25 September 2007

Feet on the ground

Things are looking rosy at the Emirates Stadium, and it’s not just the red colour of Arsenal’s shirts. Despite the loss of record goal-scorer Thierry Henry over the summer and the resultant portents of doom it attracted, the Gunners sit proudly atop the Premier League, two points clear of an out-of-sorts Man U (who have played a game more), four ahead of Liverpool and five ahead of the political mess which is the billionaire’s plaything formerly known as Chelsea.

Surely – as some confident Gooners have already done on radio phone-in shows – we should stand ready to proclaim the return of the Premier League trophy to Arsenal? Plus the Champions League. And, while we’re at it, the FA and Carling Cups as well.

Me? I say (without a trace of originality) there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

It’s easy to be seduced by the league table, and by the pundits’ plaudits which go with it. The team IS undoubtedly playing beautiful football at the moment, scoring five goals for fun against Derby at the weekend. And there was the comprehensive 3-0 win over two-time UEFA Cup champions Sevilla last week. Not to mention the morale-boosting win at Spurs in the North London Derby the weekend before that. And a midfield general in Cesc Fabregas (amazingly, still only 20) who couldn’t score for toffee for much of last season, but is now scoring for fun.

So it’s all good, surely?


Here’s an example of why you shouldn’t necessarily take stats or facts at face value. Man U were Premier League champions last season, but they lost home and away to Arsenal. And West Ham did the double over both Arsenal and Man U. So doesn’t that make West Ham the best team in England?

Like I said, it’s easy to be seduced.

So let’s be glass half empty for a minute and look at some other statistics.

To date, Arsenal have played only two games against teams in the top half of the table (a sketchy 1-1 draw at Blackburn and a late 1-0 win over Man City). And three of those six wins have come against teams in the bottom four: Fulham, Derby and – it still amuses me to say it – Tottenham. Looking at the fixture list objectively, 19 points out of a possible 21 – while still impressive – is only slightly better than par.

Now we shouldn’t dismiss these results; after all, as the adage goes, you can only beat the opponent who is put in front of you. And it’s also true Arsenal dropped far too many points against teams at the wrong end of the table last season, losing at City and relegated Sheffield United and both home and away to West Ham, for instance. So there is already a marked improvement over last season in that respect.

But equally, it’s not like we’ve played and beaten the other members of the so-called ‘Big Four’ (Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea) either.

Oddly enough, that doesn’t worry me. Transitional and inexperienced though the team was last season, if you had drawn a mini league of last season’s top four, Arsenal would have been top with 11 points out of 18, including wins over Man U (twice) and Liverpool, and a brace of draws with Chelsea. Our ability to go toe-to-toe with the other big hitters is already proven; all we need to do now is repeat it.

So while my glass isn’t entirely full, it’s not half empty either. I can see potential rapidly becoming reality throughout this young Arsenal side, and while unanswered questions remain it is all too clear this is a better side than last season – and far better than virtually everyone anticipated.

I’m excited by what I’ve seen so far this season. I’m ready to believe. I’m just not ready to start rubbing everyone’s noses in it just yet. And that’s part of the beauty of football: we are where we are right now, but it is a long season and literally anything could happen between now and the end of it. A couple of long-term injuries, a loss of form and confidence, split factions in the dressing room and/or the boardroom, the departure of a hugely respected and successful manager, and things could change in the blink of an eye. Just ask Chelsea.

So we hope. We even dare to believe. But we also know how cruel a mistress this thing called sport can be. Which is why, for the next few weeks at least, my feet are staying firmly on the ground.

One final word on Chelsea. It’s tempting (and all too easy) to gloat at their current situation and write off their season. But they remain a team full of outstanding individual talents (that’s a deliberate and careful choice of words, there). They have already played two of their toughest away fixtures (Man U and Liverpool). And they remain only five points off the top – far bigger gaps have been recovered far later in the season. They are certainly a wounded beast right now, but write them off at your peril. Football’s funny like that.

13 September 2007

Cinderella man

The film 'Cinderella Man' is a biopic of James J Braddock, the heavyweight boxer who was reduced from a serious contender to a makeweight journeyman on the breadline during the Great Depression, only to rise again as a 10/1 underdog and take the heavyweight championship of the world away from Max Baer.

If ever anyone wanted to produce a footballing version of Cinderella Man, they could do worse than to focus on the career of Emile Heskey, the heavyweight striker with the heavyweight nickname ('Bruno', after Frank Bruno), who was once Michael Owen's preferred strike partner for both Liverpool and England, was subsequently cast out into the domestic and international wilderness (sold to Birmingham and then to Wigan, and uncapped by his country since Euro 2004), only to make something of a fairytale comeback for England's Euro 2008 qualifying matches against Israel and Russia (both 3-0 victories).

