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.