins in the Three Days of De Panne, an outright win at the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, and a stage at the Giro. Times look good for High Road.

New team, Slipstream – the boys in Argyll - David Millar’s boys, haven’t had wins yet, but Martin Maaskant rode to 12th on the Tour of Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix like an old pro and yet no-one has ever really heard of him. Boss Jonathan Vaughters has nicked him from Rabobank, and nobody noticed! Look out for him in years to come. He’s only 24 years old.

For anyone who cares about cycling, the best news is that we are mostly not seeing the same old names at the top of the sheets and the races so far have been unpredictable. And exciting, and most likely drug-free. Noticeably in the Classics, no team has been able to dominate in the way we have seen over the past decade or so. Individual skill and strength has determined results far more than the old predictable pattern.

The only old names hitting the headlines in a bad way are Alexandre Vinokourov – banned from the Pro Tour for doping but allegedly training now for Beijing, and Ivan Basso – signed by Liquigas but not allowed to ride in France, or Germany, or probably Britain or Spain. Doesn’t leave much for a Pro-cyclist, does it?

It’s way too early to make predictions about cycling’s most important event, Le Tour, but one prediction I’m happy to make is that this is going to be the most open and exciting Tour that we’ve seen in years. The Giro is drawing to its conclusion and unless I’m much mistaken in reading results, Cav is second in the standings as I write. An incredibly unexpected result, not withstanding his earlier stage win.

For the cricket-interested, we go into Test Two against New Zealand with an unchanged side from Lord’s, but on a ground far more suited to the England attack. Monty Panesar has a superb record there (18 or so wickets in the meagre handful of matches he has played) and unless the weather plays a bad fairy role, I’d be looking for an England win come next Tuesday.

All in all, my summer is looking good, in white and in lycra. Not sure I’d want the boys to swap sporting disciplines or dress. Kevin Pietersen in pink lycra is an image I can well do without!

And I can truly declare Football to be over as I learn that Celtic has won the SPL – and that is a worthy tribute to Tommy Burns. I’m glad Celtic won by beating Dundee – I hate to think what is happening on the streets of Aberdeen right now as I read that Rangers were beaten 2-0 by the Dons.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

History through Hiddink - byebyebadman

The all-English final is almost upon us. In Moscow the Russian owned Chelsea and American owned Manchester United will pit their multi-national playing and coaching staff against each other for victory in the biggest club game ever played between two, in name and home at least, English clubs.

They began their association with this competition some time ago. Chelsea were champions of England when Gabriel Hanot sent out the invites to the first jamboree back in 1955, and declined the offer. Matt Busby’s RSVP was more positive the following year, openly defying the FA to drag English football kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.

In this twenty-first century alone the revamped version of the old continents’ premier competition has provided an all Spanish, all-Italian and now an all English final. Since it became no longer the preserve of League champions only the door was always open to this kind of big league domination and La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League have greedily taken over.

As coach of the Russian national team Gus Hiddink will be present in Moscow on Wednesday, and whilst in charge of PSV Eindhoven in 2005 he was responsible for providing the only Champions League semi-finalist from outside of Spain, Italy and England in the last four seasons. And if we go back further into Hiddinks history, twenty years ago this month he was winning the trophy during a previous stint with the Dutch club in a footballing era never to be seen again.

It was only five years away from becoming the Champions League, but in the 1987-88 season the European Cup was still contested as Hanot had originally intended – the champions of each European association go into a hat, are drawn at random and play over two legs until two are left to contest a one-off game in May for that glorious captain-obscuring trophy. No coefficients, no four places, no self-perpetuating glory. It was short, sweet and unique. The novelty value of European football always lay in its rarity, something that evaporates when you play Roma six times in one calendar year.

If you played at all that is. English champions Everton were absent that season as the clubs of fair albion were still banned from all European competition post Heysel. The open draw format would however ensure a first round tie that the current Champions League was set up to avoid. Whilst Lillestrom played Linfield, Shamrock Rovers took on Omonia Nicosia and Neuchatel Xamax did battle with FC Kuusyi, the champions of Italy and Spain – Maradona’s Napoli and the Real Madrid of Hugo Sanchez – were forced to compete for the right to stay in the competition longer than September 20th.

