Monday, 17 December 2012

I'm unemployed again, so welcome back.

Ahhh hello old friends, I am glad to give you the chance to venture back into my incoherent, babbling thoughts.

Regarding the title, I don't know if you can call an unpaid internship "employment", but it's the best I had to work with, and it made me feel special. I will miss the glum stares of commuters begging for the sweet embrace of death on cold Wednesday mornings and the opportunity to dress in jeans on 'casual Friday', like a complete maniac, but things had to change, so I stormed out of there last week with my head held high, deciding enough was enough*.

* - patiently waited until the last minute, subtly begged for a job and meekly acknowledged the inevitable end of my contract.

So, with the year approaching its end and my promises of regular blogs as broke three members of Take That, I would like to offer the writing equivalent of the deathbed repentance. After all, the world is supposedly ending on Friday if you believe a long-dead collection of people which ran out of time, resources and calendars. No, not Woolworths, the Mayans.

I am sorry to have abandoned you all once again, but my tenacity and unwavering desire to chase my dreams meant that I had to prioritise a little. (When I say tenacity, I mean apathy, when I say dreams, I mean unpaid internship and when I say prioritise, I mean that getting home late gave me little option but to cry myself to sleep in preparation for the next day.)

Today I will try to write a few reviews of the past twelve months. 2012 has been pretty quiet year, so it shouldn't take me long. Happy reading.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Das Finger strikes again as Alonso falters

Warning: the following blog was written by someone suffering from severe man-flu and about to celebrate an incredibly low-key birthday.


Ahhh Formula One 2012, what are we going to do with you ey?

You couldn't just be all boring and predictable, like Ed Miliband, snooker or Alan Shearer could you?

I am of course talking about the season as a whole, this weekend's race at Suzuka was more dull than a Kimi Raikkonen speech about geology. Am I the only one who thinks that? Suzuka normally provides great racing but, after the first corner, I was quite underwhelmed by the action.

Anyway, the sport is still set for it's most thrilling finale in...well...two years. This year, the glory looks set to go either to Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel...or maybe Lewis Hamilton or maybe Kimi Raikkonen. In fact, I was tempted to name this post "two and a half men" on that basis, but then most people would avoid it on the grounds that the blog would involve Charlie Sheen hanging out with a ten-year-old boy.

Once again, I tried to avoid both qualifying and race results, but once again, my irrational addiction to BBC Sport meant that I gave away both before I could hang on for the highlights shows. Anyway, just like at the Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this year, I was given the terrifying feeling that I had been taken back in time to 2011, with Seb dominating a race and everyone being far too polite to put up a fuss. As a result, I won't spend too much time talking about how the German cruised to pole position, got to the first corner first and subsequently dominated the race, holding off the challenge of the brilliant Felipe Massa.

Behind him, there was more of a race, with Romain Grosjean again doing his best to annoy the whole paddock. Grosjean to me is like Donkey Kong in Mario Kart, he can be quick, but is incredibly clumsy. After a decent getaway, he collided with Mark Webber after what he said was an over-zealous attempt to not hit anyone. Say what? That's like saying "but love, I was trying so hard not to kiss her, I ended up shagging her"...isn't it? However, Romain wasn't the only Lotus causing trouble in the first corner; Raikkonen himself was caught up in his own incident, in his case with championship leader Alonso, causing him to spin out and as a result, making this year's title battle tighter than (note: come back to crap sex metaphor later).

Kamui Kobayashi drove a splendid race in front of his home fans to take the final podium position, despite a late push from Jenson Button who, sadly, wasn't able to apply more pressure than he did, which was about as much as a kitten in a vacuum. That said, Button drove a strong race in difficult circumstances at a track he often excels at. How he copes with the demands of being McLaren's apparent number one driver will be interesting with the talented Sergio Perez making life difficult. The young Mexican remains enigmatic to me; after three podium finishes this season, two of them in second place, you would have expected him to have amassed many points than he has. You want to know why? I'm going to tell you, gather round.

The reason he hasn't is his inconsistency, which surfaced again this weekend. After a stunning overtaking move on the unusually circumspect Hamilton, he attempted a similar manouvre later in the race, only to get it totally wrong, and in the manner of a drunk man falling over in a puddle, only at 100mph. Then again, the Sauber wouldn't be the first thing with a Chelsea logo stamped on it's body to do something reckless and stupid.

Are we done talking about the race now? Yes? Good, let's look ahead.

Four of the next five races were not on the calendar in 2008, when Lewis Hamilton took the world title. I was going to go somewhere with that statistic, but it actually doesn't really mean anything, so I may just leave you in awe of my knowledge.

I can't see past Vettel winning a third consecutive title, which would be something of a shame. I don't think Vettel has driven particularly well this year, while Alonso and - to a lesser extent - Hamilton have been excellent and consistent. Of course, my prediction means Vettel won't win the title, but the Red Bull looks so strong after a a raft of new upgrades. That said the next four circuits should in theory suit the McLaren, due to the huge straights at these tracks, tracks which follow the tried-and-tested formula from track designing extraordinaire Herman Tilke (long straight, hairpin, long straight, loads of twisty shit in the middle, with run-off about the size of New Zealand, then back to the long straight). To make the season interesting, one of Raikkonen or Hamilton has to win in Korea.

McLaren will of course say they will not use Button to help Hamilton, but failure to do so would be stupid, and McLaren are too well run and too strategically strong to...oh wait. Anyway, if Button fails to comply, Hamilton will do what he does best: get on Twitter and moan about it.

I do love back-to-back races, providing as they do a great opportunity to make sex jokes about Formula One on consecutive weekends. I hope you enjoyed my return to Formula One, if not, the link to that Felipe Massa piece will remind you of when I used to be funny.

I will report back to you in a week, when hopefully I will be able to leave my bed.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Orgies, Bin Laden and'll see.

The last time I made a blog post, Andy Murray appeared to be doomed to failure in all Grand Slam finals, the Olympics hadn't happened yet, and if someone asked me to "Gangnam style", I would think I was being invited to some crazy orgy.

A lot has changed; I have graduated from university, finished a position at Total Football Magazine and have taken a new position elsewhere, making the big bucks (travel expenses) like an actual journalist, not some spotty, itchy twenty-something desperately seeking an employer with more money than sense. Since I stopped blogging, we in Britain have witnessed a truly remarkable summer of sport, and I take a lot of responsibility for that. So, with the sporting drama of the next few months guaranteed to be as dry as a Panda in a convent, I will return with my shining wit (or an anagram of it), for your entertainment. You know, until I get bored and stop again.

Anyway, my last blog was about Andy Murray's heartbreaking Wimbledon final loss. As I predicted, the naysayers and "haters" quickly resumed liking the "Scot" when he became a "Brit" again at this Summer's Olympics, where he not just beat Roger Federer, but inflicted a defeat more embarrassing than Steve Kean doing a press conference...naked. Oh, Steve Kean has been sacked? My God, it has been a while.

I will return to Andy Murray later, but I think the Olympics needs to be discussed beforehand. Last time I wrote here, Britain was about to be swamped by 791 million foreign spectators, and our tube systems would be more cramped and over-worked than Wayne Rooney at a nursing home. Our security would be so bad that Osama Bin Laden would actually come back from the dead, travel to Stratford, win a few gold medals, give the Queen a wedgie and then destroy the Olympic Park.

As it happened, we were treated to a truly remarkable Games. I still have no idea what the opening ceremony was about, but it was a truly spectacular display of what it means to be British, without the political-correctness, whining and bad food. When the flags came out, I was overwhelmed by how many countries actually wanted to send people to East London, but that's what the Games are all about, triumph over adversity*. After Wiggins, Hoy and co blew us away on their bikes, there came an evening so dramatic and so triumphant that the whole nation collectively squealed in orgasmic delight. And not just because everyone seems to have a crush on Jessica Ennis.

* - sorry cockneys, please don't hurt me.

The first Saturday of the Games included a 45 minute period where Britain won three gold athletics. Not on bikes or on boats, but actually running and stuff. From then on, something magical happened. We started being nice to each other. Train and tube journeys would be accompanied by smiles, manners and conversations. Of course, we have since regressed into our old selves, where any attempt to talk to a stranger on the train is met by either a glare or prayers that one won't get stabbed. Ahhh London.

I was lucky enough to watch the Beach Volleyball at Horse Guards Parade, but to those of you thinking I'm a jammy sod, half of the time was spent up in the Gods, in the middle of a storm, looking at big Latvian men diving around in the sand, playing with balls. Not so lucky now am I?

