Monday, 29 June 2009

A Decade of Blues

Being a fan of not just British sports, but also American ones I often find myself comparing the two sporting cultures and noting the similarities and differences. From the lack of promotion and relegation in the USA to the relative non-importance of hall of fame type organisations in the United Kingdom, in the end though, most things are the same - "Cowboys suck!", "Spurs are rubbish!" if you catch my drift...

The Football Hall of Fame, based in Preston, is the second attempt at defining the football icons of the English game after the original folded due to a lack of visitors. So under-appreciated it was that it's web address is now dedicated to lottery scratch cards. The reverance with which Americans hold their past sporting icons is perhaps explainable by the set, non-organic structure of their sports. With defined leagues of 30 or so teams it is easier for fans to retain interest with players across the nation and compare the greats of any given season or era.

In Britain, football fans are used to seeing their teams go up and down the leagues, play literally anyone in cup competitions and still have to contend with the diversity of the game as the best players in the world also feature in other European leagues and for their respective nations at international level. The tribal nature of the culture and larger number of players to pay attention to also means that fans tend to focus on their own team's players, comparing them with their clubs' greats from previous years.

With football, it is also much harder to compare players on an empirical level. The assist, being such a judgemental notion, is not an official stat and this leaves appearances and goals as the only numbers to compare players by. Given the myriad competitions that exist it is very difficult to find all these figures all in one place and even the most statto-ed fan would struggle to list career stats for more than a handful of players.

In sports such as American football one can define how many touchdowns and passing yards a quarterback throws for, the average number of yards a running back rushes for and the number of times a defensive player intercepts an opposition pass, to name but a few commonly cited facts. In effect, comparing players starts and ends with numbers, not opinions.

One thing I think that we can use on this side of the pond however is the staple US media favourite, the "All-Decade Team". Hopefully, all of us who follow the beautiful game have not dulled our minds with so much alcohol that we can't remember events since the turn of the millenium! So with that in mind, I've taken a look at Chelsea's best players who have appeared in games since the 2000-01 season.

The conditions are quite simple: 11 players in a 4-4-2 formation and 5 men on the bench (no goalkeepers) and the number of appearances doesn't matter as much as impact and trophies won. Here is my Chelsea team of the decade:


Goalkeeper Petr Cech: A closer call than one might think; Carlo Cudicini, a former Chelsea player of the year, recently left the club having kept 101 total clean sheets (3rd highest all time). A good penalty stopper, Cudicini made outstanding saves seem the norm, notably when diving full length to stop a close range header from Ruud van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford in 2003. Cech however, in spite of his troubles this year has been mentioned as one of the best 'keepers on the planet during his time at the club.

Right back Mario Melchiot: The Dutch full back signed from Ajax on a free transfer in 1999 but injury kept him out for much of his first season, although he did start the 2000 FA Cup final victory over Aston Villa. Known for his dreadlocks and long legs, Melchiot's consistency of form puts him ahead of Paulo Ferreira.

Left back Ashley Cole: A coin flip this one; club favourite Graeme Le Saux played through his second spell at Chelsea until 2003 and took part in many a memorable game, including scoring in a 4-0 rout of Tottenham at White Hart Lane in an FA Cup tie. It was his move to the left of midfield that has Cole nipping in here, who has just finished his best season in a blue shirt.

Centre back and captain John Terry: The clearest of choices is John Terry, who timed his debut season to perfection for this blog in 2000, taking over from Frank Leboeuf and winning player of the year the year after he sat on the bench during the last FA Cup win at the old Wembley. Has been the official captain since 2004 and there is nothing that needs to be said about his performances. Has formed excellent partnerships with Marcel Desailly, William Gallas and Ricardo Carvalho.

Centre back Ricardo Carvalho:
Another difficult decision, Carvalho comes out ahead of Gallas and Desailly by virtue of his majestic performances for the Blues, helping the club win a glut of trophies since his arrival in 2004. While the Terry-Gallas axis was at times impenetrable, manager José Mourinho felt compelled to shift the Frenchman (who is now less fondly remembered at the club after his acrimonious departure to Arsenal) to left back and no fan would argue with him now. Desailly, monumental player though he was, never produced consistent form for the club in a league he was not best suited to.

