Saturday, May 28, 2011

Champions League Test

Roped once more into acting as question setter as a local hostelry puts on a themed quiz.

Tonight's theme is Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

No, I jest.

It's the Champions League as Barcelona and Manchester United go head to head in the final.

15 questions on each team. I think this one is a bit easy but see how you get on.

Want to do it for real?

Send in your answers.

Top entry received by next Saturday at noon will win a second hand copy of Martin Waddell's Napper Goes for Goal.


Manchester United

1. Who did Manchester United beat in the semi final of the 1968 European Cup?

2. United beat Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final, at what stadium was the game played?

3. Who finished this season as Manchester United's top scorer in the league?

4. Sir Matt Busby only played for one professional side in Scotland, who were they?

5. Who scored the goals when Manchester United won the 1999 Champions League?

6. How many English league titles have United won since Alex Ferguson became manager?

7. What was the aggregate score in Manchester United's semi-final over Schalke this season?

8. Jim Leighton was dropped before the 1990 FA Cup replay. Which goalkeeper replaced him?

9. Who is Manchester United's top scorer in this season's Champions League?

10. In 1966 George Best scored two goals in a European Cup quarter final match against which team?

11. Which player has been Manchester United's first choice captain this season?

12. In what season did Ryan Giggs make his Manchester United debut?

13. Ryan Giggs has made more appearances for Manchester United than any other player. Which player has made the second most appearances for the club?

14. Which famous United striker missed out on the 1968 European Cup final with a knee injury?

15. Who scored United's goal in the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea?


1. Which Barcelona player is this season's top scorer in the Champions League?

2. Barcelona won their first European Cup in 1992. Who was their manager?

3. At which stadium did Barcelona win their first European Cup in 1992?

4. Including this year, how many Spanish league titles have Barcelona won in a row?

5. Two of Barcelona's current squad have made over 500 appearances for the club. Name them.

6. In 2009 Barcelona broke their transfer record to sign which player?

7. Barcelona played Hibs in the 1960/61 Fairs Cup. What was the aggregate score?

8. In final of the 2008/09 Champions League Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0. Which players scored the goals?

9. Which club are Barcelona's local derby rivals?

10. Who was the last English manager of Barcelona?

11. In 1986 Barcelona signed which Manchester United player?

12. Which current Barcelona defender began his professional career at Manchester United?

13. Who did current boss Pep Guardiola replace as Barcelona manager?

14. What nationality is Barcelona full back Dani Alves?

15. Lionel Messi has made 54 appearances in all competitions for Barcelona this season. How many goals has he scored so far?

Champions League: Manchester United v Barcelona

The Champions League.

The tournament that best sums up all that is wrong about European club football. A grotesquely bloated monument to football's greed, its fiscal deities.

Yet still oddly compelling.

And tonight it reaches its climax. Wembley plays hosts to an unfettered orgy celebrating UEFA's money making fetish.

But also, we hope, a memorable game of football.

We have the favourites, Barcelona, considered by some to be the greatest club team ever to play the game, perhaps even thought of as the natural holders of this trophy.

And we have Manchester United. The worst United side for years we've been told. In Alex Ferguson an emperor whose wardrobe was not so much in transition as empty. How he's revelled in that nakedness.

A nineteenth English league title delivered with a nine point cushion. And a third Champions League final in four years. It's certainly a different way to measure footballing inferiority.

It's clear though that United have lacked fluidity, perhaps missed the je ne sais quoi of the real greats, at times this season.

We've seen that in both results and in Ferguson's continued retreats into the siege mentality tricks that have served him so well through years.

Pretty? Not always. Effective? 19 titles tell their own story.

A word here on Ferguson and the press. Does he treat the BBC well? No. Was he at his petulant, bullying worst when caught suggesting a journalist should be denied access to a future press conference after having temerity to mention Ryan Giggs? Yes.

Does any of this help Ferguson's image? Absolutely not. For a man to have achieved so much and still indulge in such pettiness is a shame, even if much of the hysterical outrage it provokes is engineered by people who just don't like United.

Don't let the press skip lightly off the hook though. They play Ferguson's game because too many football journalists have been reduced to filling the role of the simple inhouse scribe to the game's 24 hour media circus.

Argue, provoke or, in some cases, have the temerity to tell the truth and access will be denied. And access is all.

It's not a healthy relationship and it doesn't lead to great journalism. But Ferguson's behaviour is a symptom of that environment not its cause.

I read somewhere the other day that to deny a journalist access to a press conference would be to deny us, the people, the chance to get close to the game, to cut off a valuable source of information that the fans need.

Really? If these endless press conferences were so important then Ian Holloway's comedy routine, a routine that would play to empty houses in the worst sort of Edinburgh Fringe venue, wouldn't have been siezed upon as a highlight of each English Premier League week this season.

