Thursday, May 7, 2009

The week's highlights

Some thoughts on a mad week of sport...

1 Leinster's time in the sun
Jumpthefence risks the wrath of rugby heads in these parts, but there was something refreshing about last Saturday's show of power from Leinster. Ah there's only so much one casual rugby watcher can take of how special Munster are and Paul O'Connell's pyjamas jokes and so on. And make no mistake by the way, this was a real show of power from Leinster. They completely outplayed the European champs, especially in overpowering them in contact, something nobody's done to Munster in eons. They wanted it more, and desire's a hard bloody thing to beat. Kudos to O'Driscoll, Darcy and company for deciding their time had come.
And if there wasn't some Munster eegit in your pub that you took a great deal of pleasure in watching squirm as the game wore on, then you weren't in the pub.

2 Hatton taken to school
There's only so many excuses to be made. Ricky Hatton might have made light of being outclassed by Floyd Mayweather last year but the pummelling he took from Manny Pacquiao makes it clear the likeable Mancunian is just a rung below the top, top level of his class. Mayweather was too smart, too classy, too technically excellent. Pacquiao was too fast, too explosive, too good. Hatton had/has great qualities, but he couldn't take either of these great fighters to a brawl, and he suffered for that. No shame in it either, at least he had the balls to take the fights on.

3 A final to look forward to?
So we get the dream final at last. To be fair, it's got the makings of a classic. United get the chance to prove themselves a great side against the other top team in europe. Barcelona get the chance to take their crown. Both are easy on the eye, play the game the right way and have wonderful players on show. It COULD be amazing. Yet Jumpthefence has hyped up enough games to wonder if it'll be tight and tense in reality rather than epic and goal-ridden.
Oh, and Barcelona were rather lucky last night. The funniest thing was the boys on rte trying to convince everyone that they won cos they kept doing the right thing, when in actuality, they got lucky with decisions, the fall of the ball in the last minute and Chelsea missing some glorious chances to seal it. Dunphy suggesting a five-yard sideways pass from Messi was some kind of genius was also hilarious. (All of which doesn't take away from the fact Jumpthefence thinks Messi is in fact a genius and Barca are a crazily brilliant side on their night.)
Predictions are impossible for the end of May. So we'll go with United being more solid and grinding a 1-0. Or maybe Barca thumping United 4-1. Or maybe a mad 3-3. Perhaps, ah sod it...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Exposing the truth - United ease through

As if we didn't already now, we do now: talk is cheap. Arsene Wenger and a few Arsenal players have spent the past week suggesting they were going to do United in this second leg. Well the only magnificent thing about last night came from the European champions, as Man Utd truly exposed the gulf between the wannabes and the genuine article. This United side may have had a blip but on this tie's evidence, they're nearing greatness and they'll get their chance to prove that in the coming month.

Simply, United were awesome. True, they were helped by some awful defending on Arsenal's part, but there was a clinical touch to how those early lapses were punished and from then on, Alex Ferguson's side were controlled, defended perfectly, looked dangerous with every attack and conjured up a third goal of real breathtaking quality. They were more mature, stronger physically, had more legs, more belief, more quality, better players all over the field. The phrase men against boys may well have been invented for this tie.

A few words on Ronaldo. Martin Samuel calls it well here in the Daily Mail. He was astoundingly excellent last night, playing in that position Ferguson likes him away from home in europe, tormenting the back four up front on his own. He really tore Toure and Djourou a new one last night - scoring two top, top strikes, making the third goal, and generally taking a huge game by the scruff of the neck and making it his. The desire, speed and ability he showed for that third goal was something nobody else in the world could have achieved - check out a video of it and see how much ground he made up on the Arsenal player following his run, feel the absolute effort to get to that ball. Openings from anywhere within 40yards are now goalscoring chances. There were murmerings of Franck Robery replacing him at Old Trafford yesterday; in that kind of form, there really is nobody else who can be so devastatingly effective.

It wasn't all Ronaldo. Rooney kept up his recent form. Park added effect to his cause. Fletcher and Anderson were again in control with running and ability. Carrick was less influential but still decent. Evra was back to being Evra, swallowing up Theo Walcott and making a mockery of the Arsenal winger's claims of greatness. Ferdinand and Vidic exposed Adebayor for being average. Have we gotten across how good United were yet?

And still Arsenal were so, so disappointing, yet not surprising. As Graeme Souness said on rte - and isn't it great to see him upset the Giles/ Dunphy love-in with actual knowledge of how things work in the English game - they're a team of boys and that's the sort of inconsistency you get. United have a team of established, experienced guys who've done it all and there's no substitute for that. The building for the future guff will have to be looked at. For now though, United take another step towards potential, dare we say it, greatness.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

United overrun Arsenal

And that's what it looks like when United put in a proper performance. After weeks of stuttering and responsive performances, Man Utd were excellent last night in sweeping Arsenal aside 1-0. They were up for it, got the tempo just right from the off, hounded Arsenal high up the pitch, physically dominated and created chance after chance, especially throughout a quite astoundingly one-sided opening half-hour. That United didn't come away with at least a two-goal cushion can be the only negative for Alex Ferguson's side; that was down to Manuel Almunia's defiant performance and some wastefulness from United themselves.

In picking Carlos Tevez over Berbatov - expect that decision to be reversed next Tuesday night by the way - Ferguson sent a signal out right away. United were coming to get Arsenal with running and pressure. The little Argentinian gave his best performance of the season, all effort, nice touches, good feet and ideas. Wayne Rooney was similarly effective. Darren Fletcher and Anderson's energy controlled midfield. Ronaldo and John O'Shea made hay down the right wing. For 35 minutes, Arsenal couldn't keep the ball and couldn't figure out how to deal with United's movement and rhythm - along with O'Shea's goal, there were decent chances from all the front three and Anderson was ruled offside when through one-on-one (not that you'd exactly write that down as a goal).

That Arsenal came into things for spells before and after half-time seemed as much a lull in United's legs as any great initiative from Arsene Wenger's side. Only Nicklas Bendtner's glanced header caused the United defence unease and it was the home team who picked things up again for the last twenty minutes, Ronaldo hitting the bar with a sensational effort, Giggs' cross headed off the line, three or four balls flashing across the Arsenal box dangerously. Plainly and simply, Arsenal were outran and outplayed. The only positives they'll take is that it's only one goal, and they can't be as lackadaisical again, surely. Fabregas ought to go back 20 yards to central midfield, Van Persie might well come into the more advanced position if fit.

Right now, it's hard to imagine United not scoring next week. Anything can happen of course, but it's them in the driving seat now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tonight's semi-final

Keane v Vieira on the tunnel and the epic 4-2 win that followed. The Van Nistelrooy penalty incident. That Giggs semi-final goal. That Bergkamp peno miss the same game. Arsenal going to Old Trafford to win the league in a men v boys show. United ending Arsenal's unbeaten run at 49. Oh yes, it's fair to say Man Utd and Arsenal have some ground to make up if they're to keep up with the recent history of this tie. Strange - and wonderful - that it is, there's surely a chance of that being the case.

You want football? There'll be that with the two most pleasing on the eye sides in England. Goals? Well, have you seen the United and Arsenal defences recently? They've already hammered out a hell of a game this season, where United went to the Emirates and created 12 clear cut chances but still lost. Arsenal are possibly the form side around right now (even if that theory was knocked on the head a tad by the FA Cup semi-final). United are trying to do something nobody's done since the great Milan side of 1989/90 and hold onto the European Cup. Hey, it's huge and fun and it ought be just lovely to watch.

Darting predictions on possible outcomes seems almost vulgar. Arsenal WILL try to take advantage of a Utd defence that's looked, shall we say, hesitant so don't expect a park-the-bus display from Arsene Wenger's side. It looks like Cesc Fabregas is adapting to a new off-the-striker role and his vision and passing down the sides of defenders will cause problems. If Aaron Lennon can skin Patrice Evra, then so can Theo Walcott, to more potential damage. Adebayor has a decent record of causing United problems. Dangers for Arsenal? A real decision on Samir Nasri as a possible central midfielder that'll either end in tears by being swept aside physically or kudos for moral courage. A defence that redefined shaky last week vs Liverpool. A United side that's had the jump on them in recent times and might, just might, have a huge attacking performance in them.

Much will come down to United's form and mentality we'd imagine. Anderson will likely start in a midfield that'll shoehorn Carrick and Giggs in somewhere as well. Ronaldo and Rooney will start. That leaves one from Berbatov, Tevez and even Park. Jumpthefence is inclined to think Ferguson might try to go for Arsenal's weakest point (their defence) with an attacking 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 rather than a 4-4-2. There's chances and goals in United, even if Arsenal might boss the possession stats.

Jumpthefence wouldn't get carried away with the unfoldings of this. An away goal might not be the big deal it can tend to be. A score draw for Arsenal here might not be the advantage it would seem; United are well capable of scoring and winning at the Emirates. This is a pure 180-minute (more, perhaps?) tie. Hope for fireworks. Expect quality. Even if semi-finals largely disappoint (Barca-Chelsea last night for example), this could be great. We'll go with a score draw to begin.

There's something about Roy

He's back then, and rightly or wrongly, whether you care or don't care, whether he's a hero or a villain, it can be only a good thing. After months away from the game, Roy Keane made a typically unpredictable way back into management with Ipswich. It might seem an odd match, but the more you analyse it, the low-key, traditional club may just be the perfect place for Keane to learn the management game, away from the manic Irish hype of Sunderland.

