Sunday, August 24, 2008

Problems in North London

Juande Ramos for all his tactical acumen has in my opinion not only missed a trick or two in the transfer market, but has also failed to adopt the right match day strategies that will help Tottenham Hotspur further their ambitions this season. If Spurs need to even so far as come close to qualification for Europe, Ramos needs to amend his ways with immediate effect. Jermaine Jenas and Luka Modric will never do well enough alongside each other in the centre of midfield. Jenas likes to bomb forward from midfield and is at his best when he plays as the link man between the midfield and the forwards. Modric as I have said before is a trequartista of the finest calibre and Ramos needs to deploy him in the ‘hole’ if he wants to see the best of him. My misgivings about the strategy employed by Spurs stem more out of the players deployed by Spurs in the different positions rather than out of the 4-4-1-1 formation that they had employed in the first two games of the season.

If Ramos had played Modric in the hole and Bentley and Bale on the right and left respectively, I am not too sure if Spurs would have done as poorly as they have in the opening two games. Jenas and Modric in the centre of midfield, as I mentioned earlier is an impracticable arrangement and Spurs need to play someone alongside Jenas who can anchor the midfield much in the Michael Carrick mould. I still believe Spurs’ failure to find an adequate replacement for Carrick has been the chief reason for their downfall over the last couple of seasons and is probably the cause of Martin Jol’s departure from the club. Didier Zokora is a player of moderate abilities and Tom Huddlestone in spite of his precocious passing abilities does not seem cut out for the big league. Spurs are in desperate need for a deep lying central midfielder and if they don’t sign one within the end of the present transfer window, I see them finishing below the likes of Portsmouth, Aston Villa and probably even Newcastle who seem rejuvenated under King Kev.

Tottenham have never quite needed attacking reinforcements beyond the odd player or two and singing Modric, Bentley and dos Santos makes good sense only if necessary strengthening has been undertaken in other areas of the pitch, such as in central midfield and up front, where they have already lost Robbie Keane and are looking increasing likely to lose Dimitar Berbatov, the two of whom nearly scored fifty goals between them last season. Signing, albeit a gifted Andrei Arshavin, would in my mind be a colossal waste of resources. Of what use would it be to have a hundred ‘hole’ players in your squad, all of whom are equally capable of threading the perfect through ball, when you don’t possess a striker who can apply the much needed finish? Goals and not passes win football matches and Spurs need to understand that before it’s too late. They must do their utmost in my opinion to sign a quality number 9 and a deep lying central midfielder if they have any interest in qualifying for Europe this season.

Moving on regrettably for Tottenham fans to the bigger club from North London, Arsenal, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher that they are missing Mathieu Flamini in the centre of their midfield. Flamini was magnificent for the Gunners last season and I am not too sure what Wenger has in mind in terms of the central midfield combination for this season. No doubt, Fabregas has missed the first two games with an injury, but even when he does come back, Wenger needs to address the problem of whom to play alongside him. With the signing of Mikael Silvestre from rivals Manchester United, I expect to see Kolo Toure increasingly being used as a defensive midfielder and only time will tell whether the experiment succeeds. Wenger is a past master at getting his players to adapt to different positions on the pitch, but I still think Arsenal will do well to sign a conventional central midfielder of significant experience. If Arsenal can somehow land Xabi Alonso, they can ensure that they are there and thereabouts in the title race come March. Samir Nasri, who was impressive in his debut against West Brom failed to make an adequate impact against Fulham yesterday and whilst he is a talented young player, he will need time to adjust to the rigours of the BPL. It remains to be seen how Nasri performs when a Phil Neville or a Brett Emerton gets stuck into him, but he has unquestionably made a good first impression, by showing a willingness to shoot and tackle when needed.

We can expect Arsenal to play a lot of good football this season much like they did last season, but they continue to lack experience in a few key areas and William Gallas has shown himself to be a very poor inspiration for some of the younger wards, which could prove costly for the Gunners in the long run this season. Having said that, Fabregas remains the key for Arsenal. Fabregas possesses maturity that belies his age and when he does return to the line-up, we can in my opinion expect to see the best of the Gunners.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Phelps the Greatest?

