19 May 2010

This blog has moved

The Sporting reflections blog has moved.

Please follow me to my new home at http://thearmchairsportsfan.wordpress.com/.

New posts will no longer appear here.

17 May 2010

The week in numbers: w/e 16/5/10

56 - The number of people who died in the Bradford City fire, 25 years ago last week.

0 - After six races of the F1 season, we have yet to see any car other than the two Red Bulls start from pole position. (Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have three each.)

0 - The FA Cup has never been won by a team relegated from the top flight of English football in the same season.

2 - The number of missed penalties in Saturday's FA Cup final, the first time this had ever happened.

4 - The number of times the leader's pink jersey has changed hands so far during the first eight stages of the Giro d'Italia. Bradley Wiggins claimed it on stage one, since when it has gone to Cadel Evans (stage two), Alexandre Vinokourov (stage three), Vincenzo Nibali (stage four) and Vinokourov again (stage seven).

2 - Last Wednesday's Europa League final was the second time goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had played in the final of Europe's second cup competition, with two different clubs. On both occasions he has lost to a Spanish side.

1 - Yesterday was the England men's cricket team first win in five attempts in a world final. They beat Australia by seven wickets in the final of the World Twenty20.

17 - Runs required by Australia off the last five balls of their World Twenty20 semi-final against Pakistan. Mike Hussey then hit 22 off the next four.

99 - Final points total for Barcelona, who clinched the Primera Liga title last night. Runners-up Real Madrid finished on 96, which also surpassed the previous record total.

4 - The number of seasons Oxford United spent in the Conference before earning promotion back to League 2 yesterday with a victory over York City. Oxford had been the first winner of a major trophy to be relegated from the Football League in 2006.

120,000 - Pounds per week reportedly demanded by 33 year old William Gallas during his contract talks with Arsenal. Bye bye.

11 May 2010

25 years on, the Bradford fire burns fresh in the memory

It was supposed to be a day of celebration. On the final day of the 1984/85 season, fans gathered at Bradford City’s Valley Parade to celebrate winning the Third Division championship, their first trophy in 56 years.

For those who escaped the ground alive that afternoon, celebration turned into a disaster which forever changed the face of English football.

It is believed that a dropped match – smoking was still allowed in football grounds in those days – ignited discarded rubbish underneath the main stand, a rickety wooden structure which was due to be demolished after the game. Once it had started, the wind swept the fire rapidly through the length and depth of the stand, turning it into a burning cauldron. Within four minutes the entire stand was ablaze.

56 people died. Over 200 others were injured, many with serious burns.

The resultant Popplewell Inquiry led to the introduction of new legislation to improve safety, most notably prohibiting the construction of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds.

Today, 25 years to the day after the fire which devastated the community, memorial services are being held at Bradford's Centenary Square, Bradford Cathedral and at the Valley Parade ground.

More complete details of the tragedy, along with stories and tributes, are plentiful both online and in the broadcast media today. If you are not familiar with the events, they are worth a look, if only for a reminder of how far stadium safety has progressed in the past 25 years.

For those of us who are old enough to recall the images and emotions associated with that tragic day, the mere mention of the Bradford fire is more than enough. We remember.

10 May 2010

Vino's no dope as crashes gift him the maglia rosa

The race leader's pink jersey has been more patata calda (hot potato) than maglia rosa thus far in the Giro d'Italia. During three days' racing in Holland, the jersey has been worn on the podium by three different riders: Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and now Alexandre Vinokourov.

Both yesterday and today, crashes on routes which have been narrow, twisty and full of road furniture have contributed significantly to the jersey changing possession.

On yesterday's stage between Amsterdam and Utrecht, major crashes in the peloton 40 and seven kilometres out brought down or delayed dozens of riders. Wiggins's Sky teammates were able to bridge the gap after the first crash, but not the second, allowing Evans to assume the race lead.

This afternoon, another crash on an extremely tight and dangerous turn ten kilometres from the finish in Middelburg brought down Wiggins, among others, and delayed Evans who, despite a heroic solo effort to regain contact with the chasing pack still finished 46 seconds down on the leaders, gifting the pink jersey to Vinokourov. In addition to his losses yesterday, Wiggins gave up another four minutes today, eliminating him from overall contention.

