Monday, February 26, 2007

Arsenal's Samba Trio

They may not have been able to resist the might of Chelski at the weekend; but it seems that running rings around the Blue brigade on the pitch is only part of the Brazilian contingent's repetoire...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Beckham Equation

Sven heaped scorn upon himself by taking Theo Walcott to Germany, and then giving him all of nought minutes on the pitch; but McClaren's own hubristic axing of Beckham in the immediate aftermath looks like its only just coming home to roost.

With Beckham restored from exile at Madrid (despite the red card), likable Steve has signalled that a bit of back-tracking may replace his usual soft-shoe shuffle ("As I always say, let's look at the positives...") by hinting at an International recall for Los Cojones de Oro.

It seemed plangently unfair that Beckham became the straw man for all of England's underachievements at the World Cup, and by slamming the door with such vigour on the Real Madrid man, McClaren invited this very situation to turn up in his backyard. There seemed a touch of vindictiveness, however unintended, in effectively denying Beckham the chance to win the 100th cap he craved, and in the wake of Massimo Maccarone's vituperative dissection of McClaren's man-management skills, you've got to wonder about the coach's wisdom in so publicly ejecting the erstwhile captain out into the cold.

To claim that Beckham could no longer cut it at international level after the desultory German affair is one thing - but that thesis would in turn have to implicate pretty much every other member of the squad, barring perhaps Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves. At 31, he is hardly over the hill, and with the level of professionalism that he brings to his preparation one could argue that he still has several years left at the top. Granted, this period will now largely be played out amid the more parochial surroundings of the MLS; but having weathered a separate period of acrimony in the Spanish capital and come back strongly, the public and the press would do well not to underestimate perhaps the most talented midfielder of his generation.

Yes, Beckham's aspect and lifestyle at times invite contempt, and for a footballer with such an ability to strike a ball, the number of occasions on which his contributions have actually decided the course of a match have been too few. But in an era when footballers rarely earn their keep, Beckham gave his heart and soul, as well as his legs and lungs, to the English cause. Only Steven Gerrard can offer a similar galvanising effect, and even his powers appear muted when compared to some of Beckham's moments of inspiration (at their most mythic, of course, when firing England into World Cup 2002 with a blistering last-minute free-kick against Greece). Perhaps he was too cosseted by Sven, and that lack of competition may have contributed to the torpor which afflicted him as much as anyone during the summer. Yet he surely deserved better than to be inelegantly tossed aside. For all his sins, it was not Beckham who missed a penalty against Portugal.

If McClaren can see his way clear to rotating around the axis of his convictions (which I'm sure he will be able to do), I expect Beckham to contribute up to, if not including, the next European Championships (providing they qualify). Golden Balls is up for it; the only real question for Ruddy Steve should be: is he?

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Who'd a thunkit?

Cor blimey, strike a light, guv'na - England cricket team in one day cricket success? Read all abaht it, read all abaht it...

The World Cup's back on the agenda, we have the best all-rounder in the world, and the Aussies are on the slide; some welcome light at the end of the long, dark Ashes tunnel. But I think that a first overseas ODI tournament victory since Sharjah should probably be tempered somewhat by the bald statistics of mediocrity that show England lost 22 of the 33 games previous to their winning run to the VB Series final.

Credit where credit is due; you don't beat Australia three times on the bounce without playing the odd session of decent cricket. Missing the batting of Kevin Pietersen, and, in the winning sequence, the swing bowling of James Anderson, England could have justifiably claimed to have been deprived of two of the three or four really world class one day players they have. But with Liam Plunkett bringing along his bag of jaffas, Collingwood batting like it was day two of the second Test in Adelaide again, and some of the bits-and-pieces players finally coming good (hands up Jamie Dalrymple - what a catch in Sydney, by the way - Mal Loye, and Ravi Bopara), they didn't do a half bad job.

I've mused on the flummoxing nature of England's ODI record before, and it's difficult to see everything slotting smoothly into place come the West Indies. It depends who makes the squad, I guess, and fingers should be crossed over Jimmy Anderson's back, Jon Lewis, for some much needed control with the new ball, and someone who can bat as wicket-keeper (although don't hold your breath, as Nixon looks likely to get the nod for his jabbering alone; poor old James Foster). With a decent run of form, they might make a tilt at the semis, and then it's anyone's to play for really. I'll have my fingers crossed, of course, but having observed England splutter at the two World Cups of recent memory, I won't be getting too excited just yet...

