31 March 2010

Cardiac Kids resurrect Arsenal’s Champions League dream

UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

It was the 1980 Cleveland Browns who first earned the nickname ‘Kardiac Kids’ for their habit of winning games with heart-stopping late-game heroics. That moniker could be equally attached to an Arsenal team who tonight extended to eight a run of games in which they have scored in the closing ten minutes.

It is rare that an eagerly-awaited match truly lives up to the hype, but this game delivered on all counts. Barcelona simply ran rings around Arsenal in the first half - they had nine shots on target in the first 16 minutes alone - passing and moving the ball with pace and elegance when attacking, and pressing their opponents in unison to devastating effect when defending. Arsenal were left chasing shadows for much of the half, and grew increasingly frustrated as the Spanish team denied them time to respond in kind.

If not for Manuel Almunia, Arsenal's Spanish goalkeeper who had been much maligned after conceding a soft equaliser at Birmingham on Saturday, Barca would have booked their place in the semis inside the first half hour. Almunia produced four or five saves which were truly world class during that period, reminding those fans at the Emirates with short memories that he is a shot-stopper with excellent reflexes and agility.

There was little else for the home fans to cheer about in the first half. Andrey Arshavin limped off injured, quickly followed by William Gallas. Samir Nasri twice wriggled behind the visitors' defence to deliver tempting crosses, and saw one curling effort drift just wide of Victor Valdes' left-hand post. When half-time came with the scoreline remarkably still goalless, Arsenal fans wondered if perhaps they had weathered the storm. (Myself among them, as I was lulled into a cheeky bet on a 0-0 draw.)

Wrong. A mere 23 seconds of the second half had elapsed when Zlatan Ibrahimovic - who to that point had displayed all the shooting accuracy of Devon Malcolm bowling blindfolded - found himself running free behind the Arsenal back line after a simple ball over the top. In a moment which undid his first half excellence, Almunia charged off his line, got caught in no man's land, and was made to look something of a turnip as the giant Swede artfully lobbed the ball over him and into the unguarded net.

Thirteen minutes later, with Arsenal having responded quite well to that shocking setback - Nicklas Bendtner having stung Valdes' hands with a bullet header - another straightforward aerial ball allowed Ibrahimovic to run on and fire a howitzer past the blameless Almunia. Barcelona, the great artists, found themselves 2-0 up courtesy of two long balls straight out of the old Wimbledon playbook.

An hour gone. Two goals up away from home. See you in the semis, eh?

If there has been one valid criticism of Arsenal in recent years, it has been an obvious mental fragility when faced with a physical or superior team. Arsene Wenger's beautiful team has been scarred by the likes of Stoke and Bolton. But that simply hasn't been the case this year, despite losing four out of four games to Chelsea and Man U. This 2009/10 Arsenal side has rebounded from every setback, whether it was Aaron Ramsey's broken leg at Stoke, or coming back from being 2-0 down inside five minutes in Liege. And, all season, this side has scored late, late goals, turning draws into wins and defeats into draws.

So as Barcelona's early, unsustainable tempo waned and their thoughts started to turn to a seemingly comfortable second leg at Camp Nou, Arsenal slowly, inexorably started to regain a measure of parity in midfield. It still felt like clutching at straws, but there remained a shred of hope. All that was needed was a catalyst.

That catalyst was Theo Walcott. Absent for much of the season with injury, too often missing in action when playing, and harshly labelled by Chris Waddle as lacking 'a football brain', Walcott was Wenger's third and final substitution on 66 minutes. Last roll of the dice.

Within 60 seconds, Walcott had blown by Maxwell as if he wasn't there to slide a teasing cross across the area. Two minutes after that he repeated the feat, Bendtner slid a perfect through ball to him and Walcott instantly drove the ball under the diving Valdes. 1-2. A straw grasped.

Like flicking a switch, the mood inside the ground changed. Despair was replaced by hope. Arsenal surged forward, Barca retreated. All of a sudden it seemed there was a red shirt who was first to every loose ball, where previously it had been yellow.

