Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sing of Old Djurgården, Now, Sing.

I recently caught up with Tom Ogden who explained how he spent the last day of the Swedish football season.

Monday morning conversations with my neighbour Niklas over breakfast have been downcast these past few weeks. ‘How did Djurgården get on this weekend?’, I’ll ask tentatively, over the ever-gurgling kitchen coffee-machine.‘Not good. We lost again.’ comes the familiar reply, as I stir my tea. ‘How about Liverpool?’.

‘Ah, don’t ask.’

Finding a Stockholm football team to follow has been a task I’ve put off since my move to Sweden, with plenty else to keep me occupied. Hammarby were the team I’d considered beforehand, but Djurgården turned out to be the local team when I found a place to live. ‘The Blue Stripes’ play at the beautiful old Olympic stadium, built for the 1912 summer games. It sits between my new home in the north of the city and the campus of KTH (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan) where I study, so I pass it on my daily walk.

I often slow down to admire the beautiful brickwork, the clock tower with its battlements and the old telephone boxes outside. You can even see the pitch from the pavement on Valhallavägen, through the main arch of the structure. And it’s close enough to hear the cheers and boos on match days, as a weekly reminder for me to investigate. This season, apparently, there’s been few cheers. At the end of a decade of success for Djurgården — winning Allsvenskan in2002, 2003 and 2005, along with a bunch of domestic cups — this season has been awful. Not only has their poor form driven them down into the relegation zone, but they’ve had to watch as bitter Stockholm rivals AIK have enjoyed a strong campaign at the top.

Seventeen losses seemed to have sealed Djurgården’s fate, but a late turn of form and a couple of wins have brought some hope. A vital 2-1 win over the other team facing relegation, Örgryte, was backed up with a surprise 0-2 win at Helsingborg. The match will be remembered as Henrik Larsson’s professional bow, but the importance of the result for the future of Djurgården could be huge. Örgryte have slipped below them into the automatic relegation spot, two points behind with just one game to go.

Still, Örgryte only have to beat tenth-placed Gefle in their final game, their team probably planning their skiing holidays; Djurgården’s final hurdle is a tough match against fourth-placed Kalmar, who have a Europa League spot to fight for, and against whom they’ve lost their last three home games. There is still a tough job to do.

Meanwhile, those rivals I mentioned, AIK, sit on top of the league, one point above Göteborg. Remarkably, the fixture list has drawn the old clubs against each other in the final game, with Göteborg holding home advantage. The newspapers, Aftonbladet and Dagens Nyheter, are calling it the Gold Medal Match. This is the kind of excitement I need to distract me from what looks to be a season already over on Merseyside. I jump at Niklas’ offer to grab me a ticket for Djurgården’s final match.

So this Sunday afternoon in November, I meet Niklas and a couple of his friends, and our Turkish neighbour Hamsa. ‘Aren’t you worried about hooliganism, bringing a Turkish and an English to your nice Swedish football?’, he teases. The match is a sellout: all 13,000 tickets. The news from Gothenburg is that AIK fans are already causing trouble, smashing every window on the SJ train that brought them west. I’ve been on one of those fine old locomotives —I’m building a healthy dislike of AIK already.

Arriving at the stadium, we find our space on the wooden benches. The stands are low, though the running track keeps us a little distant from the action. The club anthem ‘Sing of Old Djurgården’ comes over the speakers and gets a loud recital, which I am actually able to join in as Hamsa has dutifully written down the words after finding them on the internet. I’m mostly chortling through it as he surprises me with these carefully copied notes, and I have no idea what I’m singing about, but it is an enjoyable and rousing tune nonetheless. Kick off! Djurgården start brightly. The full backs get forward, overlapping and flinging some decent crosses in, though the Kalmar ‘keeper has little trouble plucking them out of the air'. Though the home team are bossing possession, the importance of the game is clearly causing some tension with a few wayward touches in midfield.

Relief comes after 27 minutes. A Djurgården corner is headed clear of the box, only for midfielder Patrick Haginge to fire it back goal wards with a sweet half volley low into the bottom right corner of the net. Celebration and hugs all round , on the pitch and in the stands.

Soon after the goal, a quiet cheer spreads around the ground suggesting good news elsewhere. Örgryte are losing at Gefle. And another, much louder, cheer. Göteborg are 1-0 up against AIK. Niklas confirms my suspicion, ‘AIK losing is probably as important to us as Djurgården winning.’
Half time arrives, and the crowds descend through brick arches to queue for warm Kanelbullar and more coffee, as we hop around to defrost toes. The faces around us are happy — all the important results are going the right way.

Settling back in for the second half, a little tension seeps back in to the crowd. Örgryte have equalised in their match, and Kalmar have woken up a bit. A few high balls leave the centre-halves looking uncomfortable, and only a well placed shin blocks a dangerous run into the box from the left wing. Mercifully, on 56 minutes, Djurgården pick up a second goal. Again, it’s from a corner. This time an attacker gets his head to the ball first on the back post, though without sufficient power to score. A messy goalmouth scramble ends with a decisive touch from veteran defender Markus Johannesson — a nice way to end his final season at the club.

Relief in Stockholm is tempered by bad news from Gothenburg. AIK have equalised, putting them back on top of the pile. Göteborg need a win to take the title.

I try, through the match, to pick up terrace songs. The tunes are easy enough, as even these seem to be a part of the globalised game. We sing ‘Na, na, na, (adtedium) Djurgården’ to the tune of Hey Jude, and an amusing ‘Steve Galloways Jarnkaminerna’ to the ‘Barmy Army’ tune — Steve Galloway being their English assistant manager (he played at St. Mirren and Crystal Palace, apparently) and ‘Jarnkaminerna’ (‘The Iron Stoves’) the fan club. If I close my eyes, I could easily be at Rochdale or York City, but for the lack of dietary advice directed at the away goalkeeper. I find the chants a little disappointing in their politeness, to be honest. One promisingly aggressive call-and-response from the left stand to the right turns out to be ‘Let’s move forward!’, ‘But keep the defence tight!’, ‘Let’s move forward!’, ‘But keep the defence tight!’. That’s just practical. Can’t we at least discuss their striker’s parentage briefly? After the second goal, Kalmar lose some of their fight and the game goes a bit quiet. Apart from trying to follow songs, the best entertainment arrives when the Djurgården goalkeeper slices four goal kicks in a row high into the left stand. Only one goes further than the half way line. Four in a row! I hope he has somewhere to practice over the winter when the snow sets deep.

The relief of getting their win is clear in the players’ celebrations at the final whistle, lapping the pitch to thank their support. Still waiting for results around the country, the disappointing news arrives: AIK have scored a late winner to confirm they’ll be bringing the Allsvenskan trophy back to parade around Stockholm. And there’ll likely be more riots in Gothenburg for Jens Lekman to sing about.

So then, Göteborg didn’t manage to stop AIK but Djurgården did what they needed to do. Most importantly, I care about a club here. I’m looking forward to next season already.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Fantasy Football Update

I thought it might be time to give an update on our Fantasy Football progress. Kevin is dominating our league so far;

He took an early lead and although I've managed to close the gap he keeps edging away. It's fair to say that we are all not doing particularly well.

Here's my current team with some additional ponderings;

Ben Foster Manchester United £3.0m (20 points - for my team)

The Foster experiment hasn't gone particularly well. Especially for Ben Foster. His reputation as the great hope of English goalkeeping has nose dived considerably after some high profile howlers. Van Der Sar's return to fitness will probably result in another one year contract extent ion and Foster will be kicking his heels and playing understudy to both the Dutchman, and at international level, to David James.

Alternatives - Foster provided excellent value for the period he was in the first team and only Petr Cech scored more points from 'the big 4' teams. Still I need to use some of those precious transfers and looking at who is doing well elsewhere, discounting Thomas Sorensen (Stoke City) as top points scorer an extra £500,000 gets me the reliable Brad Friedel (Aston Villa) from a team who should do better until the end of the season.

Glenn Johnson Liverpool £4.0m (20 points)

The Liverpool right back is a safe choice for any FF manager. His attacking instincts have provided 30 points for those who have stuck with him all season and he'll only add more. If only he could be more consistent. Still doesn't look worth £18m though.

