Premier League Opening Weekend

19 08 2008

Saturday was the start of the Premier League season but we are none the wiser as to the likely outcome this year. What we are sure of is that this season could, and probably will, be closer than last year’s thrilling race. Where last season it was a three horse race (just four points between the top three), this should be a four way tussle as long as Liverpool don’t capitulate as usual.

Starting with last year’s Champions, and although Manchester United failed to win, their start last season was actually pretty abysmal and they still won the title. Newcastle could be facing a tough season ahead and United really should have won.

Chelsea may have won 4-0 but the result was a little misleading. Portsmouth were truly terrible in the Community Shield and look like a different side. Last year, they were very hard-working, and played some excellent football at times. This season they look like a side believing their own hype from last year and simply not trying.

Chelsea will play better football this year. They’ll score goals. Scolari’s teams always do, but their real tests will come at the other end. When you play open football, you rely on pace at the back, as your defence is more exposed to counter-attacks. This is not their strongest suit. Against the better sides this could yet be exposed.

The midfield unit that played against Portsmouth also lacked a quality defensive player (no, Mikel is not quality) and a similar criticism could be levelled at Arsenal. Although he is clearly better than Obi Mikel, Denilson is still unproven and Eboue is just not a natural midfielder (he shouldn’t be on the wing either). Still, West Brom have a couple of decent players, and could well stay up if they play like that all season.

Liverpool were fortunate to come away from the Stadium of Light with a victory, but they won, and on the opening weekend that’s all that matters. They’ll need to perform better if they have real ambitions of winning the title but a win’s a win.

It looks like we’ll have a tight title race in prospect. Bring it on!

Olympic Mania

12 08 2008

Is Mr President the only person on this entire planet who does not care one iota about the Olympics? Everywhere he turns it’s Olympics this, Olympics that. Is it just him or is there even more hype than usual? The Greek Olympics four years ago not only marked a return to their birthplace, but also received unexpected publicity in the form of the Greeks being shock winners of Euro 2004.

So what’s the big deal this time? That they’re being held in a Communist country for the first time since the Cold War ended? Please, China gave up any sort of claim to being a truly Communist country once they got into bed with American Capitalism.

Tibet? Mr President could not give a rat’s arse about Tibet. Screw Tibet. Honestly, let it go already. Tienanmen Square was 18 years ago. Actually if you believe the Chinese the whole thing was all just a figment of our imagination. Besides, that was entertainment of the highest calibre. Mr President misses the days when Communism was evil.

James Bond’s never been the same since Glasnost. Bring back the Commies!

Preparing For The Proteas

24 07 2008

With the third test against South Africa looming England have some decisions to make and the rumour mill is already in full flow. The first thing to get out of the way, however, is that despite it being a major error of judgement, the selection of Darren Pattinson alone simply does not explain why England were outplayed as a team over the entire five days of the second test, as they clearly were.

Senior players need to now stand up and be counted. Players like Strauss, Vaughan, Bell and Pietersen, who all failed at Headingly, must now lead by example. If the selection of Pattinson did hurt England it was in depriving them of two of their leaders. A decision had been made to drop one senior player (Collingwood) for another (Flintoff) but once it was clear they’d be without Sidebottom too, Collingwood should have been retained.

The main rumour seems to be that Broad is to be rested. If it’s actually to rest him, then it’s a good decision but if he’s being dropped it’s madness, as he’s batting better than the top six. Paul Collingwood has to be the man who comes in. Pattinson, must surely make way for Harmison, Hoggard or Simon Jones, an international quality bowler.

Tim Ambrose’s position is a tough one. His glovework is better than Prior’s and that has to be paramount but he is not scoring enough runs right now. With no Broad in the side even if Collingwood were recalled the batting would still look frail, as neither Colly nor Fred nor Ambrose looks in good touch. Could it be time for James Foster to return?

Whatever happens England must improve. And fast. The Proteas look deadly.

Pattinson Selection Is Madness

20 07 2008

If “Flintoff” was the name on everyone’s lips last week, this week it’s been “Pattinson” as England’s selectors dropped a howler. Too much fuss has been made of his origins and it’s clouded the issue. He was born in England to English parents. Besides the Proteas might point to Kevin Pietersen playing for England and say that that ship has sailed.