I told you I would get back to Andy Murray. After his Olympic triumph, Murray took New York by storm, displaying determination, ruthlessness and throaty roars not seen since Godzilla in the 1998 movie...Godzilla.
Once again, as soon as people got a feeling Murray could win, their attitudes began to change towards him. A fifth Grand Slam Final followed and a meeting with Novak Djokovic would test whether Murray really had grown stronger mentally. After winning two titanic sets, it appeared the 76 year wait for a British male Grand Slam winner would be continue for no more than an hour. Murray, sensing I now had a job to get up for early the next morning, decided to screw with my mind and lose the next two sets. However, he hung on to take a victory which was never in doubt. My Facebook statuses - accompanied by constant swearing and anti-Scottish sentiment - were just a joke.

What else happened? Oh yeah, the Formula One hasn't been too bad. Fernando Alonso, being Dick Dastardly himself, managed to take a huge lead in the World Championship almost without anyone noticing, until Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel said "hang on a minute,what the hell?" Victories in Hungary and Italy helped Lewis close the gap on the Spaniard, before a gearbox more brittle than Michael Owen's hamstrings gave way in Singapore, allowing Vettel to take advantage.

Hamilton has since moved to Mercedes, a transfer shocking for one simple reason: it proved Eddie Jordan right. Have I really been gone so long that Eddie Jordan is now some kind of bright shirt-wearing, goatee-sporting, future-predicting genius? Or did he just get the two teams mixed up, like the time he called Paul McCartney "George"? I'm sure I will address this issue in my upcoming blog about the Japanese Grand Prix, where I will make grovelling apologies to my Formula One readers, who are a dedicated bunch and strange for the simple fact that they find me funny. The move doesn't make much sense to me, but then Lewis earns slightly more than me, so he can do what he wants.

The football has started again, but nothing has really happened there, except that Mark Hughes is still rubbish, Manchester United's midfield is still awful and we still don't know if John Terry is a racist. More football blogs will of course follow, but this summer's epicness, combined with Rio Ferdinand's ineptitude, has left me with a sense of apathy towards what is still my favourite sport.

Finally, I have even started to like golf. Last Sunday's Ryder Cup win for Europe was so dramatic and emotional, I ended up bouncing around, on my bed, in my boxers at eleven o'clock at night, something which probably caused local dog-walkers to wonder who I was enjoying my Sunday night with. Europe's comeback was so good, I will now refer to Lazarus' little story as a comeback of 'Lazabal* proportions.

* - sorry.

A shit pun in relation to a momentous comeback. It's always nice when blog posts come around full circle. I apologise for being away so long, but I'm sure you found the strength to live without my irrelevant musings about sport, the one thing that distracts from just how shit life can really be.

I look forward to annoying you all again this weekend. Toodles.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

I'm 21 years, 8 months and 29 days old.

And I wanted to cry my eyes out about half an hour ago. In Andy Murray's words "this is not going to be easy".

But I'm gonna try. I'm probably going to get really defensive at bigoted people or end up sounding like Andy's PR manager, but I'm gonna try.

For the last two days... OK two weeks... OK seven years, Andy Murray has had to deal with questions about when he would win a first Grand Slam title. "It's a matter of time" said all the pundits. "I'm still improving" said Murray. "Stop asking me about Andy bloody Murray" said the other members of tennis' big three-and-a-half. The weight of expectation for the best part of a decade has been on Andy's Scottish (coz he lost) shoulders and to forge a career as successful as he has is nothing short of amazing.

Yes, he has forged a successful career. Ten Grand Slam semi-finals, four Grand Slam finals, beaten in all only by three of the best players ever to play the game. How Andy must wish his parents had had a little too much vodka one night a few years earlier, then he would be battling Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio instead of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. And Rafael Nadal. And Joe-Wilfried Tsonga.

Instead, Andy was baptised into the cruel world of British sporting expectation a little late, while it was left to Tim Henman to battle players from tennis' Hall of Meh. Life isn't fair.

People often don't like Murray because he is dour, serious and...well, Scottish. "Give me Tim Henman any day of the week" they say behind their copy of The Daily Mail, a replica England flag sticking out of a tweed hat as they intertwine their barely disguised disdain for their country's best player with their dissatisfaction with Council Tax, immigrants, the Labour party and Holly Willoughby. These same people are those who burnt David Beckham in effigy in 1998 and don't "get" Lewis Hamilton.

Only in this country could we reject our finest sporting products. If the Chinese turned their back on their finest products, there would be NOTHING IN OUR BLOODY HOUSES. Roger Federer is a likeable enough guy but sometimes fails to cross the line between arrogance and magnanimous...ness. Do the Swiss hate him? No. Why? Because the Swiss get stuff done. In their eyes, personality and background are immaterial when the results are taken into account. Only in Britain could we ask for just a little bit more. "Sure, he's good and sure, he plays for us, but would it kill him to smile a little more?" With all due respect; fuck off. This guy was around when sixteen children were killed at his school, a happy-go-lucky attitude probably went with them. Joe-Wilfried Tsonga is a chipper character and has a great name. One Grand Slam final. And was beaten by Murray.

Bear in mind, these same people who slag off our best tennis player may well be the first to support him when he dons Olympics clothing in just under a month's time. "Always liked him" they'll say. "I hope he wins" will say others. "Leave me alone" will say the rest.

Besides, Andy Murray's runner-up speech was heart-warming if nothing else. People criticise him for being stoic, apathetic and downright grumpy. So what if he is? Today, he showed a passion and a commitment to his sport which if a few more of us did to our jobs (I'm still unemployed but shhh), our economy would be a whole lot better. Here was a guy who had had his arse kicked for nearly four hours, but had the grace to applaud the man who deservedly beat him and the gratitude to thank those who share a country with him, even if some (the minority) turn their back on him.

Andy Murray is like a Scottish (coz he lost) Jesus, people didn't like him when he was doing his thing, but maybe two thousand years from now, huge churches will be erected with massive stained windows of Murray's face contorted in a mixture of rage, frustration and passion. A necklace of Murray pointing at a ball boy for a towel wouldn't look great though.

Even after defeat, and my own witty use of brackets, I wonder if our country and our media will finally accept that Andy Murray is British. The man lives in England, has some English blood and nearly kills himself for the "foreign" people who support him. Whisper it, he may even be becoming slightly more likeable.

A brief word about the match because, you know, there was a match before I decided to yell at people who dislike Andy Murray, even if they do have their own reasons and right to dislike the guy.

Murray made the better start. So often in the big matches, he is slow out of the blocks and cedes a momentum which becomes too forceful to overcome. After breaking early, he was pegged back on serve early in the first set. However, he staved off the Federer threat and eventually broke and then went on to win the first set. So often Murray is accused of being defensive or overwhelmed by the occasion. Others use that most ambiguous, convenient, self-serving and pointless of sporting phrases: "he bottled it". Not in that first set he didn't, he went full pelt and deservedly took his early lead. Hell, he even played so well, he made Roger Federer look his thirty years. Federer almost broke sweat.

But like that bit when your dream is getting good, some bastard wakes you up. Halfway through the second set, Murray was arguably playing the better tennis and had points to break the Swiss players serve. And then Federer showed up, playing unbelievable tennis to hold serve and then even better stuff to force the break which gave him the set. It was all too good to be true, like when you're doing an exam and the first ten questions are easy, then someone asks you to work out the square root of the meaning of life.

As Murray contemplated his now level footing with tennis' best ever player, he struggled to stay in touch until, in a moment of sporting pathetic fallacy, it began to rain.  A collective breather was almost audible under Centre court's closing roof as the players took a break which one sensed Murray needed.

As it turned out, Federer wasn't fussed. Momentum? Pah! Home hero? Whatever. Federer came out under the 1,000 ton roof and proceeded to dump that same weight of pressure on the Murray serve which, if you were nit-picking, was his main weakness. Federer broke midway through set three and then midway through set four to set up his grand victory, a victory Murray made sure was not inevitable until an attempted passing shot on Federer's second match point was 90% of its way to the tramlines. Those were the margins. Murray was incredible, Federer was just a bit better. The bastard.

What now for Murray? He's come back from this sort of adversity before and I think we can all agree that he is one of the best players in the world. He will continue to get chances and he will continue to improve, something he has done (at least mentally) with the instalment of Ivan Lendl as his coach. Lendl himself, you will be bored to tears hearing, lost his first four Grand Slam finals too. But then, he played in a slightly more favourable era too. Murray should win one of these dam things soon, but this country is amazing at producing nearly men. Which is one of the few things we do with as much consistency as a Roger Federer drop shot.

