Monday, April 30, 2007

Keane Leaps Toward Glory

If you ever happen to find yourself taking part in a 'Quantum Leap'-type project, which involves you randomly travelling through the last 15 years of time (presumably to stop a child from falling down a well or somesuch), there is one failsafe way both to prevent your identity as a time-voyager from the future being discovered, and to ascertain the moment of time into which you have leapt.

When confronted by a past-ling, just say "Roy Keane, eh?", and shake your head in a way that suggests both admiration and staggerment. Then sit back and await the response to calibrate your point on the space-time continuum.

"Incredible. What a great player/arsehole/thug/legend/psycho/genius/knobhead! I can't believe he scored that great goal/got locked up in the cells/got sent off for that brutal tackle/single-handedly led his team to the European Cup final/wrote that in his book/left his country in the lurch/stood up against the incompetence of the FAI/said that about his team-mates/got Sunderland promoted. Incredible."

Back here in the future, we remain as astonished by the man from Mayfield as our primitive forebears, with their chunky mobile phones and Liam Gallagher sideburns. His retirement from professional football at the end of last season seemed like the death of a major historical figure.

Like a demised Viking warrior, we lit his pyre and floated his longboat off towards Valhalla.

But one presumes that our Norse cousins of yore did not foresee the afterlife as a place of frolicking in the park with the kids and walking Trigger. And Sweyn Forkbeard and Erik the Red are surely not spending eternity analysing pillage on the Battle of the Day pundits sofa or giggling with Sue Barkersdottir on Question of Carnage.

So the hereafter for Roy Keane is back to before, and he re-dons his pointy helmet and returns to the Premiership killing fields. Leaping forward in time again (Oh boy!) to the heyday of that other Europe-conquering midfield general, Napoleon, it's easy to see the comparison between Keane's return to the imperial court of the Premiership and the diminutive French continent-devourer's comeback from his own exile.

Landing on the coast of southern France, having high-tailed it from the island of Elba seeking a return to top flight action, Napoleon advanced on Paris, attracting the support of disgruntled provincials and demobbed ex-soldiers.

When confronted by the men of his sucessor, Louis XVIII, in Grenoble, he dismounted his horse and approached them. "Soldiers of the Fifth [regiment], you recognize me. If any man would shoot his emperor, he may do so now". The soldiers, after presumably looking towards their boots and mumbling for a bit, shouted "Vive L'Empereur!" and joined the crazy Corsican on his quest.

Keane too has roused a hitherto disconsolate rabble from the sticks and is marching tens of thousands strong towards the seats of power. Plainly, those who have crossed his path, be they vanquished foes or his own rejuvenated forces have recognised the face of the old emperor.
At Waterloo, as the eminent Swedish historians Ulvaeus & Andersson noted in their eponymous, seminal work from 1974, Napoleon did surrender. While the Napster only had to contend with the Duke of Wellington and Prussia's Generalfeldmarschal von Blücher in that tricky Belgian away tie, Keane faces 19 other generals all desperate to run a blade through him, including the old warmongrel himself, Alex Ferguson, and that dashing blade of roisterer, Jose Mourinho.

Of course, the early months of Keane's managerial career have provided ample evidence to even the most sceptical of observers that glittering success awaits. It does not require a quantum leap, or even much of one of the imagination to envisage Keane making a significant mark on proceedings at the very top of the game over the forthcoming years.

Who knows, maybe, in time, Ferguson will echo about Keane the opinion of Wellington on Napoleon; when asked who he thought the greatest of all generals, he answered "In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon."


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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Contepomi's Stop-Go Try

They may have lost again, but Leinster's mercurial outhalf Felipe Contepomi produced a staggering moment of improvisation to score their second try against the Ospreys. This camera angle doesn't actually catch the physics-defying change of direction as well as the normal angle did, but you get the idea.

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Long Grass-Watch #2

Cyril Farrell, on Sunday Sport this evening, on the upcoming hurling Championship, which Cork are awaiting...guess where?

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Do That Slang Thang

Like a slightly less murderous Lorenzo de Medici, I'm big into the whole patronage thing. The latest Irish blog to act as Michaelangelo to my benevolent despot is Irish Slang Top Ten which is compiling various threads on the colourful colloquialisms of this damp isle.

Of particular interest is the GAA slang section wherein the language-mangling utterances of our national sports can be found. Contribute your own in the comment field.

Ah, I remember the humourous slang-words that would often be directed toward myself in my playing days. "Fat fucker", "useless fucker", "fucker", that sort of thing. Happy, happy days.


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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Moments of Truth

Most of the season is about opinions. This time of the year is about truths. Two years ago Steven Gerrard's perception that he would have to leave Liverpool in order to win major trophies was altered by the truth of their Champions League triumph. Earlier this term, Jose Mourinho's boss reckoned his manager was not the man to bring him that same trophy; over the next few weeks, beginning last night, he too will see the truth emerge, whatever that may be.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool's new owners, will have received a bracing dose of reality also. If they understood what they saw, or at least were properly briefed on what they were watching, they will have seen the true nature of their job. Of course, a glance at the league table could tell them about the gap between their new investment and Roman Abramovich's four-year-old one.

Sometimes, however, the hard facts of the league table get sidelined in favour of the cock-eyed hokum of optimism. Liverpool fans could, of course, point to the semi-final of 2005 to back up their team's chances. But the law of averages suggests that a team whose strike-force cost £54 million will generally prevail over one which paid £15 million for their front two.

Yes, truths are established at this time of year. It might become a truth, in a week's time, that Anfield's special European atmosphere, Rafa Benitez's tactical acumen or Steven Gerrard's virtuosity are powerful enough to redress the fact of Chelsea's financial strength and Joe Cole's single goal advantage.

But all too true for Liverpool supporters last night was the fact that Boudewijn Zenden, a mediocrity unwanted by Chelsea even in the pre-Abramovich, pre-Mourinho days, was the wasteful endpoint of much of their attacking ambitions in a Champions League semi-final. Unavoidably factual were Alvaro Arbeloa's limitations at full-back, both defensively and in constructive play. Plain as the nose on your face was the difference between Chelsea's awesome juggernaut in attack, Didier Drogba, and the honest toil of Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt.

There is an old football expression about on-field bad times: All your best players are sitting in the stand. It is used by exasperated fans convinced that the kids and journeymen on the bench must be the answer to their current plight.

Looking at the Liverpool bench, anyone castigating Rafa Benitez's selections would have been halted mid-expletive. Who would have been the better option than the woeful Zenden? Marc Gonzalez, the callow winger? Jermaine Pennant, the wastrel? Did hopeful balls directed toward a clambering Peter Crouch really represent an improvement for Liverpool when the big striker came on for Craig Bellamy.

Taking a goal lead to Anfield, having not conceded an away score, bringing back Michael Essien and looking right back to their solid, formidable best, it's hard not to see Chelsea completing the job next Tuesday. For all the ferocious backing that Liverpool will receive from their supporters, there remains a shortfall of true quality in their team, especially when presented with the challenge of beating a team with plenty of it.