Thomas Vermaelen Arsenal £3.7m (6 points)

Those who registered Vermaelen's uncanny knack for popping up with a goal early on have been rewarded with a mammoth 36 points. I said in my season preview that Vermaelen settling down quickly at the Emirates would be integral to any success that Arsenal might achieve this season. So far so good.

Stephen Warnock Aston Villa £3.5m (14 points)

Warnock's transfer from Blackburn to Aston Villa didn't surprise anyone who has followed the talented full back. It did mean missing a couple of games and settling down into a new team. Still I think he's one worth persevering with.

Graham Alexander Burnley £3.0m (6 points)

I don't think anyone outside Burnley celebrated when they got their first penalty more than me. But Bunley are shipping goals at an alarming rate away from home. I need to stop being stubborn and change this one.

Alternatives - It looks like Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), on 37 points, is this seasons must have defender, although that's going to mean a lot of changes if I'm to stick to my 2 players per team rule. Abdoulaye Faye (Stoke City) is scoring well and offers good value at £3.5m. And on Merseyside Leighton Baines (Everton) and Emiliano Insua (Liverpool) are on 28 and 27 points respectively, a note of caution though, Everton aren't getting the results lately and officially have 128 players on the injury list. Aquilani may mean Aurellio being accomadated at left back, it shouldn't happen but it's Benitez, so who knows?

Wild Card - Might be Roger Johnson (Birmingham City) who although he has only scored 16 points is a bargain at £2.8m and has popped up with a few goals in past seasons.

Frank Lampard Chelsea £7.0m (42 points)

Expensive yes but reliable always, the news that Fat Frank is back amongst the goals and Gerrard's injury means most FF players are scrambling to get him in.

Cesc Fabregas Arsenal £5.0m (46 points)

I read some nonsense questioning the Arsenal captain's form this season. His assists alone stand at 9. His value to points ratio is 0.5 ahead of anyone else. I guess that's why he's in 42% of people's teams.

James Milner Aston Villa £4.0m (4 points)

Milner is a classy midfielder and has been getting some people very excited (see Number 4). I've not long moved him into my team and so I'm hoping his excellent delivery, occasional goals and push for berth in the World Cup squad reap rewards for me!

Marouane Fellaini Everton £3.7m (17 points)

Despite playing 6 times for Everton this season Fellaini has only picked up 17 points and I might be carrying a player here. No doubt his actual real performances have been good in a poor Everton team but this is Fantasy.

Alternatives - There are a couple of Bolton midfielders who are doing well, Tamir Cohen's 3 goals have propelled him up the points to £ ratio but I'd plump for the perennially underrated Matt Taylor, 9 league starts and 3 goals. Another favourite of mine is Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham Hotspur) although Modric has been the catalyst for Spurs' successful start to the season and Lennon has provided the sparkle, Huddlestone's unexpected rediscovery of the form that got us so excited when he burst onto the scene at 16 as has been the highlight for me.

Wild Card - Kevin Prince-Boateng's (Portsmouth) 26 points for £2.5m looks outstanding value.

Didier Drogba Chelsea £6.4m (14 points)

Despite being a goal behind Torres in the race for the golden boot his extra start has yielded 7 more points than the Spaniard. Drogba can be a conundrum at times but when he's motivated he's unplayable.

Craig Bellamy Manchester City £5.2m (9 points)

I shoe horned Bellamy in to the team, not to complete the most odious front line you could imagine, but due to a Monday night game to bag some extra points. He duly delivered that night and has 4 goals for the season. As a Coventry fan it's impossible not to hate our former player with the rap sheet as long as your arm - but on the pitch he's doing the business.

Alternatives - From Fernando Torres (Liverpool) I've bagged 66 points of his total of 73 this season and I'll try and get him back in my team soon. Darren Bent (Sunderland) is enjoying his partnership with Kenwyne Jones and provides the best points to £ ratio currently (will he hit a drought).

Wild Card -This year's biggest surprise for me has to be Hugo Rodellega (Wigan) he has 5 goals, a couple of spectacular ones too, but I'm getting a touch of the Zaki's about him, maybe.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

My Grandparents Play Battleships - Or, How Commentating Spices Things Up

Commentator 1: Hello, and welcome back to Battleships Live. We'll soon be tuning in to Nancy Giles v Reginald Giles - and you know what Geoff, this could be one heck of a contest.
Commentator 2: That's right Clive. This is the 29th time the players have met, in a rivalry stretching back to Dartmouth '94. Nancy took that first encounter, and then made some disparaging comments about Reginald in her post-match talk. Since then, he's had the upper hand, leading her 17-11 in their head-to-head.
Commentator 1: But am I right in thinking that Nancy has won all of their games that have taken place on a Thursday? That could be ominous for today.
Commentator 2: Yes - a telling statistic, Clive, and one that Reginald will want to put behind him today, going into this match. I think we'll see Reginald come out and really play an aggressive game straight away. He'll want to really take it to his wife in the early stages, sink a ship early on and put her on the back foot.
Commentator 1: I can't wait. And here come the players. Nancy looks very focused out there, I must say, whereas Reginald... what's Reginald doing here? Oh, he's looking for his glasses. There they are! That's classic Reginald. Any sense today that Reginald might be up to his old tricks, Geoff? Nancy's complained about time-wasting on numerous occasions in the past.
Commentator 2: Nancy won't be thinking about that right now. She's concentrating on her game. And moving to our board cam, we can see her laying out her flotilla. Oh, this is a smart move! She's gone for an intelligent line-up here, with neighbouring plane-carriers and small boats. Reginald is going to have to be very, very focused here.
Commentator 1: But his line-up is none too shabby either. Good ships on a B2-B5 combination, and excellent stretches of empty board. This is fascinating.
Commentator 2: Care to call it, Clive?
Commentator 1: Oh, this could go either way. I think the player who strikes first will certainly be favourite.
Commentator 2: Fence-sitting as usual! I don't blame you. And Nancy makes her first call. Well, this is incredible. First blood to the 83-year-old, and on her very first call! And it's his aircraft carrier! Unbelievable play. Careful for her next move. Oh, and she called J5 - another hit! She could do some real damage now. Reginald seems to be taking it in his stride, but he'll be reeling from this attack.
Commentator 1: Yes, this is a huge blow to his chances, and right now you've got to fancy Nancy to take it. He's got to find a way back from here. But how? He needs to change his game-plan, and fast. Nancy is one shot from sinking his best piece. He calls F7 - oh, this is interesting. It's a good play because Nancy traditionally likes to occupy the top right quarter of the board, but it fails on this occasion. Good attacking play though.
Commentator 2: Difficult times for Reginald Giles, who's often quick to get riled. He'll need to rein in his emotions today, Clive. This could be a long match. This might go all the way.
Commentator 1: Nancy's call. And what's this? She's turning on the television! Countdown's on! This is incredible. How is Reginald going to react to this? I would never have seen that coming, would you Geoff?
Commentator 2: Well, this isn't unheard of in their matches, but I wasn't expecting it so early in the game, Clive. This could change everything.
Commentator 1: And - yes, yes - I'm hearing that play has been suspended momentarily! Extraordinary scenes in Yeovil here as we head into a quick break - it's tantalisingly poised at one-nil to Nancy. We'll be right back.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

David Puddy XI (“Alright, high-five”)

I used to get well excited about putting together Fantasy/Dream Teams when I was a kid. It was almost like a real Championship Manager. I’d stay up all hours creating shortlists and working out different teams and formations. It’d take several weeks for me to narrow down a first XI and then I’d have to do another team because I felt bad for all those I left out. Hell, I even like typing in all the individual player codes on phone.

Now, I could give a shit. I did my first one in years last season because it allowed me to get away from work momentarily and ended up doing my 30 (!) transfers before February. It’d be better if had something riding on the league winner because “pride” isn’t really going cut it for me.

Having said that, I did enjoy picking out a player or two that I think will shine over the course of the season. But even though my starting XI’s will no doubt change within the week, I still aired on the side of caution and went with some guaranteed points players.