Football has very skillfully set its own agenda by constantly feeding the press what it wants them to hear. In turn the media have become convinced that we demand that their role is simply to play the middleman in a great conversation between "football" and the fans. They are terrified that access will be cut off. And that makes them even less likely to properly question what they are being told.

It's an open goal for football. Ferguson simply chooses to fill his boots.

Anyways, back to the game this evening.

Barcelona are favourites. Many predictions seem to consider a Barcelona win a foregone conclusion.

Understandable really. Here's one of the game's biggest clubs so often reminding us of what joy football can bring.

The majesty of this season's 5-0 defeat of Real Madrid will live long. So sustained is their excellence that there is a risk we will begin to take it for granted. We shouldn't. Teams like this don't come along very often. We should savour every moment.

In Lionel Messi Barcelona have a devastating weapon. His semi final goal at the Bernabeu proved that he can rise above his surrounds. That night he lit up a game so unpleasant to watch it had me longing for the delights of Alex Miller's Hibs team of the 1986/87 season.

That game also highlighted one of the problems Manchester United face. Barcelona are not such purists that they can resist being sucked into a war of attrition.

But even if you try to drag them down they have brilliance enough at their disposal to find the fleeting moment of devastating quality that will pull them free.

What Ferguson chooses to do with a problem like Messi is one of the big questions ahead of the game. Man mark him? Who wants that job?

I heard an intriguing theory based on the 1966 World Cup final when Alf Ramsay sacrificed Bobby Charlton's attacking threat and got him to shadow Franz Beckenbaeur. Step forward Wayne Rooney to do the same this evening?

It would be something to watch. But surely there is not parity enough between these two sides for Ferguson to give up on the hope that this is the final where Rooney can make his own indelible mark.

Darren Fletcher might be another contender. However well he would be suited to tracking Messi for 90 minutes or 120 minutes, this might not be Fletcher's time. The virus he has struggled to shake off has left him short of match time and, judging by his appearance last weekend, worryingly thin.

Ferguson would love Fletcher to play but it looks like such a decision would be based on sentiment and hope rather than any real confidence that he could perform to his best so soon after returning.

So the Messi problem offers an interesting chance to play the often fruitless game of trying to second guess Alex Ferguson. The manager has said, in a tone which I like to imagine hinted at Marlon Brando in The Godfather, that there is always a way to stop even the very best from performing.

But Messi has the talent to overcome even the sternest obstacle. And silencing his genius is unlikely to be enough to muffle the threat of teammates who are hardly cowed into walking in the Argentinian's shadow.

If Messi ever wonders which players are close to him at the top of the game he can just have a glance round at training. Andres Iniesta and Xavi joined him in the top three at the Ballon d'Or awards.

Everywhere you look United are faced with mountains to climb to reach the promised land.

It's impossible though to deny the stubborn resilience they've shown this season. And they are not without threats of their own. Guile in midfield, the electric Javier Hernandez, the talent of Rooney. And that work ethic.

Pep Guardiola has shown himself to be too canny to consider this one a done deal.

But it is Guardiola who has to be the favourite to repeat his trick of 2009 and get the better of Alex Ferguson.

Still a cautionary note must remain. Ferguson's career is full of moments when his teams shouldn't have pulled off this, were unable to win that.

He's got a terrible habit of delivering his greatest coups when they look most unlikely.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hibs: Season's Greeting

The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast are putting together a club-by-club of the Scottish football season just past.

The honour of wrestling with events at Easter Road fell to me.

This was another grim year for Hibs. The sun seems to rarely shine on Leith these days:

"But any review of the 2010/11 season is a review of myriad failings over recent years. A club that enjoys revelling in its long term propserity off the pitch has been without structure or strategy on the field. Too many managers have come and gone, too many bad signings have been countenanced under an incoherent transfer policy, too many simmering resentments in the stands have gone ignored by the powers that be. The result of that was evident in every poor performance, every tame surrendering, every reduced attendance in this torrid season. The great solace is that Colin Calderwood seems aware of all this and confident in his own ability to bring about the changes needed."
Read the full article here

Grateful to hear your views on this one. Where do Hibs go from here? Is Colin Calderwood the right man for the job? Is the constant changing of managers just window dressing to cover the wider malaise?

It's going to be another interesting close season at Easter Road. The 2010/11 season was a nightmare.

Surely it can't happen again?

Sir Alex Ferguson, Soup and Super-injunctions

If football's ability to constantly surprise is one of the things that keeps Alex Ferguson so hooked on the game, then one wonders what he's made of this past week.

Could he have imagined, in the build up to tomorrow's Champions League final, that it would be Ryan Giggs who was dominating the media for non-footballing reasons?