Their owner's will be well aware of the need to redress that. Chelsea's owner, meanwhile, might just have to change his mind about his manager. After all, the truth will out.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Interestingly Enough, There Is Some History Between These Sides You Know...

Presumably Jose Mourinho watches this clip after coming in from the pub of a night.

"Let it go Jose," says Mrs.Mourinho.

"Was not goal! Was not goal!"

Was penalty and sending off?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Donegal: Sober Or Be Judged

Sunday evening, in the Abbey Hotel, Donegal Town. The Donegal senior football team, the elation of their victory in that afternoon's National League final still evident in giddy banter, are gathered with team management, friends and loved ones.

"Right lads, what yiz havin'?" pipes up a county board member, his shirt untucked and his face a battleground between happiness and fatigue.

"Club Orange for me," shouts Kevin Cassidy; "Just a pinta blackcurrant Seamus," adds Neil Gallagher, the captain. "Me 'n' all - blackcurrant," agrees ace marksman Colm McFadden.

"Jeez a cup of tae would hit the spot," posits old-hand Adrian Sweeney, to nods from fellow veterans Brendan Devenney and Brian Roper, "Aye drop of tea, Seamus; milk, no sugar, good man."

"Britvic 55"; "Cidona, please"; "Apple juice"; "Eh, Ballygowan please"; "Coke, Seamus".
Eyes turn to Eamonn McGee, the big Gweedoreman, whose languid, raking point from distance had put Donegal two clear in injury time. "Pint of Heineken please!"
Suddenly all is deadly silent. McGee's teammates stare at him viciously; supporters gathered at the bar turn their heads in the direction of the last order. A fat man telling a profane joke stops in his foul-mouthed tracks.
"Jeez only messin' lads - my usual Seamus: Miwadi orange!"


Reading the coverage of Donegal's participation in the National League Final often felt like leafing through a brewing industry trade journal. At other times, it seemed like extracts from a Shane McGowan biography had found their way into the sports pages. I haven't heared of such censorious scrutiny of young men's drinking habits since my time staggering home from school discos, munching Polo mints, attempting to evade parental sentry guards.

One can imagine the in-jokes and references to the matter in the Donegal camp at this stage; presumably the experience of having the sober gentlemen of the press documenting your alcoholic excesses provides a fertile ground for ironic humour.

Of course, if it's irony you're after, most of us are a bit guilty of playing the thin-lipped Presbyterian in our attitude to our amateur sporting heroes, while worshipping Dionysus on our own spare time.

In the days after the announcement of the GPA/GAA Joint Grants proposal, it seems only more likely that the idea of GAA players' off-pitch lives being subject to the same loose discipline as our own down-time will become even less plausible than it currently is. Until now, we have allowed ourselves to pour righteous indignation on county players with tendencies toward the occasional boozy bender because of our expectation of a return on an investment that was intangible: the emotional support of a county, the bolstering local pride an suchlike.

Now, with taxpayers money set to trickle into the pocketbooks of county stars, players who refuel unwisely will need more than a packet of Polo mints to escape the wrath of the cold eyed Mammies of public opinion.


Here's hoping that the Donegal players had more than Miwadi to celebrate on Sunday evening; their achievement was a real and worthy one, deserving of being toasted and sufficient to circumvent any suggestion that League honours merit little acknowledgment.

Emerging as the only unbeaten team in all four divisions, reeling off a list of the vanquished that included Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo (twice), Dublin, Cork, Fermanagh and Kildare, Donegal's form so early in the year was almost unbelieveably free of the sort of teething troubles and preparatory problems that the League is supposed to be there to sort out.

Also pleasing was the cool-headed determination that they deployed to win so many of those games, especially the final. As injury time commenced in Croke Park on Sunday, there was a palpable sense of desire evident among the Donegal players, an indignant vow that, actually, this is our competition, thank you very much.

Maintaining that belief and feeling of superiority through the summer will be crucial - particularly with their bete noires, Armagh, awaiting on May 27th. For what is the decision to abandon focus and resolve and turn to the celebratory realm of booze but an acknowledgement of contentment at what has already been achieved, a self-reward at a goal attained.

If Donegal can switch the drive that they brought to their League campaign and direct it towards the Championship, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

And no-one will begrudge them a shandy afterwards.

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Long Grass-Watch #1

This summer we're keeping track of the number of times that GAA articles mention the phrase "long grass".

#1 - None other than Tom Humpries, yesterday's Irish Times, in reference to Armagh's impending meeting with Donegal, although he was stipulating that Armagh were too big to be hidden by aforementioned elongated flora.


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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Relief for Celts - But Challenges Ahead

More than once in the moments after Celtic sealed the SPL title yesterday, the television commentators mentioned the fact that Gordon Strachan had gone from being booed a week previously (for his decision to substitute Derek Riordan with Kenny Miller in the Scottish Cup semi-final victory over St.Johnstone) to enjoying the cheers due to a league-winning manager.

The peculiarity of Strachan's second season as Celtic manager is pretty well summed up by that little dose of schizophrenia. The majority of Celtic fans, in their rational moments, acknowledge that, in terms of tangible achievement, 2006-07 is one of the most significant in the club's history. Another league title, a possible Scottish Cup to follow and, for delicious sauce, a last 16 place in the Champions League.

However, much of the second half of the season has been dour viewing for Celtic fans, with the majority of the club's points being won through toil and determination rather than the flair with which the manager always hoped his teams to prevail. The stumbling form of recent weeks slowed the champions-elect's momentum to a snail's pace, such that supporters nervously eyed the dwindling fixtures list, lest the unthinkable happen.

A shame that; had Celtic's season been turned on it's head, and the club roared to the title after a poor start, rather than the other way round, then perhaps the 2006-07 championship would be remembered as fondly as the 1985-86 one, which Celtic won by goal difference in the final moments of the last day.

Still, yesterday's celebrations at Rugby Park were all the more vociferous, thanks to the immense release of tension that Shunsuke Nakamura's injury time free-kick provided. The dramatic nature of the Japanese magician's trademark winner certainly gave gusto to the party atmosphere, but the relief at not having to endure another interminable week, followed by yet another nervous ninety minutes at Parkhead on Sunday, was also undoubtedly audible.

The latter part of Celtic's 41st title-winning season was beginning to strongly resemble the dark Spring of 2005, when Martin O'Neill's team ran out of steam just short of the finish line. But while Strachan's predecessor's place in the supporters' hearts was already so copperfastened as to leave his legacy largely intact, many have withheld the same tolerance from the current incumbent.

Some have claimed to detect the foul whiff of sectarianism from the Celtic support for this fact, suggesting that had Strachan been of 'traditional' Celtic stock, any shortcomings would have been overlooked.

Certainly, it behoves Celtic not to dismiss this point out of hand; many were quick to accuse their cross-town rivals of similarly suspect motives in the undermining of their first ever Catholic manager, Paul Le Guen, during his brief reign as manager, and have also jeered at the seeming 'reformation' of 'traditional' (that word again) Rangers values under Walter Smith.