Anyway, here’s a sentence or two on each player of my team…

Manuel Almunia – 3.5

Is the cheapest keeper of the top four and will be a starter every week. He and Arsenal’s defence are a liability though so this might be one of the first changes I’ll make.

Branislav Ivanovic – 3.3

Solid defender and was favoured over Bosingwa in the Charity Shield. With the persisting rumours the Portuguese right back is off to Bayern Munich, I expect the Serbian to start a lot of games.

Richardo Carvalho – 3.8

Hopefully Ancelotti will instil Carvalho back alongside Terry at the heart of Chelsea’s defence. If so, they’ll be lots of clean sheets, and maybe he’ll pop up with odd goal.

Mathew Upson – 3.5

This pick is in hope that Lescott stays at Goodison so Man City will quickly move for Upson. If so, he’ll probably acquire more points, but whether at West Ham or Eastlands, he’s a guaranteed starter and consistent performer.

Yuri Zhirkov – 4.2

I don’t expect Zhirkov to start too many games at left back if Ashley Cole’s fit, so he’ll probably line up on the left hand side of midfield. My only concern is he’s an Abramovich buy so he might not fit into Ancelotti’s plans. Good player though.

Andrei Arshavin – 5.5

I’m guessing Wenger’s learnt his lesson about leaving out this little genius. Should be the focal point of Arsenal’s attack where he’ll make and score goals all season.

Steven Gerrard – 6.5

Like Lampard, you know what you’re getting with Gerrard and he’ll doubtlessly score points every time he plays.

Morten Gamst Pedersen – 3.4

Believe it or not, I actually chose Pedersen before his midweek brace against Scotland. I’ve always been a fan and while he’s underperformed the last couple of season, I’m hopeful he’ll recapture some of that form that made him one of the most dynamic players in the league.

Wayne Rooney – 6.8

Rooney is supposedly going to start more games through the middle, so that can only mean more points for a man who already scores them regularly.

Peter Crouch – 5.7

I expect Crouch will be preferred to Pavlychenko and alongside either Defoe or Keane he should be the spearhead of the Spurs attack. Is accomplished enough now to guarantee you 12 + goals a season.

Christian Benitez – 3.8

This boy’s my pick to make an impact. You don’t drop 9 mil on player (especially if your Birmingham) if he hasn’t got something. Hopefully he’ll settle early but with pace, power and an excellent goalscoring record, he’s got a chance.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Premier League Prediction

Predicting the outcome of the Premier League season before a ball has been kicked is a foolhardy pursuit. So here, nailed to the mast, is a few of our top 4, bottom 3 predictions. I'm thinking it'll be nice to come back here at various points in the season and just point and laugh at our own stupidity.

Kevin O’Neill

Top four: Man Utd, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea.

Come on! This season is exciting -- the genuine possibility for Utd, Liverpool or Chelsea to win it, as they seem more evenly matched than ever before. Liverpool are probably the strongest going into the first day, as they have a clear idea of how they're going to set up next year, i.e. the same as last year. However, I think it will be just not quite good enough yet again. Their strength in depth is poor, and they still have weaknesses on the wing that the acquisition of Glen Johnson will help, but not solve. Chelsea won't settle in in time to make a real threat, and Abramovich will fuck them up yet again, probably firing Ancelotti by September. United get the title not by default, but because I think Ferguson is best equipped to shepherd his team to the title. Buying Owen was a masterful move (wait for this to backfire, obviously). Finally, I've been thinking a lot about Arsenal, and decided they won't get in the top four. I love them -- if I have an English team, it's them (which, as a Celtic fan, brings up a whole other conflict in a couple of weeks, which I'll be writing about on here...), but they seem to be in a serious re-building phase just now, and injuries to key players hamper them more than most. Villa get third in a champion effort from my former nemesis-namesake Martin O'Neill.

Bottom three: Blackburn, Burnley, Birmingham.

I'd love Burnley to survive, but I don't see their resources being up to the task. Hopefully they'll get a dramatic last-day finish, if nothing else, but they're going back down. Birmingham too -- Alex McLeish is a nice football personality, but his attachment to former Scottish proteges will be his downfall. Blackburn will finally succumb to the drop, as Sam Allardyce's anti-football tactics prove inadequate to a new era of Xavi/Iniesta-inspired passing football in the League (one can dream...).

Ryan Taylor

Top 4 - Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal, Everton

Can Ancelloti guide Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season? I guess I think he can. He inherits a strong squad that’s been galvanised by winning the FA Cup under Hiddink. Zhirkov looks like a decent addition that will add balance on the left. The marquee signing that Captain Terry demanded before ‘proving’ his loyalty doesn’t look likely but they might benefit from the continuity. Maybe I’m putting too much on the Ronaldo sale, he did spend half the season being a petulant brat but he was still effective. Most predictions I’ve read focus on Rooney’s added importance to the team rather than any focus on a genuine replacement for the oily one. For me, they just look that little bit more beatable without him. It seems Wenger’s fledglings may finally be ready to push on this season. In Arshavin, Fabregas, Rosicky and Nasri they boast the most creative of midfield talents. They still lack a top goalscorer and there will be a lot of pressure on Vermaelen to settle in quickly. They might even lead the race come Christmas only for Wenger to blow a gasket as his youthful squad crack under pressure. And finally predicting the that the team that have finished in 5th place for the past two seasons can go one better this year should not necessarily be a large leap of faith, but it probably is. Everton are consistent and have some very good players (Arteta, Cahill and Jagielka). They also have genuine competition for places (Yakubu, Jo, Saha, Anichebe and Vaughan) bolstered with emerging talent from the academy (Rodwell, Baxter) if injuries don’t take there toll. They seemed to improve when Lescott was moved to the centre and Baines began playing regularly last season, if Lescott goes, and for footballs sake let’s hope he doesn’t, Yobo and Jagielka (Rodwell until he returns) will provide an adequate shield for ticking Timmy.

Bottom 3 – Hull, Portsmouth, Burnley

I never really thought I was a bad judge of character, I think Phil Brown’s fall from grace last season proves that I am. At first I thought he and his battling Hull side were a breath of fresh air, then came the increasingly outlandish quotes, the silly fuzz and finally that horrific last day debacle with him celebrating a defeat like a massive bell in the middle of the pitch. They didn’t necessarily keep themselves up last season, more Middlesbrough and Newcastle got themselves relegated and I don’t think they’ll be so fortunate this time. I’ve included Portsmouth here for the sheer volume of quality players they have lost. It echoes their South Coast neighbours troubles of last season albeit a division below. Hart seems pragmatic and affable but he’ll prove himself an astute manager keeping this threadbare (even with some genuine quality in it) squad up. Finally, Burnley. I was harping on to all who’d listen that Burnley would get through the playoff’s in May and now here I am proclaiming they'll be propping up the table all season. I won’t be the only one. They just look too good to stay in this division. Too honest, too willing to try and play football. A bit naive? I've been proven wrong on more the one occassion and I’d be delighted if they did but my it’s hard to see it.

Paul Morris

Top 4

Despite all the hoo-hah involving Man City and the familiar question of whether Arsenal can keep their place in the elite, I can’t see anyone breaking the stranglehold of season’s past. Each team have had to deal with a big departure over the summer (Utd – Ronaldo; Chelsea – Hiddink; Liverpool – Alonso; Arsenal – Adebayor) but I think they all have enough to compensate for that loss.

I’d love to share Taylor’s ludicrous optimism that the mighty Toffees will breach the gap, but it aint happening. They haven’t improved the squad enough to do so and Moysie boasts a quite miserable record against the big boys. Same goes for Aston Villa and Tottenham. O’Neill should just be concentrating on keeping Villa consistent while ‘Appy ‘Arry’s penchant for playing Champ Man might make his Spurs side entertaining, it inevitably leads to disappointment (ask Keegan).

I’m not going to completely rule out ‘Sparky Hughes’ Abu Dhabi Army’ though. Potential frontline combinations of any of Tevez, Robinho, Adebayor, Santa Cruz, Bellamy and Wrighty P, with the likes of Barry, Ireland, De Jong and Kompany in behind them is something you really can’t argue with. Add Lescott or Upson (or both) to Richards, Onuoha, Bridge and the excellent Given and you got yourself a squad of players.

