31 January 2008

99 and out?

Fabio Capello has a reputation for being his own man, and he has wasted no time in emphasising this by omitting David Beckham from his first England squad for the friendly against Switzerland next week, leaving the former captain still on 99 caps.

It's a brave decision. And, dare I say it, the correct one.

If that makes me an emotionless killjoy, then so be it. But what I want to see next week is the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Bentley have a full 90 minutes to demonstrate whether they are good enough to claim the number 7 shirt for themselves, rather than cram it into 70 to accommodate a carnival cameo.

Notwithstanding Capello's long-term plans, right here, right now, Beckham certainly isn't the first (or even second) choice right-sided midfielder for next week's game. Since England's defeat to Croatia in mid-November, he has played the grand total of zero competitive minutes. It's been longer still since he played a full match. Beckham's ability to deliver a telling ball isn't in question here, but his stamina and effectiveness over anywhere near 90 minutes certainly is.

Of course, it's not necessarily all over for Beckham. It may be that he forces his way back into the squad over the coming months and secures that elusive hundredth cap after all, although his advancing age, declining physical abilities and his isolation in the footballing backwater that is LA would seem to count against this. And if that's the case, so be it.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against David Beckham, who has been a fantastic servant to his country and has never given less than 100%. And of course it would be nice if he were to complete his century of international appearances. But the thought of him trotting out for 10 or 15 minutes as a sub, just so he can take his bow in front of the Wembley crowd, devalues what it means to play for England, even if it is only a 'meaningless' friendly. (As if any England game is regarded as meaningless by the vultures in the tabloid press!)

David Beckham has earned 99 caps, which is no trivial achievement in itself. If he earns his hundredth on merit, I will be the first to applaud. But international football is a sport, and modern-day sport (as we are always being reminded) is a business, not a charity. Beckham should not be given number 100 out of some misguided sentimentaility, any more than a batsman who has reached 99 would expect to be gifted his century.

Beckham may play in Hollywood now, but that alone doesn't guarantee him the fairy-tale ending. Nor should it.

24 January 2008

Wizards of Oz

Maybe Andy Murray will now feel a bit better about his shock first round exit to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last week, for the Frenchman (a modest 38th in the rankings and, trivia fans, second cousin to Newcastle footballer Charles N'Zogbia) defeated Rafael Nadal 6-2 6-3 6-2 this morning to reach the final of the Australian Open, denying us the resumption of the titanic Federer-Nadal rivalry.

Is it just me, or is tennis in general in pretty rude health at the moment?

If you are attracted by the ultimate battle of wills of two competitors at the very top of their games, then look no further than the men's game, where Roger Federer and Nadal repeatedly stand toe-to-toe against each other on all surfaces, neither giving the other any quarter. Nadal has the edge on clay, Federer on the faster surfaces - although the gap between the two narrows with every passing year, as evidenced by last summer's five-set Wimbledon final, a match as memorable as the great McEnroe-Borg finals of 1980 and '81.

Never in living memory has the men's game been so thoroughly dominated by two players. Between them, Federer and Nadal have won the last 11 Grand Slam singles titles - Federer leads 8-3 - dating back to the 2005 French Open, including four head-to-head battles during that time. And what sets this rivalry apart from McEnroe-Borg is the fact that both players are so strong on every surface: McEnroe always struggled on the clay of Roland Garros, while Borg was 0-4 in finals at Flushing Meadows and never passed the third round in Melbourne. And with Federer still only 26 to Nadal's 21, there is every chance the pair can continue to dominate for the next two or three years.

Behind them, youngsters such as Murray and the Serb Novak Djokovic are waiting impatiently in the wings. The 20-year old Djokovic, who awaits Federer tomorrow, is already the world number three, having reached at least the semi-finals in each of the last four Grand Slams. When Federer finally hangs up his kit bag, Nadal will certainly not have it all his way.

The women's game, on the other hand, can boast the kind of strength in depth it was so often accused of lacking back in the days when first Steffi Graf, then Monica Seles and the Williams sisters steam-rollered all before them. There have been eight different winners of the last 16 Grand Slam singles titles, with only world number one Justine Henin (5 wins) claiming more than two - and even she was unceremoniously dispatched by Maria Sharapova in their quarter-final earlier this week, losing a set 6-0 for the first time in nearly six years. And there is no questioning the depth of talent in a field which includes a nice mix of established and rising stars such as Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Daniela Hantuchova and Marion Bartoli.