All the same, football club supporters, as entities, have a funny way of demonstrating a singular logical intelligence that transcends the boiling individual passions within. Celtic fans may duly applaud and enjoy another title, and will treasure the memories of the Champions League victories over Benfica and Manchester United, as well as the courageous tussles with Milan. They will also note with approval the financial housekeeping that has allowed such successes on what is a vastly reduced budget from the one O'Neill used.

At the same time, they are not blind to the utter paucity of serious rivals to Celtic's dominance over the last two seasons. Aside from Hearts' heady opening to the 2005-06 term, which was terminated by wounds self-inflicted, Strachan's side have had a relatively straightforward run of things. The fact that Rangers have fallen to perhaps the lowest ebb in their history in that time is too significant to ignore.

The fluent, passing football with which Strachan has pledged to have his team play has rarely been seen of late, and most departments of the team have malfunctioned. Rather than the minor tinkering which the manager might have hoped his team would have required going into his third year in the job, it seems that major surgery is required, certainly in central midfield and up front.

Already Strachan, chief executive Peter Lawell and the Celtic board will have begun planning for next season, and the summer transfer window that precedes it. They will carry a larger stack of chips to this particular poker table than they have been able to of late, thanks to the Champions League run and the prudence of recent years. They will need it, however, to compete with the cash-laden Premiership clubs, weighed down with more television money than ever.

They will also be aware of the renewed focus from within Ibrox, and will know that such a feeble domestic challenge is unlikely to materialise from there again. Then there is the knowledge that a Champions League qualifier must be negotiated in the late summer, that most perilous and nerve-wracking of entrance exams for Europe's Ivy League.

Here's hoping that Gordon Strachan enjoyed his supporters' cheers yesterday, and a well-earned celebration last night to boot - for the hard work will very soon start all over again.


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Friday, April 20, 2007

NFL Finalists Aim to Chop the Long Grass

Here's a little game for you. Over the next few months, as the GAA championships get under way, count the number of times you hear or read the expression 'waiting in the long grass'. As in, "it was great to beat Kerry today but we know Waterford are waiting in the long grass," or, "despite their good league campaign, Monaghan came up against a Cavan team who had been waiting in the long grass."

I'm not sure exactly where it derives from; is it an agricultural thing, or something to do with shooting ducks? Or does it go back to the War of Independence, when our bould Volunteers picked off Black and Tans under the concealment of rushy knolls?

Wherever it comes from, it underlines the importance of the element of surprise in the GAA championships. In contrast to the long, expositional league system by which most professional sports identify their champions, the Championships are decided on a handful of tumultuous, telling occasions, few enough that guile and subterfuge are often strategically deployed.

Mayo and Donegal will be well aware of the phenomenon this weekend.

The National League finals, positioned as they are on the cusp of The Serious Business, are a peculiar affair. GAA director-general Liam Mulvihill pointed out at the beginning of this league campaign the curiousness of the fact that "most competitions start with a whimper and go out with a bang but it's very often the opposite in the National Leagues."

The principal reason for this is that, after stellar league campaigns, the two combatants in Sunday's final find themselves in a place where no county wishes to be: standing buck naked in the middle of the road, without a blade of grass to protect their modesty.

Not that they baulk at the promise of silverware (a win on Sunday would be Donegal's first trophy of any sort since the All-Ireland in 1992, and Mayo can never be so sated as to pass up national honours) and, one presumes, neither side will skimp on effort.

But there they will be, two Championship contenders, parading around in the open, while their rivals are regrouping for the big push in the secrecy of their barracks. Donegal, perhaps slightly more so than Mayo, have reason to blush at their exposure; widely regarded as the most impressive team in the National League, lifting the trophy on Sunday would see the conferred with that most worthless of honours: the best team in the land in April.

For all that recent seasons have promoted the idea that National League success is the father of All-Ireland glory (three of the last four years have have seen League/Championship doubles in football, the exception - 2005 - witnessing NFL winners Armagh fail narrowly in epic struggle with eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone) a side like Donegal does not yet have the sturdy legs to survive the pace of being front-runner.

But what's an oft-derided, psychologically suspect team to do? All both Sunday's combatants can address years of underachievement with is the repeated winning of matches. If the summer storms blow their respective houses down every year, what can Mayo or Donegal do but build them back up again, stronger and stronger again until, one calm September morning, they might wake up with their roofs still intact?

And anyway, this whole idea of 'the long grass' is not without its flaws. While some teams practice guerilla warfare expertly, very often the hidden enemy attacks with pea-shooters. It's a twist on the old notion that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. And the status of league champions will confer fear of no-one on Mayo or Donegal come the summer.

Still. Did you see something moving there? Where? Over there, in the long grass.....

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

TSA Advertorial

The World Snooker Championships are almost underway - why not liven up the Crucible thrills with a wee wager, and hey, why not use fancy dan US betting website to do it?!

You can get Ding Junhui at +170 to beat Rocket Ronnie on Sunday - what was that? What does +170 mean? Why that's the way those crazy Yanks do the prices. Basically that means if you bet 100 bucks you get $170 back. Easy!

You can also bet on those peculiar American sports, like baseball. My team, the Chicago Cubs, are +1500 to win the World Series, which considering they haven't won it since Teddy Sheringham was a boy (1908) is probably fair enough - though they have spent $300 million on it during the off-season. Happy Punting!

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In Case You'd Forgotten

The original. The best?


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And this, my friends, is why they call it the beautiful game...

Gol de Messi al Getafe 18/04/07
Uploaded by futbloguista

Remind you of anyone?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Premiership: Endgame III

To the darkest pits of doom, then! Hear the screams of the damned, writhing in the agony of perpetual Championship football! See how they wail in torment at the loss of lucrative Premiership television revenues!

Ah, the benefits of Catholic education.

First into the fiery depths are Watford. Aidy Boothroyd's battlers are one side who will accept relegation manfully, completing as it does a trajectory that seemed unlikely when the manager took over in March 2005.

The then 34-year-old and utterly unheralded former Leeds first team coach saved the club from relegation to the third rung in his opening weeks in the job - achievement enough, thank you very much - then took the side on an extraordinary odyssey that culminated in a promotion play-off win over Leeds.

To be fair, Watford have rarely looked like a Premiership club, especially following the sale of Ashley Young in January. Their football has been more Turf Moor than Old Trafford, for one thing. But the Hornets have never been easily beat, which, considering they've lost on 18 occasions, suggests an almost superhuman stubbornness, and a fair portion of spirit. They will brush relegation off easier than others.

West Ham could learn a thing or two about boring old things like spirit and character from Watford. For most of this season they have been a profound disgrace, poster boys for the worst of modern football culture. That any hopes of their redemption were sparked by an Argentinian who has not the foggiest idea what any of his teammates are saying to him seems strangely apt.

They had embarked on a three-game winning run prior to last Saturday's loss to Sheffield United, but, as Alan Curbishley sighed, "the vital games we have had since I came to the club we have lost. We have not done enough against the teams around us. That's been our big problem." The 1-0 win over Arsenal was of less value than a win over Sheffield United would have been.

