Monday, 26 July 2010

Title challenge needed for Roberto and his scarf to remain at Eastlands

City will make the Top four this season. The squad is to good now for it not to happen. The big question for them, or more likely their owners is, “is that enough?”

City are now in a similar position to where Chelsea were at the start of the 2004/2005 season. They have had one full season with new ownership and have a relatively new manager. Mancini has had one full summer to make signings and make the team his own. This year he can have no excuses for not delivering what is expected of him.

What differentiates them from Chelsea is that in 2004, Chelsea already had the basis of a decent squad with talent such as Joe Cole and Frank Lampard in their ranks. Coming off a second place finish in the Premier league they were able to attract better players to the squad because they could offer Champions League football. Therefore, once the special one had been appointed at Stamford Bridge he was able to go out and sign players of real quality who had serious credentials. They were able to sign players like Carvalho and Ferreira who had won the Champions League, a striker in Drogba who had already destroyed Liverpool and Newcastle in the Uefa Cup and Peter Cech who despite been a relative unknown to most fans over here at the time, became one the best goalkeepers in the world.

David Silva is a fantastic addition to City’s squad but whilst Yaya Toure and if he arrives, Balotelli, have won Europe’s premier competition, they certainly weren’t the driving force behind those wins. Also, does City really want to be chasing after players who react like this when they are brought on as a late sub?

Given the amount of squad rotation that will have to be done at Eastlands this year it seems like a strange choice.

And that is another issue that Mancini will have to deal with; the size of the squad. On Friday Jim White and Co stuck up the names of the entire City midfield.

Michael Johnson

Stephen Ireland

Shaun Wright-Phillips

Adam Johnson

Gareth Barry

David Silva

Patrick Vieria

Kelvin Etuhu

Vincent Kompany

Nigel De Jong

Vladimir Weis

Yaya Toure

Abdisalam Ibrahim

If you add Milner to that list, City will have 14 players vying for three spots assuming Mancini goes with his 4-3-3 formation that he used last season. How do you keep all of them happy? By juggling the squad round week by week surely there can’t be any consistency for the team either. Look at Benitez at Liverpool. It could be argued that his constant tinkering with his team cost him his job because he never knew what his best team was.

Mourinho had a plan for Chelsea when he took over and as a result he got rid of a lot of the dead wood at Stamford Bridge that didn’t fit in. Out went Petit, Hasselbaink, Desailly, Babayaro, Melchiot, Zenden and a few others, whilst Crespo and a young Carlton Cole were sent out on loan to Milan and Villa respectively. This gave his new signings faith that he believed in them and that they were the players to go out and win the league. There has been little evidence so far that Mancini wants to get rid of any players although with a squad cap of 25 players been enforced by the Premier League this season, he will have to make some tough choices sooner or later.

What I do think is crucial for City is a good start. Mourinho was able to put down a marker in his first game as they beat United 1-0 at the Bridge. City has a great opportunity to do just that as they face Spurs at White Hart Lane on the opening day of the season and then Liverpool at Eastlands a week later. Win those two and the confidence will flow through the squad like the Thames does through London. However if they lose both, there will be serious questions about the players that Mancini has brought in.

Of course there will be plenty of time for them to recover and this is a squad that possesses some of the best talent in the country (Gareth Barry excluded). For me though, City’s fate will be determined by how Mancini copes with the pressure that the job at Eastlands now comes with. At Inter he was gifted the title by the match fixing scandal of 2006, yet in Europe he couldn’t get Inter past the second round of the Champions League where he was frequently outwitted by Europe’s other top coaches. He was eventually sent on his way by Inter and replaced with Jose himself. Mourinho charmed the media in his first season here and whilst he did ruffle a few feathers along the way he was able to take the pressure of his team and keep the media focused on him. His players loved him for that and as a result they played for him in a way that they didn’t for Grant or Scolari, his two main successors. Mancini is of course his own man but he would do well to take note of how Mourinho coped with the pressure of building a new team and fans and media expecting results straight away.

