Posts by kierandodds

Newcastle United cannot claim Premier League relegation would be undeserved

 

If there’s any justice in the world’, crooned British neo-soul sensation Lemar in his 2004 chart smash, ‘Louis van Gaal would recognise that his greatness doesn’t deserve to prevail over John Carver’s atrociousness, accordingly throw Manchester United’s game against Hull, and thus condemn Newcastle to the most well earned relegation of the Premier League era.’

 

For once, the post-1993 qualifier is not so arbitrary. Newcastle’s current incarnation is as Premier League as Premier League can be, existing – just about – not to serve its city, its community, nor even its matchgoing fans. Newcastle’s current incarnation exists – just about – solely to serve the interests of the rapacious mega-capitalist who bought a club in 2008 and who owns a 50,000-seater Sports Direct billboard in 2015. Newcastle’s current incarnation is Michael James Wallace ‘Mike’ Ashley.

All of which explains the (not so) curious absence of, well, everything in the run-up to their final-day ‘decider’ with West Ham. Newcastle go into the match in need of something they won’t have achieved in 85 days, or more than 2,000 hours, by kick off on Sunday. They need a win. Don’t get it, and Hull take three points against the more or less settled in fourth Man United, and at least another year in the Championship beckons. Beyond a loss of prestige, however, Newcastle have little to lose by relegation: what difference, ultimately, between a top-tier and a second-tier season of dirge, without even a tilt at cup competitions? At least with the latter, some fans hopefully contend, their owner might be more tempted to cut and run.

 

Newcastle United v West Ham United Betting Odds:

Newcastle win 7/10

West Ham win 333/100

Draw 57/20

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Carver will plead that Newcastle treat their ‘clash’ with West Ham like any other game. The reality is that it is just another game, part 38 (to be generous) of a black-and-white meander into mediocrity. There are no ‘high stakes’; there aren’t even stakes. A match isn’t ‘do or die’ if the home side already contains 11 zombies, 7 replacement zombies, a Geordie zombie in a ‘technical area’ whose name his very presence undermines, and HRH, The UK’s #1, King Zombie of Sports Retail and Zero-Hours Employment.

Newcastle’s relegation rivals, of course, have their own rapacious mega-capitalists to be dealing with. Assem Allam, the Labour Party donor who hates Ed Miliband’s ‘communism’ and is by his support for a Hull City-to-Hull ‘Tigers’ rebrand pledging to water down another great working class institution, will be hoping that Steve Bruce can end a 17-year hoodoo against his old club. This looks a tall order, not because it’s fated, not because of any off-field ‘revelations’ – but because Hull are proper, proper rubbish. Not quite Newcastle’s clogged, Shawshank-river-of-sh*t, unfiltered sewage, but rubbish all the same. And yet, should Ahmed Elmohamady continue to inexplicably do Good Things (or, as is more likely, should Van Gaal’s men just genuinely not give a toss with their end-of-season awards already been and gone), anything is possible.

 

Sunderland are predatory in their own way, their longstanding tradition of profiting from the unskilled labour of others time and again mischaracterised as ‘Great Escapes’. Thanks to a battling 0-0 draw with Arsenal and another few admittedly decent scalps, they’ve done it again this year. So too Aston Villa, who despite their tanking at Southampton are safe, and with the added consolation that Tim Sherwood is no longer the most laughable coach in the English top flight. That leaves a straight shootout between a team so bad that John Carver is in the dugout, and a team so bad that they were beaten by a team with John Carver in the dugout.

 

There are other mini-battles set to take place on Sunday. Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton will compete for a Europa League spot that none really want. Arsenal will be hoping to avoid an eight-goal swing that would see them drop out of third place. And Alan Pardew will look to consolidate Crystal Palace’s place in mid-table, mostly so he can look down on, and gleefully mock, his former employers. Best wishes to them.

All eyes, however, will be on that bottom three – and For Football’s Sake, it ought to be Newcastle joining Burnley and Queen’s Park Rangers at the season’s end. Come friendly MK Dons, and fall on Town; they aren’t even fit for Pulis now…

 

Betting Instinct tip Hull to beat Manchester United, putting the pressure on Carver’s side, is 43/20 with Intertops.eu

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

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Gerrard v Gilet: Should Liverpool’s captain start against Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa?

 

Signs and screams express Liverpool dreams; a community united in sticking by one of its own, celebrating his achievements, trying to give him that worthy once-and-for-all send off. But as the Kop club together to ‘GET GERRARD TO WEMBLEY’, the sentiment seems, more than sickly sweet, just a little bit strange.

 

Aston Villa v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Aston Villa win 9/2

Liverpool win 11/20

Draw 29/10

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

One can forgive the onus on Wembley, by which is of course meant the final proper, rather than Sunday’s capital-staged Aston Villa semi. Responsibility for that imprecision lies at the door of the FA, whose decision to move the semis to the panoptic National Stadium of Everything is only the latest move serving to sap all meaning from a once valued cup competition.

What’s more puzzling is the target audience for those signs and screams. Just who is supposed to ‘GET GERRARD TO WEMBLEY’? Is there an e-petition going around? Is this a call for Ed Miliband to include a ‘Gerrard Responsibility Lock’ in the Labour Party’s election manifesto? Or are they, as is more likely, talking to Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool players, a plea for them to Do it for Stevie! and no mistake?