West Ham's five remaining opponents are Chelsea, Everton, Wigan away, Bolton and Manchester United. The most boundless East End optimist would struggle to find much more than three or four points out of that lot, far less the nine or ten they would need to survive.

Four others cower grimly in avoidance of the remaining bullet: Charlton (32 pts), Sheffield United (34), Fulham (35) and Wigan Athletic (35). At this stage we look for the teams that have imbibed Doctor Redknapp's Patented Rejuvenating Momemtum Potion. Of the last six games played by all four, Charlton appear to have the greatest semblance of a head of steam, with eight points won.

Fulham only took 3 points from the 18 on offer, which puts huge pressure on manager Chris Cole- oh, you got there first Mohamed. On the other hand, Sheffield United are the only side of the four to have recorded a win in their last three games, that being the comprehensive beating of West Ham last Saturday.

Neil Warnock has the look of a man who'd enjoy the bare-fist brawl of a relegation battle, and the Sheffield United's remaining four fixtures including three games against fellow strugglers (Charlton (a), Watford (h), Wigan (h)) and one against midtable autopilots (Aston Villa (a)). It might be tighter than an unemployed steelworker's g-string, but they'll be alright.

Wigan too should just about make it, if they beat West Ham at home on April 28th and get a point out of their other fixtures (Liverpool (a), Middlesbrough (h) and Sheffield United (a)).

That leaves Fulham and Charlton. It may go down to goal difference, but, if he keeps the Fulham job, Lawrie Sanchez should be seeing plenty of his Northern Ireland charges next season - in the Championship.


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Monday, April 16, 2007

Premiership: Endgame II

Judging by the queue of clubs jostling for position at the upper end of the Premiership's also-rans, the prospect of feeling the cold steel of a carabiniero's baton is not enough to deter England's middleweight sides from dreaming of a European adventure next season.

With Chelsea and Manchester United's providing the entertainment at the F.A.'s overdue and overpriced housewarming bash on May 19th, three UEFA Cup places are cast amongst the Premiership middle order, like breadcrusts in the direction of so many ravenous, mangy pigeons.

The Lord Said "Go Fourth"
First thing's first though, and the final Champions League spot about which there is any modicum of doubt. Arsenal's victory over Bolton at the weekend surely secures that prized fourth place for the north London dilettantes, and victory in their game in hand over Manchester City tonight would shut the entry door to English football's most jealously guarded clique.

All the same, the degree to which Arsenal's season has deflated is illustrated by the very fact that the workaday likes of Bolton and Everton are sniffing about the treasured passageway to Europe's elite at all. Much for Arsene to ruminate on in the months ahead.

UEFA Lot to Look Forward To
Five clubs eye up those three UEFA Cup places: Bolton and Everton, flicking through magazines in the departure lounge on 54 points each; Portsmouth and Spurs queuing at check-in on 49 points; Reading have their eyes on the duty free at 48.

Lucky for Everton that they have those points stowed away; they must play both Manchester United (home) and Chelsea (away) before the season is out. They'll require at least four points from their trip to West Ham and the visit of Portsmouth to Goodison to earn the right to exit Europe ignominiously before the leaves have left the autumnal trees.

Spurs have a game in hand on the others, with four of their five remaining games against bottom half teams. Although they must welcome Arsenal to the Lane on Saturday, they would appear to have the quality to take care of business sufficiently. Indeed, although an away point at Wigan will attract little attention in the clubs annals, their response to going behind on three separate occasions, in the aftermath of a disappointing European exit, demonstrated an admirable character often found absent in the club.

Bolton can inflict serious harm on Reading's hopes of a happy ending to their fairytale season when the two sides meet at the Reebok on Saturday. The general notion that Reading's extraordinary campaign will peter out politely might prove misplaced if they can survive Lancashire undefeated; they host Newcastle and Watford, then travel to Blackburn on the last day, all games against sides with nothing but win bonuses to play for.

Portsmouth followed up their victory over Manchester United last Saturday with a loss at Watford, typical of their curate's egg of a season. An aptitude for upsets would serve them well in the run-in, facing as they do Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as away trips to Everton and Aston Villa. It's a menu designed to choke a side of Portsmouth's inconsistency, and the accession of Bolton, Everton and Spurs into the UEFA Cup will be the result.

Tomorrow : What Lies Beneath: The Relegation Battle


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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Premiership: Endgame

If it was a movie the hero would be preparing to enter the enemy fortress, defuse the nuclear bomb and get off with the girl. If it was a meal the diners would be loosening belts and perusing the dessert menu. If it was a political regime the leader would be fretting about his legacy. As it's the climax of the Premiership season that we await, let's get clairvoyant on it....

Title Tussle
By Jiminy, I think we've got a thrilling title race on our hands!
For the first time since the 1999 denouement (when a Manchester United win over Spurs gave them the first leg of that treble you may have subsequently heard of, on occasion) we could see the destiny of football's most lucre-laden league decided on its last day.

Supposing Chelsea and United maintain their current status (United three points, and three goals, to the good) until the two meet on Wednesday, May 9th, and supposing that that match results in either a draw or a Chelsea win, then the visits of West Ham and Everton to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge could provide the cue for much split-screen excitement on May 13th.

Judging by United's rootin'-tootin' attacking displays of recent weeks, it might seem as if Alex Ferguson's team are roaring up the finishing stretch, pulling wheelies like a geriatric, Scottish Valentino Rossi.

But United's golden statue could have feet of clay. At precisely the most inopportune moment, the defensive surety that has bedrocked United's success this season has wobbled. The injuries to Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville would be difficult enough to cope with, but Edwin van der Saar's consequent jitters have not helped in the slightest.

Added to that, the sudden outbreak of harmony in Stamford Bridge - if the hug heard round the world turns out to mean a lasting detente between Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich - points to a club that have woken up after a difficult, uncomfortable sleep to find themselves well placed for an extraordinary quadruple haul of trophies.

The duel is therefore compelling: Chelsea's renewed focus and purpose, allied to their still intact indefatigability against United's high-wire walkers, desperately trying not to look down.

Both sides have mix of manageability, peskiness and peril amongst their remaining fixtures. United will expect to get the run-in off to a smooth start in their next two games, at home against Sheffield United and Middlesbrough. Chelsea, are away in their next two fixtures, travelling to those barflies at the last chance saloon, West Ham and then on to a Newcastle side with nothing to play for.

United then embark on what is undoubtedly the stress-test of their title ambitions. What the climb up Alpe d'Huez is to Tour de France competitors, or Amen Corner is to US Masters contenders, the road trip to Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea is for United's title hopes.

Chelsea, however, have by no means a gentle preamble to their hosting of United in the season's penultimate game. They entertain Bolton, then cross the city to the Emirates Stadium in the previous two matches, meeting two top six teams who are likely to be jousting for European berths to boot. It is conceivable, therefore, that both United and Chelsea could arrive at the season's explosive set-piece having shipped wounds.

