Monday, 25 January 2010

Paddy’s Argie Granny

Stepping out from the McDiarmid Park stands on Sunday the euphoria from the travelling support having seen Celtic hit four in a league match for the first time since the sides last met in August was palpable. As one punter put it “Diego Maradona is looking to see if Paddy McCourt has got an Argentinean granny”. Keeping Leo Messi out the team might be going a step too far but the Northern Irishman certainly gave Celtic an extra dimension as they stormed the Saints goal in the second-half. McCourt was unlucky not to have a hat-trick to show for his 35 minute cameo having been denied by a stunning save by Graeme Smith and a goal-line clearance before his reward came with a sensational individual goal on 86 minutes.

However, even McCourt’s performance shouldn’t overshadow Marc-Antoine Fortune’s performance which was so good even Neil McCann gave him man of the match. Fortune has taken his fair share of stick over the past few months and not only from the naysayers of the Scottish press but from our good selves in the stands and on the forums. Hopefully the Frenchman’s 2 goals will give him the confidence to now go on a badly needed scoring run. Fortune’s ability in linking the play and moving off the ball was on show more than ever on Sunday and not only in his goals but in causing the panic that led to the sending off and in creating simple chances for McGeady and Samaras when the score was still 1-0.

With Samaras’s fine goal again masking a generally frustrating performance, McDonald on the treatment table and potentially for the off and Rasmussen likely to need a settling in period similar to Hooiveld now more than ever Celtic need Fortune to hit his straps and the back of the net in the forthcoming hectic few weeks.

New Orleans and Indianapolis to Contest Super Bowl

The New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts will meet in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on 7th February after 2 thrilling Conference Title games.

In one of the most sensational NFC Championship Games ever the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in overtime at the restored Louisiana Superdome. The Superdome has been a symbol of New Orleans reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city 4 years ago. As the natives of New Orleans fled their destroyed homes during Katrina the Superdome originally became a haven for the homeless. Yet within hours it became the scene the horror as reports emerged that armed gangs had formed within the stadium and as lawlessness took over looting and violence became commonplace.

As the city recovered the Saints played their home games in San Antonio for a season. Some thought the Superdome should be demolished to wipe away the image of suffering that took place during the summer of 2005 but with the support of the community in New Orleans the Superdome was restored and ever since has been a symbol of New Orleans’s phoenix rising from the flames. In the first game back at the Superdome U2 and Green Day performed their cover of “The Saints are Coming” pre-match and although the 2006/07 season ultimately ended with defeat in the NFC Championship Game with defeat to the Chicago Bears they have now reached the Super Bowl for the first time.

After a topsy-turvy encounter in which the lead changed 5 times the Saints took advantage of a turnover pass from Vikings Quarterback and “There’s Something About Mary” star Brett Favre to drive down the field in overtime and set up a game-winning 40 yard field goal from Garrett Hartley.

The Colts have happy memories of Miami where they won the Super Bowl three years ago. However, their place in America’s showpiece sporting even looked in jeopardy when the New York Jets lead 17-6 in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game. In the end the Colts prevailed thanks to their star man Peyton Manning who threw 3 touchdown passes in an unanswered 27 point run to make the final score 30-17.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Time for Andy to be the Wizard of Aus

2009 will live long in the memory for Roger Federer. Last year saw the Swiss break his duck at the French Open to complete a career grand slam. Weeks later he surpassed Pete Sampras’s record of 14 major titles, winning his 15th major at Wimbledon.

Yet, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Less than a year ago having been defeated by his nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, Federer stood on the podium in tears. So disconsolate was he that he could not even speak. It was the third grand slam final in a row that Nadal had usurped Federer. After a humiliating defeat at the French Open, Nadal ended Federer’s reign of five successive titles at Wimbledon in the sports match of the decade in 2008. The King was dead, long lived the King. Nadal now had his sixth major to go with Olympic Gold, he had taken Federer’s place as World No. 1 and significantly had beaten Federer in a grand slam final on every surface. However, a dip in form caused by a serious knee injury gave Federer the chance to regain his throne; he obliged and now once again sits atop of men’s tennis.