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Jonny!

It's easy to rhapsodise - so let's. After three years in limbo, Wilko's return was the stuff that dreams are made on. Intelligent in his distribution, gritty in the tackle, almost flawless with the boot, his performance cemented the fledgling optimism of Ashton's reign into a display of solidarity and aggression. Although not called upon to deliver anything like sublime inspiration in a series of backs moves that were more efficient than incisive, the calm application which typified the returning fly-half's contribution instilled confidence in those around him, and enabled the consistent leverage required to open Scotland up.

Even the TMO was overcome by a bout of sentimentality, awarding Wilkinson his try despite his foot landing a good yard in touch before his splayed arm managed to pop the ball down. A gift from the Gods indeed. Scotland did not deserve that, but they earned scant credit besides, only notching two tries through slack English play. Such errors will need to be eradicated before the visit to Croke Park; but with Italy next up for the Jonny treatment an opportunity to hone some of the finer elements of the game should present itself.

Another seventy minutes will be the order of the day for Wilkinson, who was so untested by the Scottish that he almost had to take it upon himself to pick up the obligatory battle scars. Caught across the face by an elbow when throwing himself ball-ward early on, Wilkinson's bloodied fizzog served as a totem for how much has been thrown at him in recent times, and how well he has endured it all. Even a few crunching tackles, including clattering his face into a Scottish forward - a move which elicited criticism of his technique from Brian Moore - could not dim his influence, which shone throughout.

Without being required to stretch the Scots greatly, either with his kicking or passing game, there were still opportunities to exercise the synapses of a mind that lives and breathes rugby. His lightening take and offload, shipping the ball laterally along the line even as his opponent's arms closed around him, created the space for Jason Robinson's first try, and it was also a sharp decision to take an immediate three points from the drop goal after Scotland had briefly rallied. Some of England's passing through the midfield was ponderous, and Wilkinson will need to marshall Tindall and Andy Farrell with greater urgency, particularly against Ireland, but gametime should buy him the opportunity to reach full speed. Already, he now appears integral to the World Cup defence.

Brian Ashton can afford himself a wee dram and a conceited smile after watching such a consummate performance from the man whose unfortunate selection as England captain by Andy Robinson came to haunt the coach who was never able to see his chosen leader make the field of play. Retaining the World Cup will take an act of supreme conjuring; but already Ashton appears to have a touch of the Houdinis about him.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

One to watch

Liam Plunkett

After England managed to polish off Australia for the first time in a good few months this morning, I thought it was time to reflect on the fortunes of the England bowler most marginalised over this Ashes tour.

Plunkett, the Durham quick, who hit the scene around the same time as Saj Mahmood, had fallen back behind Jimmy Anderson and Mahmood to the point where after getting clubbed for 39 from five painful overs in his first competitive outing since the English summer, it looked as though serious doubts where beginning to form over his ability.

However, that one loosener aside (yes, five overs is generous for a loosener, but wait...), Plunkett has taken 6 wickets at around 15 in the subsequent two ODIs, topping that by producing figures of 9.5-1-24-3 in the immensely satisfying tonking meted out to the Aussies. The crucial aspect here is control - something which both Plunkett and Mahmood have lacked in their short ODI careers; Mahmood's economy is up over 6, while Plunkett's is only just below.

While Plunkett's promise has only reared its head sporadically, I think his style is more suited to forging a successful international career. Mahmood's shotgun pace is undermined by his habit of spraying the ball all over the place - something that definitely isn't out of the Glenn McGrath school of wicket-taking. Maybe he'll settle down, like Shoaib did, but until then, Plunkett's line and angle of attack, allied to a more smooth, economical action, would get my nod. He may not be as quick as Saj, and he may not be able to create the bounce and angles of Chris Tremlett, another rival from England's youthful pace stable, but he seems to have a certain amount of savvy about him that compensates for this.

Looking at the breakdown of his bowling figures may not be all that instructive - but, he takes wickets, and he gets runs, highlighted by the fifty he scored in only his second one day international. Coupled with the productive period he produced in the summer's Tests against Sri Lanka, before injury, I think he's got a decent case for being 'the new Simon Jones'; at least until Jones himself is back. Then he can battle it out with the Welshman and Stuart Broad for that number eight position...

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