A top four position is more than achievable for a team with City’s riches, especially given a lack of real investment by any of the other so called big sides. It would represent progress for City, however Mancini will have to do a lot more than that to keep his job at Eastlands. Otherwise he may see Jose on the other side of that revolving door again in ten months time. Just ask Ranieri.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

What If Gerrard and Torres left?

It’s no secret that Liverpool is in a huge amount of debt and this has obviously meant that star players have been linked with moves away. New boss Roy Hodgson has said publically that he has no intention of selling Torres or Gerrard. But what if he did? Being realistic here, Gerrard would command around £30m and Torres £50m. £80m for two players, not a bad bit of business. But why sell them and where do you spend the money?

As I write this Gerrard has given his biggest hint yet that he is going to stay on but for me the time has come for him to move away. He will go down as a legend at Anfield and rightly so, but this past season he mailed in performances and looked disinterested. This may have been down to his disillusionment with Benitez for sure, but a lack of Champions League football and no realistic chance of winning the title this season mean that Gerrard could go his entire career without a league winners medal. A move to Madrid, which has been touted around, would make most sense given the calibre of the new boss there. As for Torres if Liverpool get offered £50m for a guy who has serious injury problems then they should grab it. Torres is world class, there is no doubt about it, but he is no good to Liverpool on the bench. The problem is that Hodgson would realistically only get £40m of the Gerrard and Torres money to spend.

The signing of one of English football’s most creative players in Joe Cole is certainly a step in the right direction for Liverpool. It is certainly not like me to praise those on the red side of Stanley Park, but I have a feeling they may have got one of the deals of the summer here. Granted he is coming off the back of a long term injury, but he is only in his late twenties and has a whole lot to offer any team. Where Liverpool struggled in part last season was a creative outlet to create scoring opportunities for Torres and dare I say it Ngog. Cole should be the man to unlock the door.

So what to do with £40m?

They are no longer in position to sign the best players like they were 30 years ago when Keegan moved on and was replaced by Dalglish, or 20 years ago when Rush was sold and replaced by Aldridge. So they have to buy smart in order to upgrade their squad.

Defensively only Chelsea and United conceded less goals than Liverpool last year but a lot of that can be put down to the form of Reina. Looking at their squad there isn’t a standout player for me in that defence. Carragher was destroyed by Jozy Altidore in the World Cup and will add another year to his already slowing carcass this season, whilst they haven’t had a good enough left back in a long time. Seeing the form of Stephen Warnock at Villa last season must have had a few people wondering why he had been let go so early in his Anfield career. I would look at Hangeland from Fulham who would be available for around £10m to sure up the centre of the defence. At left back they could do worse than to take a punt on the Mexican left back Salcido who had a very impressive World Cup. The PSV defender would cost at a guess around £5m.

The midfield looks surprisingly healthy even if you discount Gerrard from the mix. The most successful teams in the World Cup showed that two holding midfielders can be used to free up other attacking options. With Mascherano and Aqulani Liverpool have that already and this would enable Joe Cole to have free reign behind the striker. And I know he is very, very average at best but Lucas can serve as a back up to these two.

If you go with Cole supporting a striker that leaves two spots out wide and one up front. Ryan Babel has proven that he has got the ability to so I would give him one last chance and look to Alexis Sanchez from Udinese on the wing and Roman Pavlyuchenko up front. Sanchez had a fantastic World Cup and showed that he had the pace to threaten any team on the break, whilst Pavlyuchenko has shown that he is a natural goal scorer who will take chances when given them. These two could both be acquired for £25m.

