Monday, 29 June 2009

Team of the Season

Just as Sky begins to advertise for forthcoming pre-season friendlies Paul Morris and I finally complete our Team of the Season selection. Perhaps selection over email wasn't the best idea?

First XI

Mark Schwarzer

I’ve never been a massive fan of Schwarzer. He always appears a bit stiff and doesn’t generally contain the kind of athleticism I like to see in my keepers. And while I still have that opinion, I can’t argue with some of the displays he’s put in since his arrival at Craven Cottage. Having escaped relegation on goal difference last year, Fulham have taken points off all the top four this term with Schwarzer keeping clean sheets against three of them. His most notable all-action performance came in the 2-0 home victory over Man Utd that, momentarily, put Liverpool back in the title race. Integral to Fulham’s lofty European hopes.

Bacary Sagna

Probably the hardest position to pick for considering it’s been a pretty lean year for standout right backs. Although Sagna was selected for 2008’s official team, he still receives minimal fanfare outside of the Emirates. Certainly one of Wenger’s more astute recent signings, Sagna is proving to be an excellent complement to the similarly energetic Clichy. Very competent defensively, he’s clearly not out of his depth going forward either. Fast, strong, committed, Arsene could do with a few more like him.

Brede Hangeland

Bit of a no-brainer this choice as the Norwegian captain has really optimised the phrase “towering presence”. Hangeland reads the game well, is comfortable in possession, commanding in the air and, similarly to the much eulogised Nemanja Vidic, loves defending. Will doubtlessly be the subject of interest from many top clubs before the August transfer deadline, but will need to choose his destination carefully as to not fall foul of that “one season wonder” tag.

Phil Jagielka

Nothing short of phenomenal this season, Jags has been an outstanding blend of composure, practicality, awareness and consistency. While England’s captain still flatters to deceive, the former Blade is routinely turning in weekly performances that certainly deserve more recognition. However it was his shackling displays of Fernando Torres that made people realise this was more than just another Northern utility player. Jags fittingly scored the winning penalty to take Everton to the FA Cup Final, only to tragically rupture his ACL a week later. A cruel blow but not one that should sour an exceptional campaign.

Benoit Assou-Ekotto

Initially chosen due to the unfortunate and underwhelming Gareth Bale, Assou-Ekotto has rapidly repaid Redknapp’s faith with some very competent displays. Established as first choice left-back, he has played a large part in Tottenham’s resurgence, underlined by his impressive performance opposite the people’s favourite Ronaldo in this year’s Carling Cup Final. Out of the same mould as compatriots Evra and Clichy, Assou-Ekotto gets up and the down with ease, comfortable in either defence or attack.

James Milner

I’m not sure of the Opta stats, but I’d be surprised if there’s a more hardworking player in the Premier League. Having spent the first few years of his career filling in gaps, Milner has since carved himself out as a genuine winger. While he hasn’t received the same accolades as his quicker, flashier teammates, Milner’s success is in his simplicity. He doesn’t overcomplicate his play and the results mean he’ll be a more than useful player for a very long time. Furthermore, with over 40 Under-21 caps, what’s the brother got to do to get a senior one?

Wilson Palacios

It’s no coincidence that Palacios’ departure from Wigan and arrival at Tottenham resulted in regression for the former and progression for the latter. He added much needed steel to a lightweight Spurs midfield while leaving a seemingly insurmountable void in Wigan’s. At his most impressive breaking up and launching attacks, the Honduras international appears to be a very good piece of business at £12 million (as ridiculous as that sounds). Passed over by Wenger two years back, the Arsenal manager would probably give all the berets and baguettes in the world for a time machine.

Stephen Ireland

Who could have foretold that a man only known for novelty underwear and being the worst liar EVER would end up being one of the most exciting and dynamic footballers of the year. Despite looking like a greasy light bulb, Stephen Ireland has been a revelation for Man City this term. He has shown poise, creativity and an incisiveness that hasn’t been evident in seasons past. Clearly thrived playing alongside Robinho, it’ll be interesting to see if Ireland can remain such an influence following what is likely to be a tumultuous summer at Eastlands.

Tim Cahill

If a better 1.5 million has been spent in the last 10 years then I can’t think of it. Cahill is the perennial ‘impact’ player. His exploits are by now no secret, but Cahill continues to influence the game in the same way: the opposition’s 18 yard box. In tandem with the differently physical yet potentially as dangerous Fellaini, Cahill led Everton’s attack when they had none. Is as important to Everton as Lampard is to Chelsea, Gerrard is to Liverpool and Fabregas is to Arsenal.