Jumpthefence has blogged on Keane when he departed Sunderland and much of what was said then remains the case. If the boy Roy can adapt - and remember, this was a player who went from an all-action, box-to-box attacking midfielder to a sitting, more defensive type without losing any of his edge or influence - there's no reason why he can't make a proper go of things. As we said back in December, we can be much too quick to write off managers in these parts without expecting there to be a learning period, a time to make mistakes.
He'll hardly buy so many players again, hardly stockpile a hive of average discontented squad players capable of souring the atmosphere. He'll need to be a bit more understanding of the current generations whims to try to get the most from them. There were times where it looked to be coming together at Sunderland, moments and games where flashes of excellence and a team who knew what they were about shone through. Keane will need to figure out how to get a group of player to buy into what he's about for a few seasons.

Jumpthefence, for various reasons, found himself in Derby for Keane's first game in charge of Sunderland a few years back. Every eye in the stadium was glued to Keane. Sunderland scored; everyone strained to get the reaction. In the post-match press conference, Billy Davies came in first but, kinda embarrassingly, nobody wanted to ask him a question so he left having answered two token enquiries. Keane came in, sat down, glared at everyone and still kept everyone totally rapt while he spoke. He's got that presence, that box-office quality that draws people in. We'll find out in the next few seasons if he's got the managerial ability to back that up.

Love him, hate him, you can't deny it'll be interesting. Get used to Keane being everywhere again.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It's a mad football world

Wowzer. Jumpthefence took a little sabbatical for a few weeks and suddenly the whole football world's gone more bonkers than Tom Cruise on a chat-show couch. The Champions league has been near brilliant, actually exceeding expectation for the first time in ages. The premier league keeps on giving us moments of magic, madness and above all goals and excitement. Some thoughts on the last fortnight or so...

1 Liverpool = good to watch?
What's up with that? After years of showing "control" under their manager's constraints, Liverpool are like a teenager who's gone to college and realised there's more to life than study. Goals galore, at both ends, as they've gone for games with a sense of conviction they were utterly lacking earlier in the season. For them, it's a pity they've also decided to add elementary individual errors; they lost points and were knocked out of europe in two cracking 4-4s because of mistakes from Reina, Aurelio, Arbeloa, Mascherano and others. Jumpthefence always felt Liverpool were more suited to coming from behind in this title race - they never looked comfortable when top, and the jitters hit them bad in January and February - and it might work out yet. But probably not because...

2 Man Utd = Man Utd
With Liverpool becoming the rampant, all-out attacking United sides of the past, Man Utd have become Liverpool, but now might be Man Utd again. The United 08/09 side won't be remembered for their rampaging swagger as Alex Ferguson had moulded and shaped a side that controls the tempo, that passes and passes in the knowledge that eventually they'll pass their way to a chance and a goal. They don't blow teams away that often; truth is they don't feel they need to play that high-octane, 100-mile-an-hour stuff these days. In ways it's admirable maturity and can be lovely to watch; in ways it lacks the thrilling sight of United piling bodies forward on the break.

And then it all went back a few years on Saturday evening. United found themselves two down at home and needing some serious tempo-lifting. Nobody would have been more perfect than Tevez to spring from the bench. Berbatov looked slicker and tidier and full of ideas in that second half. Ronaldo was more energetic and forceful than recently. Rooney was an absolute force of nature. United turned back the clock and showed that there's still no substitute for brushing teams aside by running them off the park.
We still think there'll be points dropped in the league, but it's very much in United's hands now.

Read about Real Madrid's slightly inconceivable chase of Barcelona here.

We're going to get back here in the next few days to speak about this week's champs lge, Roy Keane's return to management, some gaelic football and other random bits and bobs.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Things we learnt

1 You don't win a league handily
At around 5.35 on Sunday evening, you'd have fancied it could actually be Liverpool's year. Rafa Benitez's side had filched another late late win on Saturday; a side does that enough times and you get the feeling there's a reason behind it all. And Man Utd were looking about as vulnerable as a teenager at his first disco, at 2-1 down to Villa they were leggy, shaky at the back, lacking ideas or energy and needed something special to save, let's face it, their league.

Then something funny happened. A United side that's been all about control, slowly passing teams to death rediscovered some of their sparky, dangerous selves and threw off the shackles. A Cristiano Ronaldo who'd again looked half disinterested and who Jumpthefence had decided was better off out of Old Trafford, showed just why he's be missed with the sort of goal nobody else would have scored (just like his first). A boy wonder became a boy hero with the spunky finish of Kiko Macheda in injury-time. It's exactly the sort of win that United needed for a bit of life, confidence and momentum and with Scholes, Rooney, Vidic and Ferdinancd likely back for Saturday, they might not be as there for the taking again. Too early for calling it, but United might have taken a large step to number 18.

2 The order of things in the hurling world
You can be sure there was some chuckling around the country - and not just outside Cork either - when the result Kilkenny 4-26 Cork 0-11 was heard yesterday evening. Jumpthefence isn't sure a Cork hurler actually said it, but there have certainly been inferences in the past few months that the last few All-Irelands mightn't have headed to Brian Cody's men if a different man was in charge down leeside. There's something distasteful and a little blind about that mentality, when Kilkenny have pretty well broken the mould with the generation of players they've got now.

They outwork, outplay, outfield and overpower opponents. They're relentless in blocking and harassing and they're clinical and ruthless in taking chances. There's noone who could have lived with them this past three seasons and it doesn't look like there's anyone who will for another three at least - blips in form and one-off shocks are always possible. For Cork, they'll need some serious kick if they're to write a happy ending to their story.

Other bits and bobs:
Wolfsburg's famous win - including a crazy goal - over Bayern here
Martin Samuel on the importance of invincibility
Ciaran Cronin in tribune on Trap's feat in Italy
And Eamonn Sweeney says what we're all thinking about the rte football panel

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trap shows what the fuss is about

Ah that's better. As if to illustrate the pointlessness and futility of predicting the pattern of a football game, Ireland contrived to turn the world on its head in Bari last night, coming away with a fully deserved 1-1 draw that just might have turned into a famous win with a slice of luck late on. After an early sending off and goal for Italy, it was the Irish who showed all the ambition and football through the 90 minutes and were full value for their draw in the end.

On his homecoming, it was justification for a manager whose methods have been doubted plenty in these parts. Trapattoni showed all the tactical awareness you'd expect from a man of his experience; he hasn't had a better night on the sideline for Ireland. Starting Andy Keogh was a gamble that backfired but he was brave enough to whip him off after 20 minutes, throw another body up front and give Robbie Keane a free role. Trap recognised the lack of ambition from an Italian side a goal up and a man down and reacted instantly. Later, Noel Hunt's intro for a tired Doyle sparked a life into Ireland's attack, and Darron Gibson gave a crispness to passing. John O'Shea went right-back to give more cut than Paul McShane.

All his switches worked as intended, Caleb Folan's sheer power eventually wreaked enough havoc for an equaliser (and nearly a winner). The lads on rte (seriously boys, have a bit of class, intelligence and positivity in recognising what happened last night rather than being obnoxious and ignorant) suggested Trap was chancing his arm when in fact the man showed he knew exactly what he trying to achieve. He had the balls and gumption to recognise the Italians were in defensive mode and change the mentality of the Irish side to go for it. That Robbie Keane eventually notched what was required only gave Ireland (and Trapattoni) their just rewards.

Now there are qualifications to all this giddiness. Italy completely handed Ireland all initiative, territory and possession pretty much for free. When they nicked the opener, it would have been perfectly natural for the Italians to sit very deep, soak up pressure and look for a 1-0 from there. It gave the Irish midfield and full-backs full permission to get on as much ball as they wanted. We may have lacked some guile and creativity in banging away at the door for so long - and again rte, Cannavaro and Chiellini's excellence were huge reasons for lack of chances, saying Cannavaro was poor is just plain wrong - but we kept plugging away with a belief when other sides may have thrown their hat at it. We showed a bit about ourselves when we needed to pull that out. Stephen Hunt had his best game for Ireland. Whelan and Andrews were positive and dynamic. It was heartening stuff.

From here, well it'd be crazy to expect Ireland to go to a dangerous Bulgaria in some sort of gung-ho, all-out pushing men forward mode. Expect Trapattoni to set us up in whatever way the game needs. We've now shown we can develop and change the system to suit. Onwards and upwards with confidence, if not delusionary ideas of anything being easy just cos we held the world champs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Trap's return

Back in the summer of 2004, Jumpthefence gathered round a tv set in a small cafe in the Italian town of Levanto with about 50 Italians. The Azzurri were playing Sweden in Euro 04 and for 50 minutes or so, hockeyed them off the pitch with some wonderful attacking flair - for those who'd suggest Trapattoni's ALWAYS negative, well he merged Del Piero, Vieri and Cassano that night with Perrotta breaking from midfield, Pirlo creating and two full-backs marauding for an hour. However his Italian side retreated further and further back on a 1-0 lead as the game progressed and gave up a late equaliser. Trapattoni got dog's abuse that night (as did Vieri) as the locals blamed his lack of killer instinct and tendency towards safety. Lessons to be learnt for us? Apart from the obvious, Trap might just have a point to prove going home.