It wasn't easy to write that, but I did it anyway. The last few months have sucked for me as a sports fan. To fill you in, I support Manchester United, Lewis Hamilton, the Scotland rugby team, Surrey country cricket club and other teams which have this year been so close to victory, before being pipped by someone slightly better.

Sporting Gods, why have you forsaken me?

For the next few weeks, I may give a lot of money to charity, do more of the washing up and even buy gifts for people. Things have got to turn around.

And they will. This was not Murray's time but, as I write, the sun has just come out. Maybe it will for Britain's (coz he's still a winner) Andy Murray one day.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 over, productivity levels rise

Stupid blog won't let me add stupid pictures, I hope your concentration holds!


For 23 days, I have been stuck in a blissful state of football related comatose. I woke up this morning feeling as if I’ve aged three years in three weeks.

The skies are grey again, as if the football Gods themselves are preparing for their impending exit from the spotlight. Euro 2012 is over, which means that for the more dedicated of us, a seemingly endless trawl through football’s transfer gossip is depressingly likely.

Fortunately, I like tennis and, as I’m not yet a taxpayer, I like the Olympics. I essentially get the next month of sport-induced procrastination for free, which probably means continued unemployment, but a sort of permanent weary smile. So I think we know who wins there.

Anyway, this is a Euro 2012 article, so I thought it would be pertinent to do a review of a truly, wonderfully, excitingly adequate tournament. Enjoy.

After 30 games, a few exciting debates, a few moronic ones, 72 goals (I think), the brilliance of Andrea Pirlo, the ineptitude of England and much, much more, we had a final.

Most people predicted a Germany v Spain showpiece, while the more ambitious (stupid) of us thought the Netherlands would go all the way.

After a few big teams and names fell by the wayside, it was Italy who stood up to Spain to mark the end of the tournament.

The build up to the game centred on three main themes:

Are Spain boring?

I was thinking the same thing after painfully precise victories over France and Portugal. Efficiency? Clinical football? Winning on penalties? It suddenly seemed like Spain were turning into Germany.

Unfortunately for Ms Merkel and co, this sudden likeness is with regard to their football, not with their economy, but that’s a debate for people who have more of an idea of how economics works.

For all their possession, Spain were really struggling to break teams down, which led many casual (geeky) observers to question whether opposition teams had already figured out a way to cope with Spain’s control of possession.  This ball retention was becoming so monopolised that one expected Xavi to pull out a big cane and fake moustache, before turning the pitch into a grid which he endlessly circled in a tiny silver car. Just me?

Last night, the Spanish finally played at their best. It turns out that if your players play 60 odd games a season, they get tired. It turns out that if you are shorn of your record goal scorer, you’ll struggle to…score goals. It turns out that if you have Alvaro Arbeloa at right back, you can’t afford to be too gung ho. Last night, Spain were anything but boring; they beat Italy into submission until they stopped twitching.

Is Andrea Pirlo the best player in the universe?

It turns out that controlling England’s midfield is easier than reciting the words to the Spanish national anthem (there are none). Pirlo was outstanding against England, but last night he was almost peripheral as a lack of possession and space ensured that Italy never seriously threatened Iker Casillas’ goal.

Let’s talk about Mario Balotelli some more.

“Are we going to get super Mario, or stupid Mario?” “You never know what you’re going to get with Balotelli.” “He could score or he could get sent off.” I think the robotic BBC pundits have got stuck, as they keep saying the same things over.

As a football writer, I should love Balotelli for his headlines and tendency to do something stupid, but I don’t buy into the hype.

He worked hard last night, but was a frustrated figure and, his performance against Germany aside, remains a player who lacks the consistency to keep worrying defences. Stupidly, I’ve talked about him for 100 words.

So, Spain were excellent. Surprise. Apparently they only had 50% of ball possession but, as those aforementioned pundits love to tell us, “it’s what you do with it that matters.”

A goal of real quality from Jordi Alba answered the critics regarding Spain’s lack of penetration, an attribute I will not make a tenuous metaphor for.

The other three goals came from David Silva, Fernando Torres and even Juan Mata, which is likely to prompt further claims that the Premier League is to thank for Spain’s dominance.

Before I wrap up, here are a few of my highlights of Euro 2012.

Goal of the tournament – Cesc Fabregas vs Italy
Didn’t expect that did you?! It wasn’t going to be this goal, but I didn’t want to spell the name of the Polish captain again. This goal encapsulated what Spain can do when they are at their best and forced to attack. Minutes after falling behind, Spain struck when first Andres Iniesta found a path through Italy’s midfield, before a wonderful reverse pass from David Silva gave Fabregas the chance to score. An admirable mention for Theo Walcott’s deflected-but-not-deflected shot against Sweden.

Player of the tournament – Jordi Alba
This is so easy. Not Pirlo, not Gomez, not Milner. No, those titans of international football have been slain by the hitherto relatively unknown left back. A goal in the final was just reward for a fine tournament in which he constantly provided width to a sometimes pedestrian attack, contributed to five consecutive clean sheets and much more. Besides, he was top scorer in fantasy football.

Game of the tournament – England 3-2 Sweden
It may surprise you, but I did not pick this game for the thrilling technical brilliance on display. Olof Mellberg’s first goal was a finish of real quality, but although the standard of both teams was outstanding, it was the drama and entertainment which makes it stand head and shoulders above the rest.

So there you have it, the tournament is finished and so am I. I better find something to do now. I may even eat an apple. Football fans, stay strong, there’s only six or so weeks left to go till we can do nothing again!

Now get back to work.

By Doug Elder

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Wimbledon 2012: Where seeds fall and dreams grow

Is that the campest headline ever written? It was either that or "Rihanna and Katy Perry in sex tape scandal. Controversy confirms that the world will end in 2012" in an attempt to boost my page views. No matter.

We are only six days in at this year's Wimbledon, but it's shaping up to be a cracker. I was even at Wimbledon on Wednesday (I think) to give you insider knowledge of the tournament itself. I even tried to get in the press area in the grounds, but for some reason I was denied.

"Hi, my name's Douglas Elder, I'm here for the press thingy stuff?"

"How come you don't have a pass"
"I don't need a pass, don't you know who I am?"
"The writer of the popular blog 'Irrelevant irreverence'"
"Oh you! My brother says stop posting on BBC Sport's website...and your photo is scary"

I tried.

Anyway, if any of you were ever unfortunate enough to read the book 'Stormbreaker', you will understand my next analogy. In the book, the protagonist uncovers a plot by a Chinese triad to sabotage the championships. Their plan involves subtly drugging the opponents of some nobody they are betting on. The first few days of these championships have seen remarkable similarities.

On Thursday night, Rafael Nadal was beaten by relative unknown Lukas Rosol. Of course, Rosol played the  match of his life, but there seemed to be a strange lethargy about Nadal. Perhaps he was made to look poor by the sheer ferocity of Rosol's groundstrokes, but Nadal just seemed half a step too slow. The challenge for Rosol now comes with his next matches, when he will be expected to destroy opponents, much in the same way I destroy all and sundry when they dare face me on a tennis court.

Apparently women find Nadal sexier than me,
so here is him with no top on to balance out the fact
that I posted a picture of a pretty German lady recently
I started making links to Chinese triads and became racked with suspicion, but then I shook myself out of such xenophobia and sent an anonymous report - detailing the probability of the Chinese derailing Wimbledon - to the Daily Mail instead. Expect some breaking news in the next hour or so.

As for Rosol, after losing the first set on a tiebreak, it appeared that the man had talent, but he would ultimately be swept aside by Nadal, a man who celebrates and punches his fist when his alarm wakes him up on time. However, the Czech player suddenly went all psycho axe murderer on the Spaniard and butchered him for most of the remainder of the match. Rosol, with eyes wide open in Hannibal Lector fashion, hit winner after winner as Nadal began to look more out of place than Andy Murray doing a stand-up gig.

Speaking of Murray, this does mean that he will have someone else to lose to in this year's semi-final which has naturally made British pulses race faster. The poor bugger has only played two matches and now a place in the final is "his to lose". Huh?! The Scot (if he doesn't win) once again has the weight of expectation on him. However, the British (if he wins) player at least only has to carry the burden of "last Brit (if he wins) standing" for nine days, instead of the usual twelve. Heather Watson reached the giddy heights of Round Three* while James Ward nearly got out of Round Two*. But didn't. 

* - capitalised to emphasise magnitude of achievement.