Matt Taylor

A hardworking and versatile player, Taylor has really impressed in a wholly uninspiring Bolton team. He has always had an eye for goal but this season has seen his best return with a league tally entering double figures. Obviously enjoying playing further forward, Taylor has settled in very well as the left hand side of a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. His dangerously accurate left boot has not only paid dividends for him, but it serves battering rams Elmander and Davies quite nicely as well.

Kevin Davies

I’m not a fan of Sam Allardyce. That’s another rant for another day. But while he’s no longer associated with Bolton, his accomplishments and influence cannot be overlooked and are still very much evident. This is embodied by Kevin Davies; a no-nonsense centre forward who leads the line with strength and aggression. His limits as a player are obvious, but Davies’ years at Bolton have seen him adapt his game to be a consistently effective performer at the top level. Has had the best goalscoring season of his career, that saw him catch the eye of Fabio Capello (albeit briefly).


Chris Kirkland

Kirkland’s constant injuries have regrettably robbed us of a genuinely international class goalkeeper. And while he may have individually underachieved throughout his career, his performances for Wigan mean they continue to overachieve. It’s a testament to Kirkland’s natural ability that he’s been able to help the smallest club in the league (probably 3 leagues) stay afloat the last few years. Similar to Ledley King, he only “does” match days. But this curbed training regiment is obviously working for the pair as they’ve both enjoyed their most successful season in a good while. Might be the way forward.

Michael Turner

A complete unknown to most, Turner was a prominent figure in Hull’s magnificent start to the season. With eye-catching performances against Arsenal and Liverpool, Turner was mentioned for an England call up that few could have argued with. The turn of the year saw Hull plummet from Europe to relegation, but Turner has been the unmistakable bright spark of The Tigers retched 2009. Will no doubt incur the advances of many teams this summer.

Herita Ilunga

Another relatively unfamiliar name, Ilunga was signed on a season-long loan by Alan Curbishley about 10 minutes before he was unceremoniously sacked. Under Gianfranco Zola Ilunga he has proven to be an excellent acquisition, acclimatising to the Premiership comfortably. Typical of modern day full backs, he is as capable in his own half as he is the oppositions. Ilunga’s consistent displays established him as regular in the first XI and culminated in him signing a permanent deal at Upton Park.

Stiliyan Petrov

After two underwhelming seasons at Villa, Petrov finally started to justify the hype this year with a number of commanding performances alongside Gareth Barry. Playing a lot deeper than he (and we) were accustomed to, Petrov has flourished with this additional time and space in which to operate. Most surprisingly Petrov has shown added ‘bite’ to his game, assuming a great deal of defensive responsibility that was never previously associated with his game.

Steven Pienaar

During his initial loan spell, Steven Pienaar visibly struggled with the strength and pace of the English Premiership. But David Moyes saw enough to make the diminutive South African’s move permanent (for a mere £2 million). Since then Pienaar has asserted himself as an integral member of the team, developing an almost telepathic understanding with Leighton Baines down Everton’s left. After the devastating injury to Mikel Arteta, Pienaar was looked to to provide much of the team’s creative impetus. He didn’t disappoint as Everton reached the FA Cup Final and cemented their league status as ‘best of the rest’.

Peter Crouch

Despite being one of the most high profile English strikers of the past 5 years, Crouch still gains more negative attention than positive. Crouch didn’t get off to the best of starts when he returned to Fratton Park as ‘Appy ‘Arry upped and left for Spurs and Tony Adams struggled to inspire as a manager the same way he did as a player. With the club disillusioned, Crouch unselfishly put himself before the team (unlike Defoe) and got to work trying to rejuvenate the FA Cup holders. His eventual tally of 11 went more than a long way to keeping Pompey afloat, but it was Crouch’s all round work ethic that was significantly more key to their survival.

Ricardo Fuller

In possessing the most physically imposing team in the top tier, Stoke are an illustration of what heart, determination and often brute force can achieve. Hidden inside these behemoths is Ricardo Fuller, a bit of a journeyman striker who has been unable to reproduce his Championship success at the highest level. But his talents are evident (particularly in an one-dimensional Stoke side) and winning goals against Aston Villa and Arsenal helped banish the Potters as an afterthought. Fuller’s injury, attitude and disciplinary problems are never far away, but when firing on all cylinders his pace, power and skill are a handful for anybody.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Froch Keeps Title and Gets Big Reward

Second article from our boxing obsessed contributor, Wizzy.