So what will 2010 have to offer? Well, most intriguingly the hegemony of Nadal and Federer looks under threat. Neither player has won a tournament since August. Nadal has slimmed down his bulging physique in an attempt to reduce the pressure on his ailing knees whilst many feel Federer’s focus has slipped recently after the birth of his first child. With the world’s two best players possibly not at their peak, now more than ever the time is right for Andy Murray to breakthrough and win his first major title. There is no doubting Murray’s ability. Last year he won more tournaments than any other player. Yet disappointing defeats to Fernando Verdasco, Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Roddick and Marin Cillic put pay to any hope of grand slam success in 2009. Murray, by his own admission, has had the best ever preparation for an Australian Open by arriving in Australia three weeks before the tournament to play in the Hopman Cup with fellow Brit Laura Robson. However, by sacrificing the chance to defend his title in Doha earlier this month Murray slipped to No. 5 in the world rankings, behind US Open champion Juan Martin Del-Potro.

At one point last year Murray was world No.2 but a drop in the rankings has left him with a hazardous draw in Melbourne. His route to the final is blocked by the dangerous world no.12 Gael Monfils in the 4th round. Should Murray negotiate that hurdle Nadal awaits in the quarters before a potential semi-final against Del-Potro or Andy Roddick.

On the other side of the draw Federer has a potentially tricky matchup against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarter-finals. The Russian who won the season ending ATP Tour Finals in London last November, followed up that success by defeating both Nadal and Federer to take Murray’s crown in Doha. Meanwhile No. 3 seed and 2008 champion Novak Djokovic has the easiest path through to the semis and will be amongst the favourites to regain his only major title.

All in all the second week in Melbourne promises to one the most competitive tournaments in years but maybe just maybe Andy can be the Wizard of Aus.

Africa Nations Roundup

On the field the Africa Cup of Nations has produced the usual mix of upsets, excitement, goals and poor goalkeeping. With the World Cup only 5 months away extra attention has been focused on the 5 African qualifiers participating. The first round of fixtures was not encouraging for Africa’s hopes of hailing its first world champion come July. With Ghana’s game against Togo cancelled Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon all fell to defeat whilst the highly fancied Ivory Coast stumbled to a 0-0 draw with Burkina Faso. All five have since done enough to qualify for the quarter-finals along with hosts Angola, holders Egypt and Zambia.

Group A

Undoubtedly the game of the tournament came on the first evening when Angola buoyed by a vociferous home crowd raced into a 4-0 lead against Mali. With 11 minutes remaining the hosts looked as if they were cruising but a remarkable comeback inspired by 2 goals from Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita gave Mali a 4-4 draw. As gutted as the Angolans were they were surely not as depressed as one English student who bet his entire student loan of £4,500 on Angola to win with 12 minutes remaining at odds of 1/100. He has now dropped out of uni, due to a lack of finance or a lack of brains I’m not sure.

Minnows Malawi stunned Algeria with a 3-0 thrashing in the first game. However, they could not maintain their blistering start and after defeats to Angola (2-0) and Mali (3-1) they bowed out. Algeria’s 1-0 victory over Mali meant that a draw in their final game against Angola would see both sides through. Surprise, surprise it finished 0-0. Mali launched an official protest, not surprisingly it fell on deaf ears.

Group B

Togo’s withdrawal left only 3 games in Group B. The Ivory Coast for all their striking talent, lead by Didier Drogba, couldn’t find a way past Burkina Faso in a 0-0 draw but made amends with a 3-1 victory over a severely depleted Ghana to finish top. Ghana also qualified after an edgy 1-0 win over the Burkinans.