Can we get something tonight? History and form suggest no. We've a horrendous record on the road in competitive games - everyone knows by now it's 1987 since we beat anyone even half-decent. Italy haven't lost at home for a hell of a time. They're top of the group and while we're second, we're coming off a really poor performance and to call the midfield makeshift would be understating matters.

There's a possibility of a thumping if Italy hit the ground running and decide to play with a high tempo. Zambrotta and Grosso will need serious watching and Hunt and Keogh may not just have the head or the legs. Pirlo can't get the type of room Petrov did on Saturday night or he'll run the show effortlessly - this must be the job of a striker to get tight cos Whelan and Andrews sit too deep to push up. Our four in midfield really is a championship combo rather than an international one and there must be a fear that they'll be shown up tonight. We'll not keep ball for very long very often and there's an inherent danger in inviting waves of Italian pressure over and over.
It appears Lippi's going with the nippiness of Rossi and Pazzini up front rather than the heft of Iaquinta, which makes sense to trouble O'Shea and Dunne. We may get pulled apart if we're not organised, disciplined and concentrated.

Reasons to be hopeful? Ammm. It's unlikely overambition or getting too many men ahead of the ball will cost us. We've got a big performance in us on these occasions every now and then - think Paris or Amsterdam. We may dig in for the night, park the bus and frustrate Italy with a bit of luck. Italy are prone to bouts of overconfidence at times. You better believe we're going to need both a huge defensive display and a disappointing Italian one to get anything from tonight.

It's possible of course. But if Jumpthefence were a betting man, we'd wager on very little possession for green shirts, scrappiness being the default and something in the line of a hard-fought 1-0/2-0 win for the Italians, depending on their mood and form. We'll be game but there are too many limitations, especially in the midfield, to expect much more.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Questions, not answers - Ireland 1 Bulgaria 1

So the argument continues. After another unconvincing performance from Ireland ended in some dropped points at Croke Park Saturday night, we again find ourselves in the strange yet familiar situation of being terribly unsure whether the good is outweighing the bad here or vice versa. More questions than answers from Ireland's 1-1 draw with Bulgaria Saturday night, more doubts raised than dispelled and plenty of fodder for both sides from the Trap argument.

Well, where do you stand? Are we spoilt, hard to please brats for demanding a little more than being seven points clear in second place halfway through the group? Does Trap wonder where we get these ideas about ourselves - asking for flamboyance and flair from a side who've struggled far worse than this in previous campaigns and who basically are damn ordinary all told? Are we simply unable to pass the ball decently or are we being discouraged from doing so? Is the manager getting the most from an average side by being solid, defensive, bland and trying to nick goals or is he holding us back from the swashbuckling, all-action romping we're more attuned to (spot the sarcasm)?

You want more queries? How can we have any sort of control over possession, the tempo and rhythm of a game and the ball when our central midfield is incapable of passing, getting on ball and such basics? Is Trap really all that fussed by that lack of ball? Can anyone explain the meaning of Paul McShane? Is there a more headless, technically incompetent international footballer than Stephen Hunt? Are we overachieving, underachieving or rightly achieving? Is Eamon Dunphy right for once? Would Andy Reid or Lee Carsley make a difference? Does Stephen Ireland want to make a difference (and is it any fault of the management if he doesn't?)?

See how confusing it all is. Even Jumpthefence ain't all that sure which side he comes down on. All we know is that Saturday night's performance was jaw-droppingly, cringeworthingly, watch-through-your-fingers awful. We notched a goal within a minute and dropped everyone behind the ball. Bulgaria could hardly believe the ball they were given, pushed four men high up the pitch quite a lot, sent their full-backs forward and squeezed us into our own half. They weren't exactly whipping through us, but they had so much possession, Bulgaria couldn't but create chances. Given stopped a couple and the away side ought have taken at least one. Ireland simply could't - or didn't particularly want to - keep the ball.

Our central midfield tackles a little, harries, fills space and makes an obstacle in front of our defence. It doesn't, isn't capable technically, and isn't really meant to, look for ball, keep possession or influence the flow of play - boy how we miss Stephen Reid more than Andy. That puts serious pressure on our wingers and forwards to deliver when they get ball. Stephen Hunt sent in a wonderful free-kick and then went on to show just why he's not a good starter for us. Aiden McGeady was off-form and lacking sharpness. Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle hardly got a kick first half - though Doyle was excellent in the second winning ball in the air he'd no right to.

In our system we cry out for ball-playing full-backs. Paul McShane is so short on confidence and plain ability that he literally waved ball away from his direction during the game; he didn't want it. Kevin Kilbane offers nothing going forward and looked like being exploited again and again by the Bulgarians. Add all these problems up and there's a pattern. We'll spend more time than not without the ball, defending, organising and being ugly. John O'Shea and Richard Dunne were rocks and will always need to be, along with Shay Given. It's hardly rocket science; the less technically proficient sides will need to defend more. We might never like the idea but our manager doesn't trust our ablity to control the flow of a game or take off the leash and go all out at an opponent.

Ireland did have a bit more energy and attacking intent second half but conceded a goal at a time Bulgaria looked least like scoring one. Robbie Keane had a couple of half-chances and Kevin Doyle a full one but couldn't grab what would have been a stolen winner. It felt like a chance missed and a couple of points dropped and yet it felt like a performance like that didn't deserve a win. We're still seven points clear but if we get nothing in Bari and Bulgaria beat Cyprus at home on Wednesday, they'll know a win in Sofia would leave it at one point and them having a game in hand. This'll be a dogfight yet. Our saving grace is that's just what we're set up for.

Read Tom Humphries and Vincent Hogan's ideas here.

Back with Preview for Italy Wednesday.

Ps - to the eegits who booed at the final whistle. It was shocking yet not surprising. I'd spent two hours listening to a fair amount of, let's be honest, uneducated, badly-informed, waffle from a bunch of people near me in the Davin Stand who had little interest in anything but abusing the ref, moaning at the players and bringing the worst of English football-fan tradition to the experience. We're not Argentina. Please don't make this a consistent thing, it's not x-factor you're watching.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Huge week for Irish soccer

Jumpthefence has a nagging sense of deja vu. It seems we go into nearly every Irish soccer game these days with the old 'Well we'll know a lot more about ourselves after this game' attitude. Usually, after some mishmashy draw or scrambled win, we emerge none the wiser. The popular theory is that this four days will tell us plenty about the Trap gameplan and its possibilities with this group of players and there is something defining about Bulgaria at home/ Italy away in a week. Six points equals heaven. Four points would be wonderful. Three points would be decent. Two wouldn't be halfbad. Anything less would be pretty poor. We'll see.

The thing is that Trap hasn't everyone convinced; sure, everybody wants to believe in the genial Italian but we've been bitten before and we're a little shy about caring too much (remember the early bonhomie of the Kerr era, which began to fall apart a half-hour into a home game we ought have won, gulp). The full-glass among us point to a solid (mostly) defence, a good spirit and workrate, a definite plan for the first time in yonks and a string of excellent results. The less positive will say he's been lucky with results, has failed to woo our biggest talent, failed to integrate another and has instilled a dodgy fourth-string midfield base as his spine.

Jumpthefence is in the former camp for now, trusting, much like James Lawton in today's Indo, that Trapattoni has a bit more knowledge in putting together an international side than most.He's got that stubborn streak/ belief that he's doing the correct thing by not turning up at Stevie Ireland's doorstep with flowers every evening or upsetting the balance of his side by trying to force Andy Reid's passing in. Aragones did it in euro 08 by omitting Fabregas and whipping Torres off. Benitez has done in at Liverpool, Capello with England. Trusting their instincts, and who are we to argue with them? We'd like to see Andy Reid in the squad at least as an option - it's another kick in the teeth to see Anthony Stokes called up now. He'd give us some quality in attacking areas, treading little passes through for Doyle/ Keane and perhaps add something from setpieces. But we wouldn't start him in a midfield two with two wingers outside him; Reid simply wouldn't have the legs and we'd be overrun. So it's the system he's competing with, or a place on the left/right side of midfield (or even as part of a five-man midfield) rather than Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan.

The side will stay mostly the same for Bulgaria. It seems Paul McShane will ease in at right-back to replace Stephen Kelly, probably the right call. Whelan-Andrews will start in midfield. Stephen Hunt's ability to use his energy starting a game will be tested in place of Damien Duff.

Bulgaria are clearly lacking some key players in attack - Berbatov, Boijinov, Domovchiyski - which might drain their already low confidence further. But they've a new manager which tends to raise a side's energy levels, Stilian Petrov and Angelov are a decent midfield pairing, and Georgiev and Popov are threats to Shay Given. They'll likely throw an extra body in midfield which might just swing the possession stakes their direction, something Jumpthefence is beginning to think Il Trap isn't awfully bothered about.

There's a lot of similarities between Trapattoni's thinking and Benitez's at Pool. Trapattoni's first thoughts - fair enough, we're not blessed with serious technical skills like a Spain or Croatia - are to be set up solidly, to make it difficult for opponents to score and then try and nick goals here and there from certain positions. Thing is, we've a record of coughing up sloppy goals and we don't have a Gerrard or Torres up front.