If it does transpire that the title is decided on the last day, one suspects that West Ham - whose very nature predestines them to a preposterously heartbreaking last-gasp relegation - will have more to play for than Everton, who will probably arrive at Stamford Bridge with buckets and spades, their UEFA Cup status secured.

All the same, both of the top two should win their final games, which suggests that - calm down there Sky Sports! No-one likes a gloater! - their meeting could indeed be the evening of judgement for this year's Premiership title. 'Evening of Judgement'. I like it. Catchy.

Tomorrow: Mein Gott! Ooh La La! A look at European matters....

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Friday, April 13, 2007

5 FA Cup Semi-Finals You May Remember

Along with details of Brian Kilcline's favourite food (steak and chips of course!) and Greavesie's thoughts on the shortcomings of foreign players (most related to a suspicious dislike of the cold), any child sufficiently well-briefed on his Shoot! magazines knew from an early age that No-one Remembers Semi-Finals.

Au contraire, purveyors of footballing truths. In advance of this weekend's admittedly-very-probably-forgettable FA Cup semi-finals, here are some that remain in the memory....

1999 Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal; Replay: Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal
One of those exceptions that proves the rule, in that most people forget that United's famous victory at Villa Park was a replay, the sides having drawn 0-0 at the same venue three days previously.

As a crucial staging post in United's treble-winning journey, and coming against their greatest rivals, it's unsurprising that this tumultuous evening casts a longer shadow than United's eventual victory over Newcastle in the final. A game that definitively had it all: Beckham's cracking opener, Bergkamp's deflected response, Keane's sending-off, Schmeichel's injury-time penalty save, and then, from Ryan Giggs, the goal that launched a thousand chest-waxes.

1997 Middlesbrough 3-3 Chesterfield; Replay: Middlesbrough 3-0 Chesterfield
By some distance the highlight of Chesterfield F.C.'s 140 year history, the Spireites were a controversially disallowed goal away from making the final, which would have made them the first third tier club to have reached the May showpiece.

23,000 Chesterfield fans saw their team race into a two goal lead over their Premiership opponents, who had Vladimir Kinder sent off. Fabrizio Ravanelli pulled one back for Boro, before Chesterfield's Jonathan Howard smashed a shot off the crossbar which bounced, seemingly, over the line. David Elleray did not concur, and, soon afterwards, Craig Hignett brought Middlesbrough level.

Gianluca Festa gave Boro the lead in extra-time, before Spireite stalwart Jamie Hewitt, in his eleventh season with the club, earned the Division 2 side a replay.

1991 Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Arsenal
The 1990-91 semi-final provided the apex of Paul Gascoigne's early career. Indeed, despite his fleeting Euro 96 renaissance, some might argue that the exocet free-kick which soared past David Seaman in the fifth minute of this match was his finest moment.

Gazza hadn't actually started a game for 11 weeks prior to the semi-final against Arsenal, who were coasting to the title that season. His goal capped a year, post-Italia 90, which had seen his celebrity rise exponentially, in a manner now familiar in football, but which until then was more usually seen in the world of pop music.

A few short weeks later, in the FA Cup final, he would lunge into the vicious tackle on Gary Charles of Nottingham Forest that would ruin his knee ligaments and strike him down in the prime of his talent. Gary Lineker scored two further goals to send Spurs into the final, but it was the mercurial Geordie's contribution that is remembered.

1990 Crystal Palace 4-3 Liverpool
Liverpool at their height (and just before their fall), favourites for another double, against a side that they had defeated 9-0 at Anfield during the league campaign. It is easy to forget just what a sense of invincibility that Liverpool team enjoyed, and when Ian Rush put them ahead early on the likelihood of a Palace victory seemed remote.

However, the ferocity with which Steve Coppell's team emerged from the half-time break startled Liverpool, and Mark Bright (his more celebrated partner, Ian Wright, was injured for the game) soon equalised.

Gary O'Reilly headed them in front, as, for the first time, the elder statesmen of Liverpool began to show their age. However, when Steve McMahon equalised and John Barnes scored a penalty with seven minutes remaining it seemed that the country's eminent force had restored order.

Not so: Andy Gray's back post header sent the tie into extra-time, four minutes into which Alan Pardew got the winner for Palace.....

1990 Manchester United 3-3 Oldham Athletic; Replay: United 2-1 Oldham
...and if that wasn't enough excitement to cause post-Sunday lunch indigestion, United and Oldham played out another humdinger immediately afterwards.

Alex Ferguson's precarious grip on his job was almost loosened by Joe Royle's Second Division Oldham. Earl Barrett put the Latics ahead following one of Jim Leighton's last mistakes in a United jersey, before Neil Webb equalised and subsequently headed the First Division side ahead.

Ian Marshall instantly drew Oldham level with a volley, sending the tie into extra-time. Danny Wallace converted a Brian McClair through-ball, before Roger Palmer's close range finish earned Oldham a replay. United came through that, before winning after another replay in the final against Palace to provide their manager with the first trophy of a glittering decade.


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Thursday, April 12, 2007

NFL Debrief

In keeping with the time of year, the gaelic football season has, in recent weeks, began transforming from an ugly winter larvae into the beautiful butterfly of summer.

Pitches have hardened, ferocious hailstorms have abated and spare tyres have been run off players' midriffs. The sun has come out. Oh and Dublin have been losing games in the second half. Summer's here!

With the semi-finals and final being merely a passing out ceremony, let's break down the lessons from GAA boot camp.

Hey, Good Lookin'
Obviously, the four sides that contest this weekend's NFL Division 1 semi-finals can be said to have had A Good League. Let us segregate the two division 1A top dogs for special praise here, however.

Donegal and Mayo not only emerged - comfortably - from the tougher of the two top echelons, but they also accumulated a total of five extra points than the sum of the points totals of their division 1B counterparts, Kildare and Galway.

Presuming they round off the league in the manner in which they have conducted it so far, Donegal can re-gather themselves for the Ulster Championship in confident mood. Brian McIver's side's excellence was based on a potent combination of a limpet-like full-back line, a midfield perfectly balanced between Neil Gallagher's towering poise and Kevin Cassidy's explosive class and a forward division that scored 10-79 in the league (that while pulling up in the last two games).

The timing of Mickey Moran and John Morrison's removal from the Mayo tiller - in the aftermath of an All-Ireland final - may have seemed inappropriate to many observers, but it was clear that the county needed rejuvenation following another harrowing September.

Enter John O'Mahony and Mayo look steady and refreshed. David Heaney's deployment at midfield has worked well, unsurprisingly given the former full-back's natural footballing ability, and, whisper it, Ciaran McDonald's absence might just have allowed others, like Conor Mortimer, the space to grow.

Kildare and Galway came through a division which was a much more egalitarian affair, but the fact that the Lilywhites made it through to their first league semi-final since 1997 suggests that they will be delighted to be returning to some sort of national eminence, after a 21st century which has thus far been been largely hallmarked by mediocrity. Freescoring Johnny Doyle could step up to celebrity status this summer if Kildare have a good run.

