Saturday, August 14, 2010

Just Like Starting Over

Bejabers! The SPL is back.

And that means the weekly Scottish Football Blog preview post must make it’s return.

I was tempted to avoid becoming a hostage to fortune again and stop the predictions that proved so farcical last year.

But where’s the fun in that?

So I’ll persevere. It won’t be easy. As Niels Bohr said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

And if I’m as bad, or worse, than last year, then I’ll have proved I know nothing about football. But that should mean that I’ll be in line to become Chief Executive, President or Head of Youth Development at the SFA - and all those jobs pay better than this.

There are constraints this year because of the rules governing “reproduction” of the fixture list. Big Brother is watching me.

Actually, my big brother has read this blog from the very beginning. It’s the SPL’s hired sniffer dogs I need to be careful of.

Anyway without further ado here are the Scottish Football Blog’s SPL predictions for what very few people are calling “Match Weekend One.”

Inverness v Celtic
Welcome back Terry Butcher. How we’ve missed your mediocre management skills. Unfair. Possibly. Terry will be unfurling his very own championship flag at a time when other managers will be overseeing the switching on of the pie ovens.

I’m glad Inverness are back in the SPL. I think they might be in for a bit of an arduous season but I can see them staying up with a bit to spare. Tricky game today though as they entertain Celtic. I’m not really sure what to expect of Celtic. Fools and bairns should never see work half done: Neil Lennon’s revolution is not yet complete and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

But I’m all for the early underdog catching the Old Firm worm. So I predict a draw.

Aberdeen v Hamilton Accies
I’m fair tickled by the thought of Aberdeen’s brand new glow in the dark stadium. Sadly the reality for Mark McGhee is the need to find a team that doesn’t disappear in the afternoon light.

I expect a much improved Dons side this season while I’m not sure how Hamilton will manage with the loss of yet more players.

The need for Aberdeen to set down a marker at home will probably see them home here. Home win.

Hearts v St Johnstone
Although TV schedulers appear to disagree I can see this being one of the best games of the weekend.

St Johnstone will continue with the steady progression and sound football that we’ve seen over the last few seasons. Hearts will give some indication today of how the presence of Kevin Kyle is going to shape their style of play. That might just lead to a fascinating clash of different styles.

How to call it though? A tentative nod towards a score draw.

Rangers v Kilmarnock
OMG! I’ve never written that combination of letters and punctuation before and probably never will again. But how else to greet the news that Rangers have finally signed a player?

James Beattie. Here’s a tip for you: Beattie will be top scorer in the SPL this season.

But will he play today? I don’t know. Whether he does or he doesn’t it’s hardly the fixture Kilmarnock would have wanted to kick off a season that most people are predicting will involve a lengthy relegation battle.

And that seems fair enough because this is a home win.

St Mirren v Dundee United
Danny Lennon takes his competitive bow as manager of St Mirren. A lot of us have spent the summer sniggering at his policy of signing lots of players who did well for him in the Second Division.

But maybe Danny is right and we’re wrong. Maybe he’s unearthing talent that will illuminate the SPL to the point of securing the top eleven finish that his board crave.

If he is right then a win at home against the Scottish Cup champions and the current “third force” would be a good place to start showing it.

He probably won’t be though. Away win.

Motherwell v Hibernian
I wish I was a TV scheduler: “The last team these two met it was 6-6. Get them on again and we’ll enjoy a 12 goal thriller.”

Football, like life, doesn’t work like that. I’m tempted to predict this as a goalless draw just to spite those foolish people who would like to think that history will repeat itself.

I won’t, although I will say that this is unlikely to be a good enough game to warrant rushing weekly prayers or battling through a hangover to see.

I’m not too confident about Hibs’ ability to cope with much at the moment. Maybe the goals of Stokes and Riordan can see them through this one. Certainly if it becomes a tactical battle between John Hughes and Craig Brown then experience is likely to trump to talking an awful, awful lot.

For that reason: home win.