For tomorrow, we're thinking Bulgaria are surely fragile (Ireland going ahead would probably kill them), but might have enough fight and pride to dig in for a scrap. Ireland lack a bit of creativity. It could well be a Liverpool-like struggle to break a side down and end something like 0-0 (we hope not, we're heading up tomorrow morning). Hey, we won't argue with the consenses - this (should) go a long way to telling us more about this era.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Beginning of a dream or disaster?

For us football fans of a certain vintage, the name Diego Maradona conjures up some depths of emotion, some awesome images from the past. He was a king to a generation of fans who can recall instantly a highlights reel of flicks, assists, goals and controversies that the top ten players in the world today combined would struggle to match.

Imagine then what it must be like for a crop of Argentine footballers aged 20-35, guys who either grew up adoring the man or idolising the myth, to suddenly find themselves getting hugged, kissed and mostly led by this great little magician. Imagine the feeling that Roy Keane fizzed through Irish football supporters, multiply that by ten and then get rid of the 50% who never warmed to him. Maradona was/ is a religion in Argentina, a God; that's why this management role can only end in extremes, either a crazy, World Cup winning success or total , abominable failure. It won't be boring.

Maradona's competitive action begins this weekend and interest, predictably, in the country is mindblowing - read Marcela Mora y Araujo's piece in the Guardian here. Early signs have been encouraging, a nice flow in wins over Scotland and France. He's got a savage coaching staff while he ought to inspire passion and performances and a certain style, at least early doors. Tevez has been showing well with Messi and Aguero likely to be flitting around up front as well - those three would cause problems for any defence. But there have to be question marks over sections of the side. We saw how weak Heinze and Gago can be with Real Madrid and mad as it seems for an Argentinian side (them being the inventors of the position in many ways), there's no real playmaker in midfield.

Jumpthefence feels that Maradona would need a decent start here, surf the feelgood factor in the country with some wins and sparkle. Any sort of gloominess or negativity or doubt creeping in from his congregation might just be beyond the great man's talents to overcome. We hope with our nostalgic heart that he comes up trumps, imagining the youngsters of today only knowing the genius as a failed manager would be far too hard to take. Tune in with interest.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dunne the hard way

It wasn't just the Irish rugby team who went nuclear on Saturday. After a few years of threatening both potential excellence and mediocrity, Bernard Dunne became a bonafide world champ in a cracking scrap with Ricardo Cordoba in the O2 arena. We said here Friday we'd little enough faith in the man as a boxer but he came up with the shots when he needed them sure enough, stopping Cordoba with a blistering combo of hits in the eleventh round.

He needed it too. Cos for long spells of a thriller, Cordoba edged it. Dunne looked lively early on and knocked the Panamanian in the third round but Cordoba had a class and ease of movement that allowed him take control and get hits in without getting hit himself. He pummelled Dunne in the fifth, had the Dubliner on the canvas twice and on the edge of being stopped; in truth, another ten seconds in round five and the ref was stepping in with Dunne on the ropes and unable to fight back.

But Dunne hung on, settled and though Cordoba looked a tad sharper, he was still throwing punches in the second last round. Dunne - four rounds behind on the judges scorecards it emerged afterwards (and boy was Jumpthefence glad that fact came out, cos listening to the bias of Jimmy McGee and Dave McAuley, you'd think the Irishman was in total control - is there any chance RTE could get someone without the green blinkers to analyse a fight as it's going on, maybe have Mick Dowling ringside for some proper information?) - needed something and he delivered big time. A couple of decent smacks landed on Cordoba and the legs buckled. The champ was brave and got up a couple of times but the jig was up well before the ref stopped things.

Dunne had proven a bit of heart can go a long way. He'd gotten up off the canvas to win; something he needed after Martinez. He'd shown some punching power himself to stop a serious fighter. It's the r word again - no, not recession, redemption. Onwards and upwards, it'll be interesting to see what Dunne does from here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The sweetest redemption song

This is what redemption feels like. Pretty damn sweet. After the tensest of occasions in Cardiff on Saturday evening, this Irish rugby team finally, and with the nerve and bottle of a group of winners, fulfilled a sense of destiny by picking up a championship and Grand Slam. It took all of their belief, all their cunning and all their heart to eek out two tries when they needed them, work a drop-goal at the death and then a dash of luck to see Stephen Jones's kick drop a foot short. On such inches are grand slam hopes reliant but Declan Kidney's men deserved that stroke.

Oh there were more superheroes than a comic-con convention. Paul O'Connell redefined leadership with steal after steal at lineouts, with drive upon drive and tackle after tackle in the loose. Brian O'Driscoll put in the sort of shift that's expected now, stealing ball he's no right to, making tackles he doesn't have to and adding another try (shame on Jumpthefence for doubting the man pre-season). And Ronan O'Gara showed balls to come up with that kick when he'd been put through the mill by Welsh runners and had looked half-knackered for long spells. As we said, earlier, this was redemption of the greatest sort.

The game itself was typical of modern rugby - lots of collisions, lots of running into one another, little enough linebreaks or offloading - but it was no less breathtaking for that. Jumpthefence has never seen a more intensely contested game, where every single lineout, scrum and run/ tackle was a possibility of losing possession, where a turnover could be forced in any situation and there wasn't handy ball to be had.

Ireland fronted up to Wales with savage workrate, tackled them high up the field and dominated field position. Wales rarely made a break or looked a danger getting in for a try, it's just that it took till the second half before Ireland got any sort of penetration into their play themselves. Brian O'Driscoll forced a try by about a millimetre. Tommy Bowe charged onto an O'Gara dink. Then Ireland seemed to choke a little on the thought of the grand slam, making silly mistakes and decisions for a spell that allowed Wales take the lead again through a few Stephen Jones penalties. Jeez, the dreams looked iffy at two points down with five minutes left.

The clicking into gear after that was, well, defining, and it spoke of an inner calm, belief and bloodymindedness that hasn't always been in this side. Ireland worked the ball up the field - helped by an awful Jones error kicking a ball out on the full - and presented a chance for O'Gara. He landed it without shrinking, when a lesser man may have had shaky legs. Still there was time for that last-gasp penalty when time seemed to stop for a minute and the real possibility of the most shattering of losses flashed before this Irish team's eyes. Inches saved them. Inches they'd earned.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Things we'll be clearer about come Monday...

1 Ireland's place in rugby terms
It's all been great fun this six nations, all cheery goodwill and feelgood backslapping. Yet lose in Wales tomorrow and it could all turn nasty damn quickly, the chokers tag will be dragged out and the doom and gloom will seep back in. This Ireland group have underachieved for the hype and garlands that've fallen their way - no grand slam, no championships, awful world cups - and there's a feeling that they need this achievement to make their legacy a decent one. O'Driscoll/ O'Connell/ O'Gara are the leaders of this group and much as they'll dismiss the expectation, they'll know this to be the case.
It's a test as well. Wales will be up for this and on their evening can swing the ball around with serious gusto and rhythm. They'll punch holes if they're let and have tries in them. But they've not had the same fluency this season as last and might come unstuck if Ireland slow things down and make it a scrappy affair. Jumpthefence has a feeling one of these teams will open up and win by +15 points with a feed of tries. We're just not sure which one.

2 Bernard Dunne's steps to greatness
Ah, we're a bit of a sceptic on Dunne, we'll come straight out. He's not mixed it up in anything like the circles that Ricardo Cordoba has and we've been fed too much bull about his world-class status after he's polished off yet another no-hoper. His chin was shown as suspect by Martinez, and though he's quick and skilful and techically excellent, he's not got the power to knock anyone decent either. Cordoba's a real fighter, with serious class, great hands and speed, and there's a possibility Dunne could be brought to school Saturday night. Unlikely to be a knockout either way (unless Cordoba wears Dunne out) but I'd say a points win for Cordoba, as long as he keeps his nerve and heart.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rough ride to slam

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. This is Ireland's crawling, game-by-game, inching towards the Grand Slam. There's been no handy win, hell there's hardly been a handy point coughed up to Brian O'Driscoll's men. The standard mightn't be wonderful but Ireland have shown they can win any which way under Declan Kidney, a variety they perhaps never possessed under steady Eddie. It's been Munsterlike, the hanging in and eventual wearing down of teams - the mentality that means belief hasn't suffered in some tricky spots. Murrayfield on Saturday was another problem to be solved and to Ireland's credit, they did figure out how.

France came at Ireland with flair and running and angles but we spunked up three wonder tries ourselves. Italy fronted up as always with physicality but Ireland wore them down with phases and a few classy moments. England defended and defended but Ireland got through and defended gallantly themselves. Scotland brought a mad intensity and discipline and Ireland matched it second half. Hey, it's hardly the best championship for ages - everyone has too many faults and it's too erratic for that (come on, France wallop Wales and then get lollipopped by England?). But it's been dour and competitive and we'd bet that many an Irish squad of recent times would have lost at least once this season already.

Now it looks like a championship has been achieved at last by this group of players (the golden generation remember). A grand slam is in their hands even though the Wales game this weekend will be unpredictable; Jumpthefence can see a decent win for one or other side. It'd be a fillip for a generally underachieving group of players.(Though take note Mal Clerkin in the Trib - not every person in Ireland aches deeply about Irish rugby, I know heaps of absolute sportsnuts who couldn't give a damn about rugby. And please don't bleat on with this lifting us in a recession bull, a minority team winning a pretty poor six-team championship doesn't compare to Italia 90.)