Group C

Holders Egypt have been by far the most impressive side so far. The only side to qualify with three wins they strolled past Nigeria (3-1), Mozambique (2-0) and Benin (2-0). Despite missing star man Mohamed Aboutrika the Egyptians are on course for a third consecutive title. It remains a great mystery why Egypt always perform well in the ACN yet have failed to even qualify for the World Cup in 20 years. Nigeria recovered from the defeat against Egypt to beat Benin (1-0) and Mozambique (3-0) but have looked very unconvincing. Unrest in the Nigerian camp is a common occurrence but they always have one big performance per tournament and could well progress to the semis. However, their overdependence on John Obi Mikel as a playmaker will continue to cause problems looking forward to the World Cup. Mikel was once seen as creative goal-scoring midfielder but years of playing in the holding role at Chelsea and the influence of Jose Mourinho early in his career has instead turned Mikel into a poor imitation of Claude Makalele.

Group D
The most competitive of all the groups left only one point dividing all 4 teams. Cameroon and Zambia eventually prevailed but only on goals scored ahead of Gabon on 4points whilst 20004 champions Tunisia finished bottom despite going undefeated on 3 points. Gabon shocked the Cameroonians in the opening game with a 1-0 victory thanks to ex-Rangers striker Daniel Cousin but the four-time winners recovered with a 3-2 win over Zambia and Celtic midfielder Landry N’Guemo sealed their progress with the equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Tunisia. Gabon had seemed set to progress after they followed up their impressive win over Cameroon with a 0-0 draw against Tunisia but a disappointing 2-1 defeat to the Zambians meant they missed out by the narrowest of margins.

Angola v Ghana
Ivory Coast v Algeria
Zambia v Nigeria
Egypt v Cameroon

Angolan Party Marred by Tragedy

Tragically the story of the 27th Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) was written before a ball was kicked. 48 hours before the tournament was due to kick-off the bus carrying the Togo team to their base in Angola was ambushed. Three members of the Togolese party were killed, many were injured and a host nation anticipating the biggest event to take place in the country after 27 years of civil war had its tournament and reputation on the international stage ruined.

In the aftermath of the attack the decision to choose Angola as host has received a barrage of criticism. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has traditionally been more daring than its counterpart UEFA in selecting some of the smaller and poorest countries in Africa for the tournament. Generally this has met with success, particularly in Mali in 2002 and Burkina Faso in 1998. However, the selection of Cabinda, an outpost in the north-west of Angola, where a fight for independence means violence remains a part of everyday life must surely be questioned. To add insult to the injuries suffered by the Togolese their Football Association requested the team return to the tournament after three days of mourning. Astonishingly CAF declined this request, stating that as Togo had forfeited their first match against Ghana they were now expelled from the competition. Unfortunately in some places in the world life is still cheap. That those who were mercilessly murdered upon that bus should have their lives cheapened further by the insensitivity of CAF is a disgrace.

However, CAF should not bear the burden of blame alone. The Togolese and Angolan authorities should have arranged for the Togolese team to arrive by air or for more security personal to escort them to their training base. Contrary to early reports two police trucks were escorting the bus but were overpowered by the dissident group, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), who claimed responsibility for the attack.

That the fear that swept Angola in the following days should lead to ignorance and selfishness on these Islands was also undesirable. Football managers immediately demanded their players return home from Angola. That their calls were made solely with thought for the safety of their players is questionable. Unsurprisingly Hull boss Phil Brown shouted loudest: “I want them back home with us as soon as possible...This throws a question mark against next summer’s World Cup”.

Brown may want to pass the time consulting a map during his intense sunbed routine - you never know he may learn something. Cabinda and Johannesburg are separated by more than 1500 miles. That people with a public voice continue to denigrate Africa as an impoverished scar upon the world rather than a vibrant continent of 53 independent states is at best ignorant and borders on racism.

Sports stars have always be targets for terrorists from the 1972 Munich Olympics to
last year’s shooting on the Sri Lankan cricket team. Attacking global icons creates such a powerful message for terrorist organisations. Let’s be honest after decades of fighting how many people outside Angola knew about the existence of FLEC? After one attack they and their cause are now internationally recognised.