 

If the latter, it’s striking that fans give Gerrard no agency whatsoever, and that it’s left up to the rest of the squad to do the captain’s job for him. In this sense, the Kop’s calls tell a revealing story about their club’s season so far. Steven Gerrard, Istanbul’s one-man band who so stunningly dragged his teammates to a Champions League trophy, is all lined up to be 2015’s Antonio Nunez, reaping the harvest without planting the seeds. Worse, in fact, given that it was his rush of blood against Manchester United that has allowed the FA Cup to become Liverpool’s sole focus.

Whether Gerrard should or shouldn’t start against Villa is, apparently, one of the semi-final’s biggest subplots. The case for? ‘The FA Cup stars are aligned for Gerrard’ (Mystic Meg meets Sun Fantasy Football), ‘He’s a big game player’ (cough…), and ‘He loves scoring against Aston Villa’ (frankly, who doesn’t?). And against? Actual evidence, like, you know, Liverpool Being Miles Better Without Him.

 

Should Rodgers leave his skipper at shore, to whom will he turn to fulfill the role of Mr Liverpool? It won’t be an actual Scouser, of course, the manager having long since tired of the bore-off blasphemy that was Jon Flanagan’s ‘Flani Alves’ rebrand. Preferred candidate Daniel ‘Doubtful’ Sturridge is struggling with, you guessed it, another niggling injury. And Raheem Sterling appears to be missing after setting off in search of his tattooed-boy-from-Birkenhead hippy crack dealer. We hope you get the help you so clearly and desperately need, Raheem.

Presenting, then, Mario Balotelli, atFinallyMario, whose overdue Anfield success would anger exactly the right kind of people – from the bigots whose intolerance is unmasked when their football team fails, to the newspapermen desperate to scandalise and shame the innocuous.

The bond between Balotelli and the Liverpool fans is real, its strong, it’s even Gerrard-like. Take the Manchester United match, where pitchside supporters reached out to their hero with hugs and warm words, comfort banishing the pain and ignominy of defeat. There’s a reason why the Italian is set to be voted Liverpool fans’ player of the season, and it’s nothing to do with extra-club conspiracy. No, he just gets it, like Louis van Gaal at his club’s big rivals.

To sink Sherwood, Liverpool, Mario’s your man.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool to not only win this weekend but to win the FA Cup itself – on Gerrard’s birthday no less – is 33/20 with Intertops.eu

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Tottenham, Real Madrid and Rangers players in the spotlight for Euro 2016 qualifiers

 

Rejoice, football lovers, for when the sun is settling down and the wind shooting through Wembley stadium this Friday evening, you’ll at least be in the company of ONE OF YOUR OWN. Harry Kane, that lad at school who treated his Adidas ‘preds’ better than you did your girlfriend. Harry Kane, who of course skipped class to watch Sven’s men in a Chingford pub called the Sirloin. Harry Kane, not just boyhood Spurs (oops) but ‘patriotic England fan . . . sang God Save the Queen with pride, always do.’ One of us. One of us.

Yes, international week, where European football comes to die, has rolled round once more. First to discuss is England vs Lithuania, a match Roy Hodgson’s players – debut-ready Kane excepted – care so little about that they’re not even bothering to watch the individually-tailored videos that their manager has so painstakingly put together in advance. Not that it would make much difference, the squad being what it is.

England vs Lithuania Betting Odds:

England win 1/10

Lithuania win 18/1

Draw 15/2

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

A flurry of injuries means that Rob Green, as sharp as a bag of wet mice to paraphrase the real star of Sunday’s Clasico, deputises for Joe Hart. Andros Townsend, to Arjen Robben what Hugo is to Bart, covers for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And so worried is Hodgson by the threat of Saulius Mikoliunas, the Lithuanian winger formerly of Hearts and now at Belarusian club Shakhtyor Soligorsk, that he has called up three left-backs in Leighton Baines, Kieran Gibbs, and Danny Rose.

Expect a drab England win in the manner of every England win: 0-0 at the hour; a twitchy Andy Townsend, Clive; a cheap penalty for 1-0 and a deflected free kick to seal it. But do enjoy Harry Kane, the everyman with the remarkable ability to leave supporters even more open-mouthed than he is.

Israel vs Wales

Wales, the only home nation to play away from home, will leave Europe behind for the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa. The long trip to Israel, however, will not worry them so much as the form of their opponents. Wales (333/100 with Intertops.eu) have been solid, with two wins and two draws from their opening matches; Israel (5/6) have been perfect, their 100% record comprising an especially impressive 3-0 defeat of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Facing the twin-hindrance of tough opponents and the management of Chris Coleman, that Wales are even in with a chance here tells you something about the talent in their starting eleven. Exhibit A: Britain’s best midfield, lovely little Joe Allen and the now sadly bearded Aaron Ramsey supplemented by the even beardier Joe Ledley. And Exhibit B: It’s Gareth Bale, taking some time off from making Cristiano cry to chill with Hal Robson-Kanu. Granted, not enough to win a match all by themselves, but probably enough to give Tal Ben-Haim a good working over.

This, though, is not the time for rational analysis. With Wales teasing a first major tournament appearance in nearly 60 years, it’s time to stop what you’re doing, stand up, and listen to Paul Robeson belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Imma let you finish, Harry Kane, but Wales got one of the best anthems of all time.

Scotland vs Gibraltar

Scotland’s squad, meanwhile, are ‘not special yet,’ assistant manager Mark McGhee helpfully pointed out this week. Beat Gibraltar, who boast four losses from four, a goal difference of -21, and 13 players from the almost certainly fictional Lincoln Red Imps F.C., and they’re one step closer. The whole world is watching. And a 6-0 home win is shorter odds than smaller margins of victory.