No, the issue isn’t that he’s not English, he is. The issue is that he’s not very good. While he is certainly decent and a hard working and “honest” cricketer, that’s not enough for a player making his debut at 29. At that age you’ve got to be exceptional. A quick look at England’s opponents in a year’s time, Australia, sheds much-needed light on this.

Stuart Clark is a name England fans will remember from his debut Ashes series, a series where he arguably out-bowled the likes of Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. On his debut, against, interestingly enough, England’s current opponents South Africa, he picked up 9-89 and the Man of the Match award. Darren Pattinson’s figures were 2-95.

Arguably even more impressive has been Mike Hussey, who, like Stuart Clark, made his debut in his 30s and currently boasts an average of 68. England seem keen to replicate this but they’ve neglected one “tiny” detail. Pattinson might be the same sort of age as those guys were when they had their debuts but they were domestic veterans.

Neither of those had played just 11 first class games before their debut. England have gone from picking players too early (Plunkett, Mahmood) to picking them too early and when they’re too old to develop further. The selectors have lost their marbles.

England Need A Broad Attack

15 07 2008

The first test between England and South Africa ended yesterday, and despite England’s dominance over the first three days they were, yet again, unable to force a win at Lord’s. Whilst there is no doubt that the pitch did play a part (it’s the third draw in a row at Lord’s), with the Aussies due to tour next year there are serious questions to be asked of England’s current bowling attack.

Nobody can deny that they have been bowling well as a unit, the first time England have had a proper unit since the 2005 Ashes in fact. Yet the way they struggled to bowl out the Kiwis and failed to bowl out the Proteas doesn’t suggest they have it in them to bowl out the Aussies twice in a match, especially on a flat wicket like Lord’s.

Andrew Flintoff is the name on everyone’s lips and it’s not really a case of if he comes back into the set-up but who he comes in for. His ability to bowl with genuine pace, aggression and, crucially, reverse swing mean he will test any batsman on any surface, but his lack of form with the bat leaves some questions unanswered.

Can he bat at six is the most obvious one and the easy answer is that his current rival for that slot, Paul Collingwood, is hardly contributing big scores himself. Mr President is a big fan of Paul Collingwood and was, actually, advocating dropping Ian Bell before this test match for Flintoff but the latter turned the corner at Lord’s. Of course Collingwood could too, and that is why the selectors have a tough choice to make.

Do they give Paul more time to find his form or do as they did with Strauss and let him find it back at county level? Alternatively do they say to a young lad in Stuart Broad, who has consistently contributed at crucial times with bat and ball that he’ll have to make way for England’s talisman? Not only is he a big part of England’s future but if he were dropped the selectors would be taking a three-fold risk. Dare they?

Firstly they are risking setting back Broad’s long-term development. That’s the easy risk for them to take, though. More dangerous, however, is the risk that with Colly not making any runs, Freddie not either and  Ambrose struggling too, England will look vulnerable from six down to eight. Worse yet, if Freddie were to break down again then England would end up with Collingwood bowling as a front line bowler.

Broad deals with both of these risks. His runs at eight mean that Freddie is free to just express himself and that may be the best way for him to find his form. Equally his bowling means England would, once again, have a five-man attack, which was the very foundation of their 2005 Ashes attack. Only arguably even more varied.

Sidebottom gives England a left-arm angle, Panesar is a more attacking spin bowler than Giles and whilst Anderson lacks the control of Hoggy, he’s quicker and can swing it both ways. If Broad can up his pace a fraction he’ll be a real handful (Harmison who?) and of course Freddie is, when fit, one of the best fast bowlers around.

Ian Bell Proves Mr President Wrong

11 07 2008

To say that Mr President hates to be wrong would be a huge understatement, but there are times when nothing gives him greater pleasure. Recently he wrote that, so as to find a place for Flintoff, England’s selectors would be forced to choose between Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood. This wasn’t what he was wrong about, in fact he stands by that.