And then: the moment. 84 minutes - note, inside the final ten. Bendtner, again, deftly directed the ball towards his captain and former Barcelona youth team player Cesc Fabregas. Definite contact from behind by Barca skipper Carles Puyol. A soft penalty (but a penalty nonetheless), and a red card for the unfortunate Puyol. Fabregas - as if there was ever any doubt - converted the chance by hammering the ball hard and low down the middle, but injured himself in the process.

No matter. 2-2. A breathtaking end to a breathtaking match.

With their two away goals, Barcelona remain favourites for the return leg next Tuesday, but their confidence will be shaken by the absence of both starting centre backs, Puyol and Gerard Pique (suspended as a result of receiving his third yellow card of the competition). For Arsenal, the inspirational Fabregas (who has a suspected broken fibula) will miss his homecoming next week after a slightly soft third booking, Gallas is apparently done for the season and Arshavin's calf injury also makes him doubtful. Even so, Arsenal will fancy their chances - certainly considerably more so than they would have done with thirty minutes still to play.

If the second leg next week is half as dramatic, we will be in for a treat. I certainly know where I'll be on Tuesday night.

30 March 2010

Tour de France wildcards aren't so wild after all

With 95 days to go until the start of the 2010 Tour de France, we now know who the last six squads are who will make up the full complement of 22 teams when the first wheel is turned in Rotterdam on July 3rd.

In addition to the 16 ProTour teams who were already guaranteed a seat at cycling’s top table, there were no real surprises when the six wildcard entrants were revealed earlier today:

- Sky, the new BSkyB-sponsored outfit, who will be led by triple Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins, fourth in last year’s race

- RadioShack, another new team led by seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and including previous podium finishers Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden

- Garmin, Wiggins’ former team and the home of both Christian Vande Velde, a top 8 finisher in each of the last two Tours, and Tyler Farrar, a genuine green jersey contender

- Cervelho, the team of both 2008 yellow jersey Carlos Sastre and current green jersey holder Thor Hushovd

- BMC, led by two-time runner-up Cadel Evans, and aided and abetted by Armstrong’s former right-hand man, George Hincapie

- Katusha, the Russian team which boasts three-time green jersey winner Robbie McEwen, Italian national champion Filippo Pozzato and Vladimir Karpets

All the first five teams are able to boast at least one marquee name who will each command considerable media interest in key global markets come July. And although Katusha’s big names are not quite at the same stratospheric level (with the exception of McEwen, who is now nearing the end of a glittering career), their record since their formation last year is ample qualification for their inclusion in the Tour.

Given that this year’s Tour will spend its first two days in Holland, Dutch teams Vacansoleil and Skil-Shimano will be particularly upset at having been omitted (as will the new all-French Saur-Sojasun squad), but in truth neither possesses a marquee name or the prospect of delivering anything more than a successful breakaway stage win. Their absence is regrettable, but will be barely noticed once the racing begins.

The fact is that the six teams selected as wildcards were neither particularly ‘wild’ nor a surprise, because they were clearly the ones most likely to have an impact at this year’s Tour. You can’t really ask for more than that.

The Tour may still be over three months away, but it is now less than six weeks until the first of this year’s Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, which coincidentally also starts in Holland (in Amsterdam) on May 8th. I can’t wait.

29 March 2010

Button's slick thinking in Melbourne masterclass

After the damp squib that was the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, a little pre-race rain contributed to a spectacular Melbourne race, won by Jenson Button’s quick thinking in exploiting the changing conditions.

As I've said previously, it would be a mistake to prematurely dismiss Button's chances this year. Lewis Hamilton may be the faster driver against the stopwatch, but winning in Formula 1 also requires bold decision-making and sometimes a sprinkling of luck.

Unlike in Bahrain, Button had been on the same level as Hamilton all weekend. He struggled off the start, tapping Fernando Alonso into a spin which – the sprinkling of luck – merely delayed rather than derailed him, and was then overtaken by his McLaren teammate as both struggled for grip on intermediate tyres.