If that was surreal, Maradona’s debut in the elite European competition took him back to the Bernabeu to be watched by precisely no fans at all. After crowd trouble the previous season Madrid had to play their first home game behind closed doors, and one wonders if UEFA would have the cahones to mete out that punishment to a giant of the game for such a prestigious fixture these days. Would they in fact hand out anything similar to the draconian punishment they imposed on KS Partizani? After having four players sent off against Benfica, the Albanian champions were expelled from the competition before they could play the second leg.

El Diego’s first of only two cracks at the European Cup ended swiftly, with Real winning two-nil at the deserted Bernebeu and earning a one-all draw in Naples. The Spanish champions did make it to the semi-finals before running into Hiddink’s PSV and losing on away goals. Waiting for them in the final in Stuttgart were Benfica, who having survived the ordeal of KS Partizani got the better of Steaua Bucharest in the semi-finals. From communist eastern Europe, Steaua had been champions of Europe just two years earlier. Hiddink’s team would eventually triumph on penalties, capping a fairly incredible first year in full-time management in which he also won the Dutch first division title and the KNVB Cup.

I wonder if Hiddink will reflect upon how the competition has changed since those heady days when he witnesses the wealth and power of the Premier League’s finest on Wednesday. For much of the Champions League era Hiddink has concerned himself with international management rather than club management, taking Holland and South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals and last time pushing eventual winners Italy to the brink of elimination in round two. The shift from European Cup to Champions League, from level playing field to big club love-in, took place largely in his absence.

When he sees John Terry tackling Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole skipping past Rio Ferdinand or Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard contesting the midfield, he may also get a sense of what might have been. As many people’s favourite for the England job post-Eriksson they could and should have been his players, but Hiddink was eventually overlooked on grounds of nationality rather than talent as the FA plumped for Steve McClaren, with horrendous results. In a delicious irony Hiddink instead went to manage Russia, who nipped in ahead of England to qualify from group E.

An all-English Champions League Final weeks before a European Championships for which the England national team could not qualify is quite a paradox. When the game is decided on Wednesday Rooney, Terry and Lampard will go on holiday for the summer and Gus Hiddink will go to work. The Premier League might boast enough riches to make Solomon blush but not everything is as rosy in the garden of English football as the stature of her clubs may lead you to believe.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ligue 1 Roundup - offsideintahiti

For the first time in seven years, the title was undecided going into the last day of the season as Lyon (1st, 76 pts) held only a two-point lead over Bordeaux (2nd, 74 pts). [standings and points going into the last game] In fact, the suspense was global, with a "duel à distance" between Nancy (3rd, 60 pts) and Marseille (4th, 59 pts) for third place and the preliminary round of the Champions' League, a three- way race between Lille (5th, 56 pts), St-Étienne (6th, 55 pts), and Rennes (7th, 55 pts) for the other UEFA Cup spot, and another three-way race (of the hair-raising, don't-look-down, vertigo-inducing variety) between Paris Saint-Germain (16th, 40 pts), Toulouse (17th, 39 pts), and Lens (18th, 39 pts) to avoid the last relegation spot.

Ligue 1 has a reputation for being a low-scoring, cagey, boringly tactical league which Lyon invariably win anyway. Well, this time it was going to be massively different, at least with regard to the "low-scoring" tag. Those last ten games produced 43 goals, and with a modicum of research I might even be able to tell you whether it's a record or not, or how it compares with the season's average. Let's just say that it was a hell of a lot better than day 27, in which all of 13 goals were scored and four games ended nil-nil. And the suspense? It was incredible. Let's begin at the top.

Under so much pressure, would Lyon manage to get the draw they needed at Auxerre (15th, 44 pts)? Would they? The country was on the edge of its sofa, and it took Karim Benzema no less than 24 seconds to throw millions of French viewers slumping backwards under the weight of inevitability and earn himself the title of top scorer with his twentieth of the season. Fred, Lyon's Brazilian striker, wrapped it up in the 9th minute, thus making sure that Bordeaux's efforts at Lens would prove entirely futile and that the title would be heading back to the capital of the Rhône region for the seventh consecutive time.