Northern Ireland vs Finland

Off the back of a friendly against Scotland, Northern Ireland face Finland knowing that a win could put them a massive five points clear of third place with half of the campaign gone. This is wonderful news for the neutral, Norn Iron suddenly emerging as the most don’t-give-a-damn of all the home nations.

First there was January’s Ballon d’Or boycott, the Irish Football Association – alone among peers – failing to send their voting ballots back to FIFA on time. In any case, manager Michael O’Neill didn’t deem Lionel Messi to be one of the world’s best three players; Ronaldo, Philipp Lahm, and Thomas Mueller would, save for the IFA’s incompetency, have been his preferred choices. There’s also Jonny Evans, eligible for this match despite having eyeballed and spat at a man lying on the floor, before then going on to brazenly deny the subsequent FA charge. And what about the call-up for Shane Ferguson, coming as a great surprise to loan club Rangers who were told that he would be injured for the rest of the season?

No matches played, but a strong year so far for the Northern Irish – and with 43 in the world rankings coming up against 78 on Sunday, it might well be that they take that scintillating off-field form on to the pitch and cap an unusually exciting international break.

Betting Instinct tip Northern Ireland to keep up their unlikely run with a win is 17/10 with Intertops.eu

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire can ensure 2015 Africa Cup of Nations is remembered for the right reasons

 

 

The players of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana will shoulder a continent-sized burden when they meet in Bata on Sunday to contest this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final. After what governing body CAF euphemistically call ‘failures to maintain calm’ – and what everybody else calls violent disturbances – took place in both a quarter- and semi-final match, it has been unfairly left to the remaining two teams to salvage an apparently discredited tournament.

 

Africa Cup of Nations Outright Betting Odds:

Cote d’Ivoire 57/100

Ghana 5/4

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The trouble started when hosts and surprise package Equatorial Guinea were awarded a ‘controversial’ (another euphemism; read farcical) last-gasp penalty in their match with Tunisia. Ex-Real Madrid Castilla man Javier Balboa subsequently tucked away the spot kick, and then delivered another outrageous, top-corner extra-time set piece to secure a 2-1 win and his nation’s (un)safe passage.

Next, the Tunisians, furious at the Mauritian referee’s ‘bias’, thought it wise to pursue the man at fault down the tunnel – literally punching, kicking, and screaming as they went. Among the consequences were a surprising six-month ban for the referee; a paltry $50,000 fine for the Tunisians; and, most worryingly, more than a dozen reported attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia.

 

Things flared up again last night as Equatorial Guinea took on Ghana, though this time mid-, not post-, match. Finding their team 2-0 down at the half, some Equatoguinean supporters took out their frustrations on the away section and team; so many missiles were thrown that police felt compelled to don their riot shields and escort Andre Ayew and co. to their dressing room. A third Ghana goal was scored after the break, and Ghana’s fans were driven from their stand and forced to congregate on the pitch behind the nets. Stones and bottles reigned down.

The referee rightly stopped the match at around 80 minutes, and in doing so denied CAF the chance to repeat their well-worn ‘cut television coverage, stick fingers in collective ears, scream ‘La la la la la’’ routine. But this was only the start: to come was an inexplicably low-flying police chopper, an impromptu stadium evacuation, and an unacceptable number of hospital admittances. Like the hosts’ quarter-final, it was only the serious threat to safety that prevented a categorisation of tragicomedy.

 

These incidents apart, the tournament has been a joy. Semi-finalists Democratic Republic of Congo will continue to fly the flag for African domestic football in their third-place playoff, anchored by the management of Congolese Florent Ibenge and a playing staff drawn partly from TP Mazembe and Vita Club (albeit helped out by South London’s finest, Yannick Bolasie). Guinea overcame the Ebola epidemic not only to qualify, but also beat Mali and Cameroon to the quarters. Even the hosts have proved occasionally likeable: their on-field antics have annoyed and the team will in all probability face a lengthy ban, but it was briefly heartening to see an Equatoguinean team made up of young and exciting Equatoguinean players (still got love for you, Felipe Ovono) approach the miraculous on home turf. It will be a great shame if the actual football is forgotten.

A final fought between two African heavyweights, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire and the Black Stars of Ghana, should help to make sure that this is not the case. The African football hipster will still surely mourn the early exit of Platini’s Cabo Verde, but for most it is the perfect ending: the dying embers of an Ivorian ‘golden generation’, rejuvenated by he of the plain white shirt, Herve Renard, versus a bright Ghanaian side, all of whom are under 30 years old, managed by the ageless-but-not-in-a-good-way Avram Grant.

 

Cote d’Ivoire have probably been the tournament’s best team. Functional if underwhelming in the group stages, they have come to life in the knockout format, first dispatching favourites Algeria before a more-or-less routine semi-final victory over DRC.

Renard, 2012 Cup of Nations winner with Zambia, has been central to their success: a lack of firepower was never going to be a major problem for a team containing Wilfried Bony, Yaya Toure, Gervinho, and the in-form Max Gradel, but the defence now looks so much more organised, so much more a coherent unit, in the coach’s 3-5-2 system. But the question, really, is whether he has instilled the less perceptible but just as important ‘no-choke’ mentality: Don’t flop, Siaka Tiene, Kolo Toure, et al.

 

Ghana’s progress has mirrored their opponents’, a sloppy start followed by a sudden improvement. Beaten by Senegal in their opening match, they had to scrap to escape a ‘Group of Death’ that also had in it Algeria and South Africa. Two nervy one-goal and two convincing three-goal wins later, Grant’s team are gearing up for the final.