But, seriously now, we're not taking away from this imminent achievement. Kidney's got something about him that lifts a side and makes them purposeful, businesslike and devoid of panic. This team needed just that. For the likes of Brian O'Driscoll (we admit, we may have got him wrong pre-season) and Paul O'Connell, it'd go someway to giving them what they deserve.

The title's awake - Pool thump United

Well that’s what happens when all the chickens come home to roost in one day. This United side had been getting away with some average enough form for a time, been making mistakes but dodging the bullets. Not Saturday lunchtime though, not when Liverpool came to town and notched an astounding kind of win on the craziest kind of day.

Suddenly Vidic was mortal again (though there’d been signs of unease as recently as Wednesday v Inter), Evra’s poor form since his injury was exposed and John O’Shea couldn’t get away with being a fill-in. Michael Carrick’s excellence was possibly shown up as being misleading. Cristiano Ronaldo’s general disinterest was now a problem. Tevez’s lack of killer instinct was serious. And all thoughts of this United somehow being unbeatable were blown to pieces quicker than Ireland’s notions of being a real economy.

Look, Liverpool will bask in this glow for a time and rightly so – a 4-1 thrashing at Old Trafford really hurt United – but these were strange circumstances. United made a seasonload of mistakes and all were punished. All their big players failed to perform on the same day. Liverpool weren’t even that great, they never outpassed or outplayed United, but they were solid, made much fewer mistakes, were more sure of themselves, and in Gerrard and Torres, their matchwinners did just that. At 1-2 with fifteen minutes to go and United having created a few half-chances (Rooney’s volley that Tevez just missed, Tevez’s snatched shot when he was probably offside), you’d have bet your life on a late barrage from the champions and at least a couple of chances to equalise. Then Vidic’s second moment of madness and a wonderful Aurelio free-kick ended the match. Dossena’s strike in injury-time was simply the cherry on top for Pool.

Not that there’s any getting away from how awfully poor United were. No tempo. No direction or purpose. No control midfield from an impotent Carrick and a lacking-in-form Anderson. Rooney and Tevez had workrate but little oomph. The complex psychology of Liverpool needing to win and knowing that while United didn’t have that desperate will.

Will this thumping impact on the title chase? It very well could – United will surely self-doubt for a spell, Pool will have to be energised. It was another let-down from Ronaldo on a game he was badly needed. The United midfield might now be a genuine worry against the top teams. Dunphy/Giles would surely have latched onto Scholes not starting but the great man just may not have the legs for a side as dynamic and hardworking as Liverpool. The scousers now have a momentum and more confidence than Bono at an I-love-Bono convention. Game on, as they like to say.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A bigger test for Irish rugby

Two years ago Jumpthefence sat in an Irish bar in Florence (the Fiddlers Elbow if you must know) with a large mish-mash of holidaying Irish and English rugby supporters for the famous Ireland-England Croker game. A group of Irish asked for hush for the national anthems, more out of curiosity than patriotism. The match itself seemed an after-thought. There was a gimmicky feeling about the whole experience, as we patted ourselves on the back for being so mature, all the while painfully explaining to the English just why it was our maturity was impressive.

Looking back now, two feelings remain. We made a bit of an embarrassing show about something that wasn't that big a deal really, or at least not for the reasons we touted. Mainly, that England were crap - who remembers Morgan,Strettle, Freshwater, Chuter, Deacon, Lund? Andy Farrell played for God's sake, and guys like Lewsey, Wilkinson, Grewcock, were shadows of the World Cup winners. Now we're not taking away from an undeniably passionate and emotional experience for many, and what was a blockbusting Irish performance. But some perspective is needed. We won nothing that season. The display against France a few weeks ago was far superior, because it came under real pressure, and it came against a worthy opponent.

This weekend's game is probably more important than two seasons ago, taken dispassionately. Ireland are taking steps towards a championship win, a Grand Slam possibility, and that's where we'll find out a lot about this group. We won't go into the ins and outs of the teams or what type of game it'll be, only to say that Ireland are the better side, no doubt about that. Even Stephen Jones made an admission of error about Ronan O'Gara this week as the fly-half plays his 90th test game. Ireland are more powerful, more creative and should be more confident.

But there was signs of a resurgence in England in Wales a fortnight ago. Toby Flood offers more than Andy Goode at ten. Martin Johnson really won't fancy coming to Ireland and rolling over, it just wouldn't be the style of a team of his, so they'll be fired up and dangerous. England to put it up to Ireland I'd reckon, but Ireland's class and ability to get scores to pull them through in the end. It's unlikely to be a thirty-point game though.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

English clubs well in control

If there's been any lesson in this week's Champions League ties, and Jumpthefence knows it's sometimes rash to rush judgement on the evidence of one round of games (a few silly mistakes in a fortnight and we'll be watching a what's-wrong-with-English-football discussion), it's that the Premier League really is head and shoulders above everything else right now. And perhaps more relevant, the story is one of the mediocrity of some of the great clubs around Europe, something we'll get back to another time.

For now, Liverpool and Chelsea won't mind and added themselves to United and Arsenal from the previous night to the list of jobs well done. All four English sides found themselves somewhere between dominant and comfortable this week against some of the top sides in European football, which can't be a bad week's work. Last night, Liverpool did what Liverpool do (just like predicted here yesterday). They strangled the life out of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, frustrated them with workrate, solidity and men behind the ball, and pressed them into mistake after mistake. They got the bonus of nicking a goal from Yossi Benayoun as well, and even though Liverpool never needed to play particularly well or strung too much possession together, Real were horribly lacking in any sort of fluency, creativity or ideas. They were shockingly average in truth, throughout the field, and Arjen Robben was the only one who fleetingly looked like producing some magic.

Liverpool, as the lads on RTE said afterwards, gave a typical Pool performance, and will play just the same as that against Middlesbrough and Sunderland next week in the league. The problem for them is that when they need some ambition and are given the ball by worse sides, they simply don't know what to do with all the possession. Dunphy (and didn't he look proud as punch at apparently calling it right on Real, when any decent football head knows how average the Spanish side are these days) made a decent point about Benitez being a system manager rather than having belief in the players, but then ruined it by comparing him to Trapattoni. The difference here is that Trap is limited with the players at his disposal and so has found a system to get the best results with an average group. Benitez has gone out and bought all these players he's working with. Anyway, Pool should go through now, though they could get nervy at Anfield if Real keep it tight and put men behind the ball.

Chelsea didn't have it easy against Juve, but there are signs that the players are playing for Hiddink (though the same happened early season with Scolari). Drogba looks interested again and is always a handful if so. Lampard is a pro anyway. Juve had their dangers in possession though and nearly grabbed a couple of goals though Del Piero and Nedved - Trezeguet snatched at a late chance as well. This isn't over, Juve are decent at home if they let off the shackles, but you'd wonder if they've got the belief to really go at Chelsea.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

United and Arsenal impressive but not clinical; Pool and Chelsea's turn

So, last night's ball first and though there weren't many goals, there was plenty to mull over. As predicted, Inter-United was goalless, though United were utterly dominant for large spells and really ought to have grabbed a goal or two at least to kill the tie. Arsenal were more like the Arsenal we expect, Roma were more like the Roma who tend to come to England and lack any sort of moral courage. Lyon had a real go at Barca and threatend to run them over at times, but Barca clung on and nicked an away goal. All these games have a meaningful second leg, something to savour.

At a rocking San Siro, the imperious United showed up. They kept the ball expertly, probed down both sides of the field and really tore Inter to shreds, especially first half, with their movement and technical abilities. Sometimes you step outside your usual zones to get the full picture and assessing the media of the european side does that. The Italian papers were full of praise for United's dominance and Carrick - who looks to be growing into a real midfielder of note - especially. He was at the hub of everything and used the ball brilliantly. Fletcher took responsibility for the hounding and ballwinning. Ronaldo was a serious threat everytime he got on the ball - two headers, a couple of freekicks, two lovely crosses that created chances - and was unlucky not to have a goal by the end.

RTE'S analysis was again disappointing. They spent most the night talking about the decision not to play Rooney, Tevez or Scholes when some plain research, knowledge and reasoning would have told them some facts. Tevez was never going to start. Scholes was very unlikely to start, with Ferguson not quite trusting his legs away from home in the big games - remember he's been badly exposed at Chelsea, Liverpool and other games this season. Rooney's only just back from a long lay-off so is rusty. We noted here yesterday that the midfield would be Carrick/Fletcher/Giggs/Park and though we half-expected Berbatov to be sacrificed, that it was Rooney was understandable. RTE also neglected to mention that this three-man midfield system was responsible for United's dominance, that they always had an extra man in there to pop the ball to and keep possession while Inter chased shadows. United's only fault was not getting a lead, though we expect this composed performance to be rewarded at Old Trafford.

At the Emirates, from the highlights, it seems Arsenal were totally in charge themselves. Roma again came away from home and went into their shells, Totti was anonymous. Arsenal looked slick and sharp but might rue the missed chances - especially that man Eboue, who decided to take 10 seconds to try and walk the ball into the net instead of taking it first time like any normal footballer would have. Bendtner also, rather unbelievably, looks a man short of confidence in front of goal.