The World Cup in South Africa this summer will be an amazing spectacle, let’s just hope it is remembered for the football.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Mowbray's meddling doesn't help stuttering Celts

Five changes, same result but a very different story. When Celtic last took to the field against Rangers they did everything but win the game in a positive display bar the poor defending that allowed Rangers an equaliser. Two weeks on and unfortunately for Tony Mowbray the only thing that remained was the poor defending as his disjointed side saw their title chances take a further dent as bottom placed Falkirk came away from the East End of Glasgow with a deserved point. With Gary Caldwell and Barry Robson never to return and Landry N'Guemo not due back for at least another fortnight Tony Mowbray must find a solution quickly if the title is not to be out of his sight by the end of January.

Mowbray certainly didn't help Celtic's fluency in bizarrely chosing to go with a 4-3-1-2 formation against a Falkirk side that had won only once away from home all season. Darren O'Dea, Stephen McManus and Lee Naylor were drafting into a desperate backline for Caldwell and the injured duo of Glenn Loovens and Danny Fox. All three were at fault when Falkirk surprisingly took the lead through Carl Finnigan.

Falkirk could have extended their lead ten minutes later when Ryan Flynn forced Artur Boruc into a smart smave after more poor defending from O'Dea and McManus. Josh Thompson replaced the injured McManus on the half hour mark but also looked a bag of nerves on his first appearance in the SPL and was continually put under presssure by the towering presence of Enoch Showunmi.

In midfield Celtic lacked cohesion. Ki-Sung-Yong looked tidy on debut but Marc Crossas and Zheng Zhi struggled to gain control against a busy Falkirk midfield whilst star man Aiden McGeady looked uncomfortable in the unfamiliar role behind the front two.

Crossas began to make more of an impression as the half wore on and it was he who played Georgias Samaras through to equalise five minutes before half time. For once the Greek took the ball in his stride as he drove into the box and fired a low left-footed shot beyond Olejnik in the Falkirk goal.

The second-half brought waves of Celtic pressure but without McGeady's spark on the wing they failed to create many clear cut chances. The best effort came from a marvellous Ki free-kick that forced Olejnik into a flying save.

Mowbray then baffled most inside the ground when he decided to withdraw Crossas for Nial McGinn with 25 minutes to go. The Spanish midfielder could be forgivenfor feeling hard done by having been unfairly withdrawn against Hearts and Rangers in previous weeks. His manager currently fails to understand that throwing on as many wingers and strikers as possible doesn't necessarily lend itself to more chances and goals but does tend to sacrifice the midfield. Mowbray repeated the trick with 10 minutes to go by replacing Andreas Hinkel with Paddy McCourt forcing McGinn to play at full-back after a generous 15 minutes to make his case.

For all their faults Celtic should have had the opportunity to take all three points when Marc-Antoine Fortune was hauled down in the penalty area but on a day of poor performances referee Alan Muir rounded off his inept performance by waving away the appeals.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ivorians needing ingenuity to spark World Cup glory

7 games, 22 goals and 1 horrific tragedy the 27th Africa Cup of Nations has already left its scar upon a troubled host nation and the football community worldwide, on the pitch one harsh lesson has beenlearned from the first round of fixtures. Africa's wait for a World Champion is likely to continue

After all the hullabaloo over the possibility of an African winner this summer the four qualifiers that took to the field in the first round of fixtures failed to register a win between them, three lost and only one even managed a goal.

The Ivory Coast, Africa's most fancied and popular pick to succeed in Angola and South Africa again demonstrated their inability to perform on the big stage with a 0-0 stalemate against minnows Burkina Faso. The Elephants lineup and performance on monday demonstrated their obvious strenghts and one patent deficiency in equal measure. A first 11 boasting both Toure brothers, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba has the strong spine always essential to go far in any international tournament but against a stout Burkina Faso their lack of a significant creative force was laid bare. The Elephants squad boats a number of second strikers in Solomann Kalou, Aruna Dindane and Aruna Kone who have all scored goals in second rate European leagues but as yet have failed to prove themselves at the top level in Europe or on the International stage. Drogba’s current strike partner Gervinho has so far had a fine season with Lille but needs more time to develop into a top class striker.