In that run, Christian Atsu has been especially influential, blitzing past full-backs for fun and scoring what will undoubtedly be named Goal of the Tournament in the quarter-final win over Guinea. If Cote d’Ivoire’s Tiene and Serge Aurier can negotiate the threat of Atsu and captain Ayew, the Black Stars’ chances will be much reduced. Ghana must also sweat on the fitness of Asamoah Gyan; out for the Senegal loss with a mild bout of Malaria and later injured in a Harald Schumacher-like collision with Guinea’s goalkeeper, he is doubtful for Sunday.

Let us merely hope, in what is perhaps the world’s first sincere use of this phrase, that whatever happens, football – absolutely glorious Africa Cup of Nations footballis the winner.

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Tyne-Wear Derby offers Newcastle and Sunderland’s unsung heroes a chance to shine

Jozy Altidore could earn himself cult hero status at Sunderland by shining against Newcastle

Jozy Altidore could earn himself cult hero status at Sunderland by shining against Newcastle

It suits Alan Pardew to downplay the significance of Sunday’s Tyne-Wear derby. Since being gifted the Newcastle job in December 2010, his team have won just one of their seven clashes with Sunderland. When the away team came away from St James’ Park with a 3-0 victory in 2013, it was the heaviest Newcastle derby defeat since 1979 – and then, a year later, it happened again. When Pardew told the press this week that the fixture is ‘always interesting’, then, he almost certainly meant ‘interesting’ in its most euphemistic sense. ‘Shut your noise,’ he seems to be saying to Newcastle fans, and focus your attentions elsewhere.

His Sunderland counterpart Gus Poyet might be expected to be a smidgen more brash, given that he is unbeaten in Tyne-Wear derbies since taking over as manager. Not so: ‘unless someone wins player of the month like Connor Wickham and Adam Johnson did last season,’ he said after his team’s 10th draw in 16 league games, ‘it is going to be boring draws all the time.’ As a strict assessment of his team’s recent performances, it is fair enough. As a means of stirring and spurring them to another win at the home of their biggest rivals, it looks at best misguided.

 

Newcastle United v Sunderland Betting Odds:

Newcastle win 9/10

Sunderland win 57/20

Draw 49/20

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Thankfully, Sunday is not about words. Whatever Pardew or Poyet have to say, it cannot diminish – nor, for that matter, amplify – what is a moment, not a match. Fans of both teams love the derby because fans of both teams make the derby (it is always just ‘the derby’), transforming manager to makeweight, player to pawn, and stadium to cesspit – glorious, wondrous, hate-filled cesspit.

After Newcastle were comprehensively beaten by Arsenal at the weekend, I sent a message to my Newcastle-supporting dad, noting that the midweek League Cup quarter final vs Tottenham was always the more important fixture. His reply was, ‘I and derby stick it up the makums’ (‘I’ equals ‘Aye’, ‘makums’ equals ‘mackems’, or Sunderland fans): no nuance, no cause for elaboration, just a target. While this might be typical of most dads’ football texting habits, it is nonetheless telling. There is no room for ‘rational’ analysis when the derby rolls around; what we have here, Clive, is an occasion where the form book goes out of the window. It is instead something to relish (for the victors), to detest (for the losers), to wonder upon (for the outsiders).

 

All of this makes picking a winner next to impossible. With Shola Ameobi, who – stat alert – scored 16% of his Premier League goals against Sunderland, now taking a late-career amble in the Turkish second tier, United lack a talisman. Sunderland are in a similar pickle: Fabio Borini, their preferred derby bogeyman with three of his eight English top flight strikes coming in wins over Newcastle, is back on the bench at struggling Liverpool.

In lieu of logic, only #NARRATIVE can take up the slack. Every derby demands a hero and a villain: take Kevin Nolan and Titus Bramble on Halloween 2010, or Jack Colback and Pardew – always Pardew – in the February of last season. Sunday will be no different, and at a stretch there are a few clues as to who they might be. Samuel Ameobi could be inspired by his brother’s proud legacy, or he could collapse under the pressure of his hefty surname. Colback could replicate said performance in his new team’s colours, or he could continue to do Sunderland favours. Josmer Volmy Altidore could do what he has done for the last 18 months, that is, nothing at all, or he could find in the derby the catalyst for something remarkable.

I have no idea. Pardew and Poyet have no idea. Nobody has any idea. And if that makes for a terrible betting preview, then so be it.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Eight of Sunderland’s games this season have either finished 0-0 (8/1 with AllYouBet.ag) or 1-1 (11/2), and a repeat of one of these scorelines seems likely

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Real Madrid out for revenge against unpredictable Liverpool

Jay Spearing's cameo was an integral part of Liverpool's most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

Jay Spearing’s cameo was an integral part of Liverpool’s most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

 

‘We made Madrid look like sidemen.’

So went the tweeted verdict of one Liverpool fan reflecting on his side’s 2009 Champions League demolition of the current competition holders. And, it’s true, they did. Liverpool are these days no strangers to making entire teams look like ‘sidemen’, of course; despite a rocky start to this campaign, the last saw sideman after sideman capitulating to the talents of Suarez, Sturridge, Rodgers, and the rest. But there was a greater romance to the feat five years ago: Ryan Babel laid on a goal; Andrea Dossena scored; and in the ultimate indignity for the Spanish side, Jay Spearing replaced Steven Gerrard with fifteen minutes still to play (‘After the skewering, the Spearing’, as Henry Winter so characteristically put it).