With Ivanovic facing Sharapova in Saturday's final, the total could rise to nine different winners in the last 17 Grand Slams. Compare that to the men's game - just four Grand Slam winners in the last 16 tournaments - or to football's English Premier League, where only four teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn) have claimed the league title in the past 15 years. If you want unpredictability and a deep, competitive field, then women's tennis is where it's at.

Dominant champions or wide-open competition: whatever you want, the professional tennis circuit currently has it all.

22 January 2008

Arm's reach of desire

The corporate behemoth which is Coca-Cola once expressed its vision as 'arm's reach of desire', but it is a slogan which could apply equally to either of Super Bowl XLII's participants, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

The Patriots showed uncharacteristic vulnerability in last Sunday's stumbling 21-12 AFC Conference Championship victory over the San Diego Chargers, but they nonetheless punched their ticket for the big show in two weeks' time, and in doing so recorded the first 18-win season in NFL history. Not only do they stand one win away from completing the first 'perfect' season since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule (and only the second ever), but victory over the Giants in Arizona will mark their fourth Super Bowl win in seven years, elevating them to the level of the great Pittsburgh and San Francisco teams of the 70s and 80s.

But New England's ascension to the pantheon of the NFL elite is by no means a foregone conclusion. The Giants will have taken comfort from watching the Patriots' star-studded offense huff and puff against the Chargers. Tom Brady threw just eight interceptions throughout the regular season; on Sunday alone he tossed three. Randy Moss caught 98 passes for an NFL record 23 touchdowns in the regular season; in two postseason games he has just 2 catches and no TDs. And no team has scored as many points against New England this season as the Giants did in a thrilling 38-35 loss in week 17.

The battle-hardened Giants will certainly be no pushovers. They are a far cry from the team who UK fans watched labour to a 13-10 win over the 1-15 Miami Dolphins at a sodden Wembley back in October. In successive weeks, they have won on the road against the NFC's number one and two seeds, first dispatching the Dallas Cowboys - to whom they had lost twice during the regular season - and then, even more impressively, beating the Green Bay Packers in the third coldest game in NFL history (minus-18 degrees C, with a wind chill of minus-31). All this without their biggest offensive weapon, tight end Jeremy Shockey.

For Giants' quarterback Eli Manning, he is now within arm's reach of his deepest desire: to escape from the shadow of his elder brother, Peyton. Both were selected with the first overall pick of the draft (Peyton in 1998, Eli in 2004), with all the weight of expectation which goes with that. But whereas Peyton quickly established himself as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, even though it took him nine seasons to reach (and win) his first Super Bowl last year, Eli has struggled to excel and has been much maligned throughout his four years in the league. 20 interceptions and middling reviews during the 2007 season have done little to alter the perception of Manning Jr as a passer who is merely competent rather than great: more Carrie Bradshaw than Terry Bradshaw.

However, in the postseason, Eli has been outstanding, completing 62% of his passes and throwing for four touchdowns without interception - stats which compare favourably with the more illustrious Brady. Against all expectations - mine included - he has looked every inch a Super Bowl quarterback, and perhaps for the first time has started to justify his status as a number one overall pick. Now, winning the Super Bowl will not suddenly transform Eli Manning from an ugly duckling into a swan, but it will certainly allow him to hold his head up high and elevate him into the exclusive club of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. That's not bad for starters.

Come February 3rd, the Patriots will enter Super Bowl XLII as overwhelming favourites to complete their perfect season. But don't be surprised if the Giants have failed to read the script and produce their own fairy tale ending. Many of the previous 41 Super Bowls have been disappointingly one-sided games - I have a sneaky feeling this one won't be.

4 January 2008

Not perfect yet

Although the 2007 season has ended for the majority of the NFL's 32 teams, for the New England Patroits the reality is that it is only just starting.

Such is the pressure and weight of expectation when you have just completed only the fourth 'perfect' (undefeated and untied) regular season in the 78-year history of the NFL, and the first ever to do so over a 16-game schedule.

The Patriots can certainly present a compelling case for themselves as the NFL's best-ever team, having won three of the past six Super Bowls in a league which is specifically structured to encourage parity between teams, with its salary cap, its annual draft which gives the poorest teams priority in selecting the best college players, and a system which penalises stronger clubs by giving them tougher schedules the following season. The 2007 Patriots feature the NFL's fourth-ranked defense, providing the platform for the league's number one offense, which set a new scoring record with 589 points. Quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss both set new NFL single season marks, with 50 touchdown passes and 23 TD receptions respectively, while Wes Welker snared 112 catches, joint highest for the year. And they have already defeated both the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (their most likely opponent in the AFC Championship Game) as well as the top-ranked NFC team, the Dallas Cowboys, this season.