The tale of the tape: 0 out of 0. Pointless telling you that but it could be a high point so I’m posting it anyway.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Over The Border

While the SPL rages on around us it’s often easy to forget those less fortunate than ourselves. So glance south, dear friends, and consider the English Premier League. Spare this footballing backwater a thought. 

If only they could sell their souls to the kind of broadcaster that turns a meaningless mid-table clash into THE MOST IMPORTANT FOOTBALL MATCH SINCE THE LAST ONE they might just be able to carve out a slightly higher profile for their impecunious league.

My time management skills seem to have deserted me over the last couple of weeks so I’m grateful to The Scottish Football Blog’s latest guest blogger, Mark Briggs, for putting together this preview of the EPL:

Last year we had the possibility of the top four monopoly being broken up as Manchester City spent lavish sums of money left right, and centre. In the end it was Tottenham who barged through the gap left by Liverpool’s implosion.

This season we have even more bang for our buck. Spurs will not want their Champions League experience, how ever long it lasts, to be a one off. Arsenal are overdue a trophy, Manchester United will want to regain the crown and Chelsea will not want to let them. And then there is Manchester City.

Once again City have spent big. Over £70m. Mancini wants two internationals per position and he’s going after them with an open cheque book. The key for him will be his tactics. Last year he was too defensive, crowding the midfield with uncreative players. Mancini has Barry, De Jong, Viera, Zabaleta, Toure Yaya, Michael Johnson and Kompany all available for defensive roles in the middle.

However there were signs that this mentality was shifting towards then end of last season and he has strengthened offensively adding Silva and, in all likelihood, Milner. If he can get his tactics right and keep this squad of internationals happy (these tasks were not listed in order of simplicity) then they will be a force, at least for a Champions League spot. They have the best squad of 25 man for man, but do they have the balance to form and effective team? If they can, and other teams start slowly, then City’s squad should be ready to pounce.

The trailing group of Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Everton will all be hoping that they can keep injury free and make some moves up the league. Liverpool will be smarting. Last season saw the end of 6 years of a style and approach that ultimately left them without the title, despite getting close. They now have to start again despite being leapfrogged in both prestige (no Champions League nights at Anfield this year) and in financial muscle.

Despite all this they appear to have come out of this summer rather well. With Roy Hodgson they have got a calming hand, experience with reduced budgets and a lot of good will and optimism which had appeared to desert them under Rafa Benitez. They have kept hold of Gerrard and Torres, and added Joe Cole into the mix. (Potential tip, the previously much maligned David Ngog could be this season’s Bobby Zamora.)

At the other end of the table Blackpool will be everyone’s second team this year. They play in orange, they defy logic by being here at all and their manager is Ian Holloway who is sure to liven up the post match interviews. Unfortunately they also have to be favourites for the drop. But wouldn’t it be amazing if those odds were proved wrong?

Roberto Di Matteo will be the latest man to try and keep West Brom in the Premiership. But as with their previous foreys into the top tier they have little money to spend and will need all their players to have their best ever seasons to avoid the drop this time round. But Chris Brunt and Scott Carson could just give them the quality at each end of the field to spring a surprise.

Wolves, Blackburn will more likely than not spend the season looking over their shoulder.
West Ham and Wigan will be looking to move away from the scrap. Some off the field stability for the Hammers and some consistency on the pitch for the Latics could give both teams a platform to move up the league.

The title race looks to be a three way affair. Manchester United and Chelsea will almost certainly provide two of the contenders. But neither squad has been dramatically strengthened this summer which would appear to play into Arsenal’s hands and they could mount a serious challenge this season.

For parts of the last two campaigns Arsenal have made people sit up and take note. Now is the time when a serious assault on the summit needs to be made, both to keep the supporters happy and to ensure that Arsenal’s renowned academy keeps feeding their first team and not other clubs.