It is difficult to imagine a less popular - or more controversial - race leader than the 36 year old Kazakh. Less than a year after returning from a two year ban for blood doping at the Tour de France, Vino has already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of the most prestigious Spring one day classics, and now leads the Giro, a position from which it may prove difficult to unseat him. Evans remains within striking distance, but Garmin's Christian Vande Velde was forced out today with a broken collarbone, and Wiggins is one of several other contenders now effectively out of reach.

Add to that the absence of the top three finishers from last year's race: winner Denis Menchov (who elected to miss the race to prepare for the Tour), Danilo di Luca (doping ban) and Franco Pellizotti (withdrawn due to ongoing investigation), not to mention Messrs Contador, Armstrong and Schleck (both of them), and the number of credible challengers to Vinokourov has already dwindled significantly.

It will be a sad state of affairs if Vinokourov is still wearing pink in Verona on May 30th. Not so much because of his original crime - for which he has served his time - but because he was so utterly unrepentant of an offence of which he was so clearly guilty, and for which he still protests his innocence. (When tests reveal you have another person's blood in your system, there isn't much of a defence.) And, even more than that, he betrayed cycling fans everywhere by shattering the illusion that his swashbuckling, kamikaze attacks we loved so much were fuelled by more than mere talent and determination.

Tomorrow is a rest day as the circus decamps back to Italy. Which, given the travails of the last couple of days, is probably just as well. I'll be hoping that the extra recovery time for some pretty banged-up teams will help someone depose Vino in Wednesday's team time trial.

The week in numbers: w/e 9/5/10

138 - In millions of pounds, the current debt of Portsmouth FC, about double what it was when the club went into administration at the end of February.

0 - The number of Grand Tour stage wins for both Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins before his two second victory in the opening time trial at the Giro d'Italia on Saturday.

103 - The final tally of Premier League goals for Chelsea, who hammered eight past Wigan yesterday. It is the highest total for a season in 47 years.

18 – Yesterday was the 18th consecutive league game without a win for Wigan in London, underlining quite how remote Man U's chances of securing the title really were.

1 - Mark Webber became the first F1 driver in five races this season to convert pole position into a race win at Barcelona yesterday.

85 not out - Runs scored by Cameron White off just 49 balls (including six sixes and six fours) in Australia's World Twenty20 win over Sri Lanka last night. The entire Sri Lankan side managed just two runs more than White.

31 - The number of league wins (from 37 matches) for Real Madrid after their 5-1 thumping of Athletic Bilbao. This is one more than Barcelona, who still lead Spain's Primera Liga by a point with one game remaining. The previous record for wins in a season was 28, jointly held by ... Real Madrid and Barcelona.

92 - The previous points record for a Primera Liga season (set by Real Madrid in 1997), already broken by both Barcelona (96) and Real Madrid (95).

00:54 - The time on Tuesday morning at which Australia’s Neil Robertson finally overcame Graeme Dott to win the World Snooker Championship.

8 May 2010

Pretty in pink as Wiggins takes Giro lead

In the greater scheme of things, the Giro d’Italia represents little more than a tune-up opportunity for Team Sky’s British leader Bradley Wiggins. However, any stage win in one of cycling’s three Grand Tours is a big deal, and victory for ‘Wiggo’ in today’s opening time trial in Amsterdam will have come as a welcome confidence boost.

But Wiggins’ single-minded focus remains the Tour de France in July, where he will seek to become, as a minimum, the first Briton ever to finish in the top three, with his ultimate ambition being to unseat defending champion Alberto Contador as the wearer of the yellow jersey in Paris on July 25th.

Both Contador and defending Giro champion Denis Menchov are absent from Italy this month, as are other top Tour contenders Lance Armstrong and the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck. Nonetheless, perennial nearly man Cadel Evans heads a strong field which includes Christian Vande Velde and 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre, as well as Ivan Basso and Alexandre Vinokourov, two top riders who have both served doping bans. They will provide a good benchmark for Wiggins, who should still be a fraction short of peak form at this point in the season.