It was at this point – languishing in seventh place on a track still damp from the earlier rain – that Button rolled the dice and made his race-winning, off-the-cuff call to pit immediately for slick dry weather tyres. The immediate and universal reaction of commentators and journalists was that it was a suicidal move, a view that appeared to be vindicated when he immediately slid off at turn three on his out-lap. But, having regained the track, he immediately posted two fastest sector times, prompting a mad scramble for the pitlane. With the advantage of an extra lap on what were now clearly the right tyres for the prevailing conditions, seventh soon became second. And when Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel retired – again – after suspected brake failure pitched him off the track, second became first, a position which Button never looked like relinquishing as he preserved his tyres and controlled the gap at the front with consummate ease to secure his eighth career grand prix victory.

It was a win reminiscent of the type Alain Prost used to achieve with regularity. Preserve the tyres, make good strategic decisions, let other people make mistakes and apply enough speed at the right time to ensure the win – everything else is for show. In short, it was the type of win the new regulations were intended to create, turning grands prix into more strategic races which reward intelligence as well as speed, rather than a series of madcap sprints between pitstops.

After the race, Button underlined the importance of quick thinking in the cockpit:

“It's a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. We can feel out on the circuit what's happening. I didn't have a balance at all on the [intermediates] so I thought let's get in and stick the slicks on. When I entered the pitlane I thought I'd make a catastrophic mistake because it was soaking wet, but once I got it going the pace was pretty good. It was the right call and I'm very happy that I made it.”

It was a stark contrast to teammate Hamilton, who had a weekend to forget. A run-in with police for ‘over-exuberant driving’ did not help, but should not be used as a reason for a messy qualifying performance which left him down in 11th. And his anger at what turned out to be a poor call by McLaren to bring him in for a second tyre change mid-race spilled over into a reckless last-of the-late-brakers move on Alonso which resulted in the following Mark Webber shunting him off the track. Fortunately, the accident only cost him one place (he finished sixth rather than fifth), but Hamilton’s churlish finger-pointing both during - "Whose call was it to bring me in? Freaking terrible idea" - and after the race only served to underline that Button had taken control of his own destiny, while he had gone with whatever the team decided for him.

"I probably had one of the drives of my life. But unfortunately due to the strategy I was put further back and then I got taken out by Mark Webber. I am happy with the job that I did.”

Hamilton misses the point. As Button said, it’s easier for drivers to feel the conditions, particularly when those conditions are on that razor’s edge where a driver’s intuition can make the right decision faster than the army of engineers watching the telemetry and timing screens. Button made the call; Hamilton passively followed his team strategy. If the latter had also pitted for slicks on lap six rather than seven, he would probably have won.

Beyond McLaren, there were incidents aplenty yesterday, with cars frequently running at close quarters and several overtaking moves. After his first-lap spin, Alonso charged through the field, sweeping slower cars imperiously out of his way. But he would eventually end up bottle-necked behind Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, and it was the duo’s subsequent struggles on badly grained tyres which led to Hamilton’s ill-fated move. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi suffered his second front wing failure of the weekend on the opening lap, leading to a spectacular crash which also wiped out WilliamsNico Hulkenburg and Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi. And we had the you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it sight of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher – again comprehensively outclassed by Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg – being overtaken by Virgin rookie Lucas di Grassi.

In the same way people overreacted to the Bahrain bore-a-thon, yesterday’s race does not mean that everything is rosy in Bernie Ecclestone’s garden – wet/dry races are invariably good ones. F1 typically only has one or two of these a season, but the fact we have had one so early on will be a crucial boost to Button in a season where many thought Hamilton would destroy him. It certainly underlines there is more than one way to win races: you can either be flat out quicker than everyone else – which is how Hamilton, Vettel and Massa primarily operate – or you can use your brain to manage all the variables better than other drivers (Button, Alonso). That is no bad thing.

It also moves the McLaren subplot on a pace. Button has now staked his claim on Hamilton’s team, and you have to wonder if this will affect the younger man’s performances, which in the past have been fragile under pressure. Certainly Jenson will have filed away Hamilton’s angry outbursts for future reference and he will now know – rather than think – he can beat him fair and square.

In the meantime, it’s on to Malaysia this weekend, which historically tends to produce good racing and (tee hee) the occasional monsoon. Bring it on.

26 March 2010

Sir Chris rises above the Hoy polloi

Chris Hoy’s rivals in the keirin had clearly decided they were no match for his pace and power in a straight race, opting instead to give him the type of treatment opposing sides often target Arsenal with.

