Friendlies, F1 and a good week for journalism?

Good evening sports fans and welcome back to the blog after last week’s no show. I’m going to dive head first into the game from last night, and see if the 87,000 that flogged to Wembley should be excited by what they saw.

Firstly I have to congratulate England. It’s hard for me to stray from my pessimistic views but our gameplan worked last night, and they should be proud of that result as they were vying against the world’s best international tenants of a football.

It takes immense levels of concentration and fitness to cope defensively with a team like Spain, because once they have the ball it is extremely difficult to: a) get it back, and b) to move it forward. Xavi acts as a quarterback figure, his laser-like passes scything through the opposition’s final third. He has players such as Iniesta, David Silva and David Villa all running dangerous, intertwining routes. They also possess the ability to boss the tempo through the industrious Sergio Busquets, and the eloquent Xabi Alonso in the middle of the park.

But Vicente Del Bosque’s Armada was unsuccessful as Fabio’s stubborn tactics just about resisted, and that was due in the main part to the sheer endeavour and defensive skill of Scott Parker.

Parker is one of the best players in the Premier League and the recognition he is getting now is just deserved, and if anything, long overdue. Perhaps I see it through rose-tinted glasses because of his toil for my beloved West Ham over the past seasons, but the capacity and drive of Parker is the only thing I can be proud of in the last four years at Upton Park. My appreciation is probably best summed up by the fact that I find it hard to hate him, despite his move to Sp*rs.

Behind him, Joleon Lescott was also exceptional at the back, and his partner Phil Jagielka did himself no harm either as he had an excellent game, with countless interceptions and tackles to stop the Spanish breach.

The game itself was pretty dull and quite stereotypical of a Spanish game, but Joe Hart didn’t have too much to do in truth. Spain’s ball retention was mesmeric, but they were kept at bay by England’s rearguard action. The second half saw David Villa hit a dipping volley onto Hart’s post, before a somewhat more cultured-looking Cesc Fabregas spurned two opportunities to level in the last ten minutes.

I made it clear in my first blog entry that I thought England had no chance of winning Euro 2012, and the game at Wembley hasn’t done much to change my mind.

In order to beat teams such as Spain, there is one key ingredient needed above all else: luck. Capello rightly set out his stall to combat Spain’s drone of midfield possession, as often opening up against teams with a large Spanish contingent spells disaster. (see Barcelona v Arsenal, April 2010).

Set pieces seem to be the only flaw in the Spanish team, but in order to win free-kicks or dare I say corners against the World Champions, you need the ball. Their unrivaled technical ability and trust within each other to keep the ball oozes confidence, and the fact that many of them are seasoned winners merely adds to their supremacy. Surprisingly, this was their fourth defeat since their triumph in South Africa, but they have qualified at a canter from Group I, winning eight out of eight and conceding only six in the Euro 2012 qualification. So for now, Mr Del Bosque will continue to enjoy his Sangria.

To keep the blog fresh and hopefully enjoyable, I want to talk about motor sport this week. Unfortunately the sport has encountered two travesties recently, where Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli paid the ultimate sacrifice doing what they loved best.

Off the track, Bernie Ecclestone has given the green light to a new circuit for the 2013 season in New Jersey. America will hope that this time they can bridge the gap between their audience with F1, as it has never really taken off in the States.

The last race in America was won by Lewis Hamilton, in 2007, at the Indy 500 circuit in Indianapolis. But since then, Bernie could never agree a deal with the track owners, and F1 has had a five year absence from our transatlantic neighbours.

But before the street circuit of New Jersey in 2013, F1 will be returning to America for 2012 in Austin, Texas. At the 2005 American Grand Prix, fans saw just six cars start the race, after the majority of the teams pulled out over a tyre safety dispute.

Finally this week, I want to give journalism a pat on the back for the revelations of the spot-fixing scam from last summer’s series between England and Pakistan.

Bowlers Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and then captain Salman Butt have all been sentenced to jail after being found guilty of taking bribes to bowl no-balls last summer. Cricket will mourn the loss of these three players, and particularly Amir, who was a throwback. A talented, left arm swing bowler, who was showing great promise in his late teenage years. Asif was one of the best test bowlers in the world, despite not being express pace, he was often very effective at the top of the innings for Pakistan, and thrived on the English pitches where the ball moved around.

The evidence provided by one undercover journalist exposed this whole scam. And the question that comes to mind is, how much are the anti-corruption teams and governing bodies actually doing to regulate sport?

The no balls were pretty blatant, and despite there being lots of evidence put forward, the footage of bookmaker Mazhar Majeed predicting the no balls was filmed by a News of the World journalist. And in the current climate of journalism and the backlash it has received from phone tapping, I think in this instance it needs to be congratulated for the part is has played in uncovering the shameful acts of these players. Simply put, it was the media contact which enabled the unveiling of the crime, and the ICC should now wake up and crack down on cheating for good.