Wiggins completed today’s 8.4km stage in 10:18, two seconds faster than BMC’s Brent Bookwalter and his team leader Evans. Victory earned him the right to wear the race leader’s pink jersey, the maglia rosa. Afterwards, Wiggins said:

"It was hard but I just went for it, especially in the corners. If you want to win it, you've got to commit 100 per cent, like a sprinter when they go for a sprint. For me it's beautiful to be wearing the pink jersey. It's iconic and one of the most special jerseys. To wear it means a lot to me and is a big honour."

However, he also insisted he will not getting carried away by his early success.

"I don't want to make the mistake of being at my best form and getting carried away in the Giro and then being knackered at the Tour. A lot of guys tried that last year, and fell short in July.”

The race will spend two further days in Holland before making its way back to Italy, ending in Verona on May 30th. Wiggins is unlikely to stay in pink for only a few days at most. The maglia rosa is a welcome addition to a trophy collection which includes three Olympic golds, but the biggest prize of all remains over two months away.

7 May 2010

Pellizotti investigation casts a cloud over Sky's Giro debut

I should be really looking forward to Team Sky's Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia, which kicks off in Amsterdam tomorrow and concludes in Verona on May 30th. It will provide the first real yardstick to assess Bradley Wiggins' prospects of improving on his fourth place finish at last year's Tour de France, as well as the progress of several other leading contenders.

Actually, I am looking forward to it.

However, my anticipation of the race comes in spite of rather than because of events leading up to it, with news breaking on Monday of yet another doping investigation into three riders, including Liquigas's Franco Pellizotti.

Pellizotti finished third on the road at the 2009 Giro, having placed fourth the previous year. That was subsequently upgraded to second after the original runner-up (and 2007 winner) Danilo di Luca returned two positive tests for the prohibited blood-booster CERA during the race. Add that to the 20-month ban recently completed by Riccardo Ricco, the 2008 runner-up (positive for CERA at the 2008 Tour), and you have a grim record which shows that half the podium finishers - all Italian - from the past two Giros have been either banned or suspended for actual/suspected doping offences.

It's not great, is it? Despite the considerable efforts (and money) invested into sophisticated and comprehensive drug-testing procedures - for which the sport should be applauded - it seems the potential rewards for those willing to cheat continue to outweigh the growing risks of detection. Ricco has already returned to professional racing. So too Michael Rasmussen, who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour while wearing the yellow jersey.

Something needs to be done. But what?

6 May 2010

Motherwell add to a season of incredible comebacks

Motherwell 6 Hibernian 6

In the highest-scoring game in Scottish Premier League history last night, Motherwell recovered from a 6-2 deficit with 24 minutes remaining to draw 6-6 at home to Hibernian.

It really has been quite a season for comebacks, and it says something that this is only the second most incredible one in recent months. Barely two weeks ago, we had Wigan turning a 0-2 scoreline into a 3-2 win against Arsenal - the first time since the inception of the Premier League that a team had won having been two goals down with ten minutes remaining. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the opening match of January's Africa Cup of Nations, when Mali recovered from 4-0 down against the hosts Angola to draw 4-4, with the final two goals coming in the 93rd and 94th minutes.

This one ran it close, though.

Last night's match had added importance because Motherwell entered it holding a one point advantage (with just two games remaining) over Hibs in the battle for fourth place in the SPL, which yields the reward of a Europa League spot.

I won't repeat the full details of the game - try the BBC Sport website here for a match report - but a Colin Nish first half hat-trick and a brace from former Arsenal and Sunderland striker Anthony Stokes saw the visitors take a commanding 6-2 lead after 65 minutes, only for Motherwell to score three goals in nine minutes. That still left sufficient time for Lukas Jutkiewicz to earn an 86th minute penalty which Ross Forbes failed to convert before Jutkiewicz himself struck a ferocious volley from a narrow angle in the third of four minutes of added-on time. The draw leaves the Steelmen in control of their destiny going into their final game against champions Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday.

It's well worth seeking out the highlights on either YouTube or the BBC website, if only for Jutkiewicz's equaliser. Anyone familiar with Marco van Basten's amazing volley against the USSR in the final of the 1988 European Championships will know what I mean when I say that this is virtually a left-footed mirror image of that goal. It was a goal worthy of crowning an amazing game.

And it was a prime example of the danger of walking out of a game early, as thousands of Motherwell fans did at 6-2. Comebacks like this may only happen once in a lifetime, but how gutted would you be to have missed it?