Watson and Laura Robson look like future top thirty players (not the most ambition prediction, but hey ho) and they might serve to take further attention from our beleaguered Scottish hope (when he loses).

As for the other half of the draw, the triads seemed to be at work again when both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer lost the opening set of their third round ties to decent, but aging and limited players. Djokovic soon stopped playing and crushed Radek Stepanek like a paper cup, but Federer was taken the distance by Julien Benneateau under the centre court roof.

Djokovic looks a long way from his best but one would expect him to improve, after all, how many times has he been written off in the last eighteen months before coming back to win...and give us more opportunity to look at his brother clenching his fist. Oh joy. Expect Novak to play poorly all the way to the final where he may meet Murray, before the Serbian raises his games and deflates our national self-esteem, denying us the chance of another national holiday.

As for Roger, I would be amazed if he won this year's title. This now means he will almost certainly win the tournament, but I think he is starting to look slower and slower against aggressive opponents. For two hour yesterday, he was outplayed in longer rallies and it was only experience that saw him through. Better players will get in his way soon, and I don't think the Swiss player is going to make it. But he does have great hair.

I'm not sexist, but I haven't had much chance to see the women play yet.

The BBC don't seem to want to show them, and Wimbledon like to throw them (not literally, imagine that) onto the outside courts. I'm not going to get into an argument about equal pay, as that would be silly, and Serena Williams would probably track me down and eat me.

Maria Sharapova is still in the draw. Goody. Yesterday she screamed when putting away what was essentially a drop volley. Is she an excitable character or just very annoying? You decide.

As we approach halfway, the tournament is shaping up very nicely indeed, and as it has just passed half eleven, I can now look forward to another long, boring day in my bed as I watch tennis for the day. All for your entertainment. People praise the ground staff at Wimbledon as the unsung heroes, but they have it easy. I'm the one who has to watch Ernests Gulbis vs Jerzy Janowicz in fading light on an outside court.

No need to thank me.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Were we really going to win anyway?

What's-a matter you? Hey! Gotta no respect. What-a you think you do? Why you look-a so sad? It's-a not so bad, it's a nice-a place. Ah, shaddapa you face.

The wise words of Joe Dolce there, and I think we can all learn something from that great, great man. Yes, it hurts. Yes, we’re still rubbish at penalties. But in truth, we played for this agony…and the ending shouldn’t surprise any of us. So shaddapa your face.

England didn’t have the players required to really harm Italy. Of course we tried. And unlike at the World Cup two years ago, no one can fault a lack of effort. Maybe a lack of ambition, but when England get too ambitious, really bad things tend to happen in clubs and pubs around the country, so we should be grateful that we chickened out.

England had little choice but to sit back and hope for a Chelsea-esque miracle. At least penalties would give us a (theoretical) 50-50 chance. In the end, we chose suicide over execution. 

"Ahhh crap"

But we never really had a chance did we? No, our big shot at European glory came eight years ago in Portugal, when an agonising penalty shootout loss to the hosts meant we crashed out at a time when the draw was really opening up for a talented side. So don’t look-a so sad. It’s-a not so bad.

I will also remember Euro 2004 due to Greece’s insistence on boring the continent to tears. That tournament may have provided some hope to England fans; anyone can win football tournaments with a little luck, a good manager and a Hellas (pardon the pun) of a lot of defending…it just didn’t work out this time.

Eight years ago was when we had the right to be sad, not now. Now we’re pretty mediocre. Hard working, but mediocre.

And it is that simple fact that we all have to come to terms with. Instead of waking up with a smile and slightly sore head, we all have to face the crushing reality of Monday morning with yet more tournament heartbreak at the back of our minds. 

Instead of glorious, witty Facebook statuses about England’s pragmatism triumphing over Italy’s over-rated, so-called technical superiority, a lot of us have had to come to terms with the fact that we were not lucky enough to be born into a country with sufficient footballing prowess.

We also have to deal with the fact that we know more people of Italian descent than we thought we did. Count how many of your mates have changed their name from Paul Smith to Paulo Seppi.

In fact, the people I most feel sorry for are the good people at Google. Their translate feature must have gone into overdrive at the amount of middle-class, suburban British kids working out just what “Forza Italia” means.

That said, if Google translate can survive the over-use I gave it in preparation for my Italian exam this spring, it can cope with anything.

I hope these expatriates can now focus all their attention on Thursday’s semi-final against Germany. Did we really want to play against Germany in a semi-final again?

When all is said and done, last night was essentially an opportunity to update your wall chart (if you’re quite sad), maybe get some fantasy football points (if you’re a bit sadder) and moan at your country's various Manchester United players (if you support Arsenal).

Other than that, it was a match played for the right to lose to the Germans. What an honour.

Don't think it would end well this time

But let’s just talk about penalties briefly. Like the 4-2-3-1 formation or eulogising over Mario Balotelli or the Messi v Ronaldo debate, the “the team that misses first usually wins” argument was in full force last night at Elder Towers.

It happened again, which begs the question, “why do England never win when they miss first?” The answer is simple, we’re not very good at them.

We’re a nation of worriers; you only have to see what Bird Flu or Tim Henman did to the countries collective blood pressure to know that keeping calm in a shootout isn’t our thing.

Another wise word of advice for those living in this fickle, fickle land, if you’re called Ashley, stay indoors for a bit.

As for the game, it was typical England. There was plenty of huff and puff and lots of admirable but fruitless teamwork, but an ultimate lack of skill, which proved to be the team’s undoing.

The comparison is simple. How much ground did Andrea Pirlo cover last night? How big an effect did he have on the game? Ask the same questions about Danny Welbeck and Steven Gerrard and the answer is why England won’t win a major tournament anytime soon.

Unless we pick David Dunn or Joey Barton…

In terms of Euro 2012, it’s 28 games later. Like in the famous zombie movie, I still feel a little infected, but not so much with rage, more with that familiar taste of disappointment and that taste of paracetamol after one hour too many staring at a TV screen.

Euro 2012 still grips me, but it is almost over, which is a real shame.

Last night was the first 0-0 of the tournament and the football has in general been fantastic. Except the Ukraine v Sweden game and anything involving Ireland, Greece and…England.

But us football fans still have work to do. Before the nation slips once again into a sporting coma as Wimbledon and the Olympics get ever nearer, Euro 2012 isn’t done just yet.

With three games to go, let’s see England’s exit as a sweet relief. Let’s enjoy this last week as much as we can without the pressure of worrying about our brave, but limited nation.

There are more important things than football at the end of the day. If nothing else, there’s a fantasy football league to be won.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

I know absolutely nothing about Formula One

So, I was really, really wrong

About two days ago, I thought it would be hilarious to talk about how boring the forthcoming European Grand Prix would be. And for about three and a half laps, I was as smug as a vindicated Piers Morgan.

My bad.
Then things got a bit silly. I have no idea how to analyse this race but, as you have probably been directed here from Andrew Benson's blog, luckily I don't have to. So this will probably be a calculated, eloquent, mature evaluation of a f*cking awesome race.
Sebastian Vettel's retirement.
If neither Vettel, Gary Anderson nor David Coulthard - three men with considerably more money, knowledge and sex appeal (yes, even Gary Anderson) than me - can't make sense of the incident, then I will have no chance. It was lap thirty-something or forty-something, and a safety car had bunched up the field to the point where my prediction of boredom was already looking misguided.
So often in the past, Vettel has used the safety car restart as another opportunity to show everyone else how good his car is. However, today he was not able to get the gap he wanted and, under pressure from Fernando Alonso, Romain Grosjean and other, his car inexplicably failed.

Out of the race went the German, out of the car went some pretty expensive gloves and out of my sofa went my backside. "HAVE SOME OF THAT YOU MUG! SHOVE THAT FINGER UP YOUR A**E!" I politely exclaimed. The realisation that Fernando Alonso had taken the lead was yet to sink in, but suddenly, a real race was building.

Suddenly, those still dormant fears in the back of the minds of F1 fans were receding - unlike last year, Vettel was not going to simply run away with the world championship.

The sight of Christian Horner's leg nervously shaking with no image of his top half always makes me feel a little uncomfortable and wonder which channel I am watching. It was nothing like the nervous excitement felt by Formula One fans around the world and the crowd in Valencia when the German walked away from a race which was far from finished.
My reaction to Vettel's finger

Fernando Alonso's brilliance.
In recent weeks, I am warming to Alonso. Despite myself and, to a larger extent, despite himself, I am gaining a huge amount of respect for the man which I know in my heart of hearts is mutual. I respect his driving, he respects my writing.