Though at least Liverpool had some romance to lose. Their opponents on Wednesday are the antithesis of such an idea. Real Madrid aren’t a team, but a machine – if anything too well oiled – at once both beautiful and ugly. Cristiano Ronaldo spits on your ‘romance’, Pepe headbutts it, and Carlo Ancelotti neatly – but firmly – files it away in a drawer.

They showed it again in Saturday’s 5-0 trashing of Levante. Ronaldo scored his tenth goal in four league games and his fifteenth this season, bringing his Football Manager average rating up to a staggering 9.37 in the process: truly unprecedented. The week before that? Another 5-0 win at home to Athletic Club. Though they sit third in La Liga, their results of late (in all competitions) have been nothing short of ridiculous: since the 2-1 loss to Atletico on September 13, the list reads, 5-1, 8-2, 5-1, 2-0, 2-1, 5-0, 5-0. Gareth Bale will be injured for the away side, and a potential distraction lurks in the background in the form of Saturday’s El Clasico, but even taking both into account, Liverpool ought to be worried.

 

Liverpool v Real Madrid Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 3/1

Real Madrid win 4/5

Draw 13/5

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The English side’s weekend win at QPR was an absurd spectacle; one that you would think had been made up were it not for the eminently plausible event of a Richard Dunne own goal. Absurd, perversely impressive, but far from convincing, it was a performance that will no doubt encourage Real Madrid. Liverpool, remember, have some of their own injury problems – Sturridge is out for another few weeks; Raheem Sterling might well, if he can keep his eyes open, watch from home with some warm milk and a blanket – and their form in Europe has been patchy at best: the last gasp win at home to Ludogorets was concerning enough, but to follow it up with a 1-0 loss to Basel was to put their place in the competition in doubt.

 

It could well be that Liverpool need a tie like this, something to kickstart their stuttering season. There is (rightly) much made of the Anfield atmosphere on big European nights, and Wednesday should be, to quote Rodgers, ‘special’: ‘To see that flag back out in the middle of the pitch and for the supporters to get behind their team, like they do, is going to be an amazing experience.’ Being excited, however, is not the same as being prepared.

There will be no repeat of 2009’s 4-0, not this time. And if you can find odds on Mario Balotelli pulling down Pepe’s shorts, kicking him up the backside, and telling him that he looked better baldy, take them. With such a craaaazy guy – What’s he gonna do next? Dye his hair RED? HAHA! – leading the line, Liverpool have next to no chance. Far better to take a punt on the dependable Rickie Lambert, a man much more likely to terrorise young Raphael Varane than he who dragged his country, kicking and screaming, to the final of Euro 2012.

Otherwise, as a Real Madrid supporting friend of the Liverpool fan we met earlier replied, ‘this time we will see who will be the wasteman.’ It’s up to you, Brendan.

 

Betting Instinct tip Real Madrid to win by two or more goals is 37/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Arsenal look to keep up strong start in North London Derby

Will Younes Kaboul's North London Derby experience be enough against Arsenal's fluid frontline?

Will Younes Kaboul’s North London Derby experience be enough against Arsenal’s fluid frontline?

Thankfully, the Premier League’s fixture computer has this weekend provided the perfect antidote to the frankly disgusting spectacle that occurred the weekend before. Frank Lampard was almost in tears after his goal drew Manchester City level with Chelsea in the 85th minute of their tie, and explained afterwards to Sky Sports that, ‘I woke up this morning and didn’t know what I wanted from today.’ Four years earlier, as Emmanuel Adebayor’s Man City prepared to face his former club Arsenal, the Togolese knew exactly what he wanted. Angry at having been written off as a top-level striker and hurting after being subjected to a racist chant on the morning of the match, he proceeded to score and, well, do this. Now leading the line for Tottenham, he has the chance to repeat the feat in Saturday’s North London derby.

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur Betting Odds:

Arsenal win 7/10

Spurs win 7/2

Draw 53/20

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

Both sides have had strange starts to the season. Arsenal find themselves right at home in their familiar fourth place, while Tottenham lie five places and two points behind, in ninth. But despite Arsenal’s strong-ish start, the bulk of their play has been stilted and lacking in imagination. They scraped a win at home to Crystal Palace on the opening day, found themselves 2-0 down at Everton a week later before rescuing a point, and then struggled again in a 1-1 draw with Leicester. They looked better against City, but still seemed to lack that cutting edge, both Arsenal goals in the 2-2 draw the result of individual brilliance (Sanchez’s sublime volley, Wilshere’s lovely dinked finish) rather than, as is more typical of Arsene Wenger’s sides, the strength of the collective.

There is good reason to believe, however, that things are starting to ‘click’ into place. These early season performances have coincided with an experimental 4-1-4-1 formation that seemed to suit precisely none of the club’s most talented players. Alexis Sanchez has been largely impressive, but there remained a question mark over just where he would be picked; Aaron Ramsey, despite two important goals against Palace and Everton, has looked well short of his best; and Mesut Ozil, to put it kindly, has cut a peripheral figure out wide on the left.

But last weekend’s convincing away win at Villa Park saw the return of what most Arsenal fans wanted to see from the off: a 4-2-3-1 with Ozil at the centre of the three. Suddenly, the Danny Welbeck-Ozil-Sanchez axis looked unstoppable, even against Aston Villa’s rightful heirs to Paul McGrath and Shaun Teale (ahem), Ron Vlaar and Philippe Senderos. There now appears to be an air of optimism around the Emirates, one that Tuesday’s League Cup loss to Southampton has done little to dampen. (‘Bellerin, Chambers, Hayden, Coquelin’, Arsenal’s back four ominously read that evening.) They go into Saturday’s derby with confidence.

