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