Heskey has deservedly received warm plaudits over the past week, but it is easy to forget that for a long time he has been something of a laughing stock in the English game. He was the striker who couldn't score: an international record of only 5 goals in 45 games, and a ratio of less than a goal every four games at club level. In many eyes, he was the scapegoat for England's 2-1 defeat to France at Euro 2004, coming on as a late sub and conceding the free kick which resulted in France's equaliser. And since then he has dropped further and further down the England pecking order with the emergence of Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, not to mention falling behind Jermain Defoe, Andy Johnson and Theo Walcott at various times over the past three years. His transfer to unfashionable Wigan Athletic, a team who had never previously produced an England international player, at the start of last season looked to be the last nail in the coffin, a final resting place for a good player who had never become great.

So his recall for this month's qualifying games was certainly unexpected. With Rooney injured, Crouch suspended and Defoe unable to get a start for Tottenham, Heskey suddenly found himself thrust straight back into the starting line-up alongside Owen, the restoration of the classic little-and-large (or, if you prefer, goalscorer and non-scoring assistant) pairing which had been good enough to power England to that memorable 5-1 win in Germany almost exactly six years previously. Many pundits questioned Steve McClaren's 'brave' decision; many fans (myself included) expressed their concerns in more colourful terms.

Heskey ignored the brickbats, and quietly went out and did what Emile Heskey does.

Against Israel on Saturday he squandered a very presentable early chance (same old Heskey!) but otherwise produced exactly what you want from a big striker: an imposing aerial presence, an ability to link up play and bring others into the game, and generally making life difficult for opponents and easier for team-mates. It was a good individual performance which was rightly praised. But last night, against much tougher opponents in Guus Hiddink's Russia, he was even better. Utterly dominant in the air, you could see the panic in the Russian defence every time a ball was launched towards his head, and his deft nod down to set up Owen's second goal was just reward for a great night's effort. It was largely unfussy, unglamorous spade-work, but it was important and highly effective work nonetheless.

Why is it that we have been so quick to accept Emile Heskey back into our hearts? After all, it's not as if he returned with a huge fanfare and a shower of goals. Possibly, it's because of the kind of player - the kind of man - he is. He isn't a diver (although early in his career he did have a tendency to tumble to the ground at the slightest touch, not unlike the real Bruno), he doesn't commit dangerous tackles, he is generally acknowledged as being a good team-mate and a nice guy, and - unlike many of his contemporaries - he doesn't have a reputation for being a primadonna. Like Braddock before him, he is a man of the people and - for this week at least - it means he is very much the people's champion.

Heskey's story is not as epic as Braddock's - neither the highs nor the lows of his career are as extreme - but it's noteworthy nonetheless. He hasn't suddenly been transformed into a world-beater over the past week, but it's hard not to feel pleased for one of football's nice guys. Qualification for Euro 2008 now beckons, and if he can maintain his form and his place in the England side, maybe - just maybe - football's Cinderella Man shall go to the ball.

11 September 2007

Biff, bash, bosh

The inaugural Twenty20 World Cup started only last night, but already we've seen two explosive and memorable games which underline the thrill-a-minute excitement which is the format's raison d'etre.

The hosts, South Africa, got proceedings under way at the Wanderers against the West Indies. And what a match it was. Batting first, the Windies laid down the benchmark for others to follow, scoring 205 runs in their 20 overs. Opener Chris Gayle led the way, peppering sixes (ten in all) to all corners of the ground en route to a destructive 117 from just 57 balls. Quite possibly, we have already witnessed THE batting performance of the tournament.

If the West Indies had shown their best side with the bat, they then showed their worst side in the field. In defending their impressive total, they contributed 28 runs in extras - a record in Twenty20 - to South Africa's total, and added three dropped catches for good measure. Herschelle Gibbs was twice reprieved by butter-fingered fielders and needed no further invitation to build an innings which was almost the equal of Gayle's, accelerating to an unbeaten 90 off 55 balls and striking the winning blow himself as South Africa cruised home with 14 balls to spare.

As a match, it was a shining example of what the Twenty20 format has to offer: 413 runs in less than three hours, 36 fours, 18 sixes. Many purists disown Twenty20 as an abhorrent creation for an attention-deficient world; as far removed from Test cricket as 5-a-side is from 'proper' football. But that is to totally miss the point. Twenty20 is not supposed to be Test cricket on speed; in terms of tactics and technique it cannot even be regarded as an abbreviated version of its 50-over cousin (which, lest we forget, was similarly derided when it was first introduced to the international arena in 1971). It is simply a different form of the game which taps into the needs and expectations of a global TV audience which demands bite-sized chunks of intense action and has immense viewing choice when it comes to sport.

And to underline the point that Twenty20 need not be all about the biff-bash-bosh of batting pyrotechnics, tonight's prime-time match-up between the minnows of Zimbabwe and the all-conquering might of one-day world champions Australia produced a game every bit as exciting and compelling as what we saw last night.

