30 March 2009

Second life

It was only his second career Formula 1 win, but Jenson Button's victory yesterday in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix not only signalled his arrival as a genuine title contender, but also heralded the start of his second life as an F1 driver.

For it was barely three months ago that Honda sent shockwaves through the ivory-towered, supposedly recession-proof world of motor sport's premier competition by withdrawing from F1 with immediate effect, leaving the team's preparations for 2009 in disarray. And it was barely three weeks ago that team principal Ross Brawn completed a management buyout of the team which now bears his name.

With Button and teammate Rubens Barrichello locking out the front row in qualifying for the fledgling team and then going on to finish one-two, it completed the kind of rags-to-riches story which will have had F1's two power brokers, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, grinning from ear to ear at a time when they are seeking to impose huge cost-cutting measures for 2010 and beyond. (Although, this being F1, the result remains provisional until the FIA's Court of Appeal resolves a protest against Brawn and two other teams which will not be held until after next week's Malaysian GP.)

How the bosses at Honda must have been cursing their hasty exit, not least because they are honourably but quietly funding Brawn GP to the tune of $100 million this season while the great self-publicist who is Richard Branson comes gallivanting into Melbourne on the back of his freshly-signed sponsorship deal trumpeting about the victory of 'the Virgin car'.

Button certainly had the appearance of a man reborn all weekend, translating the Brawn's potential into tangible results with his smooth driving style, and always appeared to have just enough to spare throughout the race. Funny how a brush with 'death' - without Brawn, Button would probably have been without a drive in 2009 and could even have been facing an abrupt end to his career - so often provides a major and beneficial kick up the backside.

Nice one, Jenson. With McLaren likely to be struggling for aero performance for at least the next few races - Lewis Hamilton's third place was the product of an outstanding charging drive, but also owed much to the misfortune of others - Button represents possibly the best hope of a British champion this year.

Who else stood out on this opening weekend of the season? Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi, a 20-year old in his debut F1 race, showed a nice combination of speed, consistency and maturity - at one stage seriously challenging the Ferrari of former world champion Kimi Raikkonen - which allowed him to bring his Toro Rosso home an impressive seventh while others conspired to remove themselves from contention.

Conversely, Jarno Trulli, making his 200th GP start from the pitlane, ruined a drive every bit as impressive as Hamilton's by overtaking the Briton under safety car conditions, losing the five points he would have gained for the fourth position he had fought his way into - a costly error you would not expect from a driver of his experience.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber, who managed to finish the race in 13th only four months after breaking his leg in a road accident at a charity event (actually, his own charity event); this, on a street circuit which is possibly the bumpiest on the F1 calendar. They breed them tough down under, and Webber is no exception. (Makes you think twice about all those mortally-wounded footballers you see rolling around in agony on an average Premier League weekend, doesn't it?)

Finally, a comment about the cars produced under the dramatically revised 2009 regulations. While I applaud the real world principle behind it, the purist in me dislikes the idea of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) in F1, which effectively provides a temporary but significant power boost for race starts and overtaking - to me, it's an artificial distortion of car performance. Aesthetically, I dislike the wider front wings (too clunky and primitive) almost as much as I hate the higher, narrower rear wings (still big enough to carry sponsors' logos, I note). The loss of bargeboards, turning vanes and other odd protrusions on the cars' (smaller) sidepods is definitely a change for the better though, as is the return of - ahh, bliss - slick tyres.

The overall intention of all these changes is to promote closer racing and revive the dying art of overtaking, and while the Australian GP wasn't a classic it did appear that cars were able to follow each other more easily than in previous years. We'll get a better idea on the faster, permanent tracks - starting with Sepang this weekend - where the higher speeds will increase the importance of aero grip, and its disruption when cars are running at close quarters.

Oh, and of course F1 coming back to the BBC meant the return of Fleetwood Mac's iconic 'The Chain'. It was like seeing an old friend again after a separation of many years.

All in all, a decent start, and the narrative thread for (at least) the first part of the season is already in place: the plucky underdogs from Brawn trying to keep one step ahead of the bigger, better funded teams like McLaren and Ferrari, who trail now but can't be kept at bay forever, and will employ all the technological and legal means at their disposal to claw them back into the pack.

The smell of petrol, burning rubber and political intrigue is in the air again. It could only be Formula 1, couldn't it?

EDIT: Thursday 2nd April (4 days later) - Lewis Hamilton disqualified, meaning Jarno Trulli regains third place. Only in Formula 1 ...

9 March 2009

Is Eduardo's name on the FA Cup?

The fairytale comeback continues.

Eduardo da Silva played in only his second game yesterday since his return from injury - both in the FA Cup - and scored Arsenal's second goal in a 3-0 win over Burnley.

And what a goal it was, a first-time volley with the outside of his left boot of a falling diagonal ball. (If you haven't seen it, it's worth looking up on YouTube, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Paolo di Canio's goal-of-the-season leaping volley against Wimbledon in 2000.)

