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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Robbie Keane didn't make it at Liverpool

Boardroom power struggle? Balderdash. Benitez wanted Keane in the summer, as much as he's trying to distance himself from the signing this past month. Here's Jumpthefence's take on the most horrible six months and another Irish footballer who couldn't quite make it at a top club.
An argument we made right away. Robbie Keane = livewire, headless (at times), free spirit,non-clinical forward who needs a run of games to find form,tends to go on long runs without goals and works best running in behind defences. Benitez = tactically controlling, distrusting of flair,with penchant for rotating forwards who spoke of using Keane as creative influence off Torres. Liverpool = club who needed clinical finisher or consistent creator of chances against teams who put ten men behind ball. Make your own mind up on chances of success.

Look, bare stats: 25 games - 7 goals ain't a hot streak but ain't awful either. Problem was the amount of sitters Keane passed up - Bolton, Fulham,Preston spring to mind. Problem was the amount of games Keane struggled to create anything resembling a chance for himself or others - especially those draws at home. Problem was by the end other players seemed to have lost a little faith in him. His last start v Everton in the league, Keane touched the ball nine times. Just not good enough.

Much bluster poured from "experts" in the summer about Keane being a perfect link man for Torres to work off. Rubbish! Can you ever remember Keane creating a goal playing for Ireland? Keane does his best work playing off the shoulder of defenders; something he never got the chance to do against teams who sat deep at Anfield. Ask him to play up front on his own and you'll never see the best from him. Ask him to play deep off Torres and he'll flap about but create nothing.

Oh yes, Rafa must take blame, lots of it. For buying the wrong player in the first place. For playing him in positions that wouldn't work. For niggling away at a confidence player till he had nothing left. For benching him just as he showed some form and goal threat. For whipping him off EVERY single time he failed to perform rather than showing some faith. For not getting anything like the potential from another attacker.

Some players are big-club players, perhaps Robbie Keane just isn't. Of course there's a difference togging out each week for Liverpool where every game is dissected and every point vital as opposed to say, Spurs, where most people just see highlights reels every weekend and poor runs of form are quickly forgotten or don't mean as much. Benitez is said to have been dismayed by the shaking of the head every time Keane saw his number come up, the mutterings and the increasingly frustrated rants at teammates when he didn't receive passes. Fact is that Keane didn't look quite at home at Liverpool, and there have to be questions levelled at the player as to why that was.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Things we learnt

1 Chelsea are no more
If their performance at Old Trafford less than a month ago was tired and stale, yesterday's display at Anfield was surely the final straw. They hardly created a chance worthy of the name, persisting with some five-a-side keepball. Gone was the hunger, fight and dynamism of the Mourinho era - all bar Lampard, Terry and Alex ought take a good hard look at themselves. Sure, the crazy red card pushed the game in Liverpool's direction but Chelsea had barely mounted a gallop even before that. Anelka was his usual flighty self in a big game. Kalou and Malouda aren't first-choice title-winning players. Drogba gave a disgraceful pass after coming on that reeked of just not caring. If Abramovich cared half as much as he did in Jose's time, Big Phil would be in big trouble. Count them out of the league, and the Champions League - another successful prediction for Dunphy!

2 Kerry look mean; so do Tyrone
We've already declared our reluctance to take too much from national league games - especially first-rounders in early February - but you know, it wasn't a bad first weekend at all. We watched Kerry begin Jack O'Connor era II with a fair verve and purpose - David Moran and Tommy Walsh looked scarily strong and hungry, Colm Cooper looked lively, Paul Galvin and Darren O'Sullivan sharper than recent times and the way they moved the ball was wonderful. On Saturday night, Tyrone put together some really top scores and moves, Sean Cavanagh was splendid at full-forward and Stephen O'Neill looked like the player of 2003 again. A full-forward line of O'Neill, Cavanagh, and a lean, hungry Mulligan would be awesome. Watch out.

Good news for:
Some Irish footballers who got decent moves. Robbie Keane seems to have ended probably the most disastrous transfer in history by heading back to Spurs. Jumpthefence has been critical of Keane (we genuinely don't reckon he's up to it at that level) but Rafa's treatment of him has been terrible and we're damn glad from an Irish point of view he's shot of it. Shay Given should revitalise at Man City, though we'll reserve judgement on whether they'll become a superpower or a disaster. Willo Flood has gotten a dream move to Celtic, though it's hard to know how much he'll play. Stephen Hunt might yet move to Spurs or Wigan and it'd be worthwhile to see how he'd do.