Barcelona got a fair whipping in a humdinger of a first half in Lyon, a wicked Juninho free-kick catching Valdes out early on and Benzema caused fierce problems with his power and running. Lyon missed at least two great chances to get a second, but quality like Barca were always going to push on. In the end, Henry nodded in a corner for an equaliser and it seems that they settled for a draw from there on. Idealism would suggest that maybe Barca/ Man Utd could have gone for the jugular and away wins; realism would suggest that away draws at decent, if not wonderful, top European sides are not to be sniffed at.

Tonight's action
If Jose v Fergie was last night's selling point, then Rafa going to Madrid is tonight's off-the-field story (see Sid Lowe's portrait of a Madridista at heart). Real are in decent form in La Liga, thumping Betis 6-1 at the weekend and have been rejuvenated by Juande Ramos. They're reliant on an unreliable in Arjen Robben though, and for all the qualities of Gago and Higuain, they're ordinary enough in lots of positions, lack real pace, have a lot of guys low on confidence and Raul is an imitation of the Raul of six or seven years ago. I'd expect Pool to dig in, make it pretty stop-start, press Real in possession and try to force mistakes. This is really hard to call, cos Pool are in horrid form but it's the sort of game that might suit them. Maybe a 0-0 or 1-0 here either way.

It's hard to know how good Juve can be when they're a shot behind such an average Inter side in Serie A and they're still calling on names like Nedved, Del Piero and the continually overrated Trezeguet/Camoranesi for inspiration. But there's a bit of pace and energy about them when the mood takes them - they've ripped apart Milan and Real this season already - and if the youngsters in the group get a run, they could be awkward. Chelsea, if Hiddink can work his magic, might be too strong though. Maybe a 2-0 for the home side here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Champions League gets "interesting"

When the draw for the first knockout round for the Champs Lge was made back in December we licked our lips in anticipation of some spellbinding ties. Form lines may have flipflopped since then - look at the ups and downs Real and Liverpool have encountered for one example - and some of the sheen may have gone off the initial buzz, but there's a serious amount of interesting football to be played in the next couple of weeks. We use the word interesting deliberately - these games almost certainly won't be crackers of the 4-3, all-out attack variety, but for anyone who enjoys their tactical match-ups and spends nights wondering about the pluses and minuses of the 4-2-3-1 against the 4-3-3, this could well be tactical porn.
So let's have a peek at the different fascinations...

Inter v Man Utd
Jose v Fergie both tickles the immediate senses and lingers as a real issue here. Mourinho WILL have his team both set up perfectly tactically and up for this mentally, they'll believe they have the beating of the European champions, something they never really did under Mancini beforehand. He'll most likely sit pretty deep even at home and hope to draw United out, leaving very little room for the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo to get on ball or run at defences. The full-backs, Maicon and Santon, will bomb forward if given opportunities though and of course, Ibrahimavic will look to step out of the big-man-for-small-occasion box media like to put him into (much like Francesco Totti's rep around European football). Inter have some decent ballplayers in midfield - Muntari, Cambiasso, Stankovic - though they lack a bit of legs perhaps.

Ferguson might well, depending on having Evans/ O'Shea to call on, go for three central midfielders in Carrick/ Fletcher/ Giggs with Park and Rooney supporting Ronaldo up top, sacrificing Berbatov's presence and Tevez's energy for an extra body and more control away from Old Trafford. I can't imagine either team killing themselves going all out for goals here or the game being anyway open or end-to-end. Inter have played 12 league games at home - they've had four 1-0s, four 2-1s and three 0-0/1-1 draws. United aren't conceding or scoring an awful lot.
Expect a stalemate 0-0,a 1-1 (I'm inclinced to think it may be similar to Lyon-Man Utd last season with United grabbing a lateish equaliser) or maybe a 1-0 either way. It won't be pulsating or edge of the seat but it will be tense and interesting, more The Sopranos than Lost if you will.

If you like passing football, you'll love this. Roma started off the season in pathetically poor form but have been quite brilliant recently, thumping goals, spraying the ball around with pacy, one-touch, attacking brio, all flowing moves and interchanging positions under Luciano Spalletti. They're easy on the eye, no doubt, with Perrotta and Totti (if fit) supporting Mirko Vucinic and Daniele De Rossi, Aquilani patrolling midfield - they'll line out in some form of 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1 depending on personnel. Arsenal, we all know at this stage, like to pass the ball but have had as much penetration as a lonely old spinster in recent times. Arshavin is cup-tied so matchwinning deeds need to come from Van Persie and Nasri. There'll be plenty neat, pretty triangles from both teams, but if Roma come with some real cutting and can shrug off their horrible form against Man Utd of the past couple of seasons, they'll cause problems. We'll go with a draw perhaps.

Elsewhere, we've got the form team in Europe - well, until Saturday evening - in Barcelona, visiting Lyon, who might well be past their best at this level by a year or two. Lyon were the thinking guy's favourites there for a time - the team the guy who was trying to be clever down the pub always referred to as ones to watch - but they never really convinced against the genuine top sides. They'll give Barca a fright or two alright, but Messi and co ought have too much in the end.
We'll be back tomorrow with some reaction and preview of tomorrow's games.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Something for the weekend

Questions to be answered
1 Are Villa a real threat to the big four (or even the title)?Well there's probably not much doubt about the first question but even Alex Ferguson hinted this week that the sub-text is still a possibility. Sure they've been stumbling over the line in games recentlty, their thinnish squad looking a tad tired, grabbing undeserved late goals and such like, but then that's the sign of a maturing side with a winning mentality as well. They've had three draws with the top sides at home this season but could do with a thumping win to emphasise Martin O'Neill's side as real contenders. Chelsea under Guus Hiddink ought to be well-organised and could lift themselves a little over the lethargic, uninterested performances of the season so far. They'll hardly make up for some lack of legs midfield, lack of quality out wide and lack of heart up front though. If Villa have a kick in them and Young, Barry and Agbonlahor have some form left, they could be winners here.

2 Who's the top club hurling side in the land?
Ah, a game for the connoisseurs. The two pre-eminent sides of this generation, the winners of the last three All-Irelands between them, Ballyhale Shamrocks and Portumna clash for the first time. The Kilkenny side have Cha Fitzpatrick, the Reids, Michael Fennelly and of course Henry Shefflin. Portumna have the Cannings, amongst them young Joe, a hurler Jumpthefence hasn't seen the like of before. There ought to be sparks and scores from all distances and angles. We wouldn't be shocked by any feats of brilliance that wandered from the hurls of some of those present in Thurles on Sunday. There shouldn't be a whole pile between them in the end either. Tune in, for god's sake.

- On the opposite end of the scale, Jumpthefence would issue a health warning to anyone watching Drom/ Broadford v Crossmaglen in the football on Saturday. Ned English has put together an effective style of football down in Limerick and has some fine players - Jason Stokes, Micheal Reidy, Tom McLoughlin especially - but by golly, they'll hardly kick a ball away all day and will keep possession religiously. Crossmaglen don't tend to hoof too much ball into their forwards either and their workrate and experience of names like Bellew, McEntees, Kernans and McConville mean they'll give little away. Drom's last two games in Munster were 0-7/ 0-6 and 0-6/ 0-5. Cross have given away 1-4, 0-8 and 0-6 in their Ulster matches. Jesus it'll be hardfought, every score will be earned and there'll be handpassing galore. Not one for the purists.

Armstrong v Kimmage - soul of cycling

So Lance Armstrong has another troll to add to his list. Anyone who’s read Daniel Coyle’s excellent account of Armstrong’s 2004 Tour de France will know how paranoid the cyclist can be about people he feels are threatening to him in some way; he calls them all trolls. Paul Kimmage (who is actually a tad troll-like – sorry Paul!) confronted Armstrong at a press conference in the US earlier this week and it’s sparked the usual frenzy of Amstrong bashing/ loving and questions again about the authenticity of his wins and his comeback.

A few things first. Though we’re interested in the nuances of the world of doping in sport and have waded through many technical articles/ books on the subject, it’s not terribly exciting copy or conversation - for all the sports fans and writers who’ll lose sleep over a drugs cheat and forever know that the likes of Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds are tainted, there’ll be ten other genuine sporting people who couldn’t give a damn. Calling out Lance Armstrong as a cheat in the cycling world is like lecturing someone for being drunk in any bar in Dublin on a Saturday night. Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich, Pantani, Landis are just some of the better-known names that’ve been either found guilty or heavily linked of doping. Cycling is/ was (depending on your point of view – and Jumpthefence reckons it’s getting cleaner slowly) a world where a cartel of drug use went on, a cosy little arrangement where it wasn’t talked about but it was expected of pretty much everyone. That doesn’t make it any more right though.

Pardon us then for being a little wary of comebacks and feelgood stories. David Millar has renounced the world he was in and come back all the better for it. But Armstrong can’t really get all cranky with questioning when he’s had serious links with doctors who’ve been proven to be dopers, with teams and cyclists where it’s been endemic, when soigneurs have claimed to have seen him taking, when L’Equipe have ran stories of his tests being positive for EPO use back as far as 1999. And his hugely-publicised brainchild of a relationship with Don Catlin, the foremost anti-doping researcher around, has been shattered as unworkable for some reason.

There’s a cheerleading posse of journalists around Armstrong of course, those who simply won’t question his integrity or who see his bravery at recovering from cancer and shy away from calling attention to anything darker in his life. There’s little doubt Armstrong is a remarkable athlete, a guy who pushed himself to the limit, who’s done plenty decent uplifting things and inspired a hell of a lot of cancer sufferers worldwide. But that doesn’t make him infallible. There’s been a very mixed response to the Kimmage questioning across the cycling forums and press, some have labelled Kimmage a twisted vindictive man who got his comeuppance from hero Lance, others see Armstrong as a liar who’s being exposed.