Spurs win limits options for City's summer transfer spree

Manchester City 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1

Peter Crouch's late header at Eastlands last night was worth a lot more than three points to Spurs. It was even worth more than the undoubted jubilation it brought to one half of North London at achieving their first ever Champions League spot - technically, entry into the final qualifying round as opposed to the Champions League proper - something which has become routine to their neighbours and rivals Arsenal. (It is only the second time that Spurs will have played in Europe's top club competition, and the first time in 49 years.)

It was a result which will have brought great joy to many neutrals, as well as fans of Liverpool and Aston Villa, the manager's office at Old Trafford, and even a small corner of West Berkshire, where this particular Arsenal fan - one, I suspect, of a very small number of Gooners - actually considers Spurs to be the lesser of two evils.

It may well prove to be only a temporary forestalling of twelve months, but defeat for Manchester City will make the job of turning the club into a dominant European force in this summer's transfer market considerably more difficult, despite the backing of Sheikh Mansour, owner of the deepest pockets in world football. A top four finish - and the carrot of Champions League football that goes with it - would have opened the door for the potential signing of many of the game's very best players. Now, however, instead of the grand stage of Champions League ties against BarcelonaReal MadridInter Milan or Bayern Munich, City can only offer the less attractive prospect of Europa League Thursdays against the likes of Palermo, Real Mallorca or Borussia Dortmund.

True, City can always offer more lucrative financial incentives than anyone else - and therefore attract those of a more mercenary disposition (of which there are many in the sport). But for many of the small band who can truly count themselves among the world's elite - players like Fernando Torres, David Villa, Franck Ribery and Steven Gerrard - cash alone will not be enough to persuade them to exchange their current colours for sky blue.

The reality is that defeat last night has put a serious dent in City's summer transfer plans. Not only does that hurt their prospects of success next season, but it also gives some of their closest rivals vital leeway to regroup and rebuild. Liverpool are cash-strapped and will be potentially Rafa Benitez-less. Villa remain short of squad depth. Man Utd have not yet adequately replaced Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. And Chelsea need to add youth to an ageing squad packed with over-30s.

Indeed, Chelsea serve as a salutary warning to City. As Roman Abramovich has discovered, endless spending does not necessarily guarantee future success. For all the hundreds of millions of clubs the Russian billionaire poured into the London club, they have still never been able to secure the one prize he covets above all else: the Champions League trophy.

So for one more season, at least, money can't buy you everything. Tomorrow will have to wait another year. And possibly longer. It's hard not to raise a smile at that prospect, which is why - for probably the one and only time in my life - I'm not fuming at Spurs' success. Don't tell anyone, though.

27 April 2010

Shane Warne’s ‘ball of the century’

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

Sport’s superstars often arrive on the scene in a blaze of youthful glory, producing outstanding debut games or seasons. Football has given us teenage sensations such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, cricket the likes of Sachin Tendulkar (Test debut at 16, a centurion at 17, captain at 23), and women’s tennis a production line of prodigies from Tracy Austin to the Williams sisters.

Some, like Austin, have departed almost before they have arrived, but many have gone on to be dominant figures in their sport for many years.

The sporting annals are littered with examples of great debuts. Few, however, can claim to have had such a profound impact - not just on a match, but on his entire sport - as the showman fittingly nicknamed ‘Hollywood’.

England v Australia, 1st Ashes Test, Old Trafford, June 1993

MW Gatting b SK Warne 4

These are the bare facts as recorded by the match scorecard. In cricketing circles, though, it is referred to in hushed tones as “the ball of the century”. No other ball is as well remembered as Shane Warne’s first ever delivery in an Ashes Test match.

It’s the second day of the first Test. England have started well in their attempt to regain the Ashes – 80 for 1 in response to Australia’s modest 289. The blond-haired wrist spinner is brought into the attack for the first time. Warne measures out his run-up for his debut over against England and measures up the opposing batsman.

The pugnacious, bulldog-like face of Mike Gatting stares back at him. The former England captain is an excellent player of spin bowling and is hugely experienced. This is his 73rd Test, two days short of his 36th birthday, and he has seen pretty much everything there is to see in cricket.