So Carl Froch extended his unbeaten record (25-0) and did so with a dramatic late KO win over Jermain Taylor. I watched it and was again baffled by the level to which Froch can persistently put on master-classes in how not to box yet still come away with the win. His technical faults appear to be endless; he is adept at parrying shots with his face, moves his head with all the sublime dexterity of a man in a neck brace, walks forward as he punches and relies too heavily on singly shots…yet has never tasted defeat as a pro.

He was completely outclassed for about ten rounds and got dropped in the process. Taylor’s jab was rooted to his chin and he seemed to be moving on fast forward compared to Carl who bore a strong resemblance to a man caught in quicksand but then, in the final straight, Taylor’s heart broke. He had blasted Carl with everything he had but still the bar room slugger piled forward, Taylor had boxed the ears of him but McCracken – Froch’s trainer – was not about to throw in the towel and, ultimately, Taylor’s always suspect stamina reserves were spent. Froch knocked him out with fourteen seconds left in the fight. It was dramatic, edge of the seat stuff but the lingering thought remained: How on Earth does he do it?

Watching the fight, puzzled by the technical inadequacies of a former Amateur success story and professional World Champion, I was reminded by the story of Rocky Marciano and his trainer Charley Goldman. Marciano retired undefeated from Heavyweight Boxing, the only champion to do so (49-0). However, the fact is that from a technical standpoint, he was crap. You would never teach a kid to fight like he did. His own trainer, Goldman, once said in relation to Marciano that, ‘If he did anything right, I didn’t see it’. It feels like that watching Froch which is precisely the reason why I can not wait for the touted fight between Froch and Lucian Bute (which I think is unfortunately actually pronounced B’yoo-tay).

Bute, thankfully, suffers from the same affliction as Froch, in that he is incapable of raising his hands above waist-height, hates his own face and does not believe in the fallibility of the human frame. It is the perfect ingredient for an armchair fan: Two fighters who have absolutely no regard for their own physical features.

It should be a cracker and I wish Froch all the best, not because he has the skills of Ray Leonard or the speed of Joan Guzman but because he makes the fights in the Rocky films look like a pile of puke. I was lucky enough to be in attendance at the Froch vs Pascal fight where again Froch sacrificed himself at the altar of viewer entertainment and for that, and the fact that he is our only current World Champion, we should be thankful. Bring on Bute and may the slugfests continue.

DeGale and the ‘Boo-Boys’

A guest post this week from the mysterious boxing maniac only know as 'Wizzy'.

The Olympians have racked up a few wins now and, supposedly, the most shocking revelation of those first few fights was the fact that James Degale, the Olympic Gold medallist, got a rough reaction from the fans. The commentators and pundits on Sky were all outraged and baffled as to why he got booed on his debut and received what I heard called a ‘mixed reaction’ in his second fight. I guess the mix in the mixed reaction was those who booed and those who did nothing as it just sounded like a poor reaction all around to me.

The reaction, in both fights, is not that difficult to comprehend. I was at his debut and the excuse peddled by some, that Darren Sutherland’s fans were the ones booing (Darren Sutherland having lost in Beijing to DeGale) was nonsense – loads of people were getting involved. In fact, the excuses were getting so tenuous that I half expected a Smithers-esque pundit to come out saying that they were actually chanting ‘Boo-urns, Boo-urns’. The reason for the booing can be found in the comments that DeGale made before he had even got his professional gloves on: That two British Champions, Wayne Elcock and Brian Magee, were effectively nobodies.

The charge was reminiscent of the Audley Harrison approach to the transition from the amateur to the pro ranks, shout your mouth off about well liked, longstanding British fighters and set yourself up for a fall – not that there is any chance of him screwing anything up like Audley did, that became an artform in itself. Surely the first thing a promoter says to a rookie boxer these days is, ‘Don’t do an Audley Harrison’. Unfortunately, it would appear that DeGale took this to be a challenge, throw in the fact that the performance itself, in his debut, was lacklustre with a couple of referee warnings about slapping his opponent and the fuse was lit.

So, it was not an issue that required Columbo; Criticise popular professional British boxers before you have even taken your headguard off and you face an uphill struggle to become the next Frank Bruno in the eyes of the public. Oh, and did I mention that DeGale’s debut was in Birmingham and that Wayne Elcock is from Birmingham? Or the fact that Brian Magee is from Northern Ireland and Degale’s second fight was in Belfast? Like I said, not rocket science.