It’s a sad thing to see that the players have been jailed and suspended, but equally I have no sympathy as they have brought shame upon test cricket and Pakistan as a cricketing nation.

However I want to end on a more somber cricketing note, Australia were bowled out for 47 in their second innings against South Africa in the first test at Cape Town (this was before the home side were skittled for under 100 themselves in the first innings). The South Africans went on to win the game by eight wickets. Who said test match cricket was a batsman’s game?


Europe, Argentinian substitutes and Tom Lewis

After focusing the main part of the blog on Wayne Rooney last week, I thought it would only be fair for Manchester City to have their piece. This week I’ll mention how the British clubs faired in European competition, talk Tevez and an unexpected result at the Portugal Masters on Monday.

As the Champions League swung around again for gameweek three, both Manchester clubs would of been feeling the heat after neither had recorded a win in their opening two games. In City’s case, it looked like a ‘must win’ game if they wanted to venture further in their first attempt to win Europe’s most prestigious domestic crown.

And it wasn’t going well, when Villarreal opened the scoring inside five minutes any chance of qualification from this tricky group looked to have gone. But, after snatching an equaliser just before half time I thought the game seemed their for the taking in the second half, with City bound to throw the Sheikh’s chequebook at the Spaniards in the second 45.

But it didn’t materialise, the home side lacked creation and movement in the final third as a team with good European pedigree seemed to be doing a thorough job on shutting out the Champions League newcomers. However, Mancini brought on Sergio Aguero with half an hour to play, and there was always a sense that he could add the needed spark to unlock the visitor’s defence.

Inevitably Aguero scored, with City packed into Villarreal’s box, the sub knocked in what could be one of the most important goals in Manchester City’s season. Gary Neville commented after that winning at the death was the best way to win a football match, and it certainly looked that way to Mancini, who was overjoyed when the final whistle sounded.

The question on many peoples’ lips would have been whether City had the stomach for a fight when the chips were down, and Carlos Tevez did little to convince City doubters with his shenanigans in Munich. But Aguero’s stoppage time winner has shown that this City team do have some bottle, and what better way to show it before tomorrow’s showdown at Old Trafford.

The irony that Tevez’s countryman made such an impact off the bench will leave Mancini smarting after Carlos’ antics, the goal has magnified Tevez’s lack of respect to the club, and Aguero has shown him the benchmark of how a professional should act. Surely after all that’s been said Tevez will be shown the door in January. But he might change his mind, after all, he swore that he would never return to Manchester, “not even for a holiday”.

Tevez’s former employers Manchester United completed a routine midweek victory over Otelul Galati to strengthen their position in Group C, Wayne Rooney became the Champions League’s highest scoring Englishman, dispatching two penalties to take his tally to 26. Whilst Nemanja Vidic received a questionable red card on his return to the side. United should now qualify quite comfortably after registering five points at the halfway stage.

Elsewhere, Chelsea helped themselves to five goals against Genk, with Fernando Torres bagging a brace. Arsenal snatched an unlikely and morale boosting three points against a poor Marseille side.

Besides Europe’s major competition, Stoke’s Europa League game on Thursday was a really good watch. I’m not a fan of Stoke’s kick and chase style, but with hard working players and using the simple tactics of playing to their strengths, Tony Pulis has created a very difficult team to beat, especially at home. The cauldron-like atmosphere of the Britannia is very intimidating to away sides, whilst it can also plays on the minds of officials. Stoke ran out 3-0 winners but the main highlights were the two red cards given, one for Cameron Jerome in the first half which was debatable, and one in the second to crowd villain Yoan Ziv, which was simply hilarious. He was ridiculed for the part he played in Jerome’s second booking, and the crowd jeered every time he touched the ball. Eventually he buckled under the fiery atmosphere of 20,000 clay-heads, as he kicked a boot at an assistant referee in frustration.

Scattered around the continent there were credible results for Celtic, drawing away at Rennes, and a last gasp winner for Birmingham against Brugge, showing that British football has strength in depth outside of the Premier League. Fulham were unfortunate to lose against Wisla Krakow after some shoddy play acting leading to the dismissal of Moussa Dembele, and Tottenham fielded a team missing several marquee names as they beat Rubin Kazan 1-0, with Roman Pavlyuchenko smashing in a thunderbolt free kick from 20 yards.

Football aside, it was a great week for young golfing protégée Tom Lewis, he climbed over 400 places in the World Rankings after winning the Portugal Open, finishing 21 under and two shots ahead of his nearest competitor. The fact that this was only Lewis’ third tournament since turning pro puts it into context, he has surpassed Tiger Woods record of being the youngest ever winner of a professional title.

The field included Thomas Bjorn, Francesco Molinari and Martin Kaymer to name a few, Lewis will now have his eyes on the Order of Merit as he tries to catch Rory McIlroy.

Finally on a more sombre note, England are now playing for pride as they trail India 3-0 in their five match series, after some devastating batting displays from the hosts. As demoralising as the first three games have been, England can still sleep safely in the knowledge that India can not take their Test crown away.