In other words, they tried to rough him up. First Josiah Ng Onn Lam cut across Hoy during the heats, knocking the Scot off his bike and earning a clear disqualification. Then, in the final, Azizulhasni Awang attempted to elbow his way through but Hoy – a man as strong as Usain Bolt is fast – continued undeterred to beat the Malaysian to the finish line by half a wheel.

The keirin is a unique event. For those who think track cycling is a non-contact sport, a simple test of man and machine against the clock, the keirin is a bit like coming out of the Last Night of the Proms and getting caught in a pub brawl. Six cyclists cruise around behind a pootling, pace-setting motor scooter – the ‘derny’ – which pulls off with two-and-a-half laps left, resulting in a madcap, free-for-all dash to the finish. (It’s not unlike watching greyhounds jogging carefully behind the hare for a couple of warm-up laps before the race actually starts.)

It is an event which rewards those riders who can combine tactical acumen with savage acceleration and the ability to sustain maximum speed. Having pointy elbows doesn’t hurt either. Hoy, a four-time world champion in the one kilometre time trial and now a three-time winner of the keirin, possesses each of those qualities in abundance.

It has so far been a disappointing Track Cycling World Championships for Britain, although the team is missing several key stars such as Bradley Wiggins, who this year is focussing solely on road racing and July's Tour de France. Hoy’s was GB’s first win of these championships, and his tenth world title overall. (Only France’s Arnaud Tourmant, with 14, has won more.) Even at 34 – it was his birthday on Tuesday – and with a knighthood and four Olympic golds to his name, Hoy’s prodigious power and competitive fire remain undiminished.

Only a fool would bet against Hoy adding to his Olympic tally at London 2012. Or against him adding gold in Sunday’s individual sprint to yesterday’s keirin. Aside from his devastating speed, you can be sure he will have his elbows at the ready, just in case.

25 March 2010

Premier League contenders face their moment of truth

Could this weekend have a significant – and potentially decisive – influence on who wins this season’s Premier League?

I have been saying for several weeks the outcome of the title race will most likely be decided on the away form of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. After all, the top three – now separated by just two points – just keep on winning at home (where they have dropped a miserly 18 points between them thus far), while showing definite vulnerabilities on their travels, amassing 13 defeats combined.

This weekend, however, all three face challenging assignments. It is the last match-day on which at least one of the three does not have a relatively ‘easy’ (I use the word advisedly) game.

On paper, Arsenal – away to Birmingham – appear to have the toughest task. Alex McLeish’s side have only lost twice in the league at St Andrew’s, and are unbeaten at home since the end of September, a run which includes deserved draws against both Chelsea and United. Furthermore, Arsenal will be without their first-choice centre back pairing of Thomas Vermaelen (suspended) and William Gallas (calf), with striker Nicklas Bendtner rated as questionable at the time of writing, having not trained since twisting his ankle against West Ham on Saturday. If he is ruled out, there is the possibility that Eduardo could start on the ground where his leg was broken two years ago.

Man U visit Bolton, who have won three and drawn one of their last four league games at the Reebok, without conceding a goal. This has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Alex Ferguson’s side, but with Bolton in decent form, set up the way new manager Owen Coyle wants them to play and just a few tantalising points away from safety, a surprise is not out of the question, particularly if Wayne Rooney’s knee – he was observed hobbling after Sunday’s victory over Liverpool – limits his participation. (Now I’ve said that, United will win 4-0 …)

Chelsea are the only one of the three to have the benefit of a home match, but it is against an Aston Villa team who are embroiled in a dog-fight for the fourth and final Champions League spot. (Just two points separate Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Villa.) Up front, John Carew is on a hot streak with eight goals in his last seven games in all competitions. At the back, no defence has conceded fewer goals than Villa’s (25). And as a team they are incredibly difficult to beat: no other team has suffered fewer defeats (five), and only the top three themselves have more points away from home this season.

After Chelsea’s thumping 5-0 win over soon-to-be-relegated Portsmouth last night, the mathematics of the title race are now much simpler. The top three have all played 31 games, United lead Chelsea by a point (who lead Arsenal by a further point) and after this weekend each club will have three home and three away games remaining.