That being said, here’s my 2009/2010 Top 4…

#1 Manchester United

Ronaldo’s world record breaking move to Real Madrid might be the biggest monetary transfer of the pre-season. However, it’s the boy now occupying his No. 7 jersey who is gained all the attention. Since C-Ron’s exit, the question for Utd and Sir Alex is whether they can fill the void left by the Portuguese Pretty Boy. The arrival of Michael Owen and Antonio Luis Valencia suggest that they’ve acted decisively to cover the goal scoring and making exploits of the World Player of the Year. Whether they have or not will be answered before Christmas.

Defensively Utd are as strong as anyone and they possess depth and diversity in midfield. Their question marks lie in the final third of the field. Talk of the added responsibility on Rooney’s shoulders seems to have overshadowed the importance of Berbatov’s performances this year. For Utd to succeed, I believe the Bulgarian has to be a consistent influence and can’t resort to flitting in and out of games as he did in the last campaign.

I’m a huge fan of Berbatov; I think he’s complete class. Players of his and ‘Wazza’s’ pedigree don’t think about “gelling”, they just trust each other’s pure ability. Throw in the guaranteed goals of Michael Owen and the precocious young Itai Macheda and scoring looks easy. I think the strength of Utd’s squad still ranks above most in the world and this will be enough to make it four on the spin. My only concern would be whether Sir Alex places the Champions League over the Premiership. After last season’s frustration, he’ll want to get it right this time round and that could see a shift in his priorities.

#2 Chelsea

Similarly to Utd, Chelsea have added very little player-wise over the summer and will rely on what they’ve already got. The obvious question is whether Carlo Ancelotti can carry on what Guus Hiddink appeared to start. After the ups and downs of Avram Grant and ‘Big Phil’, Hiddink got them playing again and clearly had a very positive impact on the players. Ancelotti is inheriting a confident, content squad and will have to do something quite drastic to disrupt their dynamic. From what I’ve seen of them in pre-season Ancelotti looks to be implementing his customary 4-4-2 diamond. Chelsea certainly have the players to accommodate this formation, it’s just whether the egos will allow it.

For me, it’s key that Chelsea get Carvalho back alongside Terry as a first choice centre half. He’s proven he’s a great player and was the backbone of their success under Jose. The attack looks relatively settled with Drogba, having professed his undying love for The Blues, and last season’s top score Anelka looking like forming a more regular strike force this time round. Chelsea’s problem will lie in who occupies the four midfield berths. Lampard is a certainty at the peak while Obi-Mikel and Essien will probably vie for the holding role. Malouda was better last year but will come under pressure from the returning Joe Cole, plus egos-in-arms Ballack and Deco will no doubt have their say. Ancelotti will have to be ruthless and not cower to these decisions just because someone might get a bit pissy. I reckon he’s got it in him.

I’m really interested to see how Ancelotti and his new formation do. Whether it works or not, Chelsea will still be the model of consistency, dismantling bottom half teams home and away. However, they’ll have to produce more against those in the top 6. I see them pushing Utd very close, especially if both Drogba and Anelka can get scoring.

#3 Liverpool

I’m not really going to waste much time on Liverpool because I don’t think anything will change. Benitez will play the same way, use the same tactics in the same formation. He’ll rightly try and keep going what they put together last season which was a strong, defensively savvy team with probably the two best players in the league spearheading it.

Alonso’s move back home does leave a rather gaping hole to fill that could effectively change the way Liverpool set up. Its unlikely Gerrard will drop in there to form a more conventional 4-4-2 as Benitez has clearly shown he prefers him in behind Torres. So expect to see the industrious Lucas Leiva line up alongside Javier Mascherano. I’ve only seen this Aquilani play a few times but he’s never impressed me. He looks entirely too lightweight to play as a central midfielder and not really penetrative enough to play higher up the pitch. However, at 20 mil, Rafa’s got to find a place for him somewhere. This one’s got Robbie Keane written all over it.

Benitez has constructed a regimented unit that knows will always get him results. His problem seems to be finding alternative ways of playing when Gerrard and Torres are misfiring or absent. The purchase of Glen Johnson might give them more going forward but he’s an awful defender (although anything’s an improvement on Arbeloa). Like many, I’d like to see Benitez use Babel more. He can be a little erratic and oblivious but has the potential to turn games with his raw pace and power. After last year, Liverpool will underwhelm in the league but I can definitely see them reaching or winning a cup final.

#4 Arsenal

Its odd how Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger were staunchly hated about five years back but are now universally loved for their application of ‘the beautiful game’. “Loved” might be an exaggeration. “Pitied” seems more suitable. They’re the football equivalent of Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’: sublime, almost tear-inducing performance that sorrowfully won’t get them what they want. Now that they’re not routinely winning trophies they are no longer a legitimate threat and everybody’s appreciation of their flowing football is tinged with a “You know they really do deserve something for the way they play”.

The thing I love about Wenger is his completely blinkered view that his team, no matter what they clearly lack, is as good as it’s ever been. His unwavering belief in the youngsters he has is testament to those who think money is ruining the game. The problem for Arsenal is, youth and ability will only get you so far. And because Wenger is so pig-headed (or French) he’s never going to admit what is publicly evident. Even the slight wobble he had considering a move for old boy Patrick Viera was quickly quashed. This, despite the fact they’ve lacked any real leadership in years and the players he’s turned to (Gallas, Gilberto, Toure, even Henry) didn’t have it.

Keeping hold of Fabregas, placing emphasis on his role and building around him is key. Great flair players like Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri are an enormous asset but there are going to struggle to play without someone to do their graft. Arsenal need someone with bite in the middle of the park and until they find that, they’ll continue to underachieve. They’ll no doubt set us alight with some of their football, once in a while humiliating teams, making us sit up and notice. But ability alone doesn’t get you through 38 games, and when that falters, they don’t have much to fall back on.

Bottom 3

As I rambled like a mental patient about the top 4, I’ll keep this one brief (plus I should really do some work at work). Picking relegation fodder used to be easy. It always involved the three promoted teams plus a couple usual suspects. But since the turn of the century, big teams are regularly involved in the fight for survival and now there always seems to be a surprise faller. After last season’s ridiculously tight bottom half, I see it being the same way this year. I think 7 or 8 teams will be involved throughout the season so I’m just going to go with the gut on this one…

#18 Wigan Athletic

This was a toss up with Wolves and I surprised myself by backing the perennially moaning old bastard Mick McCarthy. Since their promotion in 2005, people have questioned Wigan’s place in the Premiership. But after another solid year under Steve Bruce, they were on the road to being the Bolton Wanderers. A few astute signings plus his ability to get the best (or something) out poor players meant The Latics had something to build on. Bruce has now left for the opportunity to spend some cash and has been replaced by former Wigan favourite Roberto Martinez. He got Swansea promoted from League One in his first season and kept them in the Championship playoff hunt last. While he’s had early success, I’m convinced this is a premature appointment and one just to appease the fans. Wigan are a team that often need to be dragged through games which Bruce was perfectly weathered for. I’m not sure Martinez currently has that mental toughness to take on the burden of Wigan’s inevitable struggle. My favourite for first Premiership sacking (unless Spughesy loses two on the bounce).

#19 Stoke City

I can’t see it carrying on. They did fantastically well in their first season and really ruffled a lot of feathers. But they’ve barely added to their squad which means we’re going to get the same physical, stifling displays that previously saw them bully lesser teams. This year, that novelty (it is 2010) will have gone and teams will be better prepared for any aerial onslaught. I think they’ll get goals but be too fragile at the back to stay out of it.