But he has never seen anything like this. Warne’s first ball pitches well outside leg stump, then darts sharply back like a spherical stump-seeking missile to clip the outside of off stump. Bowled!

Gatting stands aghast, unwilling to believe the evidence of his own eyes, before finally acknowledging the umpire’s signal and trudging off the pitch, still shaking his head in bewilderment.

Just in case there are any thoughts that the ‘Gatting ball’ is a one-in-a-million fluke, Warne wastes little time in proving otherwise. The first ball of his second over is a carbon copy. Robin Smith misjudges the ball and edges to slip. Seven balls, two wickets! In the space of less than ten minutes, Shane Warne has set the tone for the match, indeed for the entire series. England’s batsmen will never really get to grips with his magician’s tricks throughout the summer, and the Ashes are as good as lost already.

Warne finishes the match with eight wickets, and goes on to claim a total of 34 victims and the Man of the Series award as Australia romp away with the series.

Ashes Tests are supposed to be intimidating affairs for the uninitiated; after all, this is one of the oldest and most intense of all sporting rivalries, dating back to 1877. An Ashes debutant isn’t supposed to march brashly in and destroy the opposition on their home turf. But that’s exactly what Shane Warne did in 1993, and it all started with one ball.

Not bad for a beginner.

Warne’s legacy

It’s all too easy to attach clichéd labels to Shane Warne such as ‘prodigious’, ‘phenomenon’ and ‘reinventing the art of spin bowling’, but then to look at Warne is to see something of a cliché anyway. He resembles not so much a modern, professional cricketer as a stereotypical Aussie who has wandered into the SCG after catching the morning surf at Bondi, with his burly frame, bottle-blond hair and macho, fun-loving brashness. So let’s work with the clichés.

In all honesty, there are few words that describe Warne’s ability to spin the ball so extravagantly as well as ‘prodigious’. He produced the equivalent of the ‘Gatting ball’ – no more than an extreme version of his standard leg break - repeatedly in his career. Warne frequently left batsmen bamboozled, groping futilely at thin air as the ball spun past the bat. What was particularly impressive was his ability to bowl long, tiring spells with sustained control, accuracy and aggression.

Was he a phenomenon? Unquestionably. To announce your arrival on the Ashes stage in the way that Warne did at Old Trafford and sustain that level of success for more than a decade showed that he is no flash in the pan. He stands second on the all-time wicket takers list (708 in 145 Tests), was voted fourth in Wisden’s Player of the 20th Century poll (being both the highest placed bowler and contemporary player), and has been described by no less an authority than Richie Benaud as “the best leg spinner I’ve ever seen”. Glowing praise, indeed.

Did he reinvent the art of spin bowling? Perhaps not, but he certainly changed people’s perceptions of it. Prior to his arrival, spin was becoming an increasingly rare and largely defensive art outside of the Asian nations. Warne turned that on its head by presenting spin bowling as a genuinely attacking – and, in cricketing terms, positively sexy - option. You need only look now – virtually every leading Test nation has a spin bowler who is single-handedly capable of turning (if you will forgive the pun) a match. Shane Warne’s legacy extends far beyond the Australian coastline or the time defined by the length of his career.

I was fortunate enough to see the 1993 Old Trafford Test live on television, and I can vividly remember my reaction to the moment Warne delivered that ball. I empathised with Gatting’s disbelief, then, watching the replay, I found myself quietly applauding in the solitude of my own living room as it began to dawn on me that I had just witnessed something truly special. It didn’t matter that it had cost my side a key wicket; such moments of sporting genius transcend something as petty as mere competition. I just knew that I had witnessed, as it happened, one of those precious moments that people would talk about for years to come.

19 April 2010

Arsenal and Vettel show leading doesn't equate to winning

This Premier League season has had almost as many twists and turns as Shanghai's Formula 1 circuit, but within the space of twelve hours yesterday we were given two clear demonstrations that being faster or better or simply ahead of your opponents is not an automatic ticket to victory.

Some of the greatest individuals and teams in sport dominate their events from start to finish (for instance, Michael Schumacher or the current Barcelona football team). Others save their best for last, building momentum at the perfect moment down the home straight. Football's most famous example of this is the Manchester United team of 1995/96, which bridged a seemingly unassailable 12-point gap to claim the Premier League title.