Starting 11th on the grid, it appeared that today's race would be an opportunity for Vettel and Lewis Hamilton to stretch their leads over the dangerous Spaniard. As it happened, Alonso managed to gain 25 points on both men. What the hell.

As usual, Eddie Jordan was up Ferrari's arse about their poor qualifying performance and again, Stefano Domenicali was reduced to the role of told off schoolboy as Mr Jordan went on another of his hindsight-fueled, senseless rants. A bit like me really, but in a fabulous shirt.

Yes, Alonso's qualifying was poor but, as I remarked in a rare moment of insight and clarity, starting 11th is probably about the 7th best place to start. Ignoring the temptation to start on the harder, slower tyre, Alonso knew that he needed a good start to make his fresher tyres work. He did just that, climbing to seventh early on, a position which enabled him to take advantage of the huge slices of fortune he was to enjoy.

Explains a lot...
The safety car which indirectly brought about the end of Vettel's race served to help Alonso. Closing right up to the leading cars, Alonso found himself in the top three when an uncharacteristic bad pit stop for Lewis Hamilton saw the home driver challenging for victory.

Another important retirement, this time for Grosjean, meant that Alonso was never going to be seriously threatened for victory.

Lewis Hamilton's...afternoon.
I'm not talking about him first, so I'm not a "fanboy", whatever that means. As a Hamilton fan, today was incredibly difficult to watch. Starting second, it was clear that his McLaren did not have the pace to threaten for victory and it was no surprise when the impressive Grosjean found a way through. What followed was a continuation of the impressive maturity we have seen throughout this season from Hamilton. 

With around thirty laps to go, Hamilton was in a comfortable enough third position and fifteen points would have been a respectable return from a difficult race. Hamilton was on the harder tyre while Alonso was closing in on softs. Had the safety car stayed out, Hamilton would possibly have been favourite to claim at least a podium place. 

However, the safety car meant that Hamilton had to pit earlier. Which is not good.
Had someone said that Grosjean and Vettel would not finish, one would have believed Hamilton would win, and he perhaps would have done were it not for more bad luck/incompetence from McLaren. 

As those around him pitted, Lewis decided the time was right to follow suit. Big mistake buddy. This time, a faulty jack contributed to a fourteen second pit-stop, which meant that Hamilton fell to sixth place, a position he improved to third, but to the detriment of his tyres, which would later fall away.

Surviving a stewards inquiry for speeding under yellow flags, Hamilton was in second with around five laps to go. He fought bravely to keep Raikkonen behind, but it was no use and soon Pastor Maldonado was behind him.
At least he's good-looking...
I don't much like Maldonado. Like Hamilton, he has a reputation for being a hot-head and overly aggressive, but without the same talent. Braking late to overtake Hamilton, the Venezuelan ran wide and went off track and it appeared he would have to try again.

All biases aside, he then cut back into Hamilton and took him off the track. With Hamilton's tyres fading, Maldonado could have been more patient and Lewis more pragmatic. Both men could have taken twenty-seven points instead of one.

I haven't seen Hamilton's post-race interview, but another 'Ali-G' moment can't be discounted! Many observers were wondering if Hamilton could do a one-stop strategy. People think this is to save time. No, it's literally so that Lewis only has to pit once.

I am proposing a sweep stake for the reason for Hamilton's next poor stop. Square tyres are currently the favourite.

Parallel to this is the Martin Whitmarsh attempted cheer-up line. I am expecting "the jacks were fine, the mechanics are the best, and it is probably Lewis's fault for stopping too far forward. But he'll learn and we'll come back stronger."

Jenson Button came eighth.

What else happened? Oh yeah, Jean Eric-Vergne crashed into Heikki Kovalainen for no real reason. Narain Karthikyean, no doubt buoyed by his 24th-placed finish here last year, drove a splendid race.

Michael Schumacher finished third after a relatively anonymous race, but his podium was well reserved. A return of one podium in around forty races isn't tooo bad.

So I was wrong, oh well. Let's hope I write off Silverstone too.

Friday, 22 June 2012

I promised myself I wouldn't write about Valencia but...

Jaime Alguersuari said it will be good race. And who am I to doubt that behemoth of Formula One racing?

It may only be Friday, but I felt compelled to document just how boring this race could be. On the other hand, it could prove me wrong. But I'm never wrong...except the time I said that this Formula One season will be really boring. Or when I predicted that Felipe Massa would rule not just Motorsport, but the entire universe.

You may have read about it, but there have been seven different winners in this season's first seven races. I'm surprised Ben Edwards (pictured) hasn't mentioned it more, but I'm sure it will be mentioned this weekend, as there is likely to be little else to discuss.
Come get me ladies...
I remember watching last year's European Grand Prix in Portugal. Yes, I was in Portugal, not because I can afford to go to Portugal due to my flourishing journalism career, but because my family went on holiday and I don't see much sunlight, so I saw it as a good opportunity.

What I witnessed was the most boring race I have ever seen. The foreign commentary actually provided an interesting variable while the intermittent advert breaks were a blessed relief. Sebastian Vettel won the race pretty comfortably, more comfortable than a lot of his victories last season, and no one even crashed. Narain Karthikeyan, a driver who my regular readers will know I am a huge fan of, became the first ever driver to finish 24th in a Formula One race. He must be so proud.

This year, it might be a little less boring. Indeed, this morning's first practice session saw the front nine drivers separated by about two tenths of a second, which does bode well for Sunday's action. But you watch, that gap will get wider and wider until Vettel or maybe Hamilton "surprise" us all and put their car on pole.

The curious case of Jenson Button may be ending, he came fourth in practice this morning, which will be sweet relief to the Englishman, who has had a pants couple of races recently. His problem, according to oracle Alguersuari, was that he had thought his tyres weren't warming up enough, so he made changes to counter the problem, which made the original problem (overheating) even worse. None of that made any sense to me, but the more technical reader may understand. You're welcome. However, do you now see why I don't make too many analytical articles?

I have to say it, I am a Lewis Hamilton fan, so I was delighted to see him win in Canada last time around. The performances of Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez are worth highlighting too; exceptional drives from really promising young drivers. If Grosjean can avoid hitting Michael Schumacher at the first corner here in Valencia, expect him to challenge again.

Of course, the BBC have the rights to show this race, so I will be watching in spite of myself. I am likely to chain myself to a chair facing a freshly painted wall in an attempt to avoid the 'action'. However, we all know that I'll find a way to watch what should be a gripping (my armrest in frustration) race.

I will try and get a piece on the race done as soon as possible so I can go into overdrive with my spamming of Andrew Benson's column on BBC Sport. I hope you guys stick around to see what I have to say. I promise it will be funnier than this piece, it's just anticipating being bored is very difficult to make funny.

Even for me.

Germany v Greece preview

Six matches to go. How the hell has this happened? If, like me, you are essentially unemployed, then this year's European Championships have been the ultimate blessing. The opportunity to vent your frustration at unknown eastern Europeans while your fantasy football team struggles provides the perfect distraction from the need to actually earn some money know, grow up.

But, in times of struggle, one must keep calm and back the Germans, and that is what I plan to do here.

For so long, the cliches associated with German football were about how "efficient" they were or how one should "never write off the Germans." I wrote off the Germans once, and I'm still paying for it. The shame. These days, there is a glorious unpredictability about Germany; they will either play well, or they will play really well. The drama!

Tonight, they play the weakest team left in the tournament.

What frustrates me most about this game is not that Greece qualified despite being a dreadful team, nor that a certain German victory will mean that England - should they beat Italy - will only be playing for the right to lose to a better team once again. No, what annoys me is that weeks ago, I proposed the possibility of Germany winning this quarter-final against Greece, giving me the chance to write the brilliant headline "No referendum needed, Germany kick Greece out of the Euro." Now everyone has thought of it and I just look like Ross in 'Friends' when he said he came up with the phrase "got milk?"

I digress from digressing.

I honestly can't see past a German win. That said, I can never envisage a world where Greece win football games, yet it happens. In Mario Gomez, the Germans have a striker who has more goals than touches of the football. Gomez remains a player I don't rate too highly and the tireless work of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski makes me think of the horse Boxer in 'Animal Farm', the animal which did all the work while the greedy pigs get all the spoils.
Come on Germany
In defence, the Germans can be exposed, but luckily for them, Greece aren't great at exposing vulnerabilities, all economic jokes aside. Besides, if the defence do muck it up, Manuel Neuer is more than likely to bail them out, all economic jokes aside. Having said that Germany's defence can be brittle, can't anyone's? Pretty much all the teams at Euro 2012 are said to have a weak defence, maybe defending is just harder? Or, in our own minds, we are remorseless, tackling machines?