So there you have it. A line up that would look something like this:

GK: Reina
RB: Johnson
CB: Hangeland
CB: Agger
LB: Salcido
DM: Mascherano
DM: Aquilani
LW: Babel
AM: Cole
RW: Sanchez
CF: Pavlyuchenko

Subs: Kuyt, Lucas, Maxi, Carragher, Ngog, Jovanovic, Diego(GK)

You may look at the team above and think that this is not a side that is going to win the title and you’d be right, but for Liverpool this season a top four spot is the aim. If Hodgson does happen to agree with me then this team can achieve that, I just hope he isn’t reading.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Fixing Fantasy Football

One day. That’s all it took; just one day. Just 24 hours after Andreas Iniesta had powered home his late winner for the Spanish in Soccer city, I received my invite to join the 7th annual ‘League of Keith’s’ Fantasy Football League. Normally the mention of the start of a new Fantasy Football League would fill me with a rush of boyhood giddiness similar to the likes felt when school had finished up for the summer or when my old man used to take me to games at OT. So why do I seem disinterested this time around?

I started playing Fantasy Football when I was eleven years old. Inspired by watching Baddiel and Skinner late on a Friday night, a group of us got together to do our very own fantasy league six weeks or so from the end of the 1992/93 season. We held an auction in my bedroom where the six of us went through our shortlists and bid on names such as Lars Bohinen, Colin Hendry and my own personal favorite, Darren Peacock, who I signed for a cool £37 million. Unfortunately our first attempt was short lived. After a day of watching the scores update on Ceefax we somehow made a huge mess of the scoring system and the league was abandoned one week in. A few months later with the 1993/94 season on the horizon, six or seven of us congregated at my friend Paddy’s house for the first real auction. This lasted a good couple of hours and by the end of the day we all had a squad of 22 players to choose from.

My main problem with Fantasy Football at the moment is that in a sense it is too easy (although I have never won one myself). By this I mean that everyone theoretically can have the same team.

You’re given a budget of £100m, a list of every player in the league and you go and pick your team. In a league of 20 people it’s pretty much guaranteed that fifteen of the managers would have Lampard, Torres or Rooney in their ranks. It usually takes people three of four weeks to get into the swing of things and if there team is struggling they give up and don’t bother with it for the rest of the year.

I’ve been playing the NFL version of fantasy league and have found this to be a much more fulfilling experience. The good thing about the American system is that you have a draft at the start of the season that determines which team each individual player lands on. Once the draft is complete you are then free to trade players between teams with the approval of the other league members. The system has proved hugely successful over the years, to the point where magazines are produced previewing the upcoming fantasy season and companies such as ESPN have their very own fantasy league section, with writers devoted to writing about nothing but fantasy sports.

In order to make Fantasy Football exciting again, I believe we should look to rip off the American way with five simple steps.

1. The Auction

Auctions are great because everyone’s football knowledge was put to the test. A budget of £50 million should be more than enough to assemble a squad of 18 players. I’m no tech geek but I’m sure that someone out there would be able to put this together online. Features such as last season’s stats would prove really useful for managers to review and help them make signings. As well as a chat board where you can give out stick to as many other managers as you want. A list of my own personal auction highlights can be seen below.

• My purchase of Robert Lee for £1.5m (brilliant deal)
• My signing of Kevin Gallen for £2m (not so brilliant)
• My Swapping of Eric Cantona for John Salako ten minutes after the auction had finished (god damn disastrous)
• Paddy signing Martin Keown for £6m and signing Jason Euell for a similar fee on the back of his “he’s the next Pele” claim
• Adam Cooper bringing up Kevin Richardson as his first player to bid on...there were no other offers.

2. Post Auction Transfer budget

This does exist to an extent at the moment in the majority of online Fantasy Leagues. On the Premier League’s official game site what you don’t spend when selecting your squad initially, you get to keep for yourself.

What I am proposing is a £15m post auction transfer kitty that every manager gets given as soon as the auction comes to an end. With this money the manager can bid for any opposing manager’s players, but only sign one player a month in order to limit the amount of players movement around the league. So if I wanted to sign Rooney from another manager I could in theory bid £15m for him. However, with a squad size limitation I would have to make room for him. How do I do that? I here you ask.