Right midfield Joe Cole:
One year removed from player of the year status, Joe Cole has turned into a relevation at the club since being one of the first signings made possible by Roman Abramovich's millions in 2003. After an inconsistent start at the club new boss Mourinho drilled into him a work ethic and Cole lit up the second half of our 2004-05 Championship winning season, scoring blinding goals such as an effervescent left foot strike at Norwich City. His form led to the eventual depature of crowd favourite Damien Duff.

Left midfield Arjen Robben:
The pick with the least number of appearances, Arjen Robben gets in by virtue of being the most talented player the club has seen since Gianfranco Zola. The Dutch winger, although hampered by injuries for much of his career in west London, helped blow away the opposition in tandem with Damien Duff, scoring amazing solo efforts (eg; at home to Everton) and changing games with his pace, trickery and at times, diving!

Centre midfield Frank Lampard:
The iron man of Chelsea's midfield for a decade now, Frank Lampard could be nicknamed the metronome, given the unerring nature of his top-notch performances for the club over eight seasons. Underrated in his first two years (especially so as he carried an £11 million transfer fee) Lampard began to take games by the scruff of the neck in 2003 and has scored exactly 100 goals in his last 5 years at the club. He has already made it to 5th on the club's all time appearance list and is 6th in goalscoring.

Centre midfield Claude Makélélé:
Claude Makélélé was a stalwart for the club in his five seasons at Chelsea, showing the world how destructive and creative the holding role could be. So good he was in fact, that the role is now known by his name! Maka sat in front of the back four, harrying and intercepting the opposition, but also helped the midfield tick over with his short, accurate passing. His first goal for the club, after an awful saved penalty, wrapped up the great 2005 title season. Have you ever seen Maka score a goal? Yes we have!

*A 4-3-3 formation would have seen the tremendous Michael Essien in the final midfield slot, but I feel with an abstract team such as this, two spots have to be reserved for forwards.

Forward Gianfranco Zola:
In spite of finishing his Chelsea career in 2003 Gianfranco Zola's impact at the football club warrants a place in my all-decade team. Watching his last performance in the Champions League clincher against Liverpool at the Bridge, even while heavily intoxicated, was a pleasure although I fail to remember if I cried or not witnessing him play with the ball near the corner flag while defenders in red shirts floundered around him. A man and footballer I will forever feel privileged to have watched, especially when he dedicated a mesmeric back-foot-flicked-volley goal to a child who had recently died in an FA Cup tie against Norwich.

Striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink:
Another tough call, but I feel compelled to go with the Dutchman who rocked Stamford Bridge in his four seasons at the club, scoring goals for fun with both a smile and a scowl on his face. Memorable strikes versus Manchester United and Wolves and a round of applause when he scored on his return with Charlton will live long in the memory. Leaving Didier Drogba out feels almost sacrilegious, especially with a 30 goal season under his belt, but Hasselbaink bled blue for the club.

Substitutes: Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, Michael Essien, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Didier Drogba.

Who features in your team of the past ten years?

-- Ross Mooring

Friday, 26 June 2009

Chelsea Running Into Trouble With Homegrown Rule

I'm sure right now that Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea's almost confirmed first signing of the summer, is quite the happy bunny. If Manchester City of all clubs were unable to satisfy his demands then a team with a wage structure (or lack thereof) such as Chelsea are surely paying him like a prince, especially when his transfer fee (to be decided by a tribunal) will be so relatively low.

Sturridge, who will turn 20 this September, is one of those tantalising prospects who we dare not talk about. A striker with pace and height, a good eye for not only goals but also assists (which means he'll be shunted out to the wings at times) and who Robinho admired at City with a pretend boot-shining goal celebration, Sturridge could be a real prospect. Although not the finished article he has the advantage of a good head on his shoulders.

The principal thing that has held him back so far in his career has been injuries (notably one to the hip which kept him sidelined for nine months in 2007) and of course the recent plethora of forward signings that the Citizens have made since their takeover. First making a name for himself in the FA Youth Cup (he's already scored at Stamford Bridge, with the first goal of the first leg of the 2008 final) Sturridge has notched goals at reserve and first team level for City and also for all England age groups up to U20 level.