The same can’t be said for Spurs. Like Arsenal, their start to the season has been marked by ups and downs. Spurs’ downs, however, are both more worrying and more recent. Mauricio Pochettino looked to have settled in nicely at White Hart Lane, a spirited ten-man win away at West Ham being followed up by a routine dispatching of QPR. As Manchester United fans learned last week, however, 4-0 wins against Harry Redknapp sides mean diddlysquat in the longer term. Subsequent results have been disappointing to say the least: a 3-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield (fair enough), a 2-2 draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light (not great), and a 1-0 loss to West Brom at White Hart Lane (a ‘big hit in the face’, to quote Pochettino).

The manager is fortunate that the West Brom loss came on one of the most brilliant, and certainly bizarre, Super Sundays™ in recent memory – with apologies to James Morrison, Esteban Cambiasso scoring for Leicester in a 5-3 win over Man United trumps every goal the Scottish midfielder will ever score – and that few will remember just how turgid his team’s performance was. The pressing style that so characterised Pochettino’s Southampton was nowhere to be seen, and the defence again looked shaky.

The manager told reporters this week that no member of his squad should feel secure in their place – ‘if you need to change, you change’, as he succinctly put it – and fans must be hoping that he proves as good as his word. Replacing both centre backs would be a radical move, and is unlikely to happen in time for the derby, but it wouldn’t be an unpopular one. Younes Kaboul and Vlad Chiriches aren’t working as a partnership; Jan Vertonghen and Federico Fazio just might. Benjamin Stambouli, a player whose timing in the tackle is matched by his leadership qualities, could also come in alongside Etienne Capoue in an effort to shore up the Spurs midfield.

Even that might not save them. It’s not that there is any sort of crisis; this is a slump, at worst. One must bear in mind, however, that Spurs are a side recovering from the management of Tim Sherwood, a man more renowned for his ‘banter’ than his tactics. Things will improve, and Pochettino deserves time to negotiate that process, but in the short term it appears that they lack both the cohesion and the quality to get one over on their rivals. Arsenal will likely continue their fine North London derby record – only two losses at home in the Premier League era – and, alas, Adebayor will likely depart his old stomping ground looking miserable.

Betting Instinct tipArsenal to be winning at half-time and full-time is 8/5 with AllYouBet.ag

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a master’s student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Germany vs Argentina: the final that nobody wanted

After struggling through the knockout stages, will this be one game too far for Argentina?

After struggling through the knockout stages, will this be one game too far for Argentina?

Why do we love football? There’s the superficial answer, of course: that perfectly-timed slide tackle from Javier Mascherano, that sublime finish on the bounce from Andre Schurrle, and, yes, that entire German humiliation of Brazil, one not characterised by mere ‘efficiency’, as BBC commentators and pundits erroneously argued in the clichéd and mildly xenophobic tones to which we are accustomed, but by an intoxicating mix of the aesthetic and the ruthless.

Sometimes, that’s good enough. Sometimes, players’ individual brilliance shines through, and that’s sufficient to placate us, the demanding fans. Sometimes, teams simply put on that kind of show, or, in the case of the hosts, collapse entirely, in which case we’re drawn to the spectacle like so many passers-by to a motorway pile-up. In other cases, it isn’t. The second semi-final was a case in point: a dreadful match in which two of the best players in the world, Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben, were for the most part anonymous; an abject 0-0 after an abject 120 minutes. Football can delight like no other sport yet invented, but—let’s face it—sometimes, just sometimes, it can be crap.

 

When that happens, we need something else to sustain our interest. In fact, we need that most annoying of think-piece buzzwords: we need #NARRATIVE. Kevin Keegan wrongly (but wonderfully) framed things geographically when he said that Newcastle fans go to St James’ Park ‘like the people down South go to a theatre.’ His sentiment, however, was sound. It isn’t that ‘goals are overrated’: not since 1974 has a World Cup third-place playoff (a #NARRATIVE-less match if ever there was one) finished with less than three goals, which alone justifies its presence in the tournament. Goals are great. But when there aren’t any goals—what then?

 

Germany v Argentina Betting Odds:

Germany to win the World Cup – 1.65

Argentina to win the World Cup – 2.20

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Nobody wanted this final. Spain aside, perhaps, Germany and Argentina are the strongest two teams in the world, and still nobody wanted this final. Argentina haven’t scored more than once since the group stages, relying on extra time and penalties to sneak through to their fifth World Cup Final. And Germany knocked out Rais M’Bolhi’s Algeria, which is reason enough to will for their demise. With Germany’s demolition of Brazil fresh in the memory, Argentina might well channel the playing style of their neighbours, who resorted to kicking and spoiling in their quarter-final with Colombia. There’s also the small matter of this being the single most important match in every one of these players’ careers, a scenario that inevitably leads to caution.

This would be fine if there were only a #NARRATIVE to cushion the blow, but there isn’t. The best we can come up with is a Battle of the Living Popes, which sounds more like a Syfy B-movie than it does a football match. Continuing the religious theme, there’s the fact that this is the first World Cup held during Ramadan since 1986, when Argentina and Germany also contested the final. And there’s the moral dilemma that the match will throw up for reactionary English football fans, the two countries involved being historical enemies of our Green and Pleasant Land. As one fan so stirringly tweeted (since deleted, strangely): ‘Any British person supporting Argentina should be dragged to the Cenotaph and made to read the names of those who died in the Falklands.’ Right.