#20 Burnley

The obvious ones maybe, but for a reason. Owen Coyle had success against Premiership opposition in the cups last season, but I can’t see his Burnley side maintaining any sort of form at any time during the year. He’s clearly instilled an excellent spirit and work ethic within the squad but the lack of real talent or top flight quality. They have some promising youngsters but it isn’t enough to keep them up.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Fantasy XI - Part III

Last season was my first foray into the aggravating and depressing world of Fantasy Football, and my abysmal performance in my friends’ league should have warned me off a second stab. I spent most of the season in the cellar, eventually finishing mid-table only because some of the others in the league basically stopped playing. Of course, settling comfortably in the middle of the pack by virtue of not being as bad as everyone around you is probably the most accurate approximation of the Premier League, so give it some points for realism. I fear I’m still stuck in the Guardian mentality, which had a ridiculous system of +2 for every clearance, giving decent defenders in really poor teams the advantage over everyone else, so I expect my Telegraph team will change rather quickly once the season gets underway. I went with a 4-4-2, just because I don’t trust strikers.

Jussi Jaaskaleinen – £3.2 m

A real bargain at that price, he’s capable of some magic in goals. Even if the Bolton clean sheet record isn’t as strong as it was under Allardyce, I would hope a slightly more solid defense this season will give Jussi some help. Either way he’s certainly in Friedel’s league, and on a good day I’d throw him down against any Cech you got.

Vincent Kompany - £3.5 m

Another cheap buy (as is the rest of the defense), he played really well last season. Since Citeh’s big summer buys went almost solely to attacking players, I think he’s got his place in the team sewn up. He’s got the pace to keep the wingers in check, and on occasion he’s a threat going the other way. Cards might be an issue due to a sometimes-poor temperament, but I think he’s a keeper.

Ricardo Gardner - £3.4 m

Another cog in the hopefully solid Bolton defense, it’s his forward ability that sets him apart. Even if he doesn’t start every game, when subbed in he can wake up a side that has a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. Honestly he should probably have been listed as a midfielder, but if I’m really lucky I can get the best of both worlds out of the error.

Michael Turner - £3.4 m

The best points-getter for me last season, this will probably be a mistake as he alone won’t be able to save Hull from being ripped apart again and again. Still, he’s an excellent player, and with a bit of luck, he might get sold to a better team before the transfer window shuts. Okay, that’s wishful thinking, but still a bargain.

Alan Hutton - £3.2 m

Within minutes of this selection I was questioning why the hell I chose him. I still don’t know. Maybe I just wanted a comedy Scot in the side? Either way, expect a swift transfer out in the coming weeks.

Steven Gerrard - £6.5 m

He may be the biggest tool this side of John Terry, but his influence on a game is incredible. Guaranteed goals, and probably more assists if he has to pick up some of the slack from the dearly departed Alonso, it will probably help that this year is (another) make-or-break for Benitez. Even if the augurs don’t look good for a trophy, it won’t be for lack of effort on Gerrard’s part.

Andrei Arshavin - £5.5 m

More than just THE footballer picture meme of the 2008/2009 season, Arshavin was probably the best signing of the year. He settled into the team quickly, and I can’t help but think he’ll only get better. No matter what Wenger says, the loss of Adebayor does hurt their goal-scoring ability, so I’ll expect a greater emphasis on the midfield and the wingers since van Persie has never struck me as the ideal target man. Plus, that Liverpool game.

Cesc Fabregas - £5 m

If Wenger really is moving towards a Barcelona shape-is-the-key system, then Fabregas will be the lynchpin. In any case, with 3,000 passes a game, one of them’s gotta be an assist, right?

Darren Fletcher – £3.3 m

There might be a bit of the Scottish romanticism here, but he’s a good player and without Ronaldo around, I expect he’ll fancy a pop from outside the box now and again. His performance in the Charity Shield (first half, anyway) makes me think this is real value for money.

Fernando Torres - £7 m

If he stays fit, he’ll be the focus of Liverpool’s attack and he’ll score a lot of goals. Bonus points come from games where his team is dominating, and he’ll slot a few extra in just for the hell of it.

Kevin Davies - £5.9 m

I don’t expect much from Elmander, so once again Davies will be the go-to man for a desperate side out of ideas. Everyone take a drink when he’s described as a “journeyman” and “workmanlike”, but he’s got a lot of skill to go with his strong-arm tactics. Points will be deducted for a surplus of yellow cards, as every season he has about 4 or 5 contenders for Most Atrocious Tackle of the Year, but it’s a risk worth taking. In a team that thrives on sloppy goalmouth confusion, he’s the king of the scramble. I’m not sure any player works harder for mid-table obscurity.

So that’s the team. I really intended to get past my Chelsea-dislike and drop Carvalho or Cech in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Such is the irrational world of fantasy football, but since I expect the Blues to do well, I might get over my prejudice and transfer some in down the road.


Saturday, 8 August 2009

UFC 101: Declaration

With the fallout of last month’s record-breaking event still resonating, UFC returns with another action-packed card this Saturday. As with all UFC pay-per-views these days there are enough diverse and interesting match ups to appease the most cynical ‘fan’, with the top two fights providing the star power attraction.

While my picks for UFC 100 didn’t exactly paint me as an “expert” (although no one could foresee Bonnar losing a decision (!) to Coleman), I will continue to persist with a run-through of the line-up and my predictions below. Also, this column (you’ll be glad to read) will be significantly shorter than the last. Apart from not being as arsed, I’m still reeling from the death of the genius that is John Hughes.

So, let’s start at the top…

UFC Lightweight Championship: ‘The Prodigy’ BJ Penn vs. Kenny ‘KenFlo’ Florian

Everyone familiar with MMA knows what skills “Baby Jay” possesses: exceptional stand up, extraordinary jiu-jitsu and the flexibility of a Romanian Olympic gymnast (to name a few). Florian is a very good, well disciplined all-rounder who has deservedly earned his title shot with a current 6-0 win streak.

As long as Baby Jay can combine his natural ability with the right mentality, he should easily overwhelm ‘KenFlo’ in every department. Florian will wisely keep away from a grappling contest, but keeping it standing won’t be too shrewd a move either. BJ’s going to control this wherever it goes, inevitably finishing sometime in the third (before he gets too tired). Penn submission in the 3rd.

Light-Heavyweight: Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva vs. Forrest Griffin

This is an excellent challenge for Anderson Silva, who has looked decidedly lacklustre in his last two Middleweight outings. His pound-for-pound status is on the decline so he will want to put in an impressive performance against the People’s Champ ™. Griffin himself won’t just view this as another chance to boost his “scrappy underdog” mantle. He’ll want to bounce back convincingly from losing his title and prove that he does actually belong amongst the MMA elite.

There’s no doubt Griffin will pose a genuinely stern test for Anderson. He’ll have a nice size advantage over the Brazilian and will look to use this to smother his offence. Silva’s precision striking is well documented and it’s impossible to think he won’t seriously test Forrest’s chin throughout. As a three round contest, Anderson won’t have much time for his usual feel out process, so he’ll have to push it a little bit more to get Forrest to engage. While I think Griffin has the necessary for an upset, I can’t see it myself. There’s an outside chance of it going the distance but I’m pretty confident Silva will find his range sometime during the 2nd, ending it the brutal fashion we’ve become accustomed to. Silva TKO in the 2nd.

Middleweight: Ricardo ‘Big Dog’ Almeida vs. Kendall ‘Da Spyder’ Grove

At a spindly 6’6, Grove will have significant reach over Almeida. He will no doubt look to utilise this advantage to work his way into the comfort of a Muay Thai clinch where he can unload his array of knees and elbows. Almeida is a jiu-jitsu specialist who will want this thing to hit the ground as soon as. If it does, it should be a clinic from there on in.

This fight has me torn. I like the ‘Big Dog’ but he hasn’t impressed me since his return to the UFC. Kendall is by no means a top contender in the Middleweight division, but I do think he has the appropriate tools to do the job on the Almeida. However, Kendall’s long limbs are right for the plucking and I’d be less than surprised if Almeida takes one home with him. I’m really interested to see how this one pans out and will just favour ‘Da Spyder’ to eek out a decision victory. Grove majority decision.

Welterweight: Amir Sadollah vs. Johny Hendricks

After a wealth of injuries and such, Sadollah finally makes his (proper) UFC debut since winning the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter. He impressed on the show with a combination of calm and decisive finishing. Hendricks I have no clue about. Apparently he’s a wrestler and he’s got himself an Evan Tanner/hobo beard.