However, what suprised me the most about this signing is the speed at which Chelsea worked. The Blues have been linked with Sturridge since the turn of the year (and have been sniffing around since 2006!) and it seems like they declared their interest to him at an early stage. And then today someone asked me about the UEFA 'homegrown' player rule and how it affects clubs in the Champions and Europa Leagues...

After a gradual roll out from 2006 UEFA's 4+4 rule came into full effect last season with regard club teams registering players for European competitions. There are quite a few specifics but the general gist is that every team must make eligible 4 players who have been trained by clubs in their associations (in Chelsea's case of course, England) and 4 more players who have been trained by the club itself. These players must be put on the A list of 25.

Chelsea already have a few players who qualify for the latter category in John Terry, Michael Mancienne, potentially Scott Sinclair and Miroslav Stoch (this is to be confirmed) and third choice goalkeeper Rhys Taylor. This means that even if new boss Carlo Ancelotti does not consider three of Mancienne, Sinclair, Stoch and Taylor in his top 25 players he cannot otherwise fill these gaps. Last year, Chelsea simply elected to register only 22 players on the A list, but fortunately did not experience many injury or suspension issues.

In terms of players trained in England, the Blues have Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Joe Cole which means that the club either forfeit another spot on the A list or do something about it! And that's where I think Daniel Sturridge comes in, since he qualifies as being trained in this country for three years before his 21st birthday. But take a look at the current Chelsea squad and one finds that the Blues are right on the remaining limit of 17 players (Cech, Hilario, Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Ferreira, Alex, Carvalho, Mikel, Belletti, Essien, Ballack, Deco, Malouda, Kalou, Anelka, Drogba, Di Santo).

With Claudio Pizarro returning from his bizarrely succesful loan spell at Werder Bremen and Andrei Shevchenko coming back from AC Milan, Peter Kenyon and Frank Arnesen know that the club must offload or have first team players on the books who are ineligible for European competition. Evidently, the two returning loan players are likely the first ones out the door and Deco will surely follow, but that would still leave the club open to signing only one player before Ancelotti calls a team meeting and starts playing musical chairs.

-- Ross Mooring

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

NFC RBBC AOK!

Following on from Monday's fantasy football summary of running back committees in the AFC, it's time to turn attention to the NFC, where it looks like there will only be eight teams splitting carries to worry about.

It does help fantasy players that with backs such as Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Matt Forte, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson around there is much less of a likelihood of running (pun not intended) into a committee on that side of the NFL divide.

So let's get to it!

In the East:

Cowboys: With an offensive line that declined in performance during the latter half of the 2008 season, Dallas is looking to take the pressure off quarterback Tony Romo and utilize their capable tailback resources with the trio of hard-nosed Marion Barber, quick as lightning Felix Jones and all round talent Tashard Choice. Barber, with the early injury to Jones, found the full time role tough on his body last year and looks to return to a more specified role (generally short yardage situations and in the fourth quarter) and he could produce more consistent numbers as a result in 2009. Even with doubts over his number of carries MBIII still warrants a high second round selection. Jones, who averaged an astonishing 8.9 YPC in his first six NFL games will light up games, but might suffer on occasion from a lack of workload.

VERDICT: Barber is assured of many a TD, but Felix Jones' potential has moved him as high as the 6th round in 12 team drafts. Taking both is not a necessity, but keep an eye on injury reports in order to jump on Choice off the waiver wire.

Eagles: Philadelphia's selection of Pittsburgh back LeSean McCoy in the second round of this year's draft showed an intention to not only use the lightning fast back straight away, but also to spell veteran Brian Westbrook, who turns 30 during the regular season and has already showed signs of breaking down. McCoy ran the 'Wildcat' for the Panthers and is capable out of the backfield, but while healthy Westbrook will hog the statlines.

VERDICT: Westbrook is dropping into the 2nd round of many drafts and could turn into huge value. Taking McCoy in the 9th as a handcuff is a must.