There are plenty of similar instances elsewhere in the sporting universe too: Dennis Taylor recovering from 8-0 down to win the 1985 World Snooker Championship; Greg LeMond overcoming a 50 second deficit in the final time trial stage to win the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds; Nick Faldo coming from six shots back after three rounds to triumph at the 1996 US Masters.

Equally, for every great comeback, there is a contrasting example of the team or individual who put themselves in a commanding position, only to throw it all away. Call it a lack of belief or mental strength, or just plain 'choking', but their number is legion. For Man U, read Newcastle; for Taylor, LeMond and Faldo, read Steve Davis, Laurent Fignon and Greg Norman.

And, for the 2009/10 Premier League season, read Arsenal.

Wigan 3 Arsenal 2

Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have become specialists in late-season runs to overhaul the league leaders, putting together irresistible winning sequences en route to their 1998 and 2002 titles. However, they are also notably uncomfortable when they themselves are front-runners, twice wasting five-point leads late in the 2003 and 2007 seasons to concede the title to Man U. While neither of these concessions was of the magnitude of the one which cost Devon Loch, who literally stumbled within sight of the finish while leading the 1956 Grand National, it is a clear indication that the club prefers the role of greyhound rather than hare. 

The 2003 run-in was notorious for a crucial 2-2 draw at Bolton in which Arsenal frittered away a two goal lead in the last 20 minutes; this season we have seen an identical scenario play out at West Ham. At times this year, this team has shown great heart and fighting spirit when cast in the role of underdog. However, the old frailties of being unable to cope with the glare of the spotlight have surfaced repeatedly. And while the damage done by home-and-away defeats to both Chelsea and Man U was largely repaired, the ignominy of a first league defeat to Spurs in nearly 11 years last Wednesday merely reopened the wounds.

Yesterday, however, the team plumbed new depths. After Chelsea's defeat on Saturday, the players knew the importance of securing a victory which would have moved them back within three points of the summit. But having secured a spluttering two goal advantage at the DW Stadium - and having wasted several chances to bolster the potentially critical goal difference - Arsenal somehow contrived to concede three goals in the last ten minutes to extinguish their fading title aspirations.

The worst thing was you could see it coming. After Mikael Silvestre scored the second goal early in the second half, there was a visible drop-off in effort as a fog of complacency descended over the team. Chances went begging, and opponents' runs went untracked (Ben Watson's 80th minute effort that made it 2-1 came as a result of Abou Diaby's casual, half-hearted effort to fulfil his defensive duties). The manner of the capitulation may have been shocking, but the warning signs were clearly there - and totally ignored.

Now I don't mind being beaten by the better team, as happened recently when Barcelona knocked Arsenal out of this season's Champions League. But with the greatest of respect to Roberto Martinez's side, Wigan are not a better team than Arsenal. There is a reason why they have been flirting with relegation all season. However, they battled hard throughout yesterday and stood toe-to-toe with a side they knew was technically superior, and who switched off the moment they went 2-0 up, assuming the job was done.

Being better on paper - or for 80 minutes - does not confer an automatic right to victory. I have no complaints. Wigan got everything they deserved yesterday. So, too, did Arsenal.

Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

There is no question that Sebastian Vettel is an extremely quick and talented driver. Three poles and one win from the first four races of the 2010 season are testament to his speed and consistency when he gets himself into race-winning positions.

However, if there is one question mark hanging over him, it is his ability to drive through the field when fate deals him a mediocre hand. Having squandered pole position with a poor start yesterday, he lost further places in the tactical scramble which ensued when a combination of light rain and a safety car randomised the pack. With McLaren's Lewis Hamilton in close attendance, there was a clear contrast between the incision and aggression with which the Briton carved his way through the field and Vettel's more hesitant approach, most obviously when Vettel fumbled an overtaking attempt on Adrian Sutil at the end of the back straight, allowing Hamilton to dive past them both in a flash.