Eight gold medals in a single Olympics is quite simply phenomenal, but whether that makes Michael Phelps, the greatest ever Olympian is a different matter altogether. The debate of who is the greatest of all time is ubiquitous in arguments on any sport. A year back, people were saying that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time, but he seems mortal at the moment losing to the likes of Gilles Simon and James Blake and who not. Even if he goes on to win a few more Grand Slams overtaking Pistol Pete in the process, comparing different eras is hardly viable and it would certainly be unfair on Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver or even Sampras for that matter to describe Federer as the greatest ever tennis player, just as it would be on Pele, Maradona, or Best to label Zidane as the greatest ever footballer.

Calling Phelps’ the single greatest Olympic athlete of all time as Mark Spitz has, not only means that Phelps would have to be greater than Usain Bolt, who was remarkable to say the very least in the 100 metres race, or Yelena Isinbayeva who is going from strength to strength in the pole vault, but would also mean that Phelps is greater than a Jesse Owens, a Nadia Comaneci or a Michael Johnson who were all outstanding athletes in their own right. Comparing different eras is bad enough, but comparing different sports is simply unworkable. Comparing the 100m butterfly to the triple jump or to the 110m hurdles is like comparing the paintings of Michelangelo to the compositions of Beethoven or to the writings of Shakespeare. Usain Bolt’s act was equally impressive and for my money was superior to Phelps’ performances in terms of the sheer viewing pleasure that it created. Isinbayeva took women’s pole vault to a whole new level yesterday and in her own words, ‘she no longer considers the record as a world record, but rather as merely a personal best’. Therefore, even terming Phelps’ achievement as the best at the Beijing Olympics will be unfair to the likes of Bolt and Isinbayeva who have performed remarkably in their respective events. It is difficult enough to call Phelps the greatest swimmer of all time, calling him the greatest Olympian of all time is in my opinion excessive and unjust.

No doubt Phelps’ success is one of gargantuan proportions. Winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics is no joke and he practically made it look like a walk in the park. Matt Slater of the BBC says that whilst Phelps, Schumacher, Woods and many more besides could all still be the greatest, it is a difficult argument to make stick for most people, which is why the majority inevitably come back to more accessible sports. I am not however too sure if even in a sport such as football, it is quite so uncomplicated to call someone as the greatest of all time. I for one would certainly decline any opportunity to christen anyone as the greatest Olympian of all time, but if I was asked about my favourite athlete at the Beijing Olympics, I would without hesitation point to Yelena Isinbayeva whose grace and elegance with the pole and her ability to churn out world records for fun is beyond belief. Michael Phelps, eat your heart out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What more does he have to do?

The selectors’ decision to leave out Subramaniam Badrinath from the ODI squads for the Champions Trophy and the tour of Sri Lanka is both baffling and lamentable. The preference of Parthiv Patel and Virat Kohli to Badrinath is devoid of any semblance of logic and is brimming with favouritism. I am by no means being parochial here, but Badrinath has done everything that he needs to do to merit a place in India’s ODI team and yet the selectors chose players far inferior to him both in terms of skill and temperament.

If the selectors were going merely by performances in the recently concluded ‘Emerging Players Tournament’, Shikar Dhawan who scored a good 120 runs more than Kohli and at a far brisker pace should have found a place in the ODI squads especially considering his excellent displays in the IPL. Badrinath has incontestably proved in every opportunity that he has been given, whether it be at the India-A level, the Emerging players tournament, the Indian domestic competitions or at the IPL that he is a phenomenally consistent and level headed player. He can act as an excellent foil to the other Indian batsmen in so far as he is capable of playing the sheet anchor’s role to near perfection. With the exit of Dravid from the ODI set-up, India is in desperate need of a steady batsman in the middle order, a role which Badrinath is capable of easily perfecting. Kohli on the other hand is primarily a dasher and playing him in an Indian eleven which already possesses the likes of Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj and Dhoni would offer the team no balance whatsoever. In choosing to ignore basic commonsense in their quest to offer a favour or two, the selectors are acting as a hugely detrimental force in Indian cricket.