Paul Kimmage has taken on the mantle passed by David Walsh as questioner-in-chief. Kimmage has a rep as a cranky divil himself, a spiky confident chap who’s certainly not afraid to put the unmentionable question out there and see what mischief he can stir up. He sees himself as fighting the good fight - and though he can come across as bitter and a little obsessed at times, for the most part, he’s doing a worthy cause, being a good journalist and asking the right questions. (The cancer remark he made in an interview on Armstrong’s comeback was unfortunate and in bad taste rightly enough.)

Jumpthefence would like nothing more than to believe in Lance Armstrong. But when you’ve been stung many times (thanks Floyd Landis!), all the promises and denials in the world tend to mean squat and you fall back on proof, on evidence and on facts. Sport needs heroes and feelgood but it needs truth. Now, in these times, perhaps we need truth and honestly and real questioning over blind faith, more than ever.

Have a look at their spat in part here
And ESPN's take on it here

Another Irish voice on Guardian pod

Jumpthefence notes with some worry that Ken Early of Newstalk's Off the Ball has been drafted in to replace James Richardson on the Guardian's football podcast this past week. It seems Richardson, Barry Glendenning and others are away on hols or something and for some reason they decided another Irish voice was necessary and sent for the Irish football correspondent across the water. Reaction has been poorish, Early's laid-back vocals perhaps not gelling right in the absence of the excitable Richardson.

The podcast can be sensationally entertaining at times - Sid Lowe from Spain (though his following on the blogs can be so lickarsey it's embarrassing) is solid and informative, Paul Doyle and Sean Ingle are likeably nerdy and other random contributors make a nice mix of funny yet intelligent views. Also we've been a fan of Offtheball on Newstalk, which is capable of some stunning radio. But Early bugs us - we know, we know, you either love him or hate him it seems. It's the voice and the pauses before each answer that seem to be fashioned for no other reason than to make him seem more intelligent. It's the drawling and searching for the right word to come across as knowing more than he does. He just tries too damn hard and we don't find it genuine. (Jumpthefence is more than willing to accept that many, more informed people would reason the opposite.) Anyways, we hope his appearance on the Guardian pod is a fill-in rather than a more long-term development.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

United slip into title mode

Some pertinent questions. Is this the beginning of the end for the title race? Can Liverpool haul in a five-point, likely to be eight-point before they play again, lead? Have United ever looked as comfortable? Will they ever concede a goal again? Is this the strongest United group of all time? How good was Paul Scholes last night? Some attempted answers. Probably. Unlikely. No. Maybe not. Squad-wise, yes. Very, very, very, awesome.

Fulham have made life awkward for Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this season but last night they were swept away pretty imperiously by a United who're just starting to click. Berbatov flitted into life and gives a wonderful fulcrum to attacks. Tevez scuttled around to effect. As Jonathan Wilson pointed out in the Guardian last week, the main reason they're so hard to score against is that they keep possession so well, their defence rarely comes under any sustained pressure. And Paul Scholes is the very personification of that philosophy.

There are murmerings this season that Scholes is less effective now than in the past, that he's vulnerable in a two-man midfield against younger, stronger legs, that he's not stamping himself on games like the Scholes of old, that he's unable for the bigger games (he was anonymous at both Anfield and Stamford Bridge earlier this season). Well last night he turned back the clocks. From the stunningly executed volley that may have needed a blip from the keeper but deserved a goal nonetheless to the way he shaped the tempo and rhythm of United's attacking with intelligence and awareness of space that no other player in the squad possesses, Scholes was sensational.

He strolled around midfield, always available for ball. He raked countless passes crossfield for Ronaldo, Park, O'Shea and Evra to attack the wings. He displayed the usual variety of passes, keeping things short and simple but knowing that the 50-yard ball can be devastating when perfect. Check out this Guardian chalkboard and see the stats - 64 passes, 62 successful. But it's the variety and the fact that so many are forward, probing, attacking passes that leaps out. Scholes was always looking to create openings. On last night's form he's in a class of his own. Whether he's the legs to recreate that against the Pools, Inters, of this world we'll find out.

Check out Martin Samuel's reasoning on the title race in the Daily Mail which of course makes complete sense. Simply put, United are top because of the better team/ squad, not due to any failings/ rants from Rafa.

Note - it's great to see John O'Shea continue his run of good form in the United team. We'd worried he was likely to be shunted back to the bench on Evra's return but Ferguson just moved him across to right-back where he was solid and actually far more creative going forward than he's been at left-back recently. He's got his critics, myself included, but he's been good recently. Darron Gibson is getting more gametime now too, which can only be encouraging for his career.

Things we learnt

Firstly, some digressions. Apologies for the gap in production here, some technical difficulties, etc. And though we didn't make the shortlist for best sports blog, boohoo and all that, we'd like to say cheers for the nomination and longlisting anyhow. Jumpthefence will be back when older, wiser and a little stronger, we're but a cub in the Irish blogging world (born December 08 in fact!) Anyway, on with the learnings from last weekend...

1 Ireland still on track in Six nations
Yep it was ugly as hell for ages but Ireland hung in there through a difficult first half and just had enough quality to squeeze out a win when playing reasonably poorly. There was little of the fluency of the French game but it was like playing Arsenal one week and Bolton the next, as the players/ manager said afterwards, two completely different styles of opposition. If we're nitpicking, it was worrying how we were bossed around at times and struggled for possession in the first half. But defence was generally good, Kearney looks a real player at full-back - mixing the solidity of Dempsey with the pace and attacking of Geordan Murphy - and Ireland always had the players to make breaks like Tommy Bowe did or punch holes eventually, as with Luke Fitzgerald's try. Elsewhere though, there was enough to suggest England won't lie down at Croker like two years ago and that Scotland will be damn competitive at Murrayfield. Way to go yet.

2 Kerry footballers on fire
You can tell pretty easily when teams are on a mission by their energy, their workrate but most of all, they'll have this purpose and sharpness about everything they do. Kerry had that last Sunday and they blew Tyrone away early on. Tommy Walsh and Colm Cooper were wrecking machines inside, Darren O'Sullivan looks a more clinical, effective player than in the past, Paul Galvin has the look of a guy with two summers of football to fit into one. New faces are fitting in well and the likes of Tomas and Darragh O'Se yet to come back. Jack O'Connor has his team buzzing nicely for February, but then again, it is only February.

3 Irish soccer team at crossroads
Reading the Sunday papers, there's a definite sense of holding back any sort of commitment towards this Irish team and more so, their management. Simply put, people don't quite know what to make of Trapattoni so far and aren't sure whether to go with lucky, underperforming or getting the most from a limited group of players. In his press conference last Thursday there was a feeling that Trapattoni is setting up a gameplan to make the most of scant resources and we'd agree on the whole. We don't have the players to dominate possession against the Italys, Spains (even England don't, as they found out last week) or even Russias and Croatias. We're not going to play a hugely expansive game. And we're set up to be more effective against the better sides, to nick wins and draws against technically superior opposition,not to sweep aside the likes of Georgia or Cyprus with fluent, flowing football. It was good to hear that Stephen Ireland's skill set would be accommodated somehow, so Trap isn't blindly sticking to system either. But we feel we'll see the best from this system of play against the Bulgarias and Italys.
Ciaran Cronin in the Tribune probably sums it up best.
We'll get back to the Irish midfield soonish though.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ireland 2 Georgia 1 - the escape

In the build-up to the game last night, RTE showed an interview clip of Giovanni Trapattoni saying the result was more important here than a performance, as a poor performance could be put right over time, but a bad result stands forever. In the end, it was hard to disagree with that logic. Ireland were desperate at times, and lacked any creativity or fluency, yet through sheer force of will and helped by the most dodgy penalty you're ever likely to see, they just about got over the line. Unconvincing, yet ultimately got the result, just like the manager's reign so far. We'll take that if it's going though; and the suspicion remains that Trap has luck in his corner.

For long spells it was about as pretty as the doodlings of a two-year old. That early goal rocked us back badly - Stephen Kelly's nervy beginning managing to make Paul McShane look solid - and in truth, there was a clueless aspect to our probings first half. Georgia were livelier to the ball, seemed to have numbers swarming everywhere and we just didn't have the necessary tempo, quality or possession to mount any sustained attacking. Given made a decent stop, Dunne put off their striker from a dangerous cross and all we had to show was a slightly harshly disallowed goal from Keith Andrews, a McGeady shot parried away and a few half-dangerous crosses.

We needed an upping of pace and tempo and in fairness, we got it second half. McGeady showed character and a willingness to get on ball to take people on over and over, even if his final delivery surely needs some work. Kevin Doyle worked his socks off, won a pile of frees with his strong running. Ireland hemmed Georgia in, balls flashed across goal and around their box and still there was little enough real penetration or chances being created - this was more shellacking their area and hoping for an outcome rather than sustained passing and probing. Still, we got a just-about deserved break, a crazy penalty decision which in fairness Robbie Keane stuck away coolly. Cliche but there was really only one winner after that and Keane then got his shoulder to a corner to knock in his second. Game over, as Georgia looked out on their feet.