And no one really wants to dwell on that so let's give credit to Bordeaux who, under the tutelage of rookie manager Laurent Blanc, and with a mix of youth (Bellion, Ducasse, Obertan) and experience (Micoud, Jurietti, Ramé), managed to push Lyon almost all the way. In the end, even though Bordeaux finished four points behind, it could be argued that they had a better season than the Champions. Over 36 games against all the other teams, they collected 75 points to Lyon's 73. It was only in the head-to-head that they were undone, beaten home and away by Alain Perrin's men. We will now find out whether Laurent Blanc is as good in the transfer market as he was as a centre-half, but if he can keep hold of his Argentine and Brazilian duo of Cavenaghi and Wendel (27 goals between them) and reinforce an ageing defense, he might put pressure on Lyon again next year. At least, this season's qualification for the Champion's League will give him the funds necessary for such a challenge.

And the suspense? Oh yeah. Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain and Toulouse both scored early, thus making sure Lens's efforts to avoid the drop against Bordeaux would prove entirely futile. And so the club with the large neo-nazi element in their support stays up, while the club with the friendliest, noisiest fans in the country go down, and no one really wants to dwell on that. What Toulouse don't want to dwell on is the embarrasment of starting the season facing Liverpool in the preliminary round of the Champions' League and finishing it escaping relegation by way of a narrow, nervous 2-1 win over Valenciennes. So let's move on.

And yes, I did promise suspense. But there wasn't much of that on offer in the fight for fifth place. As Lille couldn't do better than a draw at Lorient and St-Étienne went on a 4-0 rampage against a desperately out of sorts Monaco (12th, 47 pts), "Les Verts" clinch it and will taste European football again for the first time in 26 years. The last time they travelled abroad, their number 10 was one Michel Platini and their current coach, Laurent Roussey, spearheaded their attack.

So what are we left with? 3rd place, the Champions' League preliminary round and the right to start next season with a heroic defeat against the likes of Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus, or Liverpool. Marseille and Nancy really did fall over themselves to earn that privilege. Nancy, whose only claim to fame is a couple of domestic cups and bringing a young Michel Platini through their ranks, had been on the podium since day 5 and were unbeaten at home this season. If they could just get a draw at home to Rennes, their young Uruguayan coach, Pablo Correa, would equal the club's best ever finish. All Marseille could do was beat an already relegated Strasbourg at the Stade Vélodrome and hope for a little help in Lorraine.

Amazingly, it came through the unlikely source of Mickaël Pagis, whose goals had helped Marseille clinch a CL spot last season, only to be told his contract would not be renewed. The brace he scored for Rennes on Saturday proved just as important, as the club from Brittany ended Nancy's unbeaten home record, winning 3-2 and handing it over to Marseille on a plate. All the southerners had to do was help themselves. An opponent with nothing to play for. A sixty-thousand stong home support. No injury or suspension worries. How easy can it get?

Marseille duly took an early lead through their Senegalese striker, Mamadou Niang, and then quietly collapsed. Strasbourg scored twice in 20 minutes, handing back to Nancy. Marseille could be forgiven for their slumber. On day 12, they were in 19th place, and the long climb back up under newly appointed coach and ex Belgium international, Éric Gerets, had taken its toll. It took something out of the ordinary to revive them. A couple of minutes before half-time, Niang and the Strasbourg keeper both went for a high ball. The ensuing clash of heads meant play was held for long minutes and the visiting keeper eventually had to go off. His replacement's first intervention, in the third minute of stoppage time, was to bring Djibril Cissé down and give away a penalty. His second intervention was to save it, only to see the rebound hit the ex-Liverpool star in the head and go in. In the fith minute of stoppage time, Samir Nasri rifled in the sweetest left-foot volley from 12 yards to make it 3-2.

With the Nancy boys floundering, and Marseille cruising through the second half on auto-pilot, it looked all set. Until 20 minutes from time, when Strasbourg, who still had nothing to play for but were determined to enjoy themselves, scored again to level at 3-3. Nancy pushed everyone forward in search of an equaliser, but, with a few minutes left on the clock, it was Djibril Cissé who raced on a through ball and, with his 16th goal of a long, long season, sent the Vélodrome faithful into raptures and Marseille into the Champions' League.

In short: Lyon for the title, Bordeaux and Marseille for the CL, Nancy and St-Étienne for UEFA, Metz, Strasbourg and Lens down to Ligue 2, Le Havre, Nantes, and Grenoble coming up to replace them, PSG and Lyon to meet in the final of the Coupe de France next week, and my job is a lot easier than Premcorr's, who does it every week.

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