Beyond this weekend, Chelsea certainly have the most difficult away programme by some distance, which must trouble Carlo Ancelotti:

Man U: Blackburn, Man City, Sunderland
Chelsea: Man U, Tottenham, Liverpool
Arsenal: Tottenham, Wigan, Blackburn

Even allowing for the fact that Chelsea’s remaining home games are relatively straightforward, with every possibility they could fail to win all three remaining away fixtures they still look to have more difficult games overall than either of their rivals. With no disrespect to their other opponents, United will view Chelsea (H), City (A) and Spurs (H) as their toughest challenges, while Arsene Wenger’s most serious threats are limited to Spurs (A) and City (H).

It genuinely is too close to call. Arsenal trail and have the longest injury list, but have the easiest run-in. Chelsea don’t have the distraction of the Champions League, but face a tough sequence of games. United are a Rooney injury away from potential disaster, but have the experience of leading down the stretch and will probably feel if they can avoid defeat to Chelsea, the title is theirs to lose.

Who do I think will win? My heart says Arsenal, but my head says United – just. But I expect there to be a few dramatic twists and turns before we know for sure, and this weekend could turn out to be a pivotal one when we look back at the end of the season.

19 March 2010

Arsenal discover there really are no easy games in Europe

On the face of it, Arsenal fans have much to be depressed about after today's Champions League quarter-final draw. Being paired with Barcelona, champions of Spain, Europe and indeed the world, is disappointing enough. But a competitive record that reads played three, drawn one, lost two makes the task for Arsene Wenger’s men appear even more insurmountable. After all, statistics don’t lie.

Or do they?

Firstly, history is never the most reliable predictor of future performance. Of the eleven players who started the 2006 Champions League final for Arsenal only three – Emmanuel Eboue, Sol Campbell and Cesc Fabregas – are still at the club. Campbell (the scorer of Arsenal’s only goal that night) has also played for Portsmouth and Notts County during the interim and Eboue (who dubiously won the free kick from which Campbell scored) is now more of a super-sub than a starter. It’s the same picture if you look at Barcelona’s starting XI – goalscorers Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti are now at Inter Milan and Chelsea respectively, and other star names such as Ronaldinho, Ludovic Giuly, Mark van Bommel and Deco have also long since moved on. The two sides who will meet at the Emirates in under a fortnight’s time are almost unrecognisable from the teams who played that night in Paris. So any historical comparisons should be taken with a large pinch of salt – or better still, ignored completely.

Even if you do take history into consideration, a more detailed examination of those three previous games provides clear signs of encouragement for the English side.

Let’s start with the 2006 Champions League final. Arsenal played for more than 70 minutes with ten men after goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was (rightly) sent off and took a 37th minute lead through Campbell’s header. It was an advantage they held until the final quarter of an hour, when substitute Henrik Larsson turned the game in Barca’s favour, with the equaliser carrying a strong hint of offside to it. To be fair, the better team won on the night, but Arsenal – a man down - had put in a great battling performance, and with a squad which (like this season’s one) had been largely written off mid-season.

The other two meetings took place during the Champions League group phase of the 1999/2000 season. A late Kanu goal earned Arsenal a 1-1 draw in Barcelona – so, if you want to look at it another way, Arsenal are unbeaten at Camp Nou – and although they lost the ‘home’ leg 4-2, the match was effectively played on a neutral ground, Wembley, rather than Highbury. So, again, applying the kind of spin Peter Mandelson would be proud of, Arsenal are actually unbeaten home and away against Barcelona.

Doesn’t seem too bad when you put it that way, does it?

Putting aside the manipulation of statistics – lies, damn lies and statistics, indeed! - the reality is that Arsenal will be underdogs going into this quarter-final. That is fair enough. But to write Arsenal off would be foolhardy. Twice already this season, the Londoners’ Premier League challenge has been prematurely dismissed (firstly after a humiliating home defeat to Chelsea before Christmas, then after back-to-back losses to Man U and Chelsea a few weeks ago), but each time the team has bounced back impressively to sustain an improbable – but far from impossible - tilt at the title.