So stick that up your arse Duncan Fletcher.

A Blog Debut: Rooney, India and the Grand Final.

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of my blog. The main sporting story this week revolves around Wayne Rooney, and a certain faux pas in Podgorica on Friday night. Besides football, England kick off their tour of India, and an eye opening experience from rugby league.

But firstly Rooney. I have a bit of a disliking for him, partly due to the fact he plays for Manchester United, but mainly because I, like many rival fans, envy his ability. He is one of the best players in the world undoubtedly, but he keeps giving ammunition to his critics with his random, brainless tendencies on the football pitch which show a complete lack of discipline.

One of the best natural footballers England has spewed out since Gazza, the game comes equally as easy to the United striker as it did to the lovable Geordie. I enjoy watching Rooney because he plays spontaneously, and has an effortless, natural talent for the game which any football fan can admire. Unfortunately it’s his petulant time-bomb temperament which is so frustrating, particularly for an England fan.

His red card in Montenegro on Friday night has somewhat dampened the mood on qualification, but with or without Rooney on the plane, England aren’t going to win Euro 2012. Without Rooney to spearhead what is a one pronged strike force, Capello’s men will miss the biggest lion in their pack for what will be a vital group stage. – But hey, at least it will give something for the England hierarchy to hide behind at the end of next summer.

Rooney’s impressive goal record for England (the last two major tournaments aside) makes him an absolute necessity if England want to even dream of ending a trophy-less dry spell, that will be knocking on 50 years next summer in Poland and Ukraine.

It’s not all bad, at least England will be travelling to Euro 2012, unlike in 2008, when Steve McClaren dismally failed to take the team through the qualification stages. Last week McClaren left Nottingham Forest after a disastrous start to their Championship season. It’s a funny old game.

Casting the cry-baby, prima donna attitudes aside, there is an England team that everyone can be immensely proud of. England start a return tour of India tomorrow in the first of five ODIs in Hyderabad. And after absolutely smashing his team around for the whole English summer, captain MS Dhoni will want the World Champions to dish out some revenge on home soil.

England’s turn around under current mentor Andy Flower has led to two Ashes winning series, a T20 World Cup crown and a rise to the top of Test cricket. An almost faultless two years has crafted a group with great team spirit, a huge amount of quality, and most importantly, a habit of winning.

The five match series will test England’s one-day resolve which seems the only unturned stone in English cricket. However, under the Test Cricketer of the year, Alastair Cook, England may fancy their chances of breaking their duck which dates back to 1985 in India. It will take some doing though, as Dhoni’s team haven’t lost a home one-day series since November, 2009.

England will have a few selection dilemmas, with young keeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow putting out a clear signal of intent to the selectors with a blistering unbeaten 104 off just 53 balls in their second and last warm up game against a Hyderabad XI, including eight sixes. With the returning Ian Bell, and the ever colourful Kevin Pietersen available, the selectors will have a decision who will accompany the team mainstay Jonathan Trott in the middle order. It’s a tough call, but under the pressure of 50,000 Indian fanatics it will be hard to leave out either Bell or Pietersen for the series opener. Ravi Bopara has probably done enough to warrant a spot at number six, whilst also providing some medium pace to relieve the quick bowlers in the heat of the sub continent.

It will also be a first time for both sides to sample the ICC’s new ODI rulings, which most notably include a new ball from either end, and the Powerplays being taken between overs 16 and 40. – All of which in my opinion sound stupid.

A game should start with a new ball that swings, then later in the match if conditions suit, skilful bowlers will get the ball to reverse swing. Using two new balls will eradicate reverse swing from many one-day games due to the pristine conditions of many pitches and outfields around the world. And I’ve never been a fan of Powerplays, which were just used as a batsman friendly tool and an ICC selling point, which ultimately makes a bowler’s job even harder than it already is in a limited overs game.

And as for DRS, the ICC continue to allow India to call the shots. What is the point in trying to integrate new approaches if there is no continuity? It should be one rule for all ODI  and Test playing nations, to create a level playing field for players and umpires. Personally, I would scrap DRS all together, but now many traditional values are being overlooked, they are being replaced on the flimsy promises of technology and ‘precision’.

Lastly this week, I want to talk about the spectacle that was put on at Old Trafford on Saturday night. Not being so hot on rugby league, I decided to sit down and watch a full game for myself and see if it was any good. St Helens and Leeds Rhinos created a fantastic game in the Manchester rain, as the game see-sawed from Merseyside to Yorkshire.

Leeds took home the crown as Saints lost their fourth final in a row, and that was largely due to the scrum half dynamo, Rob Burrows. He was named man of the match and scored an incredible try with feet that Lionel Messi would have been proud of. From a commanding position at half time, St Helens threw it all away in the second half as Leeds forced one of the greatest comebacks rugby league has ever seen! (probably).

I’m not going to promise that I’ll become a religious follower of rugby league though, I don’t like the TV technology, and the scrums are a waste of time.