The selectors’ attitude is further baffling when one considers the fact that Badrinath was picked in the squad for the final two ODIs against Australia last year, only for him to be neither picked in the eleven nor in subsequent Indian ODI squads. His record in the last couple of years has been quite sensational and this is probably the right time to blood him in the longer version of the game, particularly in the wake of the terrible form that Ganguly and Dravid are in. But, the selectors’ resolution to leave him completely out of the ODI set up suggests to me that they don’t quite have Badrinath anywhere in their radar, which is a terrible tragedy for Indian cricket.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Who else but KP?

Virtually every cricket expert writing on the internet is of the opinion that the appointment of Kevin Pietersen as captain of the England cricket team can either turn out to be a remarkable success or a disastrous failure. It is of course trite to say that Pieterson was the sole candidate in contention for the team's captain’s post, but the fact remains that only Flintoff and him are assured of a place in both the one day and the test set up. Therefore, once the selectors had decided upon appointing a common captain for both the ODI and test units, bearing in mind Flintoff’s injury woes and his previously dire captaincy experience, the choice for the post came down to just one man, Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen has admittedly not captained at any level of the game and is vastly inexperienced for the job, but captains are almost always new to their posts and one can only hope that they learn on the job and help inspire their team to success. I am sure he will bring his dare devilish approach to batting to his captaincy and for all one knows, England might stand to benefit hugely from such a technique. Having said that, the responsibility could adversely affect his batting and England certainly wouldn’t want its best batsman burdened by captaincy. Only time will tell, whether Pietersen can bring a 'switch-hit' to his captaincy, but how well he takes to the role will be crucial to England’s performances.

Previously, I had expressed my views on the excellent balance of the English team and their preparedness for the Ashes next summer. However, with all the recent happenings and the dismal losses to the Proteas, I am forced to take a backward step or two on my stance. Much of my optimism on a great Ashes contest was based on Michael Vaughan’s presence at the helm of the English team. Vaughan is undeniably one of England’s greatest ever captains. But, whilst his resignation comes as massive surprise, it was probably the right thing to do considering his own batting form and the performance of the team against South Africa. Vaughan has also decided to take a break from cricket and relax for a while before he returns to play for Yorkshire in the County Championships. For all his recent batting misery, Vaughan remains one of England’s top batsmen and it would serve England very well if he can return to his graceful best and regain a place in the top order. The manner in which the Ashes pans out is in my opinion almost entirely dependant on how Pietersen adapts to his role as captain and the impact that the role has on his batting. With the return of Hoggard and possibly even Simon Jones, the English bowling attack will surely have a much more solid look to it, come the Ashes. But, irrespective of the team composition, Pietersen holds the key. If he can lead from the front and act as an inspirational force, England will make more than worthy opponents for the Aussies.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Picks for 08-09

With less than three weeks to go for the beginning of the new season of the Barclays Premier League, I must say that we are in the midst of the most boring off season for years now in spite of the ongoing Ronaldo saga and the constant uncertainty surrounding Gareth Barry. I can’t for one wait for the start of the new season and instead of immersing myself in asinine transfer rumours, I have been trying to figure out whom to look out for in this coming season in terms of performances. I have therefore come out with a list of ten players, all of whom I expect will contribute heavily this season in the drive for success of their respective clubs.

10. Jonas Gutierrez: Gutierrez is one of those who can either turn out to be a colossal hit or a massive flop. It depends almost entirely on how he adapts to the English game as there is no doubting his talents. Gutierrez is not blessed with breathtaking pace, but he is certainly capable of a trick or two and if he plays anywhere near as well as he did for Real Mallorca, we can expect him to be a big hit at Tyneside. The man nicknamed as the 'Spiderman' for the mask he puts on for goal celebrations is certainly the most colourful player signed this season.

9. Leighton Baines: Baines was unlucky to have missed out on a large part of the last season due to injury, but if fit this season, we can certainly expect him to play a big role for Everton not only in the form of helping them acquire clean sheets, but from an attacking point of view as well. Baines is a neat compact defender, but it is his ability to maraud forward from the left-back position that sets him apart as one to watch out for.