Arsenal are quietly coming into form right now – or, at the very least, finding a way to win tight games by whatever means necessary (which works just as well for me) – and I get the impression that this team functions much better as an underdog than it does as a favourite. Barcelona, on the other hand, have recently shown signs of both fatigue and a slight dip in form, particularly away from Camp Nou.

Even allowing for my somewhat partisan view, there is certainly more than a glimmer of hope for Arsenal. Their chances of advancing to the semi-finals (where either Inter or CSKA Moscow will await) are perhaps only 35-40% - but that’s certainly better than Chelsea or Liverpool’s odds!

Whisper it quietly, I am not exactly unconfident about our prospects. With Fabregas in the team all things are possible, and Arsenal have developed a knack in recent seasons of turning over Europe’s big names (while simultaneously struggling against so-called ‘lesser’ teams): Juventus, Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, Inter at the San Siro, Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

Yes, there are no easy games in Europe. But there are also no impossible ones.

As a footnote, I would like to congratulate Fulham, who last night overcame a 3-1 first-leg deficit – and then the concession of a second minute David Trezeguet goal – to defeat Juventus 5-4 on aggregate (4-1 on the night) and advance to the Europa League quarter-finals. It must surely have been one of the biggest nights in the club’s history. And it is testament to the managerial prowess of Roy Hodgson, who this time two years ago had just taken over a club who looked nailed-on certainties for relegation and has delivered nothing but positive progress ever since.

England’s next manager? Maybe, although there are several plausible arguments against his appointment whenever Fabio Capello decides to step down. But you would have a hard time convincing me that there is a better - or more likeable - English manager anywhere in the game right now.

16 March 2010

Beckham injury is not England’s Achilles’ heel

When I first heard about David Beckham’s ruptured Achilles tendon on Sunday night, I was sad for the player but didn’t feel the need to comment on it here on the blog, given his peripheral role as a player in the England set-up. However, looking at the minor frenzy which has been whipped up in the media over the past 36 hours, you would think we had just witnessed the Munich air disaster.

Er, why?

Before the revisionists completely rewrite history, let’s be absolutely clear about Beckham’s position in the World Cup mix prior to his injury.

Was Fabio Capello going to include him in his 23-man squad? Almost certainly. There were certainly strong arguments for having him present both on the pitch (as an impact substitute) and off it (for his experience and influence in the dressing room). To my mind, these outweighed the potential distraction of the circus which inevitably follows wherever Beckham goes.

If he had gone, would Beckham ever have made the starting XI? Certainly not, unless England were to suffer an injury crisis of apocalyptic proportions over the next few weeks. To fill the right winger’s position, one of Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott or Shaun Wright-Phillips will be the starter in South Africa, with probably one taken as backup and one left to bemoan his misfortune on a beach somewhere. And with Steven Gerrard and James Milner also well capable of playing wide right, England are more than adequately covered with speedy, dynamic players who can run for 90 minutes in a way Beckham no longer can. Similarly, the squad will also be well-stocked with central midfielders, the other area where Beckham could have played a role.

David Beckham was never going to be more than a bit-part player at this summer’s World Cup. That’s not to say his role might not have been a significant one: you never know when one of his trademark free kicks could have been needed to settle a tight game late on. But England are hardly bereft of players who can strike a mean dead ball: Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Milner and Gareth Barry can all strike a ball with plenty of pace, bend and accuracy. And then there is the list of injured or ailing players whose status I am far more concerned about than Beckham’s: Ashley Cole, Lennon, Rio Ferdinand

Is Beckham’s injury the end of the world? No. Does it dent England’s chances in South Africa? A bit. Is Capello’s squad now holed below the waterline and devoid of all hope? Give me a break.

If some corners of the media are whipping up a storm about Beckham, what will they do if Wayne Rooney suffers a season-ending injury? Will we have a national day of mourning and withdraw from the tournament completely?

Never mind the World Cup, a ruptured Achilles is a serious and potentially career-threatening injury. At 34 – and turning 35 before the World Cup begins – Beckham faces an extremely long and tough road back. Without the possibility of going out on the biggest stage of all you have to wonder whether he will decide to bring down the curtain on a career which has brought him 115 caps for his country, many team and personal triumphs, and only last week brought him back to Old Trafford for a cameo appearance where he was given a hero’s welcome.