Giants: It is not often a franchise produces two 1,000 yard running backs in the same season, but that's what the New York Giants did last year. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward (now in Tampa) and even third back Ahmad Bradshaw all finished with a YPC higher than 5. Bruising back Jacobs hogged the touchdown column but did miss 3 games with injuries and is a clear number one runner when healthy. A lot of the credit should go the G-Men's offensive line, but how the unit deals with the absence of Mr Shoot-from-the-Hip Plaxico Burress will be interesting to follow. Bradshaw is favored to see a good portion of the carries, but faces a challenge from rookie Andre Brown in camp.

VERDICT: As above, Jacobs could represent huge value in the 2nd round and taking Bradshaw in the 9th or 10th is very much recommended, unless you hear otherwise on Brown.

In the North:

The presence of Peterson, Forte, Ryan Grant and Kevin Smith means there's not much a of a look in for anyone else!

In the West:

Cardinals: In the West, pass-happy Arizona was a team to steer clear of in terms of finding usable running backs in 2008, with neither Edgerrin James nor rookie Tim Hightower wowing fantasy leaguers. With with the selection of first rounder Chris 'Beanie' Wells fantasy players should still be wary of spending too high a pick on the big back as the Cards will still be a throw-first, throw-last kind of team. It is mooted too that Hightower will still start, at least at the beginning of the year and he will also be used prominently out of the backfield.

VERDICT: Wells should be drafted first, although not by much of a margin and expectations should be tempered despite the possibilities. Hightower could slide and turn into value.

Seahawks: The Seattle backfield in 2009 seems to the be fashion equivalent of corduroy pants in fantasy land. Led by underwhelming back Julius Jones (who has averaged a passable 4.0 career YPC with just 4 TDs per season) and the underwhelming goal-line hog T.J. Duckett, this backfield committee is so unfancied as to represent potentially big value in drafts. Jones, while a limited runner, should see the majority of the carries in Jim Mora's run first scheme and with a hopefully healthy Matt Hasselbeck throwing the ball to newly acquired wideout T.J. Houshmazouzahado, there could be space enough for him to thrive. Sort of. Duckett will take points away from him however.

VERDICT: Jones can be pocketed as late as the 8th round and while there's little need to draft Duckett it might be an idea to have him on your opening day roster.

In the South:

Buccaneers: The off-season addition of free agent Derrick Ward has given the Tampa Bay running game added pep going into the new year. In tandem with Earnest Graham the Bucs now have two legitimate fantasy runners, but after last year's defensive collapse and with a big question mark at QB it remains to be seen what their potential output is. Ward, who posted big numbers on limited carries as the Giants number two back, should hog the carries, but as a draft option there are worries over his touchdown output and that's where Graham figures to earn his corn. Former offensive rookie of the year Cadillac Williams is coming off the back of another knee injury but will return and eat into carries in 2009.

VERDICT: If Ward falls to you in the fifth eat him up. Pairing him with Graham in the middle-late rounds could prove to be a smart move. Pay attention to Cadillac's rehab reports.

Panthers: The Carolina committee in 2008 proved RBBC is not all bad for fantasy owners with DeAngelo Williams breaking out in a big way to lead the RB point charts with 1,736 total yards and 20 TDs. His "backup", rookie Jonathan Stewart (the 'Smash' part of "Smash and Dash") pummeled his way to a fraction under half that total. While Williams should still finish the season as an RB1 a tough schedule and a fresh Stewart should keep him from repeating last year's totals. In fact, he is arguably not even a lock first round pick.

VERDICT: Watch for news in Charlotte as to how the Panthers are splitting reps in training camp. Stewart could turn into a steal if he drops to the 6th round.

Saints: Can you go wrong in 2009 with a Saints running back? As New Orleans has failed (or should that be declined?) to add a power runner Pierre Thomas looks to be the primary back, at least in terms of running plays up the middle and on key short-yard downs. If Reggie Bush remains free of injuries he figures to average at least 80 yards per game (the majority of them receiving!) and looks a threat every time he touches the football. Both are clear RB2s in standard scoring leagues.

VERDICT: Provided the Saints do not add a veteran such as Edgerrin James, Thomas should be the better option for fantasy owners. Bush will be gone by the time you pick next.


-- Ross Mooring

Monday, 22 June 2009

Fantasy NFL: Running Back By Committee in 2009

A departure from the norm here, I decided to pen a piece on one of my more shameful hobbies, fantasy football. And not the Ronaldo kind...