8. Gabriel Agbonlahor: ‘Gabi’, as he was referred to by the then Villa manager, David O’Leary has come on by leaps and bounds since scoring on debut against Everton. Agonlahor is blessed with tremendous pace which allows him to be deployed either wide on the right wing or centrally as a support striker. He has probably not fulfilled his potential in terms of goals, but Gabi offers far more than just goals to his team. He is capable of beating opponents both by skill and pace and we can expect far more goals and thrills from Agbonlahor this season.

7. Michael Johnson: News of Manchester City offering the youngster a new five year deal in spite of his current deal running till 2011 suggests that Johnson is a player that Mark Hughes is desperate to hang on to. He is a typical box to box player whose ability to dictate play from midfield stands out amongst several other admirable qualities. Having scored two spectacular goals for Man City last season, I would expect Johnson to flourish under the management of Hughes this season and who knows he may even find himself in the Don’s squad before too long.

6. Nani: Even though Nani impressed many with his performances last season, I don’t think the world has seen the best of him. Last season for the likes of Nani and Anderson was meant to be a time for settling in and adapting to the English game. Both players however took to the BPL like fish to water and I would expect a great deal more from both of them, in particular from Nani. Ryan Giggs isn’t getting any younger and I am sure Ferguson having tested Nani last season would provide him the opportunity to exhibit his talents on a far more regular basis this season and Man United fans can certainly look forward to seeing a whole lot more of ‘leaps of death’ from the Portuguese starlet.

5. Luka Modric: For me, the most exciting signing of the season by a good mile and a half, Modric is an exceptionally gifted footballer. He has two good feet and the unique ability to see passes that others cannot even dream of. The moot point surrounding Modric of course is whether he would be able to cope with the physicality of the BPL. But personally I don’t see why Modric would not be able to excel, particularly if he is used as a trequartista which is the position best suited for his spectacular abilities.

4. Wilson Palacios: Palacios is perhaps the only reason why Steve Bruce’s Wigan Athletic are still in the BPL. He stunned one and all with his supreme energy levels and his ability to make things happen on a football pitch and Arsene Wenger is probably regretting not having signed him instead of recommending him to Bruce as he could have been the ideal replacement for Mathieu Flamini. Arguably this season would be harder for Palacios, considering the expectations upon him after his admirable displays last season, but I would think he is more than capable of rising to the occasion and perform at even greater levels.

3. David Bentley: Bentley is without doubt a player blessed with the abilities to play for one of the big four clubs of the BPL and I am extremely surprised that Liverpool who lack a genuine wide player failed to make a bid for Bentley. Jaunde Ramos has once again played the cards perfectly by using the funds from Robbie Keane’s transfer to secure one of Britain’s brightest young talents. Bentley has an incredible cross and a superb shot on him and is deadly to say the very least from dead balls. Every year there is a lot of talk about how Spurs are going to break into the top four. I am not too sure if they will this season, but with the likes of Modric, Bentley and dos Santos in the squad, it can only be a matter of time before Spurs start challenging for a top four position.

2. Steve Sidwell: Having sat out on the bench for practically a whole season, Sidwell will be raring to get onto the pitch and perform to the best of his abilities in the claret and blue of Aston Villa. Whether Gareth Barry moves or stays, Sidwell will in my opinion have a big role to play in Villa’s quests this season. His splendid performances in Reading’s inaugural season earned him a Bosman move to Chelsea only for him to end up behind several players in the pecking order for a coveted central midfield berth. But this season, I am sure we can witness the best of Sidwell once again as he dictates play behind the likes of Young, Agbonlahor and Carew.

1. Bacari Sagna: Arsenal’s title ambitions last season seemed to spiral downwards almost immediately after Sagna injured himself against Chelsea causing him to miss the final month and a half of the campaign. Had Sagna been fit, I would think the title race would have been far closer than it actually was. Sagna is the kind of player who often goes unnoticed in a game, which is not as bad as it sounds when the player in question is a defender. But apart from offering consistency at the back, Sagna presents wonderful options for the Gunners from an attacking perspective, and I am sure there is a whole lot more to come from Sagna this season.