 

It didn’t have to be this way. It could’ve been perfect, in fact, the semis giving life to a glorious set of possibilities for the next and final phase, the draw’s branches so nearly extending to two of the biggest rivalries in international football. Oh, for Brazil vs Argentina, at the Maracana, in a World Cup Final: a match in which the brilliant and/or bizarre is almost guaranteed, a rerun of the Italia ’90 knockout game in which the Brazilian Branco claimed to have been given water spiked with tranquilisers by the Argentinian coaching staff. Or for a Germany vs Netherlands, a wartime rivalry that continues to linger: think Gerd Muller putting the kibosh on Total Football in 1974; think Frank Rijkaard’s phlegm; think Ronald Koeman pretending to wipe his backside with the shirt of Olaf Thon, smiling as he goes.

Football wouldn’t be football without such moments, illogical and indefensible as they are. Football isn’t all slide tackles, or goals, or complete performances. Football is #NARRATIVE, whether we like it or not: it’s cheating, it’s fighting, it’s spitting in another man’s hair—twice. Only one avenue remains open to us, then, if we are to spare ourselves Sunday’s coming boredom: we milk the Battle of the Living Popes, and we milk it for all it’s worth.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Germany to win with less than 2.5 goals in the game is 3.37 with Intertops.eu.

Unsure about how decimal odds work? Let our free odds calculation guide do the work for you.

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS (kierandodds) is a history student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and  current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and  others. Follow Kieran on Twitter or Google+.

Champions League Quarter Finals: Chelsea and United on the Brink

Will the return of Samuel Eto'o inspire Chelsea to victory?

Will the return of Samuel Eto’o inspire Chelsea to victory?

‘I believe and my players believe. That’s the most important thing.’

 

José Mourinho was in bullish mood in his pre-match press conference, hashtag fodder (#BELIEVE #CHAMPIONSOFEUROPE) spewing from the Portuguese before his side’s attempt to overturn a two-goal deficit against Paris Saint-Germain at Stamford Bridge tonight.

Confidence, of course, has never been a problem for José, even if it has been tempered this season by the improbable assertion, made when Chelsea sat atop the Premier League table, that they were out of the title race, or the weirdly public protestation that the strikers at his disposal were either aging (to the point of elderly), incompetent, or both. Perhaps Johan Cruijff was right when he told De Telegraaf this week, ‘It’s always the same with [Mourinho]. When things are going well, it’s the result of his good work, but the players are to blame when things are going badly.’

 

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain Betting Odds:

Chelsea to qualify – 3.20

PSG to qualify – 1.34

(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

More often than not, though, that confidence is justified. And so while the task at hand is great, Chelsea fans, like their manager, do ‘believe’. In 2012, the year of their Champions League triumph, Chelsea faced Napoli in the last 16. Then, as now, they sank to a 3-1 defeat in the first leg. But a 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge followed, and Chelsea progressed. PSG will prove a sterner test—they can boast 11 straight wins and a strong European away record—and there is no Didier Drogba this time to drag the team through by sheer force of will. But the precedent is there.

Samuel Eto’o is in line for a return for Chelsea, injured soon after scoring in March’s 6-0 mauling of Arsenal, and much will depend on his sharpness. PSG, meanwhile, have their own missing striker; Zlatan Ibrahimović’s absence, however, is no disaster, allowing Edinson Cavani to move into a more central role and opening up a space for Lucas Moura in the starting lineup. Yohan Cabaye might also start in place of Marco Verratti, in part for his experience against English opposition, in part for his rugged handsomeness.

Even with a firing Eto’o, stopping such a side from scoring will be a big ask. Glorious (aggregate) defeat, then, is the most likely outcome, after which Cruijff might once more be proved right.

—————-

Manchester United, too, ‘believe’, or at least Patrice Evra does: ‘We always believe when you play for Manchester United,’ he said after a belief-boosting 4-0 win away at a Dan Gosling-‘inspired’ Newcastle side whose manager is still banned from the touchline after head butting a player. Heady days for both clubs.

What Evra ‘believes’ is that the seventh best team in England, two points behind Tim Sherwood’s Spurs, can beat the best team in the world, 20 points ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund. In Munich.

 

He’s not the only one, either. Bayern are technically on their worst run in years, losing to Augsburg at the weekend and drawing with Man United and Hoffenheim the week before. Jeff Stelling and men of his ilk are crowing about how all the ‘momentum’ is with David Moyes’s side, as if the Augsburg defeat wasn’t Bayern’s only one in 53 league games, or as if they hadn’t won the title by March, or as if Marouane Fellaini’s flailing limbs (mostly elbows) really were a match for Philipp Lahm’s actual footballing ability.

 

Which is not to say they have no chance. Bayern’s ‘poor form’ does count for something, though not as much as some are making out. As does Man United’s ‘good form’, with the same caveat. The absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, both through suspension, is a boost for the away team. But the midfield they face will still be better than the black hole that is their own, Lahm holding expertly and Toni Kroos playing with a point to prove.

Man United have absentees of their own, of course, with Robin van Persie definitely out, Juan Mata cup tied, and Wayne Rooney struggling. Rooney, however, looks as if he will play, despite not being 100% fit (because that’s worked so well for England in the past – ed.). Moyes has revealed how staff have ‘worked him hard… in the swimming pool’, managing to distract him from the water slides and wave machines for just long enough to do some aerobic work. But even if he does start, their chances of victory are slim at best.