Things Can Only Get Better
For everything that Dublin football represents, demotion to division 2 is a blow. Paul Caffrey is right to point out that a second tier that features Armagh, Cork, Westmeath, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Roscommon is not exactly a pond of full of tiddlers for the metropolitan big fish, but all the same, it's not where they want to be.

The Dubs don't appeared to have addressed any of their 'issues' during the league campaign. Ross McConnell does not look the the final solution at full back, only intermittently have they dominated in midfield and they continue to lack a true focal point in attack. That Jason Sherlock was recalled - and performed better than most - and that Shane Ryan is missed further back is worrying.

Most infuriating is the continued meekness that sees them allow games to repeatedly slip away, a flaw which reflects a lack of leadership, or even composure.

Adding to Donegal's confidence will be the distinctly mortal image that Tyrone and Armagh projected. Such sage operators as Mickey Harte and Joe Kernan will not mind such an impression. Both missed important players in the league, but while Armagh can at least welcome back the Crossmaglen contingent, Tyrone will be willing Brian McGuigan's recuperation to gather pace.

Peter Canavan's retirement robbed Tyrone of a presence whose maturity and wile contributed hugely to steering his county to their two All-Irelands, truncated as his appearances were. In his absence McGuigan's orchestrative powers from centre-forward are the closest Tyrone have to the great man's intelligence; without him they will not win a third All-Ireland.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

England Rules the Waves Once More

Nearly fifteen years after the establishment of both the Premiership and the Champions League, it seems, at last, that England's top clubs have achieved the supremacy that their league's marketers have long claimed to be the case.

Until Liverpool reached the 2005 final of Europe's premier club tournament, Manchester United's success in 1999 stood alone as almost a curiosity, and as a damning indictment of English clubs' failure to translate swagger and hype into real continental eminence.

Now, with at least one English team almost certain to be in this season's Champions League finale, and the strong possibility of two Premiership clubs lining out in the Olympic Stadium in Athens on May 23rd, English football looks to be returning to pre-Heysel levels of European dominance.

Manchester United's approach to what was a classically tricky second leg dilemma involved a high-stake risk/reward calculation. The policy of blitzkrieg that overwhelmed Roma before the 20th minute had been reached was undoubtedly a case of United playing supremely to their greatest strengths; but had Roma not yielded so soon and United burned up the jet fuel of their initial sorties, and had one of those long shots from Totti, Mexes or De Rossi found the net rather than fizzing perilously past Edwin van der Saar's right-hand post, United would have had an infinitely more challenging evening on their hands.

As it was, Roma wilted almost immediately in the heat of the sheer collective will of the home side's performance. United stretched the Italians all over the field, running from wide and deep, finding oceans of space where normally an Italian side playing away in Europe will present only an unbreachable dam.

When Roma had the ball, the desire of the United players to rid them of it was almost frenzied. From the unvaunted likes of Darren Fletcher (whose energetic fetch-and-give display put one in mind of Owen Hargreaves, whom United are likely to go to great expense to recruit in the summer) and Alan Smith, to Rooney and Ronaldo themselves, there was a combination of almost manic enthusiasm and ruthless precision to their play that was as breathtaking as anything Old Trafford has seen at anytime in Alex Ferguson's reign.

To Valencia, and another English team irresistibly enforcing their game on cowed European opponents. Chelsea may only have sealed the tie in the 90th minute of normal time, but Michael Essien's winner only confirmed on the scoreboard a supremacy which few must ever have enjoyed at the Mestalla.

Where United had deployed in excelsis their optimum attributes of pace and movement, Chelsea too had their best assets on show: an overwhelming combination of power and strength, made flesh through superhuman fitness levels. The Ghanaian's winner encapsulated Chelsea's method: the shot simply tore past Canizares in the Valencia goal in a manner that would have made attempting to stop it seem like puny impertinence.

Between, roughly, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the rise of the new German and American states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world existed in what was referred to as a 'Pax Brittanica'. Britain's military, imperial and commercial strength dominated global affairs, British values and standards were promulgated and her pre-eminence was clear.

It seems, with the Premiership television revenues set to continue enriching England's football clubs as colonial profits once did Britain's imperial centre, that we may be embarking on a footballing 'Pax Anglica'.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Heineken Cup Meltdown Could Provide Magners Boost

Hang on, hang on, hear me out okay?

Rugby (or more specifically Celtic rugby) has taken to the bed, consumed with grief and loss after the English and French clubs abandoned the happy home of the Heineken Cup. All those wonderful years of drama and thrills; the colour, the passion, the cash! Oh the lovely, lovely cash! All gone, stolen away by mean-minded blazers and avaricious clubs.

Those marquee sponsors, pouring their investment over the Celtic fringe like a gardener watering arid scrub at the end of the garden!

Gone! WHY??!!

Steady on now. We like to maintain our heads around here. We don't turn a drama into a crisis. If we had turned up in Pompeii as Vesuvius blew her top, we would have remarked on the likely future tourist revenues the town would enjoy. If we had met Jackie Kennedy in November 1960 we would have mentioned the Greek shipping billionaire we had heard was on the lookout.

Yes, calming words. So there's no Heineken Cup next year (even at this point, the rugby populace eyes the feuding parties sadly, pleading "say it ain't so, Joe!"). There will, of course, be a hole in the finances of Irish rugby - union, provinces and beyond. But will all the capital (both financial and in terms of public goodwill) generated during rugby's recent boom years simply vanish?

Scenario: Post-World Cup; Ireland have performed creditably, the French have bewitched, the All Blacks have dazzled. Kids are chucking rugby balls about in country towns and in inner-city playgrounds. Will all those enterprises that sponsored and made hay from the Heineken Cup simply take their money elsewhere, ignoring the continued public enthusiasm for the sport?

There is another rugby competition, you know. It's nothing fancy or clever; it's not always been loved or cherished, and for a long time those sponsors didn't even know it existed. It's called the Magners League, and next season it could be the only way to see rugby's new superstars out of their international jerseys.

Here's the science bit. Doesn't nature abhor a vacuum? If we discount the percentage of rugby's new fanbase recruits who are only here for the (Heineken) beer, doesn't that still leave a significant new constituency for whom the Magners League will represent the only delivery system for their addiction.

Will all those thousands who've joined Munster, Leinster and Ulster on their European adventures, and generated real supporter group identities for all three, simply fold away their scarves, return to civilian life and mention no more of it again?

With a minimum of six weekends freed up, the Magners League will retain the sole focus of rugby fans' attentions from the end of the World Cup on October 20th until the Six Nations returns on February 2nd, 2008. Presuming both attendances and competition standards are boosted as a result of the tournament's temporary market monopoly, this unfortunate turn of events could provide the Magners League with a vital shot in the arm.