Back in the day, ensconced as manager of Aberdeen and building a footballing force at Pittodrie, a young player - it might have been Alex McLeish - informed his boss that he'd be leaving the parental home and moving into his own flat.

"Can you make a pot of soup?" Ferguson asked.

"No, no idea how to make soup," came the reply.

That, Ferguson declared, was proof positive that the youngster was incapable of surviving alone. Until he could provide basic foodstuffs for himself, flying the nest was off the agenda.

Nae soup, nae bachelor pad.

On Monday an MP named Ryan Giggs, Ferguson's most senior player, as the footballer at the centre of stories regarding an alleged affair with minor celebrity and occasional tabloid favourite, Imogen Thomas.

This came after a super-injunction saga that struck at the heart of the UK's privacy laws - or at least how judges interpret those laws for the benefit of the rich and randy.

Questions were raised about the relationship between Scots media law and English and Welsh media law when the Sunday Herald named the player in question.

A can of worms regarding the status of laws built for an old media structure in a new media age was blown open as Twitter descended on the carcass of a costly and failed super-injunction.

The freedom of the press to titillate readers with tales of the bedroom derring-do of footballers was debated.

And Monday was the day when a footballer's rumoured sexual shenanigans seemed to pitch parliament against the judiciary.

Football's rebirth as the apparent centre of our national life has brought Ferguson both riches and success. In his career he has seen much, managed some bad boys, had players capable of some extreme behaviour.

But never, I think, would he have imagined that allegations about a shagging footballer would end up rocking the constitutional boat.

Does he, in quieter moments, ever think longingly of simpler times, of the days when the only worry he had about his players was whether or not they'd paid attention the day their domestic science class had made Scotch Broth?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Carling Nations Cup: Scotland v Wales

Ah, Scottish footballing optimism returns with the faint whiff of a trophy to play for.

Scotland resume their Carling Nations Cup campaign against Wales in Dublin this evening.

A win for Craig Levein's side will set up a title decider against the Republic of Ireland - who thrashed Northern Irelad 5-0 last night - on Sunday.

The Welsh, of course, are not international powerhouses akin to Brazil. But Levein has warned of a tough night ahead.

Well he might.

Scotland haven't beaten Wales since goals from Davie Cooper and Mo Johnston secured a 2-0 win at Hampden all the way back in 1984.

Our last two games against them have been, frankly, woeful. The footballing equivalent of being beaten unconscious by a bunch of damp daffodils.

In 2004 Berti Vogts' Scotland were put to the sword by a Robbie Earnshaw hat-trick in a 4-0 defeat. Our defence, such as it was, held out for all 42 seconds.

In November 2009 it was George Burley's turn to do battle in the valleys. His Scotland team lost 3-0 in a performance so poverty stricken it cost him his job.

Aaron Ramsey did the damage that night. Not even six subsitutes in a 23 minute second half spell were enough to save Scotland. Or mask Burley's unsuitability for the national role.

So Levein is right to be wary.

He's already named his team. A mixture of the tried and the tested and the... Well a mixture of the tried and the tested:

McGregor, Whittaker, G Caldwell, Berra, Crainey, Naismith, Brown, Adam, Morrison, McCormack, Miller

Charlie Adam will be the one between two banks of four. Kenny Miller will do his usual one up shift.

As ever I look at the Gary Caldwell and Christophe Berra partnership and, without being disrespectful, wonder how many people in international football actually respect the centre of that defence.

Not so long ago Craig Brown was never happier than when he was naming a good five or six centre backs in his starting eleven for Scotland. Now there appears a real paucity of talent there.

That's a worry when recent evidence suggests that Wales, so often blunt and dreary, turn into rapier like attacking dervishes when faced with a Scottish defence.

Really though, there are no surprises. Levein might have been denied some players that would otherwise feature but this looks a fairly risk averse selection in a game that others - but clearly not the manager - might have seen as an opportunity for experimenting.

Should be a team capable of beating Wales though. Mind you, it's also a team capable of failing to beat Wales.

Levein has lost a bit of wriggle room by choosing the tried and tested route.

If they are tried and they are tested and ultimately fail then the manager has a trickier job finding an explanation than if a younger, newer team came up short.

Hopefully he doesn't have to do that.

A win would offer a modicum of revenge and set up a nice wee season ending trophy game on Sunday.

C'mon lads...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

STV Online Writers' Player of the Year

The good people at STV Sport are in the process of unveiling the runners and riders in the STV Online Writers' Player of the Year poll.

Predictably enough online writers made up the electorate. Our instructions were to name our top five Scottish players of the year.

That could be Scottish players playing anywhere but they had to be Scottish. So Alexei Eremenko was out but Brighton and Hove Albion's title winning captain Gordon Greer was in. If you wanted him to be.