 

We have, at least, moved past the stage where Man United losing every week is considered comedy gold. Everyone by now is used to their weakness, and, in a way, this stands them in good stead. It means that Moyes can set up as he did at Old Trafford without any negative reaction, limiting Bayern to long shots and harmless possession in the first two thirds of the pitch. It means that anything but a comfortable Bayern win can be considered a success for the manager and his players. And it means, for once, that the majority of football fans will be supporting Man United tomorrow night. For that would be the real comedy gold: an Alexander Büttner winner at the Allianz Arena. #BELIEVE.

 

Betting Instinct Tip – With United likely to set out in a defensive formation, we suggest backing Bayern to win to nil at 2.08 with GR88.com

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS (kierandodds) is a history student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and  current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and  others.

Chelsea should prove too strong for returning Drogba

Chelsea's array of attacking talent, including Eden Hazard, should see them through against Galatasaray

Chelsea’s array of attacking talent, including Eden Hazard, ought to see them through against Galatasaray

Fresh from defeat at the hands of Aston Villa, whose squad is so unrecognisable (Yacouba Sylla? Callum Robinson?) that it sounds like it belongs in the seventh year of a Football Manager save, Chelsea come into their Champions League round of 16 return tie with Galatasaray in need of a convincing performance.

 

The hype around the fixture has centred largely on Didier Drogba’s return to Stamford Bridge. It’s easy to see why, Drogba, summoning the spirit of Diego Maradona circa 1986, having won the Champions League on his own for Chelsea two years ago. But this is no mere testimonial, as Galatasaray look to do to Chelsea what they did to the equally well-fancied Juventus in the final game of Group B.

On the face of it, they have a chance. To qualify from a group featuring Real Madrid and Juve was impressive, even if freak weather was a contributing factor. And their first XI isn’t half bad: Drogba and Wesley Sneijder obviously merit close attention, but Chelsea must also find a way through the impressive midfield axis of Selcuk Inan and Felipe Melo, as well as a way to shackle Drogba’s partner, Burak Yilmaz.

 

Chelsea v Galatasaray Betting Odds

Chelsea win – 1.39

Galatasaray win – 8.60

Draw – 4.50

(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Galatasaray’s away form, however, is patchy at best: only three times this season have they won away from home, the last coming in December. Oh, and there’s also the Roberto Mancini factor, the scarf-bothering manager yet to guide any of his teams past the Champions League quarter finals.

 

Chelsea, as we know, have no such troubles. As well as a formidable home record, Jose Mourinho is, well, a really, really good manager, and a likely front four of Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Samuel Eto’o should prove too strong for the visitors.

Still, let’s all hope that Mancini can overcome his European yips and Drogba rediscover his magisterial 2012 form, lest Chelsea progress and, perhaps, win the whole thing. For the sight of John Terry—‘Captain, Leader, Legend’—holding the Champions League trophy aloft once more, and this time with Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend fawning over ‘The Special One’ and his ‘fairytale’ homecoming, would be too much for most to take. ‘Welcome’, as Galatasaray fans would say, ‘to Hell.’

 

Moving on, now, to Wednesday. We’ve all had a good laugh at Brendan Rodgers in the few years he’s been at Liverpool, and deservedly so, since anyone who hangs a self-portrait above their living room fireplace is more David Brent than Brent himself. But after the 0-3 dismantling of Manchester United this weekend, few would now deny the Northern Irishman’s managerial acumen. To quote that Latin motto of his, Rodgers, like a weird Buzz Lightyear, is taking Liverpool ‘through adversity, to the stars.’

 

But if the mockery reserved for Rodgers is somewhat cushioned by his on-field success, his adversary on Sunday, David Moyes, has no such fallback. The Liverpool match was the first of three crucial tests, and the first of three potential failures. To come is the Manchester derby, a fixture in which his team were battered 4-1 earlier in the season, and tomorrow, Olympiakos come to Old Trafford.

The reasons for Man United’s decline are many. But even if some of the blame lies with Alex Ferguson, what with the threadbare, aging squad he left behind, or with Ed Woodward and the Glazer family, for not securing or not sanctioning the necessary transfers, it’s becoming clearer by the week that Moyes isn’t the man best placed to arrest it. In fact, he’s only making things worse.

 

To see Manchester United sitting in seventh place in the Premier League, exactly as far from Chelsea in top spot as they are from Hull City in 13th, is one thing. But to see players like Robin van Persie losing game after game and seemingly not caring is something else entirely. #MoyesOut has gone from being a joke thrown around by rival fans to an earnest call from United fans themselves, and, given the season so far, that’s completely understandable.

And yet, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Moyes managed to overturn the two-goal deficit required against the Greek champions. This is partly because they can’t possibly be as bad as they were against Liverpool, and partly because, despite their performance in Athens and their domestic dominance (the title being already wrapped up), Olympiakos are an ordinary side. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see a 3-0 win greeted with more ‘Moyes Turns Corner’ headlines, only for his side to win but a couple of their next half a dozen games and stay hovering just above Southampton.

 

The week’s other two matches, meanwhile, aren’t nearly so interesting, so I won’t bother with more than a sentence on each. Real Madrid v Schalke will be watched by a maximum of twelve people, Real’s 1-6 win in Gelsenkirchen rendering this the biggest dead rubber since my overweight masseur perished last year. And Wednesday’s Dortmund v Zenit matchup is hardly any more enticing, although it’s nice that, even if we haven’t yet managed to Kick Racism Out Of Football altogether, Jurgen Klopp’s team can Kick Racists Out Of The Champions League Knockout Stages. That’s something, at least.

 

Betting Instinct Tip – Manchester United to score three or more goals is 2.82 with GR88.com

 

Kieran avatarKIERAN DODDS (kierandodds) is a history student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others.