Given the long and torturous nature of Eduardo's year-long rehabilitation, it is likely that Arsene Wenger will use him sparingly for the rest of the season to avoid further complications - he had already suffered a hamstring injury an hour into his competitive return which put him back on the sidelines for three weeks. My guess is he will continue to start in the FA Cup and be used sparingly off the bench in the Premier League and Champions League to give the likes of Robin van Persie a breather. With three goals in his two FA Cup games so far, I'm not complaining if this is the policy Wenger pursues.

In football, pundits often talk about 'teams of destiny' or a team's name being on a Cup. I'm beginning to wonder - it's the dreamer in me - if Eduardo might just be a player of destiny whose name is on the FA Cup.

I doubt too many right-thinking neutrals would begrudge him a fairy-tale ending in the FA Cup final on May 30th, should Arsenal overcome Hull and Chelsea to get there. (Mind you, given that this season's Cup final takes place after the Champions League final and therefore represents the final leg of Manchester United's potential quintuple, maybe some would.)

On a related note, Wenger had in mind the tackle by Martin Taylor which broke Eduardo's leg when he spoke last Thursday about his desire to see extremely dangerous tackles punished more vigorously than the standard three-match ban meted out for violent conduct.

"They [the Football Association] could create a special committee to analyse if a three-game suspension is enough or not. But I feel that 10 matches is not enough for some of the tackles we have seen. I have seen some horrible tackles this season and I don't think the punishment is sufficient. Kevin Nolan's tackle on Victor Anichebe the other week was horrendous. An accident can happen when two people go for the ball but it is very rare. What I see is that guys go into the tackle to hurt the player. There is not sufficient punishment. Maybe we need to be stronger with our own players but sometimes you see the players make horrendous tackles and then say to the referee, 'What's wrong there?' You think, 'my friend, touch your head because you have completely lost touch with reality'. It is unbelievable but they know what they have done. I like tackling because it’s a fantastic technique. What I don’t like is when the referees punish all the tackles without distinction and I’m scared that might force the good tackles out of the game."

As ever, much of what Wenger said makes sense. Really and truly, how much of a disincentive is the current system whereby a serial offender - Lucas Neill, say - who repeatedly escapes sanction for dangerous tackles and picks up perhaps one three-match ban a season on the exceptional occasion when he is actually sent off (and for which he is unlikely to be fined by his club)?

As Wenger indicates, the danger is that football continues down the route of outlawing all tackles in order to prevent the really bad ones, which is something nobody wants to see. After all, part of football's entertainment value is that it is a physical, contact sport.

I have no desire to start a witch hunt here, and certainly there have been some ludicrous, over-reacting suggestions in the past, such as banning the perpetrator indefinitely until their victim regains fitness. (How, for instance, do you punish a player who inflicts a career-ending injury on an opponent?) Any potential solution needs to be both practicable and proportionate. Why should a deliberate knee-high stamp receive the same punishment as a simple bad tackle from behind? After all, our criminal justice system doesn't hand out the same sentence for murder as it does for bopping someone on the nose on a Friday night after closing time, nor should it.

I would much rather see a sliding scale where the punishment fits the crime. Here's my three-point plan:

1. Give players, say, an eight match ban - that's about 20% of the season - for the most dangerous of foul tackles, and then hit the offender where it really hurts by issuing a mandatory fine in keeping with the length of the ban. (This could be donated to a suitable charity.)

2. Punish repeat offenders with longer bans, in the same way that a player currently receives a longer ban for a second red card than he does for his first. (There are plenty of precedents in criminal and civil law for this.)

3. Finally, use video evidence so that clear instances where serious foul play has occurred do not go unpunished simply because the officials missed the incident completely or only issued a booking.

It's probably not the best solution, but it's surely better than what we currently have, isn't it?

2 March 2009

Class is permanent, but form wins titles

There is generally more than a grain of truth about sporting clichés. One of the most commonly trotted out is the one about form being temporary but class being permanent, usually in discussion of a sporting giant who has suffered a run of poor results.

That is certainly true, but one could also argue that form – particularly at key moments in a season or a tournament – is what wins you championships.

We may be on the verge of seeing one of the most spectacular examples of this in Spain.

Three weeks ago, Barcelona were worrying more about all the records they were going to set in winning this season’s Primera Liga title than about actually winning the title itself, and with some justification. After a slow start which had seen them register a single point from their first two games, Pep Guardiola’s side had swept all before them, amassing 59 points (out of a possible 66) from their first 22 league games, and scoring 68 goals in the process.

Real Madrid were fully 12 points behind, a mere speck on the horizon. Despite lots of chest-thumping in Marca and the other pro-Real papers about the title race still being alive, hardly anyone took this particularly seriously. After all, Real were supposedly a team in crisis, having lost both manager Bernd Schuster (“resigned”, according to the club) and leading striker Ruud van Nistelrooy before Christmas, becoming embroiled in a presidential vote-rigging scandal, and generally acknowledged as playing largely dull (but winning) football, contrary to their traditions of free-flowing attacking.

However, that was then, and this is now.