Greece's only real hope coming into this game was their captain Giorgos Karagounis, but even he got suspended after he was booked for 'diving' against Russia by a referee who seems as desperate as me to avoid the snorefest that was Euro 2004. In defence, a lot of players with very long names are impressive, but shouldn't have enough to cover the movement of Germany's attacking quintet, a group of men more scary and evil than One Direction. In attack...there probably won't be much attack, but Georgios Samaras and Dimitris Salpingidis will have much depending on them, but they are unlikely to cause too many problems.

Is it me, or is European 'weird' weirder
than regular 'weird'?
That said, they will probably score from a corner and win 1-0. Again.

To all my Greek readers, I apologise for any bias against your team. Your players have done your country proud in such difficult circumstances. However, I am a football fan, not a nice person. Come on Germany.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Portugal vs Czech Republic preview

"How do I make this article funny?" I thought to myself as I wept and slowly rocked back and forth on my bedroom floor this afternoon. Many of you would argue that none of my pieces are particularly funny, but it's not going to stop me trying. At the very least, I am going to use this Portugal-themed article to try and win some free chicken from Nando's. The problem for me is that Portugal - for all their technically gifted players - and Czech Republic - for all their lack of technically gifted players - just aren't as funny as say Ireland or Denmark, who have provided me with about twenty opportunities to put 'Nicklas Bendtner' and 'pants' into the same sentence.

So here's a joke:
Helder Postiga and Milan Baros walk into a European Championship. They are allowed to stay.

Portugal approach tonight's game with a favourites tag which is likely to make them fall apart. For all their flair and pace with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, there is often a way in which they cock it up, usually through passing the ball to Postiga, who is now likely to score a hat-trick to prove my journalistic ineptitude. Their midfield is the epitome of OK. Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso are all decent players, but they are essentially three Michael Carricks, only with names which would not be out of place at a Mediterranean gay bar. That's some food for thought. Nando's.

At the back, Portugal still look suspect. Their central defenders are strong, but still susceptible to being exposed by top level strikers. While Pepe has an almost child-like abandon in the way he plays, his calmness on the ball often leads to mistakes. Bruno Alves looks like Michael Jackson as a zombie in thriller. Luckily for the Portuguese, I can't see Baros and co causing them too many problems, but a potential semi-final against Spain could be good to watch.

As for the Czechs, my dinner going cold and lack of knowledge about the team means that the less said about them the better. When your only world class player starts making basic errors, you know you're in for a struggle. Thumped by the eliminated Russia in the first game, Czech Republic only just struggled past Greece who, as you'll find out tomorrow, I don't rate very highly. They not only qualified, but finished top of Group A thanks to a win over co-hosts Poland, who it turns out aren't very good either.

I'm hoping for all hell to break loose tonight. One day without football has left me hungry (Nando's) for more, so a 4-3 win for Portugal wouldn't go amiss. I predict (an actual prediction) a comfortable Portugal win, with Ronaldo slowly starting to find some form...and he's in my fantasy football team.

I will probably update this when the Czechs win 1-0, but in the meantime, feast (Nando's) on my footballing knowledge. I'm going to e-mail a certain restaurant about the opportunity to win a black card.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Rooney wonder goal carries England forward

When Steven Gerrard's tame right wing cross was half cleared by the Ukrainian defence five minutes into the second half, there was a sense of deja vu for long-suffering England fans last night. Once again, a promising attack looked destined to peter out (can anything ever peter in?). Against Sweden or France, England would have remained frustrated, the deadlock more shut than Alan Shearer's world of tactical wonder.

However, this time, England had Wayne Rooney.
Ukraine admire Rooney's moment of genius
Anticipating the danger where no-one else would, Rooney sprinted in at lightning speed, creating the space to allow himself a half-chance. But the odds remained against the new Ballon d'Or favourite, and a collective Eastern European sigh of relief was about to be breathed. And then the incredible happened; Rooney twisted his body to react to the spinning, bouncing ball, and headed the ball into the top corner of the net, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance. The restored England centre forward had made the astonishingly difficult appear incredibly easy. Rooney even scored the goal with someone else's hair.

After that moment of genius, England sat back; not through nerves or tactical naivety, but because they knew that their mix of impenetrable defence and outstanding mental strength would ensure that a one goal lead would be sufficient. On only one occasion did Ukraine look like breaching the rock-solid England defence, but the lightning quick John Terry was able to comfortably clear Marko Devic's shot off the line.

Inconclusive at best
So, England play Italy next, in what should be a pretty easy game. We're not playing Spain, so Italy should be easy to beat. Most of their players don't even play in the Premier League, so they must be awful, or at least not up to the level of the consistently excellent Mario Balotelli. Throughout the tournament, Italy have refused to conform to the 4-4-2 formation, which known across the continent as the most supple and adaptable system to employ in tight, technical European football. At the start of this tournament, I thought that England would have absolutely no chance of reaching the quarter-final, with group-stage elimination a certainty. Now, I think that any sane person would declare England as one of the tournament favourites.

With Glen Johnson combining swashbuckling attacking play with resolute defending, the aforementioned Terry giving the defence much needed team spirit and pace, and Ashley Cole using his personal and motivational skills to cheer on the team, England look unbeatable at the back. On very few occasions have the opposition been allowed to dominate and cause major problems. Look at the France game, where the apparent favourites never looked like scoring.

In midfield, while our continental cousins insist on an extra man and a player with so-called "creativity", England have Scott Parker, a man who works really, really hard, which should be enough to ensure success, even if he doesn't think so. Despite Scott's efforts, the undisputed jewel in England's midfield is James Milner. When the exceptional Gareth Barry was ruled out of the tournament, nearly all England fans were at a loss to explain how England would cope with the superiority of our opponents. Milner. That's how. His pace, vision and crossing will ensure that England continue to cause problems even for the most difficult opponents.

England's secret weapon: James Milner.
Strong as an ox, graceful as a ballerina. 
With exceptional bench strength, England don't even have to worry about injuries to their top players. What if Steven Gerrard gets injured? Jordan Henderson. What if we lose Ashley Young? Stewart Downing. If Rooney loses his (well thatched) head? Andy Carroll. It is almost looking too easy for the English. By contrast, Italy's best reserve striker is Antonio Di Natale, and I have never heard of him, so he can't be that good. Germany's bench includes nobodies like Toni Kroos, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gotze.

When we beat Italy, England will face the old enemy: Germany. I'm trying to be fair to the Germans, but I can't think of any world-class players in their team. They remain a functional, efficient team with a real lack of flair, and it is no wonder they are not highly fancied to win Euro 2012. How the inexperienced Mesut Ozil deals with some good old-fashioned tackling from Scott Parker will be interesting to watch. It will be only a matter of time before England get the ball out to the right hand side and whip a cross in, where someone will be on hand to turn it in. It's a predictable tactic, but it's mightily effective.

Who else could stop the English? Spain I guess. Their midfield may be pretty good, but I reckon they don't like it up 'em. Their defence looks really suspect, with a worrying penchant for passing the ball to the midfield instead of playing the percentages and hitting it to the strikers. It's all very well and good having 80% of possession, but it's what you do with it that matters (Motson, 1978) and football is a funny old game (BBC pundits, circa 1990) because it only takes a second to score a goal (Clough, 1977). Spain don't even play with a tall striker, confirming the suspicions of many football experts: that Spain's "tiki-taka" method lags way behind the innovative system employed by England. Call me crazy, but I can see England winning this tournament.

Watch and learn Scott...
If they don't, we'll know who to blame: the one England player who slips on the turf in the semi-final (these Eastern European pitches really have nothing on our pristine Premier League grounds) or Roy Hodgson, who has had more than enough time to implement his ideas. In all likelihood though, if England lose, it will be of no fault of the team.

Bring on the final!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Twelve down, nineteen to go

Sorry I'm late, my bus was delayed.

As the title of this piece says, we're technically approaching halfway at this year's European Championships. I have had until five o'clock every evening to write about 600 words about football, and I haven't. It turns out doing nothing is incredibly taxing. However, with 5,000 page views on the horizon, I thought I'd step up the effort.

I WILL do an England v Sweden preview before tomorrow's game, don't worry darlings. Six days in, here are my best and worst performers of the tournament so far.

Best team:
Such is my laziness and lack of organisation, this 'award' was always going to go to a team in Group A or B, as they have now played twice. That said, I can't really think of any team that has played particularly well from Group C or D, so no harm done. I promised myself I wouldn't use the word "efficient" when describing Germany, but I'll have to. They've just been so f*cking efficient.