3. The Free Agent List

Similar to the NFL waiver wire, the free agent list would serve as just that; a list of players that weren’t picked up at the auction. In order to sign Rooney, I would have to release one of my players and they would join the free agent list. Anyone could then pick up my discarded player from the list and add them to their squad. As many free agents can be picked up by any one manager at a time, as long as they don’t break the eighteen-player squad limit. This of course can lead to great free agent signings like in 1993 when Kieran called Paddy’s house on a Sunday night at 10.30 to ask if anyone had Barry Venison in there squad. Surprisingly he didn’t get a positive answer.

4. Turning the league into one on one matches.

One of the best things about NFL fantasy league is that you square off against each other every week. One week you can face your mate at work, the next you can face off against your mate from home. This is great as it makes the league more competitive and keeps people interested from day one. Three points would be awarded for a win, one for a draw and nothing for a defeat. So even if you lose the first three games of the season, you don’t lose interest by the end of August because there is still so much more time left to make up the difference.

5. Simple Point Scoring

I can’t stand things like double points for captain and ‘Dream Team’ star man gets extra points. It’s a lot of extra fuss that isn’t needed. Also getting points for just playing is ridiculous. I would have the rules be as simple as this.

Goal Scored
Striker – 3 Points
Midfielder – 4 Points
Defender – 5 Points
Goalkeeper – 7 Points

Goal Keepers and Defenders
Clean Sheet 2 Points
Goal Conceded - - 1

Assists – 2 Points

Yellow cards - - 2
Red Card – - 5

This system makes the game a lot easier to follow.

So there you have it. Fantasy Football fixed in five simple points. Of course there is a 2% chance of anyone picking up on this idea but still, feedback is always welcome. Let’s start a fantasy revolution.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Sport has had a hold on me from an early age; like four years old. My first memory of when me and my still best mate knocked about together was when we were playing football at the top of my garden. My dad was ill that day (a rare day off for him) so we spent the day playing one v one games of football and in between going in and steeling liquorish all sorts from my old man. My favourite memory of that day was the clash between Plymouth and Hibs which ended in me breaking the neighbours’ fence. I somehow doubt the two will ever clash again. Sport has been the foundation of pretty much most of my friendships over the years; there’s Mike who is a huge United fan like myself, Brian in Philly to whom my first question was “flyers fan?” and tons of others that I could mention but wont bore you with (mainly cos your probably bored already.)

Anyway I’ve wanted to write a blog for sometime know but I’ve always found some reason to put it off. This past week however a sports event that didn’t take place on a field, or a hard court, or a golf course or anywhere else for that matter, grabbed my attention.

Any people reading from the other side of the pond (and at this point i am aware that this will be about six people) will know who LeBron James is. LeBron, as he is known to most of America, had reached the end of his contract in Cleveland where he had played since he was a rookie back in 2003. Seven years and no championship rings later, LeBron chose to leave the city that he had called home and sign for the Miami Heat where he joined up with two other all stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Okay fair enough you might think. Seven years is a long time to be anywhere; why shouldn’t he want to move somewhere where he could win a championship. After all winning titles and medals is what it’s all about right? And what’s not to love about Miami? This is all well and good; however LeBron chose the worst possible way to handle this. A one hour television special was dedicated to the big moment. Something about this is hugely wrong to start with. Can you imagine that happening over here? A hour TV special to announce where Joe Cole is going to be playing his football next season. Yet we are probably not too far behind. When Ronaldo got his wish last summer and moved to Madrid, 90,000 people turned up at the Bernabeu to greet him and watch him walk up and down a catwalk in his new sparkly white shirt. (For the record I don’t begrudge him his move at all. He’s always wanted to play there and we got 6 fantastic years out of so called one trick pony.)