They still look like they need a bit of defensive grit. A goalie must also be on the list but it seems another season looks set to go by with questions hanging over Arsenal’s ‘keepers. A “plan B” wouldn’t go amiss here, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Man Utd have added a few players for the future, and Hernandez looks like he could make an impact this season at the expense of Mr Berbatov. But they seem to lack a bit of creativity in the middle of the park, and Scholes and Giggs will surely be unable to have the same impact, over the same number of games, as last time out. However this is a team geared to create chances and they will surely be in the mix come May.

But can they get the better of Chelsea? Sir Alex Ferguson has said anyone finishing above Chelsea this season will win the league. Once again those pillars of effective determination Terry and Lampard will lead the charge and if Drogba and Malouda can re-produce last season’s form, well, they will be hard to beat. Extremely hard to beat.

For the title I will stick my neck out and say Arsenal. For the drop, Blackpool, West Brom, and Wolves. Surprise team of the season, Wigan. One team I just can’t pick: Newcastle. Time will tell. And I am massively looking forward to it.

SPL 2010/11: Looking Ahead

You might, were you to spend six months somewhere that Scotland’s amber nectar wasn’t readily available, find yourself craving a pint of Tennent’s Lager.

Straight to the pub on your return, down a pint. And think: “On reflection, that’s really not that great.”

We fall into the trap of missing things because we’re used to them. Like a soldier writing letters to an ugly sweetheart at home, we pine for things we can’t have because we can’t have them not because they represent a true measure of quality.

All of which runs through my mind as I sit and contemplate the return of the SPL. The Best League In Scotland. Possibly.

Had I written this preview on Tuesday I might have been a bit more eager for things too get started. But then I saw some of our “finest” players turn in very bad impersonations of top class footballers and the joy of anticipation was replaced by more familiar feelings of gnawing despair.

Am I confident of a great season in the SPL. Nah, I’m really not. Not at all.

There is an argument to be made that things might be exciting because we’re not quite sure of how Celtic and Rangers will fare. So I suppose you have to make a choice and decide if you’d rather have 12 bad teams or 10 bad teams and two not-quite-as-bad-but-still-hardly-brilliant teams.

One side of the Old Firm will win the league and one will finish second. I can’t see any other outcome.

I’m not going to predict which will take the championship though. There are still questions. Rangers, threadbare but experienced. Celtic, another new look, another new manager and an apparently still leaky defence.

Transfer dealings that have not yet been finalised will play a part for both teams. Too soon, for me, to say with any confidence who will come out on top. Tony Mowbray was the SPL’s Manager of the Month in August last year. And that hardly set the tone for the season ahead.

Third place? Dundee United will look to build on last year. That won’t be easy but nor would it be an outlandish prediction to say they’ll challenge for the “best of the rest” tag.

Jim Jefferies will ensure Hearts pose more of a threat this season. But has the squad been greatly enhanced? Will Kevin Kyle stay fit and will Hearts become over reliant on his physical presence. If they do who will feed off him? Kyle has rarely proved himself a prolific goalscorer in the past so Hearts will still need goals from somewhere.

Hibs’ pre season form and European misadventure suggests they are unlikely to get off to a flier this year. Given their normal travails after January it’s difficult to see when exactly they’ll be able to piece together a sustained challenge for anything other than a solid top six finish.

In signing Paul Hartley Aberdeen have pulled off something of a coup. His experience should help a young squad improve on last year. It couldn’t be much worse.

Motherwell look to be responding well to Craig Brown and his methodical approach to preparing his team. Can they last the pace of a full league season?

What strides have St Johnstone made in improving on their solid return to the SPL. A top six finish would represent another step in their encouraging development.

Further down I can see four teams being involved in the relegation battle. Kilmarnock’s financial struggles continue and, much as I expect them to be a stuffy and obstinate side, I fear they might leave it late to escape the financial blackhole of relegation yet again.

Inverness will look to start well, build from there and make sure they pick up points at home. They’ve stuck by Terry Butcher and he’s got them back up. If he can now keep them up then they’ll have had a decent enough season. Don’t expect fireworks though.