(As an aside, things could have been very different for Welker, who had started just three games in the previous three seasons with the Miami Dolphins. While the organisation marked the 35th anniversary of the 'perfect' 1972 squad, the current team embarked on a near-imperfect season, losing their first 13 games and avoiding total ignominy only by virtue of an overtime victory against the Baltimore Ravens.)

Of course, the campaign as a whole will only be considered truly perfect if the Patriots go on to win the Super Bowl on February 3rd and be officially crowned as champions of the NFL, which can by no means be taken for granted. Of the three previous teams to boast a 100% record, only one, the '72 Miami Dolphins, saw the job through to its conclusion. The Chicago Bears twice (1934 and 1942) managed perfect regular seasons, only to come up short in the NFL Championship Game (as it was known in the pre-Super Bowl era).

So it's no small challenge which faces the Patriots over the next few weeks. Now that the regular season has ended, 16-0 no longer counts for anything. And while winning all 16 games so far has been a phenomenal and unique achievement, the pressure of knowing there are still three all-or-nothing games standing between them and sporting immortality must be suffocating. They're not perfect yet, and the biggest struggles are yet to come.

For the next week or so, however, the Patriots can still be regarded as perfection-in-waiting. And the eyes of the sporting world will be waiting eagerly for the story to unfold.

3 January 2008

Madness upon madness

No sooner has the madness of the traditional Christmas football programme passed - four games in 11-12 days for the Premier League clubs at a time when all the other major European leagues are enjoying their mid-season winter break - than that other, more recent creation of the powers-that-be - the transfer window - opens.

In both instances, what a waste of effort.

The annual breakneck rush of matches - Saturday/Sunday, Boxing Day, Saturday/Sunday, New Year's Day (or Jan 2nd in a few cases) - has historically benefitted clubs in the lower divisions, who usually experience bigger attendances than at other times of the season. But this is not an argument which holds water for many of the bigger clubs, who regularly play in front of full houses anyway, so there is no financial benefit. The quality of the matches, particularly by the third or fourth round of fixtures, tends to be a couple of notches lower than average. And add to that frequently dismal weather and driving conditions, and limited availability of public transport, and you have to wonder whether tradition and the excitement of lots of games close together outweighs the difficulties it can create for travelling fans, the generally poor quality of the fare on offer, and the fatigue and corresponding risk of injury for the players.

And then we wonder why, come the summer, our national team looks jaded when it comes to the major international tournaments. Still, at least that won't be a problem for England, Scotland, Wales or the two Irelands this year ...

As for the transfer window, isn't the management of a football club difficult enough as it is without the farce of cramming all your mid-season transactions into 31 frantic days? It's not as if this creates less work for managers, scouts and chairmen during the rest of the season. Anyone who thinks clubs spend the time from the end of August to the beginning of January twiddling their thumbs waiting for the strains of Auld Lang Syne to die down before commencing their transfer activity is being impossibly naive. Arsene Wenger, say, doesn't wake up on January 1st, decide he'd quite like to sign Joe Bloggs, make a few phone calls, negotiate terms and then sign on the dotted line. Identifying potential targets is a full-time, year-round job for a manager and his team of scouts, and firm contact (or at least an initial sounding-out) between one club and another (or a player's representative) can take place weeks or even months in advance of January.

Don't believe me? Well, just look at the number of deals which go through in the first few days of the window - very few, if any, of these are anything other than the product of considerable behind-the-scenes negotiation over the preceding weeks. Football is a big money game these days, and transfers which can involve seven (or eight) figure sums are not resolved in a couple of phone calls one afternoon.

If this is the case (which it surely is) it does beg the question of why clubs are forced to complete their transfers in such a short window. Why not simply allow clubs to make transfers at any time up until an agreed deadline, and avoid the yearly melee? Sure, it would mean less speculation and excitement during the month of January, but it would also avoid the all-too-frequent disillusionment which happens a few months down the line when fans realise the striker their club signed in desperation for several million pounds at 11.30pm on January 31st is actually a complete donkey. (Ahem, Michael Ricketts.) Just a thought.