To beat Portugal and the Netherlands is no easy feat, but Germany did it without even playing particularly well. Against Portugal, Germany were average, but were able to win and - the last ten minutes aside - kept Portugal at arms length with all the ease of a school bully holding back a midget.

Against the Dutch, the midget was slightly bigger, but so was the bully's arm. A tenuous analogy at the best of times that one. Mario Gomez has taken his fair share of criticism from me in the past, but he has brushed it off with great professionalism. Not many recover from my my accusations, but the striker took his two goals against the Netherlands with amazing skill. Other than his two finishes, he touched the ball maybe twice more in the entire game, but that was enough. He is extremely lucky though, when I was a schoolboy, my deadly accurate finishing was often overlooked due to my apparent lack of skill, ability and general idea what was going on.

Most under-rated team
Say what?! That's right, at previous international tournaments, England had had their abilities more over-rated than the Beatles or white chocolate, but expectations could not have been lower this time around. They did not play brilliantly against France, but they didn't have to. I am going to - for the first time - give England the benefit of the doubt...they played a tactical blinder against France. At international tournaments, you can't afford to lose the first group game according to Mark Bright, the England veteran. With that in mind, and the absence of Wayne Rooney, England were right to switch to damage limitation mode and try and keep France out. They just about did it, but - whisper it - England aren't half as bad as we think they are. Denmark have been good too, but I can't give an award to Nicklas Bendtner, no matter how indirectly.

Worst team:
As if having the economy wasn't enough, it now seems the fate of the Greek football team is in the hands of others. Surprise winners at Euro 2004, a lot of people have been coy and circumspect regarding Greece's chances. I wasn't. In a rare moment of good football insight, I predicted how poor they would be. Awful for 45 minutes against Poland in their opener, the sending off of that guy with the really long name seemed to galvanise them. Poland tired and seemed to stop playing and Greece capitalised, but were unable to fully exploit their momentum and missed a penalty before taking a draw.

Most people would have made Czech Republic favourites for the game against Greece, forgetting that the Czech's are now very average. That does not disguise the fact that Greece were utterly outplayed and when they were forced to chase the game after going 2-0 down early, they offered very little threat, only allowed back into the game by another goalkeeping error.

Most over-rated team:
The Netherlands.
I was a bit harsh on Greece there, but only because I couldn't give worst team and most over-rated team to this lot. What on earth has happened to the Dutch? Sneijder, Van Persie, Robben. We have Carroll and Henderson...and we have one more point having played one less game. Unlucky in many ways against Denmark, they missed a bucket load of chances (if that's a real thing) and could have taken the positives from their defeat.

But they didn't.

Last night, they threatened Germany for around fifteen minutes, before a couple of missed chances set them back. From there on in, Germany exploited an awful defence to score two brilliant goals and never looked threatened when the Dutch attacked. Despite all their attacking talent, the Dutch simply couldn't fashion any clear-cut chances until Van Persie reminded us all that he's still quite good.

Best player:
Alan Dzagoev.
I just love that someone called "Alan" is being talked of as the leading young player in Europe. Alan! The Russian playmaker came into the tournament as a relative unknown, expect for me, who put him in my fantasy football team. I won't gloat about said fantasy football team because I have Shay Given in goal, and tonight he faces up against Spain.

Dzagoev has already scored three goals but, unlike Garth Crooks, I am not picking him because of goals alone. Unlike the mercurial Andrei Arshavin on the other side of Russia's strike force, Dzagoev works very hard and is constantly buzzing around, creating havoc for opposition defenders. He can even score headers...but then his name is Alan

Worst player:
Arjen Robben or Jetro Willems
Robeen has been synonymous of the Netherland's wretched campaign so far, which is a shame, because he is arguably their most talented player. His relatively selfish attitude is sometimes what sets him out from the rest, but in a team which tries to play Total Football, his pig-headedness has contributed to his country facing oblivion. Think how Wesley Sneijder - who has been excellent - must feel when he plays a 30 yard ball to the winger, only to see him try and dribble past two players and smash a ball over from way outside the box.

I know Jetro Willems is only 7 years old, but that does not disguise the fact that he was ruthlessly exposed last night by the, sigh, efficient Germans. Way out of his depth, most neutrals were screaming for him to be replaced for his own sake.

Both crap, but ITV have been laughable. Not because they've been funny, because they've been shit. Adrian Chiles seems to be nothing more than a tool to encourage youngsters that a path into journalism is possible with a regional accent, no charisma and an ugly face. The BBC haven't been at their best and remain somewhat functional and safe, but their analysis and commentary is far better than ITV's usually good in-game coverage. Give us a job?

Best goal:
Jakub Blaszczykowski.
I need a lie down after writing that. Every tournament, there is a moment when the whole competition just seems to come alive. For four days, Euro 2012 had been anything but a disappointment, but still needed a little spark. It moment to ensure the tournament would be looked back on with fondness, as the most popular pictures were the shameful stereotyping of Eastern European football fans by our lovely media outlets. The Polish captain's goal seemed to lift the roof off not just the stadium, but the whole country, and there was a feeling that Euro 2012 had begun. The celebrations seemed a little exuberant considering that the goal didn't really change Poland's situation, but that should not matter.

So there we have it, I gave you your article, let's see if we can get this thing up to 5k views.

Please share and comment, if I share, far-right people on the BBC website yell at me, so I'll play my cards close to my chest there.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Euro 2012 preview number 4,576,192

Throughout this year's European Championships, I'm going to try and do a post every other day to keep up to date with the major - or funny - stories of the tournament. Because I've already done a Formula One piece, I'm a little tired so will just do a little rundown of all the teams at the tournament. Enjoy!


Vast swathes of English people will this summer descend upon the most populous urban areas of eastern Europe to impose their cultures, drink too much and drain public finances. I'm not making any Daily Mail-esque comparisons, that will only be witty if you're a little bit right-wing. If you're liberal, then you won't find that funny, but luckily, that wasn't funny. As one of the host countries, Poland have a genuine chance of progression to the quarter-finals, where they will then get spanked by one of the teams in Group B, home advantage or not. A "quirk" or "irritation" in the seeding system means that Poland were seeded top for their group, because three home games and automatic qualification is not a big enough advantage. I fancy them to go through, as their strong Borussia Dortmund contingent of players whose names I cannot spell may just shock their opponents.

RussiaThe seeding system is Poland's gain and Russia's, well...gain. In the opinion of many, including yours truly, the Russians are the favourites to top Group A, where a possible mouth-watering rematch of their Euro 2008 quarter-final against the Netherlands awaits. I say mouth-watering, it will be all right, not amazing. Group A is incredibly weak and the Russians were predictably strong in qualifying, but I can't remember how strong they were, because I can't be bothered to look it up. Players like Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and Zhirkov were flops in the Premier League, but remain important to Russia. However, Russia have three key players who many British  fans will be unfamiliar with. Igor Akinfeev, a long-time target for Manchester United, is a top goalkeeper, while Aleksandr Kerzhakov is a deadly striker with a good record for his country...and he's MILES better than Pavlyuchenko. Finally, Alan Dzagoev will provide a lot of Russia's flair. Playing on the opposite side to Arshavin, Russia are a very dangerous side, and 21-year-old Dzagoev is key.

Czech RepublicWho remembers when the Czech Republic were good? I do. Poborsky, Berger, Nedved, Koller all came and have all gone from the country which was often the surprise package at European Championships. In 1996, the Czechs reached the final, only to be beaten in golden goal by Germany. Four years later, only an evil group including France and the Dutch prevented them from progressing beyond the group stages. In 2004, they won all their group games, including epic matches with Germany, the Netherlands...and Latvia. They saw off Denmark (I think) in the quarter-finals with ease, and Milan Baros found himself as tournament top-scorer. However, like Baros scoring, nothing lasts forever and they were knocked out by a silver goal (remember that?) by a Greek player...Dellas I think. Four years ago, a team similar to today's side was competitive enough to beat the Swiss, lose to Portugal, and lead Turkey with ten minutes left. However, Turkey came back to win and knock out the Czech's. I have spent this section reminiscing because other than Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech, their team is unremarkable, although a weak group may see them progress.