The trend of 'running back by committee' (RBBC) has never been more prevalent in the NFL. Driven by the need to reduce injuries and general fatigue and decrease risk in financial terms by spreading the load in the backfield, general managers around the country have added a new aspect to fantasy football in the past half decade or so.

Gone are the days of having roughly 32 candidates to slot into your RB1 and RB2 positions and now we as fantasy leaguers have to accept that even some of the top 12 backs in fantasyland are going to be splitting time.

By my calculations, fourteen NFL teams currently use definitive RBBCs (Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Raiders, Colts, Titans, Giants, Cowboys, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints) and at least a further five will look to involve other runners in a semi-prominent role (Bills, Steelers, Chargers, Eagles and the Seahawks).

This doesn’t even include the Vikings and Falcons who are successful enough at pounding the rock that backups Chester Taylor and Jerious Norwood have fantasy relevance. Of course, before training camps and pre-season games certain teams may show themselves to feature more than one tailback (eg; Browns, Chiefs) and others may narrow down to one preferred runner (eg; Cardinals).

Here is my list of AFC teams and how I would recommend pairing up teams’ running backs depending on their situation:

In the East:

Bills: Buffalo represents the most head-scratching situation for fantasy owners in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch figures to be a high end number 2 back if it weren’t for the fact that he is suspended for the first three weeks of the season, especially with his skills as a receiving option. Fred Jackson, recently rewarded with a new contract, should pick up the slack, not only in the first three games of the season, but also as an alternative to Lynch when the dreaded one returns.

VERDICT: If you take Lynch, it is imperative to take his stablemate. In 12 team leagues this means taking Jackson in rounds 9 or 10.

Dolphins:
Rebounding from a cruciate knee injury in 2007 Ronnie Brown put up good fantasy numbers last year, taking over from Ricky Williams early. Although Brown faded slightly down the stretch, expect him to improve on his 1,170 total yards in 2009. He is well worthy of a third round pick. Ricky is low-end reserve option.

VERDICT: Do not feel obligated to handcuff Brown as you may end up reaching on Williams.

Jets:
Not the biggest mess in the division, the Jets’ fantasy situation is still confusing. With either an unknown quantity in Kellen Clemens or rookie Mark Sanchez throwing the ball to a Lavernues Coles-less receiving corps, opposition defenses can key in on the running game. This decreases the value of an aging Thomas Jones towards the low-end RB2 level. Add in the receiving threat of Leon Washington and the short-yardage work of rookie Shonn Greene and Jones might be someone to avoid.

VERDICT: If you take Jones, target Greene in the 11th since both take value away from the other. Washington represents value in the 10th.

Patriots:
With Mike Shanahan no longer in Denver, New England is now the biggest fantasy mess at the running back position. Week to week Bill Belichick likes to go with the ‘hot hand’ and although Sammy Morris is at present the slated starter, Laurence Maroney has more than a modicum of talent at his disposal, Fred Taylor may leap out (although not to anywhere near Corey Dillon levels) and Kevin Faulk remains the principal third down back.

VERDICT: Take one, only one, and make it late in the draft.

In the North:

Ravens: Ah, another triple headed RBBC monster, the Baltimore backfield! Last year’s fantasy point leader in Le’Ron McClain will be moving to a more traditional full back role after the departure of Lorenzo Neal, Ray Rice is said to have progressed from an okay rookie season and Willis McGahee could be healthier. Unfortunately, it seemed that in 2008 the Ravens picked one runner out of a hat before games so be wary here. McClain will still see short yardage work, McGahee will still take most of the carries and Rice will still be the home run threat.

VERDICT: Pay attention in training camp, pick your favorite and wait for the 8th round.

Steelers:
In spite of Pittsburgh being a run first team, there are question marks behind the Steel Curtain at the running back spot. Willie Parker has become brittle, has a low-ish TD to carry ratio and was stunted in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl. Rashard Mendenhall is one year removed from a first round selection, can do it all and is gunning for his job. Do not forget last year’s waiver wire find Mewelde Moore either.