Hamilton again impressed last season but as players leave it becomes harder and harder to repeat that success. Could be a long old struggle.

All the clubs in the bottom half of the table might just be saved by St Mirren. I don’t want that to happen, I want to see Danny Lennon succeed. But I fear that things could go badly. Very badly.

A tentative table prediction. Tentative because I think United will finish third and I think St Mirren will probably go down. Other than that, it's anyone's game:

1 Rangers/Celtic
2 Celtic/Rangers
3 Dundee United
4 Hearts
5 Motherwell
6 Aberdeen
7 Hibs
8 St Johnstone
9 Kilmarnock
10 Hamilton
11 Inverness
12 St Mirren

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Not So Mellow Yellow

Scotland were always had a mountain to climb in qualifying for Euro 2012. After a spineless display in Sweden last night it seems that Ben Nevis has just become the Northeast Ridge of K2.

I was in two minds about the value of a friendly so close to the start of the domestic season. One 3-0 defeat later and I'm convinced we shouldn't have bothered.

Obviously this was no more than a learning exercise. Sadly, it had all the comforts of double maths first thing on a Monday morning after a heavy weekend of alcopops in the local park.

An inexperienced defence was exposed, a five man midfield (two sitting, three further forward) was ineffectual and Steven Fletcher was isolated up front.

In goals Allan McGregor overcame his pantomime villain billing and was the stand-out performer on a night when positives were hard to find.

The confidence provided by Craig Levein's debut against the Czech Republic drained away after only three minutes, the time it took for our yellow shirted heroes to turn into the cowards of the county.

Lee Wallace was caught on the left, Garry Kenneth was pulled out wide, Christophe Berra disappeared and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was free to jog on to Pontus Werbloom's low cross and make it 1-0.

When three of your new look back four could consider themselves culpable in the loss of an early goal you know that it's going be a long, long night.

That Sweden could only add two more goals through Emir Bajrami and Ola Toivonen was down to a combination of McGregor, bad finishing and the hosts' satisfaction that this was a game already won with ease.

Levein was composed in defeat:

"I knew that, by picking this team, I was taking a bit of a gamble and it did not work. But, hey, these things happen. It is a disappointing night, but there are fairly valid reasons for that. If you put a lot of people together who have not played together, these things can happen."

Valid reasons? Possibly but their validity does not make them any less bleak. Qualification is going to be difficult with some semblance of a settled first team. Last night proved that it will be impossible if the campaign is beset by injuries.

Strength in depth is an alien concept in Scottish football at the moment. Players who the manager would have wanted to stake their claims for starting places failed. It's difficult to see how Levein can shape the Scotland team he wants if he has to rely on players like Kenneth, Kirk Broadfoot or Kevin Thomson, although it seems unfair to single them out on a night of abject performances.

Against the Czechs Graham Dorrans played his way into Levein's starting eleven. A few might have played their way out of his squad last night.

Yes, we have to remember that this was a meaningless friendly. But it didn't take long for the optimism of the Levein era to fade away, this was a Scotland team that looked as disjointed and shaky as a Burley era team.

It was left to James McFadden to sum up a night of frustration:

"It was not good enough. We did not create many chances, gave away silly goals and it could have been more if I am honest.

"We have got to play better than that, because it is not enjoyable."


Manchester United Sign Homeless World Cup Star

A remarkable story coming out of Old Trafford:

Manchester United have spent £7.4m to sign Tiago Manuel Dias Correia, otherwise known as Bébé, a relatively unknown 20-year-old from the Portuguese club Vitória de Guimarães, the Guardian can reveal. The deal was finalised today, with the player becoming the eighth senior striker at the club.

United have paid the buyout clause to release Bébé – was raised in an orphanage after spending part of his childhood on the streets and has represented Portugal in the Homeless World Cup – from his five-year contract at Guimarães only five weeks after he joined the club from Estrela da Amadora in the Portuguese third division. (The Guardian)

As far as I am aware this makes Bébé the first graduate of the Homeless World Cup to make it to one of the big European leagues and certainly the first to join a club of United's stature.