On the bright side the Ivorians tough World Cup draw may benefit them. Unlike the way in which Burkina Faso approached their encounter this week, Brazil and Portugal will take the game to the Ivorians allowing the Elehpants to utilise their pace on the conuter attack.

It is still to early to judge how the Elephants will fare come June but they will certainly need to be more ruthless in their showdown against West African neighbours and fellow qualifiers Ghana on friday to prevail in Angola.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Do Milanese duo have enough to conquer again?

The days of Van Basten, Gullit, Zola, Vialli, Ravanelli, Zidane and James Richardson’s Ice Cream cones have long gone. Serie A’s position as the poor relation amongst Europe’s top three leagues was uniquely demonstrated this summer when Milan and Inter both lost their best player to the Spanish superpowers of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Once upon a time even clubs outwith Italy’s big three could outbid anyone around Europe - Lazio, Parma and Roma consistently among the continent’s big spenders. Italy had four different champions in four years between 1999 and 2003 and three of the Champions League semi-finalist’s in 2003 were Italian.

Its place at the top table has been taken by the absurd wealth of the Premier League and now by the power and prestigue of La Liga’s top two - with a little help from the taxman along the way. Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd eliminated all of Italy’s big three last year and perhaps even more frightening for pretenders to the Champions League crown is that in Madrid and Barcelona Kaka and Ibrahimovic are not the star players and leaders they were in Milan. They are just one piece in a glittering array of stars.

This weekend may have proved that Inter still just have what it takes to retain the Scudetto. However, it appears their neighbours are again appear better prepared for a run at the Champions League. Inter’s 4-3 win over bottom side Sienna showed they have the quality often overlooked in a title race – a winning mentality. For all their errors throughout the first 93 minutes they had conjured up three moments of quality. Three superb strikes, one from Diego Milito and two from Wesley Sneijder free-kicks, kept them in the game. In the 94th they stole victory through centre-back turned striker Walter Samuel. It was quite apt that Samuel should make his significant contribution to the game in the opponents penalty area. Brought on as a make shift left-back at half time Samuel had been truly awful. Continually pulled out of position and at fault for Sienna’s third goal so poor was his defensive performance that Mourinho was forced to being on another make-shift left back to avoid Inter falling further behind. Despite their manager’s undoubted tactical nous Inter’s potential to self-destruct is what will again undermine their attempt to land Europe’s biggest prize for the first time since 1966. Stamford Bridge will be filled with emotion for their former hero when he returns in mid-March but at the moment it seems inevitable that Roman Abramovich will have the last laugh over his former employee. Chelsea’s dynamism seem too much for an experienced but ultimately weak Inter midfield. Barcelona have already showed the way in completely dominating Inter over two games earlier in the season and although Chelsea will not be able to retain the ball in the same manner as Xavi, Iniesta and co they will have the firepower to overwhelm an ageing Inter rearguard.

Milan by contrast appear to be coming to the boil under rookie coach Leonardo. After a high-tempo goal fest against Genoa earlier in the week, the rossoneri showed their discipline in a ruthless 3-0 victory in Turin over Juventus. This was not the demolition of the grand old lady that Bayern Munich laid down before Christmas. Rather Milan strung along their opponents, keeping possession, denying space in behind and taking their few opportunities with ruthless efficiency. Milan have the players to make the difference in the latter stages of the Champions League and unlike previous years now have a degree of youth in their side in the form of Thiago Silva, Luca Antonini and Ignazio Abate. Their upturn in form may have come too late to save their bid for the Scudetto but Man Utd beware Milan will again be a tough out come the spring.