VERDICT: Pick Fast Willie and be prepared to spend as much as an 8th round pick on Mendenhall.

In the West:


Broncos: The Denver backfield, with a mass of signings in free agency, initially seemed a nightmare for fantasy players. However, with the selection of Georgia back Knowshon Moreno as the 12th pick in this year’s draft Denver now has an ultra-talented player who should command at least 50% of the touches among his competitors. Leading his peers to back up Moreno will be Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan, who coach McDaniels favors from his time in New England.

VERDICT: Moreno could be a very productive RB2, but temper expectations for Buckhalter if Knowshon gets injured. Take the former Eagle in the 12th at the earliest.

Chargers:
Two big questions in San Diego; Can LT return to dominant form and how much will Darren Sproles be utilized now that he has had the franchise tag placed upon him? Tomlinson was restricted by a toe injury in 2008, which partly suggests he could improve on his 1,536 total yards and 12 TDs. Sproles had two massive games in the final week of the regular season and in the defeat of the Colts in the playoffs, but averaged a mere 3 rushes per game for much of the regular season.

VERDICT: Target Sproles if you select LT, but an 8th round pick for the little speedster is very much risk-reward.

Raiders:
For a franchise that has become a running joke in the NFL, Oakland bizarrely has three running backs worthy of draft day selection. Darren McFadden had injuries to blame for his below-par rookie season and would be a risk as a RB2 but a steal as a number 3 option. Justin Fargas has a 1,000 yard season on his resume, but rarely reaches the end zone. Michael Bush enjoyed a strong end to his first year in pro-football (racking up 183 yards versus the Bucs) and like McFadden is a threat as a receiving option.

VERDICT: Being a Raider limits McFadden’s statistical ceiling and it is important to back him up. Follow training camp, but Bush in the late rounds should be favored.

In the South:


Colts: In the mock drafts I’ve been doing Joseph Addai, whose injuries and form are a worry, has been slipping to the end of the fourth round while rookie Donald Brown has risen to the back end of the seventh. Addai should see more touches per game, but between them they have Peyton Manning and the Colts pass attack to take pressure off the line of scrimmage and their potential output is high.

VERDICT: Do not gamble on Addai until the moment is right and take UConn product Brown if he fits your draft strategy. For the right price locking up both has added value.

Titans:
One of the biggest fantasy debates centers around the two Tennessee backs, Chris Johnson and LenDale White. In 2008, Johnson outgained White by 700 yards but finished off with 12 fewer touchdowns. The talk is that Johnson will be given more workload in 2009, pushing him into the middle of the first round of fantasy drafts. Remember when White complained to the media after participating in only three offensive plays against the Jets last year? This suggests Jeff Fisher and co do not trust him as much.

VERDICT: Backing up Johnson with White is not crucial since the latter’s numbers could really drop this year.

Check back for the NFC evaluations on Wednesday!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

North Korea qualify for World Cup

Yesterday, North Korea (or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea if you wish to be precise, but also a bit loony) qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, courtesy of a 0-0 draw in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.

That's right, the country the Western world currently likes the least is heading to the world's biggest sporting event and will play in a blaze of publicity supporting Kim Jong Il and his Korean Worker's Party. And in spite of their current FIFA World Ranking of 106 it appears the team does have some skill, although how this turns out against the planet's best teams is yet to be shown.

Memorably (even for those of us who weren't there) North Korea knocked Italy out of the 1966 World Cup after beating the Azzurri 1-0 at Middlesbrough's old Ayresome Park. In the quarter-finals of that competition the team proceeded to take a 3-0 lead against Portugal after just 25 minutes, but were slowly worn down in a 5-3 defeat. Portgual faced England in the next match and lost to a brilliant Bobby Charlton double.

However, this present North Korea side has thusfar in qualification shown a bit more defensive nous, conceding just 5 goals in their 8 final qualification matches. Along with the Saudis, Iran and South Korea were also in Group B. Not world beaters, but in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) this still represents a stern test, and the North Koreans finished second.

FIFA and the organizers of South Africa 2010 are not going to be sleeping with ease as there is a chance of the two Koreas being drawn together in one of the World Cup groups. If FIFA continues with its seeding system of using past World Cup performance combined with present ranking, South Korea (who reached the semi-finals in 2002) will probably be in the second pot and the North will be in the fourth pot; this enables them to be drawn together. The draw takes place in Cape Town on the 4th of December later this year.