Yesterday they reached number five as they drip feed us the top ten in reverse order.

And it fell upon me to find a few words to say about the player in question:

Young players in Scotland too often follow a depressingly familiar pattern.

They blaze on to the scene, all funny haircuts and fearless skill, and Scotland, a nation too often starved of footballing optimism, overreacts. The merest glimpse of an exciting talent draws gasps of admiration. Before long "the next..." sobriquet is being chucked about. The next Law, the next Johnstone, the next Baxter.

Then our young star fizzles out. And Scottish football’s pessimism returns, recriminations fly and we're all left to ponder what might have been.

It is too early to tell if David Goodwillie can escape that deflating trajectory. But he’s given indications that he just might be able to, indications enough to be fully deserving of consideration as Scottish footballer of the year.
Read the rest of the article here.

Where will Goodwillie start next season. Will he still be a United player? Glasgow? England?

Are Rangers favourites to capture his signature?

Maybe this tweet from yesterday can throw some light on the affair:

The mind boggles.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Scottish Cup: Celtic Take The Trophy

The curtain comes down on domestic football for another season.

Yesterday's Scottish Cup will not perhaps be long remembered as a classic. Celtic too often seemed unable to click through the gears, that lent long periods of the game a scrappiness that seemed to offer Motherwell their best hope.

A couple of memorable goals though. Ki Sung-Yeung's pearler opened the scoring and Charlie Mulgrew's third was a fine, fine free kick. By that stage the game was over, Mark Wilson's deflected second all but killing off Motherwell's resistance.

For their part Motherwell almost scored one of the all time great Scottish Cup final goals. Almost. Gavin Gunning's shot all but breaking the crossbar but bouncing out to safety.

The reality though was that Gunning's shot was Motherwell's most potent attacking threat on a day when their forwards never got going. A 25 yard effort from a full back is not the sign of a team able to offer a sustained assault on the opposition goal.

Given some of the stories of the season it was probably predictable that referee Calum Murray would have a big role to play. And controversial that role proved.

Daniel Majstorovic and Keith Lasley were both booked early on. If those cards looked fair enough there was perhaps more doubt about the yellows handed out for Ki and Brown seemed a bit more harsh.

There was no doubt, however, about Majstorovic's deliberate handball when the defender seemed to lose the flight of the ball, the position of the nearest Motherwell player and himself all ends up. That should have resulted in a yellow card and a red.

Murray let it go with a warning. Minutes later a similarly exposed Stephen Craigan punched the ball away as he lay on the ground. The referee might not have seen that as a professional foul and a red. But it had, at the very least, to be yellow. Murray somewhat oddly seemed to see it differently.

Not a good day at the office for Mr Murray.

A shame that the romance of the cup should be spoiled by talk of the referee. But there it is.

And one man's romance is another man's slide towards divorce. So while Motherwell were left with broken hearts, Celtic were free to celebrate.

As a neutral observer Motherwell actually offered the more romantic story. Much was made of Celtic's two years without a trophy. Motherwell have gone twenty years without a trophy. That's a drought.

But there was more significance to Celtic's win than just a trophy.

You can like Neil Lennon or you can dislike him. As a football fan that's your right. You can simply find the Celtic manager to be not your cup of tea. That's fair enough.

What's not fair enough is the hate campaign that some lunatics have waged against him this year.

And so, big softie that I am, I did find something heartening about the sight of him with the trophy. And that's from someone who is as bored to back the teeth of Glasgow's big two winning trophies as anyone.

It just struck me as a heartening victory for both his resilience and for the resilience of football.

The BBC made much of Dermot Desmond's pre-match confirmation that Lennon would be staying as Celtic boss.

Personally I don't think there was much doubt about that. Not even the board of a football club could have looked at the scenes at Celtic Park last weekend and decided that they could risk breaking that bond between manager and fans.

Challenges remain. More than anyone else Lennon would have seen yesterday as no more than a consolation, the trophy he most wants having slipped from his grasp.

That's the target for next season. It's one he will relish. And one he should be allowed to strive for in atmosphere of sanity.

> A word for Dundee United. Celtic's win means fourth place in the SPL has been enough to take United back into Europe.

> Congratulations also to Ayr United who will take their place in the First Division after a 3-2 aggregate win over Brechin in the play off. Finely poised after a 1-1 draw in Ayr, Brechin took the lead just before half time today. Ayr stuck at it though and two goals in the last 13 minutes were enough.

> And final congratulations to Albion Rovers who clinched promotion to the Second Division. A 3-1 home win had set Rovers on their way and they increased that advantage in the first half against Annan today. Annan pulled back two second half goals but Rovers held on for the aggregate win.