David Beckham has never been the retiring type when it comes to publicity, but surely now it is time to seriously contemplate retirement.

15 March 2010

F1 starts with lots of subplot, little actual plot

It had been billed as the start of Formula 1’s ‘most exciting season ever’, with four world champions – Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher – present on the grid.

Instead, yesterday’s Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit was more like a desert without an oasis, with precious little for millions of viewers around the world to take as sustenance.

In-race refuelling has been consigned to history, with the intended effect of encouraging more overtaking on the track. Bahrain gave us some customary first corner argy-bargy, but that was then followed by 49 laps of largely processional ‘racing’ during which the only major position changes of note were the McLarens of Button and Hamilton gaining a place each during their pit-stops.

A new points system intended to provide a greater reward for higher placings and therefore a greater incentive for attempted overtaking moves also had little discernible effect, as the ever-present issue of turbulence compromising a car’s aerodynamic performance as it closes in on the car in front discouraged Alonso – one of the sport’s bravest overtakers - from risking a move on Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel for fear of destroying his tyres.

As it was, he didn’t even need to try. Vettel picked up a problem with a spark plug, enabling Alonso, Felipe Massa and Hamilton to sweep past him as Ferrari put a troubled 2009 season behind then with a one-two finish.

And that was pretty much all she wrote as far as the action was concerned. The resurrected Lotus team managed to get Heikki Kovalainen’s car to the finish, while teammate Jarno Trulli broke down late on. Neither Virgin car made it beyond one-third distance. And while Hispania’s Bruno Senna completed 17 laps, teammate Karun Chandhok managed just one circuit before being thrown into a wall after hitting a bump.

Before the naysayers prematurely trash the 2010 season, there are mitigating circumstances. The first race of the season often throws up some oddities, with teams scrambling to finish new parts and make last-minute improvements to their cars. The teams are also still trying to work out how best to deal with the new refuelling-free regulations, and everyone was clearly erring well on the side of conservative with their race strategies. And finally Sakhir is a slow, dusty circuit which has always offered few overtaking opportunities.

While the early signs are far from positive, we will not really be in a position to judge the overall impact of the rule changes until after the season’s third and fourth races in Malaysia and China.

At least one thing remains consistent in F1. There may not have been much happening on the track in Bahrain, but the season’s major subplots all developed nicely.

Let’s start with Ferrari. On his return from his career-threatening accident in Hungary last year, Massa threw down a huge marker on Saturday by outqualifying teammate Alonso. But in the race the Spaniard, on the cleaner line, went round the outside of Massa at the first corner and later, having passed the ailing Vettel, banged in a series of blistering laps – his fastest race lap was fully 1.1 seconds quicker than anyone else’s (and nearly 1.5 seconds faster than Massa’s) – to emphasise his dominance. Spain 1 Brazil 0.

In the all-British McLaren team, Hamilton (third) not only finished well ahead of Button (seventh), but was consistently quicker than his new teammate all weekend. That was hardly unexpected, though, as it is too easy to underestimate the difficulty Button faces settling in to what is categorically Hamilton’s team. I fully expect it will take until at least mid-season until Button is able to feel fully at home at McLaren. Overall, I still expect Hamilton to be the faster man, but it won’t be as clear-cut as it appeared this weekend, and on fast, abrasive, car-breaking circuits such as Canada in mid-June, Button’s smoother driving style may pay big dividends.

At Mercedes, Schumacher looked uncomfortable throughout and was outpaced by teammate Nico Rosberg in every session. Again, it is asking too much of even a seven-time world champion to be straight back on the pace after more than three years out of the sport. Like Button, we cannot fully gauge the success of his comeback until mid-season. And while sixth place represented a solid showing, he will certainly have plenty to think about when contemplating his performance. Schumacher has always dominated; to be markedly inferior over an entire race weekend against a teammate 17 years his junior is unprecedented in his experience.