Last night, Barca squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2, succumbing to a 4-3 defeat at Atletico Madrid. This latest setback, coming on the back of a shock 2-1 loss at Camp Nou to bottom-of-the-table Espanyol and a 2-2 draw at Real Betis, means that the gap to Real – who have won ten in a row - is now just four points.

The previously unthinkable is now a very distinct possibility. With a potentially title-deciding encounter at the Bernabeu still to come - mark Sunday 3rd May in your diary - Real might just pip their bitter rivals to the title.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time football has seen such a dramatic turn of events. Newcastle United were playing Barcelona-esque attacking football and cruising to the 1995/96 Premier League title before Alex Ferguson’s mind games, Kevin Keegan’s questionable tactics and a dramatic collapse in form saw Man U overhaul a 12-point deficit down the stretch. Two seasons later, United themselves saw their 11-point advantage overturned by an Arsenal side which hit peak form at just the right time and, as Madrid have just done, won ten straight to propel them to the title.

It would be hard to argue against claims that Barcelona have played the most beautiful football or that they have been a classier side than Real Madrid over the course of the season as a whole. But that’s not how football works. Sometimes it is the team that just clings on before exploding into life down the home straight who comes out on top. It’s not a matter of who is more aesthetically pleasing, or even who has more class: it’s all about timing your surge to the finish line while everyone around you is tiring.

After all – more sporting clichés - a league campaign is a marathon, not a sprint; titles are won in May, not August; it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish; the league table doesn’t lie.

Right now, the Spanish Primera Liga table reveals one evident truth: they may still be out in front, but Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry et al can hear the thundering footsteps of an all-white machine from the capital approaching fast, and that’s not a comfortable place for anyone to be.

Form wins titles, and Barcelona need to regain theirs, fast.

The class has gone: now what?

As we move into March and the headlong rush towards spring, it’s been a depressing month if you’re an Arsenal fan.

On the one hand, the team is unbeaten in 15 games, including six consecutive clean sheets. On the other, we have drawn five straight league games – the last four 0-0 – and it took two unlikely Stoke goals in the final five minutes yesterday to restrict the gap to the top four (and the all-important Champions League place that goes with it) to six points.

After the past two home games against Sunderland and Fulham, the players have been booed off by an Emirates Stadium crowd which has clearly run out of patience with the lack of penetration, confidence and – dare I say it – quality on display.

A lack of form – temporary and transient as it is - is one thing. It is the lack of class – one of the great constants of the Wenger era – that is the real cause of concern for Arsenal fans.

There are mitigating circumstances for our desperately disappointing season so far, of course there are. The threat of a hostile takeover is slowly growing. The twin drag of the £260m loan arranged to finance the Emirates Stadium and delayed revenue from the redevelopment of the old Highbury site continues to impact Arsenal’s ability to compete in the transfer market. The summer loss of Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb deprived the squad of two key starters. And long-term injuries to key attacking players – Fabregas, Eduardo, Walcott, Rosicky - has regularly forced Arsene Wenger to field sides which have been not so much callow as acne-ridden.

Having said that, there are no excuses. Backroom politics are also affecting Liverpool and Chelsea, both of whom are nine points clear of Arsenal. While the club cannot compete financially with the deep pockets of Man City, Man U, Liverpool or even Aston Villa, the club is hardly impoverished either. And injuries are part and parcel of the game; even at full strength, few Gooners would argue the squad doesn’t urgently need experienced reinforcements in, at least, the centre of both midfield and defence.

Theories abound. Wenger is stuck in a rut. He is too caught up in his policy of bringing through young players. Or he has too much of a laissez-faire outlook and needs to give some of his players the hairdryer treatment. Adebayor doesn’t have last season’s desire. Eboue is a diving, talentless hothead who should never be allowed near a red shirt again. Denilson simply isn’t good enough. There isn’t enough ‘bite’ in midfield.

For sure, this is not the ‘Invincibles’ side which, only five years ago, went through an entire Premier League campaign undefeated. Denilson, Song, Nasri and Bendtner do not strike fear into the hearts of opponents in the way that Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry did. Equally, the prospect of Wenger presiding over a full season which does not lead to Champions League qualification – it would be a first in his 12½ years at the club – looms ever larger.

As many other clubs have amply demonstrated, a knee-jerk reaction is not the solution. I don’t think any sane commentator or fan would suggest the club should sack Wenger. (His track record, after all, is quite good.) However, while poor form is an annoyance, it is only a symptom rather than the root cause. The fact is, precious few of the 2008/09 class would merit a place in the 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’: Cesc Fabregas certainly, Robin van Persie and Gael Clichy arguably, but that’s about it. We can debate the multitude of different factors which have contributed to this decline, but we are where we are and there's no getting away from it.

Wenger can – and I believe will – be able to rescue Arsenal’s form (although I am increasingly of the view it is too little too late as far as this season is concerned). Whether he will be able to revive the high level of class which has underpinned all his previous Arsenal sides is the greater question – and the greater challenge.

Of such feats are the truly great managers made. Despite the host of factors working against him, I still back him to turn things around. We may just have to be happy with winning next season's Europa League (the soon-to-be-renamed UEFA Cup) first.