The reason why the organizers are keen to avoid a showdown of the Koreas is not that difficult to explain. Apart from the traditional tension that almost literally separates the two nations, there was the recent incident when the two teams first faced each other in this qualifying period, a game slated to be played in the northern capital,
Pyongyang.

Governmental intervention in the North forbade the playing of the southern national anthem and the raising of its flag. Eventually, the tie was played on neutral ground in China (not that neutral?) and the game ended 0-0.

However, what does this mean for the world as a whole when everyone arrives in South Africa next summer? Is it a good thing that a team representing one of the most secretive nations on Earth - a country currently posturing about war, lying about missile tests and generally being a diplomatic pain in the ass while at the same time committing human rights abuses in its own land - be present on the biggest of sporting stages, oddly enough in a country previously shunned in sporting terms for its own Apartheid regime?

I can't really answer those questions, I don't know enough about North Korea and what its own peoples are going through. One wonders what would happen if they drew Italy again and beat them? Surely the game has moved on in 44 years, but perhaps it always stays the same...

By the by, if you're interested in seeing who might qualify for the World Cup and how likely that is, here is a very interesting stats site.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Reaction to UEFA ban for Chelsea duo Drogba and Bosingwa

As a Chelsea fan I often find it difficult to gauge my reaction to news on the club against what it would be if I supported another team. I try to reconcile this with the fact that I have more detailed knowledge of the club than most analysts who cover the sport in general, but it still makes reporting the team in an impartial manner an awkward exercise.

When it comes to today's announcement on the suspensions handed out as a result of Didier Drogba and José Bosingwa's actions following Chelsea's Champions League elimination tie against Barcelona, I wonder if they are a little harsh.

I am not going to defend Drogba or Bosingwa, nor will I excuse their actions in the mitigating circumstances that unfurled at Stamford Bridge that night because at no point is it ever acceptable to remonstrate, insult or abuse match officials, especially in that manner.

However, the bans do seem a fraction on the harsh side, possibly blown up by the media circus that a) surrounds Champions League semi-final games and b) subsequently exploded by the horrific refereeing display of Tom Henning Øvrebø.

At present, three match bans are standard for serious and direct red card offences (note Danny Guthrie's ban after his awful challenge on Craig Fagan); Drogba has received a 4 game ban with two extra suspended and Bosingwa will be absent for two and potentially one other on top.

UEFA has precedence in terms of disciplining after the event; remember Alan Shearer being suspended for two games after the match official missed a premeditated elbow on Inter Milan's Fabio Cannavaro? The ban was shortened (probably by one game) for the provocation of the Italian defender.

Or the less well publicised suspension of Bordeaux's Johan Micoud for insulting comments aimed at match official in a UEFA Cup tie? The Frenchman missed two matches as a result.

Both are incongruous with today's decision.

The decision sends out the message that on field acts of violent, serious foul play or reckless, dangerous challenges are less problematic and bad for the game than players histrionically causing a scene and abusing a referee. Pardon the phrase: both should be stamped out, but am I alone in thinking the former is worse than the latter?

One positive in terms of the balance of the decision is the fact that the club and the two players involved may appeal. Dropping a third from the total number of fined games will result in fairer justice, at least in my opinion.

As a side note for Blues' fans, the club was fined €100,000, partly for the conduct of fans in throwing those most ubiquitous of soccer weapons, "missiles". There has been nothing written in defence of these people, provoked by the unreported actions of Barcelona's Gerard Pique, who in the post post-match celebrations, ran towards a purely Chelsea section of the ground and celebrated wildly at the supporters.

I'd be very interested to hear your opinions on the subject.

Hello to No One

This being my first blog entry on my own personal blog (yay, no editors!) I feel like I have to say something important, witty or memorable. But I can't, my hay fever has coincidentally flared up and now my keyboard is a bittttt sticky.

I'll just add one note that I intend my blog to be multi-faceted, but honestly I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not. I'm big on sports, lots of sports, film, music and many random things. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts.

Achoo!!