Hamilton is at his best chasing, when required to drive on instinct and emotion and not over-think; he is not the type to relentlessly crush his opposition with effortless lights-to-flag victories. Vettel seems to be the opposite: when he is out in front he is untouchable; when asked to charge through the midfield, less so. That's not necessarily a fatal flaw - in my lifetime, only Schumacher and Ayrton Senna have been routinely capable of winning a grand prix through both relentless dominance and stirring charges. (For prime examples of the latter, think of Schumacher's win from 16th on the grid at Spa in 1995, or Senna dancing his McLaren through the intermittent storms at Donington in 1993.)

There is no question that Vettel is one of the fastest men of the grid. Hamilton too. But neither won yesterday's race. While speed is critical in F1, it is not the only thing. Jenson Button won his second race of the season with the brave decision to stay on slicks when most others were switching to intermediates, and now leads the championship by ten points, confounding the pundits who insisted he would be blown into the weeds by Hamilton. Both his wins this season have come as a result of making the right split-second call on tyres, demonstrating a tactical intelligence (and a modicum of good fortune) which is currently keeping him ahead of the acknowledged speed merchants.

Many have already drawn the comparison of Hamilton and Button with the Senna/Alain Prost era at McLaren: fire and ice, the hot-blooded Latin who would just out-drive everyone else and the cool Frenchman who would out-think everyone. It's not a bad comparison. It doesn't matter how fast Hamilton is, how many times he outqualifies his teammate or how many laps he leads; in changeable conditions which push tactical nous to the fore, Button is finding a way to ensure he leads in the only place that matters: the final lap.

As the F1 circus moves back towards Europe and into the summer months, Button will be less likely to benefit from the wild card effect of changeable weather. Vettel and Hamilton will undoubtedly take their share of victories and podiums. (So too Fernando Alonso and the consistent if unspectacular Nico Rosberg.) But with the final third of the season featuring races in Belgium, Japan and Brazil - each with notoriously unpredictable conditions - only a fool would discount Button's chances if he remains in contention down the stretch.

Ultimately it doesn't really matter whether you prefer to win from the front or with a well-timed attack from behind - the greatest champions simply find a way to win, no matter what. And that is what separates the likes of Man U and Barcelona from Arsenal, and that means that Vettel will not have things all his own way.

Painful though that simple fact was from an Arsenal perspective yesterday, I wouldn't have it any other way. The right to be called 'champion' has to be earned; it is not simply conferred. That is why it means so much.

15 April 2010

Van Persie and Campbell show the way forward for Arsenal

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

On a night on which Spurs took all three points from them for the first time in nearly 11 years, it was Arsenal’s oldest and most injured players – respectively, Sol Campbell and Robin van Persie – who provided the potential blueprint for future success for a club now destined to go trophy-less for the fifth consecutive season.

Campbell, 35, made his 20th appearance of the season for Arsenal last night, having been signed as something of an afterthought in January, and was outstanding throughout despite the incessant barrage of abuse he received from the home fans. Even though he has clearly lost a yard of pace over the years, he remains a redoubtable physical presence whose intelligence and anticipation remain undiminished, and he is a far more reliable proposition than Mikael Silvestre, three years his junior. Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly plunge into the transfer market this summer; his first move should be to offer a new one-year contract to Sol. Certainly Wenger acknowledged Campbell’s influence in his post-match interview, saying “He has shown the way to some players. What a winner he is. He showed what you need if you want to win titles.”

The oft-injured Van Persie was making his comeback after torn ankle ligaments had sidelined him for five months. By rights, he should have been rusty and off the pace. Instead, his 68th minute arrival transformed the match, providing a cutting edge to the Arsenal attack and demonstrating to Nicklas Bendtner that, for all that the young Dane has contributed to the scoresheet (nine goals in his last 11 games), there is a massive gulf separating him from the tag of ‘world-class striker’ he believes he deserves.

For nearly 70 minutes Tottenham keeper Heurelho Gomes had been a virtual spectator, with Arsenal’s only attempt on target being a bundled effort from – of all people – Campbell as early as the second minute. But, as Spurs began to tire after their Wembley exertions 72 hours previously, van Persie launched what seemed at times to be a one-man assault on the Brazilian’s goal, most notably a sumptuous effort in which, with his back to goal, he chested the ball down, swivelled and fired a fierce volley in one fluid movement which a diving Gomes did well to turn away.

Ultimately, it was too little too late, with Bendtner’s late tap-in – inevitably, van Persie was at the heart of the move – no more than a consolation.