Perhaps the most convincing and decisive performance came at Red Bull, where Vettel took pole and led for two-thirds of the race before his mechanical problems, while Mark Webber qualified sixth – more than a second behind his teammate – and finished a distant eighth. The German’s race weekend had everything: a dramatic, blistering pole-setting lap followed by a mistake-free performance in the race itself. Make no mistake, Vettel is a big, big contender for this year’s title, but Red Bull need to rectify the lack of reliability which scuppered their challenge last year.

The racing in Bahrain may have been dull, but will hopefully improve. The politics of F1, however, remain second to none.

Tango Man gets tango-ed as Hull sack Brown

At Arsenal’s London Colney training ground this morning, I suspect Nicklas Bendtner will have allowed himself a small smile for any contribution he may have made to the dismissal of Phil Brown as Hull City manager this morning.

First, the Danish striker was on the receiving end – literally – of a poke in the eye from George Boateng, for which the Hull captain was (leniently) given a yellow card and Bendtner was (inexplicably) also booked. Boateng received a second yellow card minutes later for an horrific knee-high stamp on Bacary Sagna, a ‘tackle’ which was many times more dangerous than the one by Ryan Shawcross which broke Aaron Ramsey’s leg, and yet - because he received a second yellow rather than a straight red – will receive a lesser punishment.

(And before the “he’s not that kind of player” brigade comes leaping to Boateng’s defence, it is, incidentally, the seventh red card of Boateng’s career, and the third time he has been sent off against Arsenal in his career. You do the maths.)

Then, deep into six minutes of injury time at the end of the game, Bendtner gave Hull a poke in the eye – metaphorically - by being quickest to the rebound after Boaz Myhill had spilled Denilson’s speculative long-range effort, sealing a 2-1 win for Arsenal.

It is, of course, difficult to say how much (if at all) Bendtner’s late strike influenced the club’s decision to put Brown on ‘gardening leave’. A disappointing season which sees them three points adrift in the Premier League drop-zone - rather than one specific defeat to a title contender - is the key issue. The very public incident of handbags last week between Jimmy Bullard and Nick Barmby, which was witnessed by a large group of Women’s Institute members near the Humber Bridge certainly wouldn’t have helped matters either. And it may well be that the move has been on the cards for some time, but chairman Adam Pearson has been waiting until he had a successor lined up before pulling the trigger.

Hull City AFC confirms that Phil Brown has been relieved of his managerial duties at the club and has been placed on gardening leave with immediate effect. Brian Horton and Steve Parkin will take charge of first-team duties until further notice.

 “We would like to place on record our sincere thanks to Phil for the major success achieved during a period of four seasons in charge at the club and wish him every success for the future. Promotion to the Premier League in 2008 and retention of our status on the last day of the 2009 season are unique events in the history of Hull City AFC and both were achieved under Phil's stewardship during a period which will never be forgotten by all connected with the club.

 “However, retention of Premier League status is paramount and the board believes that a change in managerial direction is the correct option at this time. The club will keep supporters completely up-to-date in respect of any managerial appointment but, in the meantime, Brian Horton and Steve Parkin will prepare the team for our important game at Portsmouth next Saturday.”

Whatever the cause, the Premier League has certainly lost one of its more colourful – in so many ways – managers. This, after all, is the headset-wearing, rent-a-quote Phil Brown who grew a goatee for charity, sat his players down on the pitch at Eastlands to give them a half-time team-talk and has never been backwards in announcing opinions which have ranged from the sensible to the downright bizarre. And he has, of course, been the target of much hilarity from opposing fans who have labelled him ‘Tango Man’ and ‘Phil Orange’ for his predilection for tanning products. But now, in the words of the famous TV ad from a decade ago, he has been well and truly Tango-ed himself.

Last but by no means least, the fans at the KC Stadium will now be spared any further X Factor-style performances. Having survived relegation by the skin of their teeth after the final game last season, Brown to took to the pitch and launched into a karaoke version of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’. Who knows what auditory delights they might have been treated to if Brown had guided them to safety again this season. Perhaps one of the following:

1. REM - Orange Crush
2. Stranglers - Always The Sun(Bed)
3. Elton John - Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting
4. Boomtown Rats - I Don't Like Mondays

I’m just saying.