Positives? Well we probably needed a win like that, a coming-from-behind, battling, digging out a few goals when needed sort of victory. It's a decent sign for morale, character and it ought to give us momentum now. Keith Andrews looked tidy in midfield. Doyle, McGeady and to a lesser extent Duff, stood up to be counted when the time came. It was a win and three more points.

And still there's that nagging thought that we were damn average at times. Jumpthefence would be closer to Graeme Souness' assessment of our squad than Dunphy's - there's no way you can argue that any more than one or two of our lads would make any world-class team - so perhaps sneaking wins of this sort isn't underperforming for us. But we need to sort out the lapses at the back that are still giving goals away. We're still taking a huge gamble playing two wingers and two forwards when we're so lightweight midfield - and we are lightweight there, Andrews did fine last night, Whelan wasn't good, but the two together aren't strong enough for a two-man midfield. Our set-pieces around their box were unthreatening for all the frees and corners we had, nobody seemed to have the quality or gumption to whip a fast-paced cross in. Robbie Keane might have had two goals but he was a shambles at times, dropping deep when he should have been up top, moaning at decisions and passes, flapping about without really achieving, basically being Robbie Keane. We do think Andy Reid should be in the squad, we're less sure of Lee Carsley, Stephen Ireland isn't the management's problem.

For now, we move on with hope and a bit of momentum, but let's not get carried away. Our next match will probably define our campaign - win it and we're battling with Italy for top spot, lose and we're totally back in the dogfight for second and with a lot of our tougher games left. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at how we might sort out midfield and what options are there.

Ratings for last night -
S Given - Possibly could have been more decisive with the goal but overall as solid as ever and made a vital stop first half. 7
S Kelly - Oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear. So bad we pined for Paul McShane. Felt for him cos he's clearly so lacking match practise or confidence. 4
J O'Shea - Dominant throughout and rarely made an error. Attacked ball well in air. 7
R Dunne - No booboos of Man City proportions and shut down most threat from Georgia's attackers. 6
K Kilbane - The invisible man. Can't possibly say anything bad about him as he made no mistakes and didn't look under pressure but contributes so little going forward and never overlaps the winger. 6
G Whelan - Really needs a Stephen Reid alongside him to get away with it at this level. Wasn't sharp on the ball at all. 5
K Andrews - neat competitive debut. Looked for the ball, rarely lost it, got into some attacking positions edge of the box and drove forward second half. 7
A McGeady - looked our most consistent threat. Frustrating first half as kept hitting the first man with crosses but ran at defenders and always offered something. 8
D Duff - Still possesses inklings of the old Duff but just doesn't have the killer pace to get away from defenders anymore. Some nice touches. 7
R Keane - Managed to show why Rafa got rid of him while still scoring two goals. We'll admire the coolness for the pen and the instinct and determination for the second; it just glosses over the tactical unawareness, pointless runs, constant griping at teammates and officials and ineffectiveness.
K Doyle - the opposite of his partner. More effective on the ball, in linking play, in offering a genuine outlet with his strength in possession and runs. But never looked like scoring. 7

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ireland 30 France 21 - a miracle match

Oh what a ride that was! We sat down Saturday evening partly fearing a nervy kickfest of a game between two sides who didn't want to lose and instead we got a giant slugfest of flowing, attacking rugby, two teams who tore into each other for eighty minutes, five wonderful tries and countless individual performances of note. France charmed us for the opening hour with the rhythm and beauty of what they were trying to do; so much so that we found ourselves cheering for Les Bleus at one stage. But Ireland's sheer willpower won us over, that and some genuine ambition and fantasy rugby of their own. In the end, that mentality won the game as well.

But boy was it a hard-fought win. The peerless Gerry Thornley says in the Irish Times this morning that the Ireland of last season or two years ago would have been beaten and he's dead right. In fact, we would have been slaughtered I feel. This was a France team - whether by accident or design from Marc Lievremont - that held true to their old values, running the ball in numbers from everywhere on the field and routinely picking Ireland apart with the variety of their lines in that opening half hour. Their first try was a breathtaking example of support play and how to punch holes in an opposing defence, going down one side and then the other before crossing the line. We feared a thrashing at that point. Beauxis at fly-half was controlling things; Chabal was running ball at will; Poitrenaud was imperious at full-back. Worst of all, the French had their tails up, and we know from experience how dangerous that can prove.

But Ireland hung in there. We kicked the ball far too often through Tomas O'Leary in the first half-hour but once we settled there was danger in Irish moves as well. Now our backs were running onto ball at speed rather than getting possession standing, which happened far too often under Eddie O'Sullivan. Jamie Heaslip finished a wonderful move with the shimmy of a winger to touch down. Brian O'Driscoll gave an inkling he's still got moves with the sort of burst he used come up with time and again, bashing through an opening at speed to create the second try. Ireland were rampant.

Yet France conjured up another moment of magic - Beauxis and Medard improvising an opening despite being outnumbered five to two on the right wing - for another try. A drop-goal made it a two-point game and Ireland were on the verge of buckling under constant pressure. That they didn't says a lot about the winning head Declan Kidney brings possibly. D'Arcy bundled over, and though France hit back with a penalty, Heaslip worked a penalty from the re-start.

Ireland were winners, and though we thought they got an awful lot of decisions from the ref, and the French showed a pile of flair and open rugby, it was a deserved win. For the bloodyminded refusal to give in, and for the few brilliant moves they worked. For Paul O'Connell's leadership and lineout dominance, for Rob Kearney's composure under pressure (he claimed six or seven catches like an established pro), for Heaslip's energy. A bit to go for sure, but Ireland can, for the first time in ages, take heart from being a serious outfit again.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Brian O'Driscoll - talent fulfilled?

Asking whether something or someone fulfilled potential is always a subjective thing. Was the Sopranos ending a giant damb squib that ruined the series? Could The Dark Knight possibly live up to expectations after Heath Ledger’s death? Is Wayne Rooney a more mature, team player now or has he lost the playground instinct that made him so breathtaking? See, hours of arguments right there. With the Six Nations starting tomorrow, we wondered if it was blasphemy to question if the Irish captain, Brian O’Driscoll, had lived up to his world-class billing or has he been something of a disappointment?

Come on, we all remember. The young buck with the dancing feet of Michael Flatley and the speed of a tearaway cheetah, all fancy sidesteps, line breaks and more changes of direction than your average episode of Lost. That hat-trick of tries in Paris that announced himself to the rugby world as a force. The slaloming wonder try for the Lions in Australia. Hell, Jumpthefence never even knew Irish rugby players could run with a ball – with the honourable exception of Simon Geohegan of course – and here was one of our own showing skills and off-the-cuff genius more associated with the French game. We marvelled and called him one of the best young players in the world; everyone else joined in for once.

It’s not that it all went horribly wrong - it wasn’t a Gazza-like car crash of a career that went off the rails or even a Lee Sharpeish waste of talent. Just that the excitement rather fizzled out after a time, that the wild buzz of the early relationship was replaced by a more solid, reliable sort. The stats back up a frittering away of plain effectiveness on the scoreboard. Early era O’Driscoll was a try machine – 18 in his first 34 games, 25 in the first 52 – as he attacked from all angles, scored tries of all shapes and sizes, finishing moves on the line, being the last man on the shoulder, breaking lines and tackles from 40 metres out to touch down. There were big winning touchdowns of the cometh the hour persuasion – France (01), England (05) to mention a couple.

Since 2004 or so, his record doesn’t stand up to that. One try in the last three Six Nations championships (that’s thirteen games) and five tries in 29 tests. A handful of assists and meaningful breaks with the odd flash of genius - the wonderful set-up for Andrew Trimble’s try in Paris in 06 leaps out, as does the break in the dying seconds at Twickenham later that season. A pretty mediocre World Cup. And all this with the most talented Irish side for a long time, there were games in the early days where opposition could afford to doubleteam O’Driscoll, given he was the only genuine threat to their line.

So where’d the edge go? Well, a decent-sized list of injuries have surely played a part, more for disrupting his rhythm than a great amount of games missed. He’s sacrificed a yard or two of pace and elusiveness for pure bulk; putting the team and his ability to tackle and recycle ball ahead of individual flair. He's been a marked-man in plenty outings and struggled to impose himself. There's simply no argument against the fact he's lost some of the dashing, what'll-he-do-next excellence he showed in 00-03 especially.

And still he’s hugely effective in other areas. There’s no better centre in rugby for winning turnovers. He’s outlasted all the wonderboys (Traille, Jauzion, Baby) of French rugby and seen off plenty English centres over the years. He’ll put a shift in every time he steps on the field. Contrary to opinion, he is a proper leader – and for anyone who’d question his bravery or ruthlessness, have a look at his hit on Paul O’Connell here (at 2.56) and tell me it wasn’t a statement. There’d be a fair argument that O’Driscoll has been too honest over the years, putting his body on the line rather than keeping himself tuned for the marquee highlights-reel moments. It may even be the most accurate asssessment in the end.

A superstar of the world game then? Probably. Did he fulfil potential? Probably not, in this observer’s mind – he needed to dominate a few games at the top level to become a true great; not enough rollicking runs or tries as time went on. There must be kudos for adapting and evolving to always have a role to play for Ireland, Ryan Giggs-like if you will. There’ll always be murmerings of what might have been as well though.