With an enthusiastic Munster pouring their energies into the tournament in a manner they have not done this season, with those cocklewarming winter interprovincials, with the presence of Llanelli Scarlets (European Champions? Who knows?) and the improving Ospreys there could be plenty to enjoy until the implacable rivals in France and England emerge from the boardroom with an agreement.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

National League Decision Day

"Sure the league doesn't matter a damn!"..."It's important to have a good league campaign"...."Well, we've done fine but it's the Championship that counts"...."Losing all our games and getting relegated to Division 4 makes no difference, we'll be fine come the summer"....

And so on and so forth. The thirty-two inter-county architects responsible for the construction of Championship cathedrals while simultaneously completing satisfactory NFL bungalows will be applying plenty perspective to their surveyances come Sunday evening.

Certainly, though, this weekend's decisions come with added gravitas in light of next season's league reorganisation.

With the 2008 NFL being organised into four conventional divisions of descending standard, as opposed to the current, rather forgiving, 16 team divisions split into A and B sections, this League's seeds could reap some distasteful fruit for counties finding themselves in the wasteland of divisions 3 and 4 next year.

Enter Armagh. The Orchard county, one of the accepted 'Big 3' of recent years, find themselves perilously close to exile from the NFL's Garden of Eden. Languishing second from bottom of division 1B, having harvested only narrow wins over Louth and already-doomed Down, Armagh's meeting with Westmeath in Crossmaglen is of monumental importance to Joe Kernan's former All-Ireland champions.

The long-circulating rumours of Armagh's demise may, at last, not be exaggerated, given their season so far. On the other hand, a veritable hospital wing of injuries (to the likes of full-forward lynchpin Ronan Clarke, Brian and Andy Mallon and Malachy Mackin) plus the prolonged absence of the influential Crossmaglen contingent (goalkeeper Paul Hearty, cult hero full-back Francie Bellew, the great Oisin McConville and the Kernan brothers return, but the stalwart McEntee twins - John and Tony - have announced their retirements) has severely hampered Armagh.

Put simply, a six-point win will save the 2002 All-Ireland champions, condemning Westmeath to the fiery pits of division 3 on points difference. A smaller winning margin would leave Armagh relying on Derry to beat Louth, results which would see the Wee county plummet along with Down.

In division 1A Cork and Limerick meet in what is essentially a relegation play-off, but the fascination here is in the three-way battle between Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone for the two remaining division 1 places for next season. Dublin can't play Kerry at the best of times without the full weight of history and significance being brought to bear on proceedings, so Parnell Park should fairly reverberate on Sunday with the carrot of consigning a great rival to the humdrum of division 2 next year.

Dublin's persistent inability to press for home when in winning situations seems to have developed from a troubling malady into a congenital disorder. Kerry have not remotely matched their All-Ireland-winning form in the league, although the absences of Dr.Croke's duo Colm 'Gooch' Cooper and Eoin Brosnan, and Kieran Donaghy through suspension and injury haven't helped. But there was enough about them in the draw against Tyrone last weekend, and in particular the majestic display by Darragh O'Shea, to suggest that Dublin too could be pressing their faces against the window of Chez Top 8 come next year.

If that so transpires, Paul Caffrey, and any manager reviewing a disappointing campaign, will underline the importance of leaping towards summer; all the same, he'll secretly rue the lack of the springboard a good league provides.


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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Masters Shows The Value of Everything

Talking about commercialisation in sport these days is something of a tautology, like referring to the grapiness of wine or the four-leggedness of a horse. The very dignity of any sporting enterprise is often tied into the blue-chippiness of their sponsor portfolio, as the poor old Celtic League found in its wilderness years before the intervention of Magners.

Professional sports wear their commercial and sponsorship ties like fashion-fraught teens bedecked in brand-name clothing: there are prom queens like the Champions League, with its flawless garb of Sonys and Mastercards, but equally there are Ugly Bettys like snooker, with its Travis Perkins cast-offs and naff online gaming-house tank-tops.
When we fetched up at the match venues at last year's football World Cup, unsurprisingly, FIFA had covered itself from top to toe in designer gear. While acknowledging in advance the fear of banging on like a tree-dwelling hippy malcontent, the corporate and commercial presence which enveloped the stadium environs was frightening in its scope and corresponding power.

Easily the most dispiriting experience of last the tournament was not seeing Zinedine Zidane's sad valedictory moments in football, nor was it having to watch England play. No, having several oranges confiscated from my rucksack outside of Dortmund's Westfalenstadion (or Signal-Iduna Park as it is now known, or FIFA World Cup Stadium, Dortmund as it was magically renamed for the duration of last summer's tournament, the insurance company which had purchased naming rights for Borussia Dortmund's ground not being a FIFA sponsorship 'partner') was a profoundly depressing welcome to football's big party.

Presumably the fruit seller at Dortmund's central rail station had neglected to join McDonald's and Budweiser as official sponsors and providers of match venue sustenance, and thus his wares were unwelcome.

The International Cricket Council (ICC), organisers of the Cricket World Cup, have apparently been studying carefully from FIFA's textbook, judging by many of the murmurs of complaint directed towards the current tournament in the West Indies.

This month's Observer Sport Monthly reports that the ICC has "attempted to colonise the Caribbean, in the way that the IOC or Fifa occupy a country during an Olympics or football World Cup, imposing their own absurdly strict rules and regulations, and prohibitively expensive ticket prices....local people were prevented from bringing food and drink into the ground, as is their tradition, as well as whistles, conches and drums."

Clearly the less than bumper attendances at most games has not been helped by the dampening of local enthusiasm with po-faced measures similar to those which scuppered my oranges in Dortmund. But where the football World Cup can afford to assume subservience to Mammon at the expense of fans' enjoyment (and indeed of the soul of the tournament) the cricket event has nowhere near the same caché in terms of history and global appeal.

As OSM suggests, the ICC might be better served following the example of the organisers of the Masters at Augusta National, the 71st running of which tees off tomorrow. Originally intended to attract members to the new club whose course had been co-designed by the legendary Bobby Jones, tournament organiser (and chairman of the club until his death in 1977) Clifford Roberts insisted on the tournament's now famous hospitality for spectators.

Ticket prices were (and still are) kept at competitive prices, as were food concessions, Roberts reasoning that any spectator who had made the effort to get to Augusta National should be able to refuel at a reasonable cost. Members are required to wear their green jackets throughout the week in order to be visible to provide information to spectators, and litter is cleared meticulously.

Pointedly, according to OSM, "there are no advertising banners or billboards pasted with corporate logos. The US television broadcast includes just four minutes of subdued commercials per hour, from sponsors approved by the club."

Clearly the Masters' fabled image - sporting history amidst azalea and lush perfection - is something treasured by the organisers, whose club owes its success to the tournament's unique standing.

Of course - putting down the CND banner and washing out the dreadlocks for a moment - sport needs financial backing, and the good folk in the boardrooms invest much that benefits the mythical 'grassroots', but Augusta is a reminder to FIFA and the ICC that the value of some things is incalculable.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Other Super 8: Champions League Quarter Finals

PSV Eindhoven v Liverpool

AC Milan v Bayern Munich

Roma v Manchester United

Chelsea v Valencia

If the Champions League were a ouija board, and we rapt onlookers were slumber partying teenagers, then it might seem as if Dark Lord is guiding the upturned shot glass to spell out 'L-I-V-E-R-P-O-O-L', that is until the girl in the Manchester United pyjamas whimpers "I don't want to do this anymore"...