Unsurprisingly I’m going to take Sadollah. He seems like a genuinely likeable guy who has shown legitimate promise. He’s also a black belt Sambo (Russian martial art) which is discipline we rarely see in mainstream MMA. Sadollah submission in the 2nd.

Lightweight: Josh ‘The Dentist’ Neer vs. Kurt ‘Batman’ Pellegrino

Neer is a big lightweight with solid stand-up and ruthless aggressive intent. Pellegrino is an accomplished grappler with decent mat skills to match.

I certainly favour Neer in this one because Pellegrino has never really impressed me. Neer, if anything, is made of tough stuff and doesn’t seem stupid enough to get caught in a fight ending submission. Plus, he’s a mean looking sucker. Neer TKO in the 3rd.

Welterweight: Tamdan ‘The Barn Cat’ McCrory vs. John ‘Doomsday’ Howard

McCrory is a young fighter who has shown some real glimpses of potential in previous outings. His scrawny frame has supposedly packed on some pounds in recent months so he now has the physique to complement his skill set. Again, I don’t know enough about Howard to form a proper opinion but his last fight (and UFC debut) was a less than impressive split decision victory.

I like McCrory’s unorthodox style and with nearly a foot in height difference between the two (McCrory’s 6’4 while Howard’s 5’7) I see him taking full advantage of Howard’s one-dimensional approach.

McCrory unanimous decision.

Middleweight: Thales Leites vs. Alessio ‘Legionarius’ Sakara

I’m not really sure how a fighter can go from pay-per-view headliner to prelim afterthought. I suppose that’s how seriously the UFC took Thales Leites middleweight title challenge. However, Leites returns against an opponent clearly fed to him so he can reclaim a little pride after April’s abomination against Anderson Silva.

Sakara has zero ground game and Leites is a black belt in jiu-jitsu. This is an equation that offers an obvious result. Sakara’s only hope is that Leites is stupid enough to try and bang with him, as the former professional boxer should effortlessly win that. Nonetheless, the Italian won’t get a chance as Leites will have him on the ground and tapping in no time. Leites submission in the 1st.

Lightweight: Shane Nelson vs. Aaron Riley

This is a rematch following a controversial stoppage in favour of Nelson this past March. I didn’t see that fight, all I know is that decision cost me about £180 in a tenner accumulator.

My choice remains the same as it did for the first fight. Riley will be too aggressive for Nelson and will steamroll the Hawaiian with some vicious ground-and-pound retribution. Riley TKO in the 1st.

Middleweight: Matthew Riddle vs. Dan Cramer

Two Ultimate Fighter combatants square off here in what appears to be a fairly even contest. Both are just beginning their MMA careers, but the UFC top brass are definitely looking at Riddle to excel.

While these two have similar styles, the one difference seems to be in power. This is where Riddle should win the fight. I imagine it will be a scrappy affair, but Riddle’s core strength will see him through.

Riddle unanimous decision.

Welterweight: George Sotiropoulos vs. George Roop

Roop doesn’t really have anything outside of some decent striking. Sotiropoulos has good jiu-jitsu and an overall power that Roop won’t be able to match. The obvious result sees Sotiropoulos overwhelm his smaller opponent for us never to hear from Roop again. Sotiropoulos submission in the 1st.

Welterweight: Jesse Lennox vs. Danillo ‘Indio’ Villefort

These two are making their UFC debuts and I’m not going to pretend to anything about either. From what I’ve read it should be Villefort’s to lose and the odds suggest that as well. Villefort submission in the 2nd.

The betting odds for many of these fights have been a lot better than recent events. There’s decent value in a few here so me and my boy Moore have picked 7 of the 11 for our accumulator. They are as follows:

  • Kendall Grove
  • Amir Sadollah
  • Josh Neer
  • Tamden McCrory
  • Thales Leites
  • Aaron Riley
  • Matthew Riddle

This gave us odds of 31/1. And despite a current streak of 0-6, I’m surprisingly confident. Hopefully this’ll be the first deposit in the ‘Vegas’ fund. It’s happening.

Friday, 7 August 2009

(The) Mothers of Invention

So Ryan's done his team. Here's mine:

I stuck to the two-players-from-one-team rule. It's a nice constraint.

I went with Jose Reina in goal. I think this is a safe option to get some points. Oh balls, I just realised I have three Liverpool players now. I added Johnson after another change. There goes the rule. OK, changing Reina to Cech. Reina I originally chose because he was the cheapest of the big three, and I think Foster is a risk for a permanent slot, despite VdS's injury. Ha, Cech's picture is better than Reina's. He has his protective hat on and is shouting. I think Chelsea have just scored a goal. Or perhaps he just saved a penalty. This made me smile.

My defence is less of the midfielder-cum-defender style that Ryan went for. I'm not sure what the style of mine is. I changed my mind a few times. Glen Johnson is probably the safest player here. If he settles into the team and doesn't do a Robbie Keane. Jagielka I'm not sure if he's going to be fit for the start of the season. I should probably look into that. Everton do OK with clean sheets, and Jagielka pops up with stuff now and then. Onuoha I don't have a clue about, to be honest. I'm curious about Man City and want to see if he might pick up some points on the sly. I'll probably transfer him out. Rafael seems like a decent punt at 3 mil. He might not play much. I'll see how it goes.

(Oh, I also went with a 4-3-3. It seems the easy option but I might mix it up during the season. Can we do that? I hope so.)

Gerrard is my other guaranteed points-getter. I think he is value for money. Kranjcar is a cheap option. I've liked watching him play for Portsmouth. I think how good he is will depend on how Portsmouth start the season. Barry Ferguson is sort of a joke choice. But McLeish loves him. I think he has a chance of doing well. He takes a lot of free-kicks and penalties. But he didn't do that well the last time he left Rangers. I will probably transfer him out. When he moved to Blackburn I thought he would do well. I don't particularly think that now. This feels a bit cruel.

I hope Wayne Rooney does well this season. It seems that Ronaldo leaving might be the best thing for his career. We'll see. Robbie Keane should hopefully be back to normal this year. And Agbonlahor has so much potential that I think he is worth trying. I am a bit worried that all of my strikers tend to have dry spells. I will have some money to play with if they don't work. It seemed too easy to go for Anelka as well as Gerrard. I may regret this later in the season.

I think I am most worried that some of the players I picked won't even play. This would be embarrassing. I am looking forward to this making me more active in my following the Premier League.

Fantasy Football Team

Every year I pick a fantasy football XI. Every year I don’t do very well. One year I tried to pick a team made up entirely of players with the surname Taylor, with Ricardo Vaz Te and Stern John upfront. That was a particularly bad year.

This year I’ve decided to tell you about the team I’ve picked. Think of my selections as a guide on who you should probably not pick. Prices come from the Telegraph Fantasy Football game. I’ve picked a 4-3-3 formation and limit myself to 2 players from each team, that’s not an official rule I just think it’s more sporting.

Ben Foster ­– Manchester United (£3.0)

Even before van der Sar's injury I pencilled in Foster this year. If he claims the number 1 spot you'll have a cheap keeper playing regularly, sweet.

Stephen Warnock – Blackburn Rovers (£3.5)

The Blackburn full back often pushes into midfield, he scored 3 goals last season and plays regularly.

Yuri Zhirkov – Chelsea (£4.2)

This is a bit of a gamble as I haven't seen him play that much but he could make the position on the left of Ancelloti's diamond his own. Another defender playing in midfield.

Graham Alexander – Burnley (£3.0)

This one is probably my biggest folly. I just really like the Coventry born Scotland international. Coyle deployed him as a holding midfielder last year and he managed to score 9 goals.

Herita Ilunga – West Ham (£3.6)

Another attacking full back Ilunga bagged a lot of points last term in an improving West Ham team.

Marouane Fellaini – Everton (£3.7)

The big Fella (ahem) looked impressive last season and is a cheaper alternative to the equally useful Cahill and Arteta.

Andrei Arshavin – Arsenal (£5.5)

The diminutive Russian looks like he is going to be key to the Arsenal set up this season. Playing in a system that will give him license to roam and get goals.