GreeceAhhh Greece. Never write off the Greeks (not an economics joke). Seriously, don't. After years of international averageness, they managed to see off Portugal, Spain, France and Czech Republic (but not Russia) to win Euro 2004 with a sum total of six goals from six matches, pretty much all of them scored after about an hour from a corner. Everyone lapped up the underdog story, and then realised that what had happened was in many ways a defeat for decent football. They have talented players like the two Papadopoulos' (or Papadopouli) defenders and Sotiris Ninis, but have an overall lack of quality which will prove crucial. I can't see them winning it again and I see a swift exit from Europe for them (not an economics joke).


GermanyNever write off the Germans either. It doesn't matter how good or bad their team is, they always find a way to go far into tournaments. Defeats in the semi-finals at the last two World Cups and a loss in the Euro 2008 final will have hurt them, but they look set to go far again. While the team in 2010 was talented, it was arguably too young. The group of players has now matured and they look a real force to be reckoned with. In Manuel Neuer, Germany have one of the best goalkeepers and despite a sense of the unknown regarding their best back four, Phillip Lahm is one of the best, if not the best right backs in the world. It is in midfield where all the usual German cliches come out. "Efficient", "powerful", "reliable" are usually terms used for a BMW, and this German midfield certainly has a great "engine" I right?! Bastian - Sebastian - Schewinsteiger and Sami Khedira will protect a potentially brittle defence, while players like Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller provide the ammunition for whatever striker Germany pick, either Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose. Klose has a habit of scoring at major tournaments, while Gomez has had a prolific season with Bayern Munich...even though every time I see him I have been disappointed. I expect a place in the final for Germany, but not victory.

The Netherlands
Ahhh the Dutch, everyone loves the Dutch. A lot of us don't necessarily like the Netherlands for footballing reasons, but, like one of their most famous "services", Dutch football often leaves you relaxed and mellow, with a slight sense of paranoia if your country is playing them next. For so long in-fighting wrecked Dutch campaigns at major tournaments, but the last two competitions have shown a Dutch team which is full of talent, but with a steel to compete with the best. With Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong screening a back four which, like Germany, can be vulnerable, there is licence for the attacking players to wreak havoc. And these attacking players aren't bad. Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have had contrasting seasons, but if the four link up like they can, the Dutch will score enough goals to cater for the concessions they will make in defence. Strength in depth with Dirk Kuyt and Ibrahim Affelay could be the key here and I back the Netherlands to win the whole shabbang. Yes, shabbang.

Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo. That seems to be the perception of Portugal's Euro 2012 team. In Ronaldo, the Portuguese arguably possess the best player at the tournament but, as they found out at Euro 2008, one individual is often not enough. Of course, Portugal have a number of quality players in other positions, but much will depend on their talisman striker. Fabio Coentrao is one of the world's best left-backs and a midfield of Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho is strong. However, in such a tough group, I can't see Portugal going past the group stages. There isn't really anything funny to say about Portugal, they're just not a funny country.

Tipped by most people - including me - to be the whipping boys in a group harder than a Viagra tester, Denmark may benefit from low expectations. In fact, Denmark are ranked higher than Portugal in FIFA's world rankings at number nine, and even beat the Portuguese in qualifying. So why are they being written off? For some reason in England, we value the individual over the team. Hence our love of David Becham and our persistence with our banking system. Denmark - Christian Eriksen and Nicklas Bendtner (the world's best striker, just ask him) aside - have no superstar players and are built around a solid team and a good defence. Here in England, we love the individual, which is why the whole country will be scratching their heads when Portugal (probably) don't make it out of Group D. I fancy the Danes to beat Portugal, but still fall short of qualification.


Are really good. With good reason, they are many people's favourites for the tournament, having won both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2012. Still persisting with their system which emphasises short-passing over a more English "BOOT IT SON" style, they have better ball retention than a severely psychotic girlfriend. Get used to over-use of the words "tiki-taka", which describes their passing style, not the alternative name for noughts and crosses. There is a suggestion that Spain are becoming vulnerable and easier to work out, which is why the inclusion of the tall striker Fernando Llorente is so important for them. This will give Spain an option to mix things up rather than endlessly keeping the ball amongst their fourteen midfielders. To give you an idea of how good Spain are, Juan Mata will get nowhere near the first XI. That said, I can't see them winning it this time and I fancy them to come unstuck against whichever team from Group B they play in the semi-final.

ItalyAre not so good. The World Cup winners in 2006 have regressed slowly over the last few years. Too often criticised for being slow and too old, they have attempted to shake up the squad with more exciting, younger players, but preparations have been poor for this tournament, with a 3-0 loss to Russia the nadir. Yes, I say words like nadir now. Denied only by penalties against Spain in 2008, they had a poor World Cup in 2010, coming bottom of a group including New Zealand and Slovakia. If enigmatic players like Mario Balotelli and  Antonio Di Natale fire, they could reach the semi-finals, but the squad still appears mediocre. The midfield is OK, with players like Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio (the most Italian name of all time) pulling the strings. The problem - ironically for Italy - may be in defence, despite the excellent Giorgio Cheillini (the second most Italian name of all time).

CroatiaThe battle for the right to finish behind Spain seems to be between Croatia and Italy. The Croats, who the Italians have never beaten, come into the tournament having flown slightly under the radar. The loss of Ivica Olic will be a blow, but there are still a number of players who Premier League fans will recognise. Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric are important players, but much may depend on Nikica Jelavic to score the goals if they are to progress from Group C. Croatia have overachieved in recent years, performing well in major tournaments, and I think they could do the same here. However, I think that Italy's experience will prove just too much for them and I think Croatia will be left longing for a spot in Group A.

Republic of Ireland
Aha! It's time for us to all remind everyone of our long-lost Irish ancestry! "I'm a two-hundred and fifty-sixth Irish, so I hope they do well". Like the Netherlands, everyone seems to love the Irish. Unlike the Netherlands, it isn't for their footballing prowess. Ireland have a pretty limited and forgettable squad, but their group gives them a chance. A win against Croatia wouldn't be farfetched and victory or at least a draw could be at least a neighbour to the realms of possibility. That said, despite talented players like James McClean and Robbie Keane and their history of overachieving in big tournaments, I think it will be an early plane home for the Irish. Their players anyway, their fans may stick around a while longer.

OK, let's get this over with. I can't say anything about England that hasn't been said. I can't even say anything funny about them which is new, due to Stewart Downing and Martin Kelly's call-ups. The absence of Wayne Rooney will be a blow for England but fortunately, his suspension means he won't get sent off in the first two games. Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck will fight it out up front during Rooney's absence and if they can somehow be in with a chance going into the final game against the Ukraine, England may just pull through. Injuries have also taken their toll, but may provide an opportunity for over-rated young players to shine. I won't talk about the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand thing, but Terry should be right at home at the Euros if Panorama is to be believed.

FranceLike at Euro 2004, England kick off against France, our best friends. Let's try and avoid French stereotypes shall we? France had a decent but unspectacular qualifying campaign which has served to keep expectations low, which is good for a team who are often "unpredictable" as "you never know what you're going to get with the French". With good players in every position, they shouldn't suffer from a snail-like start against England and should tower above the rest of the group. Their player to watch is Jeremy Menez, who can play just about anywhere in attacking midfield. I think that they will top Group D and face a medicore Group C runner-up, before being beaten in the semi-finals. Not as easy to fit French puns in as you would think. Sacre Bleu.

SwedenENGLAND HAVE NEVER BEATEN SWEDEN IN A COMPETITIVE GAME. DID YOU KNOW THAT?! Yes, we do now. I have so little to say about Sweden it hurts. They have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is about as predictable as a greasy-haired Mentho in a well-paid Diet Coke. So often anonymous on the biggest stage, much will depend on Sweden's talisman. Umm, they also have Jonas Olsson, who is the world's most boring man. That's about it. They could qualify for the quarter-finals, where they will get beaten by Spain. They could overcome England and Ukraine, but could easily finish bottom of the group. I just don't know OK?

This took so much longer than I anticipated. But I'm finally at the second co-host. They play in yellow and their player's names are hard to spell. But I am a tiny bit excited about Ukraine's chances. Not so excited for a little bit of wee to come out, but a bit excited still. They have a good team and the hosts could do well at the tournament. In front of a passionate, vociferous (insert third adjective) crowd, they could trouble their opponents. In Artem Milevskiy, Ukraine have a striker who doesn't score. They have a crap defence and a 35-year-old Andriy Shevchenko. Watch out for (seriously, watch him) Yarmolenko. I forget his first name, but he is unforgettable. Probably. I expect a showdown with England for the final qualification place in Group D, but I back England to just about edge out the hosts.

So there it is. Euro 2012 starts tonight, so goodbye incredibly busy social life, hello snacks and lots of TV.