Dreams, it seems, can come true.

* The 2010 Homeless World Cup kicks off in Rio next month

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

SPL 2010/2011: Aberdeen

"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."

A warm welcome back to Seb Gevers, the now retired supremo of the unfortunately defunct Inside Left blog.

Seb continues to post about all things Aberdeen on The Offside and has kindly agreed to provide a preview of how the 2010/11 SPL season might pan out for the Dandy Dons.

I suspect not running Inside Left might be agreeing with him - he seems uncharacteristically optimistic:

So now that the God-awful World Cup is over, we can get back to another season of Scottish Premier League football at Aberdeen FC, the mightiest team north of the Tay. Will it be a season of glory or of mediocrity? Will the Dons finally break their Cup hoo-doo and win some bloody silverware? Will it be better than last year, or just more of the same? Well, ask me again in May next year.

For now, we’ll kick-off with a quick look back over what happened since the season ended and what we can expect in the coming months!

Last Season Prediction/Final Finish
I said we’d finish 4th; our panel said: 9th!

Last Season
Jimmy Calderwood was sacked at the end of another relatively successful season for the Dons (another top half finish and European qualification), but his failure to win domestic silverware proved to be his undoing.

The arrival of Mark McGhee, a Gothenburg Hero who had managed to turn Motherwell around, was meant to mark (no pun intended) the start of the great recovery, but the season soon turned into one of extreme disappointment. It started poorly, continued terribly and ended badly. Humiliating cup defeats, an early exit from Europe and a season with more ups and downs than a hooker on a see-saw is how it can best be summed up.

A lowly 9th finish, the lowest since we finished bottom of the league in May 2000, was no small mercy, considering the Dons were not far short of being dragged into a relegation dogfight. That the season went this badly with essentially the same squad that Calderwood managed to get into fourth spot the season before begged some questions about McGhee’s suitability for the task at hand, not least from yours truly.

McGhee hung (or clung) on regardless surviving some pretty poor PR when he effectively blamed the fans for the club’s poor performance, an opinion shared by some of the players. The Dons fans have high expectations, sometimes unrealistic expectations, but nobody living within 25 miles of Pittodrie expects their side to crash to the likes of Dundee or Raith Rovers, or to get pumped 8-1 on aggregate to some obscure Czech side.

That the Dons were capable of better was demonstrated only in occasional flashes (the 4-4 against Celtic, the wins over Hearts, Rangers and Dundee United) but it was in those games that once upon-a-not-so-long-ago would be sure-fire bankers that the Dons slipped up. This has to improve next season.

Summer Activity
That things needed to change was obvious, but with the club hard-up for cash the prospect and promise of new signings to rebuild the squad had a certain hollow ring to it. Nevertheless, as the summer progressed and the World Cup came and went, McGhee was not sitting around idle.

Rory McArdle, the 23 year-old Northern Ireland defender signed from Rochdale, was the clubs first signing for the new season. He’ll be joined by Mark Howard (goalkeeper, St Mirren), Josh Magennis (forward, Cardiff), Yoann Folly (midfielder, Plymouth) and Scott Vernon, (striker, Colchester United).

The summer marquee signing without doubt is the arrival of 33 year-old Paul Hartley. He was signed from Championship side Bristol City, but will be known to fans of the game north of the border as a former Hamilton Accies, Raith Rovers, Hibernian, St Johnstone, Hearts and Celtic player. He’s also a Scotland international, gaining 25 caps and scoring once.

Hartley’s arrival meant that the club would not be making an offer for former Derby player Lee Hendrie, while Grant Basey, a former Charlton Athletic player and a natural replacement for Charlie Mulgrew at left back, will probably be offered a deal. Michael Paton and Jerel Ifil (the latter an unimpressive panic buy - a loan spell may be the first steps towards punting him in January) being considered for a loan-deals to clear the wage bill and facilitate a move for Basey.