Martin Petrov – Manchester City (£3.1)

I didn't want to go for any City players as it's almost impossible to pick out who will start regularly. Arguably Petrov hugging the left hand side might give them some balance.

I'm rethinking this one already.

Eduardo – Arsenal (£5.3)

It looks like Wenger might start the season with van Persie on his own upfront. On the evidence of van Persie's performance against Atletico Madrid it wont be long before Eduardo is introduced as he is more naturally suited to the role (with van Persie dropping in behind).

Michael Owen – Manchester United (£6.2)

It's got to happen hasn't it? He will get goals, wont he?

Fernando Torres – Liverpool (£7.0)

A full season without injury could bring a 20 goal return for the brilliant Spaniard.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Le Tour

It seems a bit perverse to get obsessed with the Tour de France just because I ride a bike everyday. Like if I became really interested in the socio-cultural implications of the design of change-pockets, just because I keep my money in them sometimes. It's an almost incidental connection that I could make with thousands of things. (Obviously our interests have to come from somewhere. This is just the conceit for allowing me to think aloud about why I like the race. Hello, journalistic conventions!)

So why do I get so into the Tour?

I know that what these riders do on a bike is not what I do on a bike. I cannot cycle at an average speed of 25 mph consistently for up to five hours. I do not strip the frame of my bike of non-essential components to make it as light as possible. I don't have a car following me everywhere I go to provide me with food, water, and a spare bike if mine gets a puncture at an inopportune moment.

I'm not a hardcore cyclist. I don't have a track bike, or even a road bike. I've got a Ridgeback Hybrid (ugly and inelegant, but at least it's lighter than the Dutch cruisers I rode in Amsterdam last week). I don't have any interest in doing what the Tour racers do. I don't wear lycra. I use my bike for getting from place to place. Which is what they do, too, but they make this travelling into an occupation, into the definition of their existence. But there's something about this vicarious experience that persists. It's a fundamental part of our experience with sport. We enjoy watching it because we imagine we could do it. To make a somewhat obvious point.

I ride my bike everyday. The start of the summer season combined with mounting financial pressures (insert "there's a recession?" gag here) has made me into a bit of a fascist on this front. I'll only use public transport in London now in certain drunken situations (and I have to be close to blindingly so for this to happen). Combined with watching the ITV4 highlights of the previous day of the Tour with my breakfast, this means that whenever I cycle I'm doing some imaginative recreation of yesterday's events.

When I'm having a good day on my bike (read: two breakfasts, not carrying my laptop, and none of this insane wind we've been having this week) I do a lot of over-taking. The day after Alberto Contador's attack on Stage 7, when he accelerated away from the rest of the race favourites to become the virtual maillot jaune, every time I put in a burst of speed to get round a fellow commuter, I was Contador. Lifting myself out of the saddle and powering up hill, leaving that cocky Yank, the upstart Brit, and those lookalike Luxembourgians behind.

Going round corners downhill becomes much more fun with the psychic context of the Tour. Cycling through a corner is one of the most exhilarating things you can do on a bike. Head down, the wind rushing past you, bending close the road but not quite hitting it. It's like being on a rollercoaster! Just don't do it like Jens Voigt, who skidded 50m after a high-speed crash over a bump in the road. I've wrecked a couple of pedals in the past with these antics, but that's all so far.

If I was more patriotic, I'd be Mark Cavendish whenever I stand out of the saddle to sprint through a traffic light that's about to change to red. I've got fuck-all stamina, but when it comes to raw speed, I'm one of the best you'll see trundling through the lights at Kings Cross when I probably should've just slowed down and waited.

When I'm having a bad day, going up Camden New Road and down to my lowest gear, people walking past me faster than I'm cycling, I'm Lance Armstrong's struggling 37-year-old body, just physically incapable of matching the freakish acceleration of Contador. I'm wondering why I ever got back on this bike. Why didn't I take the Tube? And I always forget my rain cape, too.

What's going to happen to me after Sunday? Start looking forward to next July, I guess. I mean, it's not like there's any other bike races going on, is there?

(Photo by Joe Shlabotnik)

Saturday, 11 July 2009

UFC 100

Our resident UFC expert Paul Morris gives us a rundown of UFC 100.

This Saturday sees the Ultimate Fighting Championship pass the century mark as the Mandalay Bay Events Centre in Las Vegas, Nevada plays host to UFC100. It’s quite staggering how far the UFC has come in the years I’ve been watching. From headbutts and groin punches to the three rounds 10-point must system to reality television to monthly PPVs, maybe UFC President Dana White’s boast of MMA being the “biggest sport in the world in ten years time” isn’t as implausible as it seems. I mean, it won’t be. There are way too many powerful detractors who still view MMA as two geezers going at it inside a cage. However Saturday’s milestone, which will unquestionably by the biggest ever grossing MMA event, is another massive step in a direction that can’t be long ignored.

Anyway, the point of this column is that for about a year now me and my mate Moore have been routinely betting on each UFC card (PPV and TV events). Of a 10-11 fight card, we’ll pick winners for several fights (usually 7 as a minimum) and place a £10 accumulator. While we’re not raking in huge money, our winnings certainly outweigh our losses. At times we’ve been lucky and at other times we’ve been very unlucky (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive Josh Koscheck for losing to Paulo Thiago). It genuinely adds to the viewing experience and helps us learn more about this most unpredictable, exciting, devastating and intelligent of sports.

Now I’m by no means an expert. Far from it. But I have a healthy interest in MMA and this column (if you want to call it that) is just a small extension of what I’d discuss with Moore when deciding fights and outcomes. So what I’m going to do is note down a few thoughts on each fight plus a prediction of the winner (Ed. I actually got a little carried away with the first 3 bouts). There’s no doubt I’ll have reconsider my picks after speaking at length with Moore, but what you’ll essentially read is my gut.

Let’s start at the top…

UFC Heavyweight Championship – unification bout: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir

Despite being almost 18 months since they last fought, the problems that face each fighter pretty much remain the same. Can Mir’s exceptional jiu-jitsu combat Lesnar’s furious ground-and-pound? Can Lesnar’s dynamic wrestling negate Mir’s submission talents? Both were impressive in their last outing, in particularly Mir who showed much improved stand-up to dominate and stop the unstoppable ‘Minotauro’ Nogueria. Lesnar has fists the size of a Coventry head and while not exactly smooth on his feet, his power means he can change a fight with the merest (that’s not intentional) of blows.

I can see there being a round of feeling out before Lesnar’s unable to control the gung-ho nutbag inside of him as he dumps Frank on his back. From there I think it’s a question of how much has Brock evolved as a mixed martial artist. If it’s a lot then I see him overpowering Mir and methodically raining down forearms and hammerfists until the ref steps in. However, if the word “methodical” remains absent from Lesnar’s vocabulary, he’ll no doubt present Mir with enough of an opportunity to grab a limb to take home with him.

While the value’s with Mir, I’m optimistic Brock has grown sufficiently enough to subdue Frank’s ground game and finish what he started a year and a half ago. Lesnar TKO in the 2nd.

UFC Welterweight Championship: Georges ‘Rush’ St Pierre vs. Thiago ‘Pitbull’ Alves

GSP is about as good as it gets right now. His dismantling of both Jon Fitch and BJ Penn (in spite of the “greased up” allegations) proved that he has the ‘big game’ temperament to go along with probably the most well rounded skill set in MMA. Thiago Alves rightfully earned his shot with 7 straight wins, the last two being the brutal TKO of Matt Hughes and a surprisingly mature and accomplished unanimous decision over Josh Koscheck. In the Koscheck fight Alves displayed excellent takedown defence against one of the division’s best wrestlers, something he’ll have to demonstrate again if he’s to stand any chance against the whirlwind that is GSP.

Alves’ power is undisputable (he’ll probably enter the fight at close to 200lbs) and he’ll no doubt have the edge standing. A slight question still hovers over how good GSP’s chin really is and Alves looks like the perfect opponent to test it. GSP, however, will test Alves at every turn. While having all the ability in the word, the one significant advantage GSP has over Alves is stamina. Alves has documented problems with weight cutting and this, plus the frenzied pace GSP will set, could put the ‘Pitbull’ in a world he’s never been to.