Certainly the omens are good for the Reds: they've drawn PSV Eindhoven, the weakest side remaining in the tournament, and one that they have already met and beaten in the group stages; they play the second leg at Anfield; judging by Saturday's demolition of Arsenal, they appear to have come out of the international break in fine fettle; their opponents are in the midst of a domestic slump and are missing their most influential player (the Brazilian defender Alex).

Old Lucifer might have a point here. Surely PSV can't finagle their way past another superior team through defensive sturdiness and a couple of moments of opportunism? Still, Liverpool will remember their exit to Benfica in last season's competition and will want to bring a result back from the Philipsstadion. And who's that, communicating from the other that you Arsene...what's he saying? B-E-W-A-R-E P-S-V......

From petrified teenagers to greying patricians: AC Milan and Bayern Munich are, of course, super-colossi of European football, jangling 10 Champions League and European Cups (as your Daddy used to call it) in their pockets between them. But the relative ordinariness the current incarnations of these two and the likes of Real Madrid (vanquished by Bayern in the last round) is stated as proof of the non-vintage status of this season's tournament.

Certainly Milan's last 16 victory over Celtic, in which they managed a single goal in 210 minutes, did not evoke the glories of the Rossoneri's past, and the sight of Bayern languishing fourth in the Bundesliga is a very rare one indeed in the normal run of German football.

Although a victory over league leaders Schalke 04 at the weekend should put some pep in the Bayern step, Milan should be fancied here for the tournament savviness that has seen them reach the quarter-finals for the fifth time in-a-row, for the fact that they clobbered Bayern 5-2 on aggregate in last year's round of 16, and for the loss to the Bavarians of Oliver Kahn through suspension.

To Roma and Manchester United and the guiltless checking out of Totti. The bold Francesco has attracted all the attention in the run-up to this game, having, as he is, the season of his life in Serie A.

The key to Totti and Roma's success was the decision by new coach Luciano Spalletti (how very Italian this) to play without a centre-forward at all, instead playing the Roma fans' idol in a deeper-lying role, allowing the midfield triumvirate of Simone Perotta, Daniele de Rossi and the Brazilian Mancini - he of the astonishing quadruple-stepover goal in the win in Lyon last time out - to attack in support.

United will be feeling top of the world after the demolition of Blackburn at the weekend, but prior to the freewheeling second half display on Saturday they suffered what could turn out to be a fateful blow to their lofty season-end prospects: the injury to Nemanja Vidic.

The rock-solid Serbian's absence might be felt less tomorrow night, however, than against most domestic rivals. Alex Ferguson will already have been contemplating playing a 'marker' type defender on Totti, and the mobility of, perhaps, Wes Brown might suit.

United are missing a whole back four, however: Vidic, Gary Neville, Patrice Evra and Mikael Silvestre are all unavailable, and the Stadio Olimpico is a bad place to go without your most trusted defensive troops. A clean-sheet will be United's aim; it might be Roma's too, who'll fancy repeating the trick they pulled on Lyon on United.

Chelsea probably drew the shortest straw of the English clubs by getting Valencia, but then the Spaniards will probably have felt the same themselves. Chelsea remain the most convincingly attired of the English clubs, and perhaps even of anyone left in the tournament. In the event of their procurement of a victory at Stamford Bridge tomorrow night, who would you rather send to bludgeon out an away result in Europe?

With that Shevchenko guy starting to look like that other Shevchenko guy who once graced this tournament with Dynamo Kiev and AC Milan, Salomon Kalou starting to look like a footballer and Joe Cole finally returning to the squad, they have reason to fancy the latter stages of the tournament that Jose Mourinho would, I believe, choose to win of the three that they remain in contention for.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Munster Will Be Back; Leinster Need More Than Backs

In the end, you know what the strangest thing was? Watching the two Irish sides playing out the dying minutes beaten; scrabbling for consolatory scores as if trying to put a better look on the thing. No last minute heartbreak, no death-throe excitement, no miracle magic. Just two well beaten teams, going through those motions that every such team does.

That was one strange thing. Another was the feeling, for once, of being extras in someone else's movie. Where once Munster's story was the compelling narrative, on Friday Stradey Park was the backdrop to Llanelli's epic tale. Where Leinster's tragi-comedy was once again re-run, Wasps' heroic bandits held the greater dramatic interest.

Watching the scenes at the various quarter-finals throughout the weekend, one must hope again that the problems which imperil this tournament can be somehow resolved (even though the fear remains that the organisational differences throughout the different nations make the current disagreements in England and France inevitable).

In all four grounds that hosted quarter-finals, the charged atmosphere of collective desire that we've seen so often steaming from the Thomond terraces was replicated. It was almost as if, with that transfixing yarn of Munster's quest at an end, there was space to see that same base passion elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, Stradey Park's comparison with its Friday night visitors' famous home was an obvious one: the tight, heaving ground, the baying local hordes, right down to the sight of an stoppable red force at work. Munster will have understood what happened to them, then.

Sure, the limitations of Munster's attack, the absence of Paul O'Connell and Shaun Payne, O'Gara in a funk - these things can be talked about. But men in the mood that Alix Popham, Dafydd James, Stephen Jones and Regan King were never going to be denied on Friday. Munster will accept that, and will return again.

Leinster's horrible performance against Wasps is less easy to put down to forces of nature. The result was a triumph for Shaun Edwards and his blitz defence, and director of rugby Ian McGeechan will place it alongside Scotland's Grand Slam-sealing win over England in 1990 and the 1997 Lions campaign in his hefty portfolio of success.

Leinster were outdone in tactics and in spirit. The Wasps defence, teetering constantly on offside and staring into the whites of the Leinster backs' eyes, drew no convincing response from the supposed magicians for European rugby. It was almost as if Leinster refused to lower themselves to devising a counteraction to Wasps' tactic, relying on the purity of their method to conquer all.

Brian O'Driscoll's absence, however, is one that no team built around him can carry, as was proven for the second time this year. Let's hope it's not a lesson we must accept threefold come the autumn. Not only did O'Driscoll's loss allow Wasps to focus totally on strangling Leinster at the 10 and 12 axis, but also, O'Driscoll's powerful rucking was desperately missed at the breakdown, where the English side - Tom Rees' star continues in the ascendant - turned ball over with ease.

By the time Leinster began to pass up tackles like bloated diners dismissing the dessert trolley, the pall of defeat had already descended. That Leinster were outscored 22-3 while a man up illustrates the crumbling of belief that affected the Irish side. It doesn't even do to harp on about Leinster being let down by their forwards, as Stephen Keogh, Trevor Hogan and Bernard Jackman were probably their most impressive performers.

No, Leinster were beaten everywhere: on the bench, on the field, in their heads and in their hearts.

For all their brilliance, they seem further away than ever.

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