The summer has also seen players leave. Charlie Mulgrew returned from whence he once came (ie, Celtic), Stuart Duff was released, Davide Grassi preferred a return to Italian obscurity when he failed to get the year-contract he craved (and which, based on his second half of the season performance, he might well have earned), club captain Mark Kerr moved to Greece, while the other half of Aberdeen’s midfield last season, Gary McDonald, joined Hamilton Accies and will no doubt enjoy a return to the Granite City this Saturday, the opening day of the season.

Last season’s loan-signings failed to materialize into anything more permanent, injury and finances taking care of Jim Paterson and Steven McLean respectively; both returned to Plymouth. The rarely-used midfielder Paul Marshall moved on to Walsall.

Finally, the duds signed in Calderwood’s last year in charge have also quietly moved on: Tommy Wright returned to Grimsby while the clubs two goalkeeping acquisitions, Bertand Bossu and Stuart Nelson, moved on to Crewe and Notts County respectively.

The pre-season has not been terribly impressive with the Dons only winning two of the eight games played and, more worryingly, only scoring seven goals along the way while conceding ten. At least we didn’t get pumped by Peterhead this season – that honour went to their nearest rivals Fraserburgh…

Sat 17 Fraserburgh L 3-1
Sun 18 Peterhead W 2-0
Wed 21 Dunfermline L 1-0
Sat 24 Tamworth D 1-1
Tue 27 Port Vale W 1-0
Sat 31 Brighton L 1-0
Tue 3 Brechin D 2-2
Sat 7 Kaiserslautern L 2-0

Simply astounding, I’m sure you’ll agree..

Key Personnel
Jamie Langfield and Zander Diamond need to step up to the plate this season to steady the creaky defence that conceded 31 goals at home, more than any other club in the league. Both Langfield and Diamond have come in for criticism in recent days, Langfield for his daft and unnecessary injury (he dropped a cup of hot coffee on his foot), and Diamond for wearing his cloak of invisibility during the final friendly of the season against German side Kaiserslautern.

Up front Darren Mackie needs to improve on his four goals from last season, especially now that he faces competition from new boys Vernon and Magennis. The arrival of Hartley (the new team captain) should add some leadership to the team, something that was seriously lacking throughout 2009/10.

The Season Ahead
It doesn’t auger well when the already (mostly) dreadful squad loses not only one of the main goal scorers, a team captain and the entire ‘mid’ in ‘midfield’ but also some of the more experienced players. McGhee has rebuilt the middle of the team with Hartley and Folly. Aluko and Pawlett should figure more this season, and indeed it will be Aluko to who most Dons fans look towards to give us that bit of flair and spark up the left wing. Last season was one best forgotten for Aluko, but with the middle of the park strengthened to give the former Birmingham City and England Under-21 player a bit more room to roam, he may well turn in the kind of performance that saw him become a firm favourite with the fans.

The summer signings have gone some way towards lifting the negativity and lack of optimism about the plight of the club around the town that had carried over from last season, but you can see that McGhee has a tough job to pick up the pieces and not start winning on the park and winning over the supporter in the stands.

The good news is that a) the Aberdeen youngsters (Pawlett, Fyvie etc.) did well last season and; b) the Old Firm are pretty rum at the minute. The bad news is that Aberdeen had more to fear from the Hamiltons, the St Johnstones and the Kilmarnocks of this world rather than the Old Firm last season. Let’s hope this next season does not continue in that same vein, otherwise it’ll be another long hard year.

5th in the league, with a decent Cup run. Aberdeen ought to be able to do better in the Cups than they have in recent times, when both the Scottish and the League Cup have become massive banana skins for the Dons. This year we start the road to Cup Glory with a trip to Alloa, a side who last beat us in our first foray into Scottish football back in January 1904.

What could possibly go wrong...?