What he didn’t say in that piece, but was definitely thinking to himself, was that it should be Bell who made way. There has never been any doubt that Bell is the most technically gifted batsman in England’s side, but there has never been the same sense of certainty about his mentality. He made pretty runs but all too often unimportant ones.

Has he answered this criticism with his 199 against South Africa? No, not yet. But there are signs that he might just have a bit more bottle than many gave him credit for. There are few pace bowling attacks as deadly as the Proteas’ and England were looking down the barrel of a batting collapse, having lost three quick wickets, when he came in.

Since he’s in the mood for admitting mistakes, Mr President was also an idiot to suggest Tim Ambrose could bat at six. He came to the crease with England in a great position, a settled batsman at the other end, and failed. It was a decent delivery, but he played an uncertain shot. With his failures in the One Day arena and England still keen to field the same Wicketkeeper in both forms, could Matt Prior be recalled, batting at six?

That would allow Flintoff to bat at seven but is Prior’s glovework good enough?

Nadal Deservedly Wins Epic Final

6 07 2008

Yesterday Mr President told the loyal Textual Relations fanbase (all four of you) that he would be writing a bumper review of both Wimbledon finals but little did he know that a new record would be set for the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history. It was a thrill a minute but with the British weather doing its worst, today’s post was delayed.

Still, it was well worth it. We start, though, with a brief piece about yesterday’s Women’s final between the Williams sisters. Despite the fact that Maria Sharapova is hot, women’s tennis has rarely really interested Mr President. The matches are rarely as closely fought as those on the men’s side, possibly on account of them playing fewer sets

In fact Mr President still opposes women tennis players being paid the same as men for this very reason but if a close contest was what you were looking for, the battle between Venus and Serena finally lived up to the hype. Both brought their a-game, which made a change from their past encounters, where particularly Venus was perhaps guilty of unsurprisingly lacking her usual killer instinct against her beloved baby sister

Ultimately it came down, as it so often does, to who wanted it more, and for once it was Venus who showed the greater hunger. When asked by an interviewer why her biggest career moments (she’d been asked to name five) hadn’t included her sister, she simply replied “Because I haven’t beaten her yet”. Clearly it was something that ate away at her, but she responded to it by emphatically beating Serena in straight sets.

However if the women’s final was close (the scoreline hides it) you’d need a whole new word to describe events on Centre Court today. It was a big day for British sports as the British Grand Prix was also taking place, but all eyes were on SW19 as the two biggest stars in tennis went head to head again, in a renewal of a rivalry that has breathed fresh life into a sport that was in danger of becoming overly dominated by Federer.

All too often in sports we draw comparisons to greats of the past a little too readily, but the similarity between this tussle and the all-time great rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe is just too great to ignore. In 1981, as the Swede was chasing his sixth consecutive title, his greatest rival, a lefty, finally beat him to win his first one.

Everywhere you looked was another connection. Nadal bidding to be the first man since Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year, a classic fourth set tie break reminiscent of that one in 1980 (although arguably even better), the friendship between these two behemoths, and perhaps in Djokovic they’ve even found a willing Jimmy Connors to come between them. These two guys are rewriting history.

Both left everything they had out there, they traded blows until they were spent and it looked for the longest time as if they were simply too evenly matched. Yet perhaps the difference was that where Federer was at his very limit, Nadal had another gear to go into and he shifted into it at just the right time to snatch a deserved victory.

His first serve and volley came in the fifth set, but the fact he tried it at all shows the improvement in both his serve and volleying in the last year. Federer probably remains the best player on the circuit, but Nadal is the most improved. The scary part for Roger must be that the Spaniard is barely 22 years old. Just how good can he be?

One can’t help but feel that this victory for Nadal was like the one Federer enjoyed over Sampras in 2001. Back then it felt as if Sampras was handing over the torch to the young gun, who took that baton and ran with it, and this could mark a similar event for Rafa Nadal, beating the king of grass at his own game. He’s unbeatable on clay, so if he can develop a game for artificial surfaces the world may truly be his oyster.

For now, though, he can bask in the glory of a great year for Spanish sports.