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach and I’m gonna sign for the Miami Heat”

In one sentence LeBron ripped the heart out of one city in front of a national audience. Cleveland has not had a championship since 1964 when the Browns (NFL team) won the NFL championship, before the Superbowl came into existence.. When a man named Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995 and changed their name to the Ravens, he became public enemy number one in Cleveland and I would put good money on him never setting foot back in North East Ohio ever since. This link here ought to tell you how popular the guy is.

In 2004 sports network ESPN named Cleveland the most tortured sports town in America. LeBron was seen as the man who could change all that and finally bring a championship to Cleveland after years of hurt. The Cavs reached the NBA finals in 2007 but were swept aside by San Antonio in a 4 games to 0 route. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 the Cavs failed to make it back to the finals despite a number of additions to the team. The latest defeat to Boston in round two of the playoffs was the final nail in the coffin for LeBron who was now free to talk to sign for anyone he pleased.

Speculation was rife about where LeBron would sign and even President Obama had an opinion on the matter saying that he would love to have LeBron come and play for his hometown Chicago Bulls. When it came down to the crunch, 3 teams were left in the mix; the Cavs, the Heat and the New York Knicks. 3 days beforehand, it was announced that LeBron would make his announcement on national television. Surely LeBron wouldn’t break Cleveland fans hearts in front of a watching nation.

He wouldn’t, he couldn’t........ He did. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was flabbergasted. In an open letter to Cavs fans he promised them that they would win a championship before LeBron and the Heat would. Somehow I can’t see that happening.

So why do I care about what happened so much? Honestly i have no idea why. I have been to Ohio once and I can’t remember being overly in love with the place. Yet for some reason i find myself fascinated by this whole story and really annoyed about the whole thing. I want to go buy a copy of NBA 2011 for the PS3 just so I can beat the Heat. Maybe it’s because of my game with the Browns on Madden 10 and my own frustration at not been able to bring the city of Cleveland even a virtual championship.

More likely is that to a lesser extent United fans went through a similar thing last season with Carlos Tevez. Now before anyone says anything I am not for one moment comparing the enormity of the two situations at all. As a United fan I’ve been extremely lucky over the years with the success that our club has achieved and if anything we have played the role of the Miami Heat in a lot of these situations. You only have to look back at the players United have acquired from Leeds over the past two decades, Cantona, Ferdinand, and Smith, to know that this is the case. These players were loved by Leeds fans, certainly in the case of Cantona and Smith, and they signed for their biggest rivals. The difference with Tevez was that whilst it could be argued that the Leeds players moved on because they wanted to win trophies like LeBron says he is, Tevez was clearly motivated by money. He could have stayed at United and added to his medal collection, but he instead chose to move to a rival club; something he said he would never do and thus his legacy at United was tarnished. When he returned to Old Trafford in September of last year he had said that he wasn’t sure what kind of reception he would receive. It didn’t take him too long to find out. United fans subjected him to the biggest chorus of boos the ground had heard in a long time. And all because he wore a sky blue jersey.

Fans take time to forgive those who they believe have wronged them. Michael Owen was booed at Anfield when he returned in a Newcastle Jersey, Paul Ince cant step inside Old Trafford without getting abuse. Across the pond Roger Clemens couldn’t go back to Fenway Park once he has dissed the Boston fans when signing for Toronto. Signing for the Yankees only made things worse.

We don’t forget because we are passionate and we spend our good money following these teams around the country, or staying up until god knows what hour to watch them play. I am writing this 30 mins before the World Cup final where two nations who ever never been crowned champions will battle it out. Their fans will go throw all sorts of emotions; joy, despair, elation and inconsolable misery.

Jerry Seinfeld once said that as sports fans you are essentially cheering for Laundry. Well yeah i guess we are. But i believe the case of Tevez and LeBron it goes deeper than that. As United fans we always believed that Tevez was one of our own because he ran is arse off and never gave up. The fans loved him for it, and as a result we loved him. LeBron brought Cleveland hope and in one sentence he dashed those hopes. It going to take a while before those hopes are can be raised again.