Alves has a chance if he can keep this thing on its feet and utilise his devastating leg kicks to set up the big finish. For that to happen though, GSP will have to have an off day and I honestly can’t see it happening. I fancy GSP to stay elusive and seize one of the many opportunities Alves will hand him to take it downtown. From there GSP will be relentless in his attack, tying Alves in knots with his superior ground game and forcing the tap out. GSP submission in the 2nd.

Middleweight: ‘Hollywood’ Dan ‘Hendo’ Henderson vs. Michael ‘The Count’ Bisping

While this may very well be the most boring match on the main card, it’ll no doubt be the most anxious I’ll be all night (unless I’ve got 300 bones riding on an unseen prelim). For all his arrogance, hyperbole, lack of name opponents, the assumption he’s Dana’s ‘boy’, I’m a fan of Michael Bisping. Partly because he’s British, partly because of his awesome deadpan delivery of “you’re living in a dream world” on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, but also partly because I think he’s a decent, intelligent mixed martial artist. Across from him is Dan Henderson; a man with an incomparable CV of opponents and as much experience as anyone still fighting today.

Henderson has the superior wrestling, ground-and-pound and power to go along with his granite chin. Bisping is a technically better striker who will look to utilise punches, knees and kicks to always be scoring. Both will prefer it kept standing but both will have entirely different approaches. Henderson will want drag Bisping into a brawl whereas Bisping will want to frustrate Henderson into making a mistake by picking at him and staying elusive. This combination makes for a potentially dull fight which is why I fully expect Henderson to shoot for the takedown once he realises Bisping is going to anything but stand there and exchange. The one real advantage I feel Bisping has is in stamina as Henderson has noticeably tired in all four of his UFC fights.

It’s tough to call this one and the safe money would be for Henderson to wrestle his way to a decision. However, despite the first round in the Anderson Silva fight, Henderson has far from impressed me in his second UFC run and looks nothing like the fighter who wore two belts in Pride. Maybe I’m blinded by hope but I feel Bisping has enough to keep Henderson at bay and grind out the judges favour.
Bisping split decision (29-28).

Welterweight: Jon Fitch vs. Paulo Thiago

Jon Fitch is an uncomplicated wrestler who continually comes forward and pushes the pace. Prior to the GSP defeat, Fitch had amassed an 8-0 record that was built on him overwhelming and dominating fighters with this no-nonsense style. Paulo Thiago is coming in off the back of an unlikely TKO of Fitch’s teammate Josh Koscheck. Despite that result shattering my acca dreams, Thaigo looked anything but convincing. He was never given the opportunity to show off his jiu-jitsu and looked decidedly out of his depth until that one-in-a-million haymaker.

I don’t expect Fitch to have too many problems with Thaigo. The fight will undoubtedly end up in the mat and while the Brazilian may feel comfortable there, I don’t believe he’ll be able to stop the onslaught Fitch will have for him.
Fitch TKO in the 1st.

Middleweight: Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Alan ‘The Talent’ Belcher

I don’t really know too much about Akiyama. I’ve seen a couple of his more recent fights in Japan, and while he looked decent, I’m not entirely sure if he’s deserving of the acclaim heaped upon him by much of the MMA community. That being said, Belcher has never looked like having the necessary to take that step up to the next level. Fundamentally a kickboxer, Belcher will utilise his accomplished striking to stay away from Akiyama’s clinch. If he gets caught, Akiyama will take him down the hard way with one of his bad-ass judo throws. If it ends up there, it won’t belong before Belcher has to give it up.

Bottom line is Belcher isn’t good enough to keep this thing standing for three rounds, possibly even one. It’ll inevitably find its way to the floor and that’ll be enough to see Akiyama victorious in his UFC debut. Akiyama submission in the 1st.

Light Heavyweight: Mark ‘The Hammer’ Coleman vs. ‘The American Psycho’ Stephan Bonner

After the farce that was his last fight, Coleman shouldn’t really be anywhere near an Octagon. Watching him despairingly stumble through three rounds as ‘Shogun’ awkwardly tried to finish him was one hell of an embarrassing sight. There won’t be a repeat of that this time. Bonnar is technically proficient enough to finish this fight standing while Coleman’s gas tank remains the same. Even if Coleman is able to evoke the wrestling monster from yesteryear, Bonnar’s grappling will get him back to his feet or find an opening to for a submission.

I can’t see anything other than a Bonnar victory. He might break a couple of knuckles on Coleman‘s head in the process but he’ll eventually throw one too many right hands that will fell this crazy old bastard. And to think, Coleman was once in line to face Brock Lesnar. That could have been serious. Bonnar TKO in the 2nd.

Lightweight: Mac Danzig vs. Jim Miller

This is likely to be a close fight that will see both go at full pelt for the entire 15 minutes. Danzig will prefer to keep it standing with the crisper, cleaner striking while Miller’s wrestling advantage means he’ll probably want to get this to the floor quick sharp. If Danzig can avoid the takedown and connect sufficiently, he can really take Miller out of his game. If Miller can get it to the ground he can dominate from the top and inflict a third straight loss for the former Ultimate Fighter winner.

Miller’s one dimensional yet effective top game rightly him favourite. But I like Danzig to stay away from the takedown and keep busy on his feet as he causes enough damage on his way to taking a majority decision. Danzig majority decision.

Light Heavyweight: Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones vs. Jake O’Brien

Boasting easily my favourite name in MMA today, Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones did actually look like the real deal in his last fight against Stephan Bonnar. He is an untamed ball of energy with extravagant striking and explosive wrestling. O’Brien is an orthodox wrestler who is moving down from Heavyweight. His only prominent win came against Heath Herring but that was more to do with Herring’s inadequacies than O’Brien’s ability.

I’m not sure what the cut will be like for O’Brien, but I suspect it will only facilitate the inevitable. I see Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones overwhelming O’Brien with his powerful offence and making short work the Irish-American. Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones TKO in the 1st.

Welterweight: Dong Hyun ‘Stun Gun’ Kim vs. T.J Grant

In his last two fights, Kim has been on either end of two split decision (the second of which was overturned into a no contest). He showed he is a game competitor as well as an excellent grappler. Unknown Grant made an impressive against Ryo Chonan when he also got the better of a split decision victory. He displayed decent all round skills to trouble the Japanese fighter both on the feet and ground.

This all points to an evenly contested 15 minute war and I can’t see anything but. I’m going to take Kim over Grant because I’m a sucker for a judoka. I think he’ll consistently score with trips and throws and keep plenty busy in top position.
Kim majority decision.

Middleweight: ‘The Doberman’ CB Dollaway vs. Tom ‘The Filthy Mauler’ Lawlor

These are two excellent wrestlers who’ll rely on versatile striking to set up the foreseeable takedown. Unfortunately for Lawlor, I think CB has the advantage in both areas. Lawlor has the requisite ‘puncher’s chance’ but I think CB and his heir lip will make short work of ‘The Filthy Mauler’ (good nickname though) once it hits the ground. Dollaway submission in the 1st.

Lightweight: Matt ‘The Real One’ Grice vs. Shannon Gugerty

I’m not going to pretend to know too much about these two. I remember seeing Grice get caught in a crowd-pleasing triangle by Terry Etim at UFC70 and similarly Gugerty to Spencer Fisher in his last outing. Of the two though, Gugerty looked the much more accomplished, and was fairing well against ‘The King’ before he was stopped. I expect this to be tight but favour Gugerty due to his proficient jiu-jitsu and Grice’s bull-headed approach. Gugerty submission in the 3rd.

It’s a very tight card so I couldn’t even tell you now how many or whom will go into our accumulator. A lot will depend on how much Moore’s opinions differ from mine and what the value is on a lot of the fighters. The favourites are really short priced and there isn’t the usual value in the underdogs to risk it. My selections would give you an 11-fold of ridiculous proportions (which I might have a cheeky quid on), but I would recommend that. There’s always going to be a surprising result or decision, it’s a case of being lucky enough to pick where there’ll occur.