The game had been lost long before van Persie’s arrival, though. On his league debut, 19-year-old Danny Rose had opened the scoring with a rasping 30-yard volley – truly, a candidate for goal of the season – after Manuel Almunia’s punch fell straight to him. And the second half had barely started when Gareth Bale raced clear of a shambolically invisible backline – how often have we said that about Arsenal this season? – to clip home the second, his first league goal in two and a half seasons, his previous one having also come against Arsenal.

On the night, it was clear to see how much Arsenal missed Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Alex Song, William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen (who limped off with a calf strain after 20 minutes), not to mention Aaron Ramsey and Johan Djourou, who would have provided reinforcements from the bench. But that’s neither a complaint nor an excuse. Arsenal fans will have rightly expected greater leadership from senior campaigners such as Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Eboue and for younger (but hardly inexperienced) players like Denilson, Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri to step up to the plate. In reality, only Nasri and to a lesser extent Eboue have done so in recent weeks. It is a distinct weakness in a squad which is over-reliant on youthful potential and lacks consistency.

Which is exactly why Wenger needs to add more players like Campbell to his squad. His team is too dependent on Fabregas and, to a lesser extent, the likes of van Persie and Vermaelen to take games by the scruff of the neck. Too often there is a lack of purpose up front and a sense of barely-controlled panic at the back. One or two more experienced heads – as opposed to yet another promising teenager – could make all the difference in that respect.

The other key is keeping van Persie fit. It is no coincidence that, before last night, Arsenal had averaged 3.3 goals in games in which he had played, compared to 1.8 without him. It is futile to speculate on what might have been had the Dutchman played more this season, but suffice to say he has been sorely missed. Fabregas, Arshavin and Nasri provide the creativity from deeper positions, but he is the only one of the club’s batch of centre forwards who can truly turn a match with a moment of individual skill. Regardless of what his shirt says, Bendtner is an old-fashioned number nine who lacks pace and guile. Theo Walcott has pace to burn, but lacks physicality and aggression. Eduardo is no longer the player he was before his injury; he seems to actively avoid any potential 50:50 challenge. And Carlos Vela looks lost whenever he is asked to play in anything other than the Carling Cup (it’s no wonder he misplaced his passport and missed last week’s Camp Nou trip).

Summer signings

So what should be top of Arsenal’s shopping list this summer?

Firstly, a good luck charm for van Persie, who has missed a significant chunk of every season he has spent at the club through injury. But given that he is never likely to be a 50 game a year player, a quality lead-the-line striker is a must. If the rumours about the impending arrival of Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh are true, consider that box ticked.

Even if Campbell stays, the increasingly injury-prone Gallas and the ever-inept Silvestre are also out of contract this summer, and Philippe Senderos will undoubtedly be sold. Djourou’s return will help, but there is a clear need for another central defender, possibly two.

To strengthen the porous defence, I would target a new goalkeeper – I’m a fan of Lyon and France stopper Hugo Lloris – and another defensive midfielder who can partner Alex Song. I know Denilson has his supporters, but to my eyes he is too much of a bits-and-pieces player – decent at most things, but not exceptional at anything – and a liability defensively. And although Diaby is often compared to Patrick Vieira physically, the resemblance ends there; he is a good option going forward, but poor defensively. For me, Diaby is a great option from the bench; Denilson should be offloaded. And I would look for someone like Brazil’s Felipe Melo, who has struggled to settle at Juventus.

So, that would be four (five at most) new bodies in – targeting where possible players in their mid to late-twenties – with Campbell and hopefully Gallas re-signed, counterbalanced by the release of Silvestre and the sale of Senderos, Denilson and possibly Rosicky, with Jack Wilshere returning from his loan spell at Bolton to take his place.

To my eyes, there’s not a big gulf between this year’s squad which has challenged for honours, and one next year which could actually win them. A touch more experience and fewer injuries to key players could transform this team, and the last 20 minutes of a depressing defeat to the annoying neighbours showed me enough to suggest that a line-up like this would enhance Arsenal's prospects for a successful 2010/11 season.


Sagna – Vermaelen – Gallas – Clichy

Song – Melo


Walcott - Van Persie – Nasri

Well, I can hope, can’t I?