Against all expectations, a rusty Australia laboured to an underwhelming 138-9 in damp conditions as Zimbabwe produced an impressive containing performance in the field. In response, Zimbabwe got off to a flyer, stalled horribly mid-innings as wickets and heavy rain fell to the point where, had the teams been unable to continue following a brief interruption for rain, Australia would have been declared the winners under the ever-mysterious Duckworth-Lewis method. As things transpired, however, they were able to resume, and a match which had been ebbing away from Zimbabwe before the stoppage gradually flowed back to them thanks to Brendan Taylor's well-paced 60. Even so, they found themselves still requiring 12 off the final over, and then four off the last two balls, but Taylor flicked the penultimate ball off his pads down to the fine leg boundary and one of the most dramatic and unexpected victories ever seen in limited overs cricket ensured that this World Cup will remain firmly imprinted on my memory.

I hadn't paid much attention to Twenty20 before this World Cup, and only really tuned in last night out of curiosity. The fact that I then switched on again tonight and will do so for the rest of the tournament is testament to the game's TV-friendly potential. It's easy to dismiss Twenty20 as cricket for the Playstation generation, but that is no bad thing if the spectacle and excitement succeeds in drawing a new generation of kids to the sport. It's certainly good enough for this bluff old traditionalist.

You know summer's coming to an end when ...

... The TV schedules are filled wall-to-wall with major sporting events. Everywhere you look, a major tournament is under way (or about to start).

In cricket, there is the excitement of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup and its relentless biff-bash-bosh, thrill-a-minute format. England will go into the tournament on a high, having recorded their first major one-day series win since Lions versus Christians (possibly even longer ago than that). The talismanic Andrew Flintoff returned, just about fit - as good as we can expect these days - to take three vital wickets as England roared home on Saturday to edge the series against India 4-3. And, having invented the format, you would have to hope that we would be quite good at it. Certainly we should have a better chance to put in a good showing than in the recent 'proper' World Cup - not that that's particularly difficult ...

In rugby union, the World Cup got off to an attention-grabbing start as the hosts France wilted under a testing examination from Argentina's rugged, physical defence, crashing to a 17-12 defeat. It was a shock, and yet not a shock; it was the Pumas' fifth win in their last six encounters with Les Bleus, although the first time they had won a match of such importance. And the rest of the opening weekend hinted at a clear North/South divide, with England, Ireland and Wales labouring against the USA, Namibia and Canada respectively, while the southern hemisphere triumvirate of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa ran up cricket scores in their respective openers.

The F1 season continues to speed towards what promises to be a thrilling climax, with Fernando Alonso leading Lewis Hamilton home in Italy, despite the British rookie executing spectacular overtaking moves on both Ferrari drivers. It was McLaren's first ever one-two finish at Monza, made doubly sweet in the light of the continuing 'Spygate' scandal which threatens to engulf the sport in political acrimony. With four races remaining, Alonso has cut Hamilton's lead to just three points. Expect more fireworks at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, assuming the World Motor Sport Council does not decide to take drastic action against McLaren this Thursday.

Across the pond, it was the start of the new NFL season, which is particularly tantalising with the first ever regular season game in the UK coming to the new Wembley next month. Kickoff weekend didn't disappoint, wth six games being decided by seven points or less. In New York, New England's Ellis Hobbs fielded a kickoff eight yards deep in his own endzone and ran it back, untouched, 108 yards for a touchdown - an NFL record. In Dallas, the Cowboys beat the New York Giants by a crazy 45-35 score. (In football terms, think of the 5-4 North London derby game from a few years back.) And in San Francisco, my beloved 49ers squeezed out a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 26 seconds remaining, having nearly fumbled the ball away at the goalline the previous play. My heart is still recovering from that one.

The World Athletics Championships have been and gone already, but that didn't stop Asafa Powell stealing headlines on Sunday with a searing run to shatter the 100 metres world record. In setting a new mark of 9.74 seconds, he shaved three hundredths of a second off the previous best time he had jointly held with the now-banned Justin Gatlin. A blink of an eye to some, but equivalent to a gap of nearly one-third of a metre compared to the previous record - as good as a mile in an event which frequently requires freeze-frame images to determine the winner. The only shame was that he had not produced this run on the grand stage of the World Championships only weeks previously.

And then there's the small matter of Euro 2008 qualifying, with the home nations experiencing mixed fortunes: Wales battered by Germany, Northern Ireland losing disappointingly in Latvia, the Republic of Ireland only earning a draw in Slovakia, Scotland easing past Lithuania, and an injury-ravaged England neatly side-stepping the banana skin that was Israel at Wembley (and looking surprisingly decent in doing so). Next up is Russsia - by far the harder of the two games - tomorrow.

Last but by no means least, the women's football World Cup kicked off in China yesterday with the defending champions Germany administering an old-fashioned shellacking - 11-0 - to Argentina. Hope Powell's England squad, a modest 12th in the world rankings and with the misfortune to be drawn in Germany's group, face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages, but if they can beat Japan today in what is to all intents and purposes a winner-takes-all eliminator, who knows? If you've never watched the women's game before, you should give it a try. You might be surprised at the level of skill and strength on show - and pleased at the lack of professional cynicism which we have come to accept as part and parcel of the men's game.

All that in the space of a five day span, Friday to Tuesday. Not bad!

So, while it's a shame summer is coming to an end, if you like your sports it's really not so bad. Roll on winter!