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.