Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Untested expectations - PremCorrespondent

Sorry for the late report. Woke up with the sort of hangover you can only get from a bender with Greaves and Best at the height of their powers. Not that I had one of those. Too many footballers on orange juice these days. But I’m older now and the kebab was still moving when I left the shop, which may have played a part.

Anyway, partying like it’s the 1960s, Spurs players enjoyed a sober glass of mineral water or two to mark their winning start to the season. They laboured to their away win against West Ham, but three out of three is their best start since the won the double, and this early in the season their fans can dream big. Sitting unexpectedly top of the table, young idiot hacks have even started researching the greats of the game that once took points home to White Hart Lane by right.

Their closest rivals for the title, as it were, are now Chelsea, who for the third time this season were well worth their unspectacular win. Drogba and Anelka seem to work well together after far too long being wasted in poor formations. Their two goals sunk Fulham, and although like Spurs bigger tests remain, Chelsea are the only regular contender at this stage who look secure right across the park.

Similarly untested, Arsenal have won two games, a week apart, against woeful opposition in the form of Portsmouth. Their side strolled to an easy four goals, and survived a scare when everyone expected a foul on the keeper that never happened. They remain flowing, elegant and fast. But there is still some way to go before the Gunners’ thin squad proves itself twice a week amid the normal run of injuries.

United have not yet impressed in the defence of their title, and for half the game against Wigan both sides could have scored three. Only in the second half did the Red devils finally look like a top side, hitting the back of the net five times, twice through Rooney.

And if Rooney’s side are contenders, then the team they were beaten by in midweek can, at least on points, contend too. Burnley won at home 1-0 again, repeating against Everton the professional victory they claimed over the champions. Everton lacked invention and belief, and have been abject early on the in the campaign. Even Saha barely looked like he wanted the penalty that he wastefully hooked wide.

Monday night saw the end of Liverpool’s role as a leading light in the title race. Before the campaign started we all knew that injuries to Torres and Gerrard would leave them woefully short against organised sides. As it turns out, even with both of them fit and healthy they have been taken apart by Spurs and now Villa. Martin O’Neil’s side was hardly impressive as they required a penalty and an own goal from a free-kick to seal the deal. But that was more than enough for an Anfield away win.

Elsewhere, and largely towards the wrong end of the table, Birmingham drew a dismal game against Stoke, Sunderland defeated Blackburn, and Hull beat Bolton.

And finally, with an outside shot at the title that now looks less ‘outside’ than Liverpool’s, Manchester City should have filled their boots against Wolves. Some profligate shooting and far too much showboating meant that in the end they relied on near misses from the Premier League’s newcomers to secure a 1-0 win.

Of course winning when you don’t perform is no bad thing, so long as it isn’t a habit. And with none of the top sides fully tested, their fans can all still dream, all be it only fancifully in most cases.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oh it’s the Ashes – mimitig

Certainly this is how the England team felt after Headingly . After a chastening, humiliating experience in Australia 18 months ago, who, honestly, hand on heart, would have put money on England regaining the Ashes this summer?

There were many at the start of this summer who thought the Aussies, number one Test side, would land on these shores and roll a weak England side over. So we went to Cardiff – controversially as this ground had never hosted an Ashes match and was not even sure what its name was. Were we playing at Sophia Gardens or the Swalec Stadium, or maybe even Cardiff Arms Park? The confusion seemed to play into the hands of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

After taking an early battering Paul Collingwood dug in and then tail-enders Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar fended off the last of the Aussie bowling attack and ensured that the sides went to Lord’s with honours even.

Lord’s was explosive. England hadn’t won against Australia at the home of cricket for 75 years and then in one unforgettable over, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff defied history, defied his own injury and earned his rather freely given MBE from four years ago.

We went to Edgbaston - one up, in an Ashes summer. We all remember what happened four years ago. The edge of the seat win, the iconic picture of Fred comforting Brett Lee. Well this year it wasn’t a re-run. Weather intervened and the match was drawn with England on top.

So to Leeds. And least said the better. England collapsed in an abject and embarrassing way. We had two weeks to recover before reconvening at the Oval. The Brit Oval as we must now call it. When I lived next door, it was just the Oval.

It started, Strauss won the toss and naturally said “We’ll have a bat”. England didn’t post a huge total. 332 on a disintegrating pitch did not seem great. Bell’s top score of 72 was ridiculed by men who have scored far more runs. Boycott was damning, but then he always is. Matthew Hayden, the erstwhile Aussie opener, was far kinder. He said, how do you know what’s a good score until the other side bats?

England were bowled out for 332 and it was the turn of the Australians to show how damn good they are. Time to make it count and rub our poor little noses into the grub.

They forgot about Stuey. Stuart “Bless him” Broad. Son of Chris and a fine, fine cricketer in his own right. And just how did he prove that at the Oval? Stuart, son of Chris, destroyed the Aussies. Watson, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, Haddin. A five-fer. The Aussies were going to be fighting from behind. 160 all out.

So Strauss set up a good second innings, Cook failed, Bell failed, Colly failed, but debutant Jonathan Trott was firm in defence and strong in attack. His debut for England helped win the match. 119 was a score to work with, and then several men down, Graeme Swann bashed another 66. England were in control.

So to Day Four – surely a winning day. But not all went to plan. Sure, two early wickets, before lunch, but then Ponting and Hussey were bedded in. Or not?

A brilliant, fairy-tale run out of Ponting by our own dream hero Freddie. And then the Aussie wickets tumbled.

Harmison took a few tailenders. Colly snatched a ball from the air. Fred got another catch and suddenly we were there.



The Ashes are back where they belong.

At home.

You’ve just got to love those boys, bringing the little little tiny urn home.

(I’m a bit embarrassed about the Ponting link, but it’s what you get with google!)

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