Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Alejandro, Alejandro

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In May, Neil Warnock was at the centre of another high profile third-party ownership saga, as his QPR side were being investigated for the contract details of their Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Faurlin. QPR had already been promoted a week before the verdict, and as such it was anxious times at Loftus Road: with previous captain Shaun Derry describing the atmosphere as being “like a morgue” due to fear of automatic promotion turning into a play-off position, or worse, as a result of  a potential points deduction.

                                                  Faurlin's deal almost cost QPR automatic promotion

Fast-forward four months, however, and QPR are sitting 9th in the Premier League, with previous England internationals Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Luke Young and Jay Bothroyd in their starting line-up. Loftus Road is now being filled amid a drop in ticket prices, a decision undertaken by Tony Fernandes, the club’s new owner, while Warnock finally seems settled and secure in his job. Stranger things have of course happened; yet a transformation from that “morgue-like” atmosphere has clearly taken place.

Clearly, these events may not have been possible had the FA have come to a more damning verdict against the club. By all accounts, QPR were perhaps lucky to escape with their promotion in tact; but that is for another day. However, even with Premier League football looming, QPR fans were far from happy, with transfer activity and spending minimal, and an opening day 0-4 home loss to Bolton sparking instant fears of relegation. Only two weeks of the summer transfer window remained when Tony Fernandes came to QPR’s rescue, as he bought Bernie Ecclestone’s 66% stake in the club, immediately promising instant investment, which he has absolutely delivered on thus far. There is even talk of a potential swoop for David Beckham in January.

But perhaps we should wait before being too favourable of Fernandes. He himself has admitted that he is currently going through the ‘honeymoon period’ that many owners enjoy. He may have been the catalyst in this makeover, but there is also an epitome: the man that it all started with, Alejandro Faurlin. He was at the centre of the desolation, caught in the middle of an impending investigation he most likely had little knowledge about; but he now finds himself the unlikely, yet appropriate, midfield pivot in his side’s rise in fortunes in his third season at the club.

Four goals and six assists in 81 Championship appearances may appear average on the ignorant eye. But only has to look at Luka Modric: Chelsea were willing to pay £40m for his services, yet he only scored 3 goals and assisted twice in the league last season. Like Modric, Faurlin’s main function is not to score or create goals in the QPR system; it is instead to provide his team-mates with the ball, probing the opposition in the process. He is, however, more than capable of scoring and creating: as shown by his excellent strike against Wolves, and his perfectly lofted through-ball to Shaun Wright-Phillips in the same match. But arguably more impressive, in terms of his role and the consistency it requires, is a statistic from the match against Newcastle: he completed 66 of his attempted 79 passes, with 25 out of 30 in the final third - both of which were far more than anyone else on the pitch. He also created 3 chances, won 3 tackles and made 4 interceptions, while against Wolves he also made 3 fouls. Statistics can be misleading, but I think these clearly illustrate that he is more than a pretty passer.

                                   Faurlin shows he can do more than pass by making it 2-0 at Molineux

Passing, though, is undoubtedly his forte: he has been the most frequent and accurate passer on the pitch in four of QPR’s five fixtures thus far, with only Ben Watson slightly bettering him in this aspect in the 2-0 loss against Wigan. Even against Bolton in the humiliating 4-0 home loss, he managed to receive the ball enough to complete passes than anyone on the pitch. However, the overall progression of his direct influence on the game against Newcastle was there for all to see; and it is no coincidence that it occurred amid five new signings entering the side. These signings have instantly improved the side’s playing style and efficiency, with Wright-Phillips in particular helping to stretch opponents. As already alluded to, Faurlin is without doubt the man able to pick him and others out from deep, with new captain Joey Barton providing a more direct link to the forwards. They should form an excellent partnership, with evergreen Shaun Derry providing insurance behind them.

                         SWP and Barton have already helped improve both Faurlin and QPR in general

It is strongly rumoured that he rejected a move to Inter in favour of becoming QPR’s record signing in 2009, as he opted for first-team football over the chance to work with Jose Mourinho: perhaps this is a more fitting character conclusion than any statistic could provide. Indeed, in her song ‘Alejandro’, Lady Gaga sings, “Don’t bother me, Alejandro”. One suspects that he would not let her down, with his unassuming style as QPR’s calming playmaker instead allowing the likes of Barton and Taarabt to carry out the “bothering”. Bigger tests undoubtedly await Faurlin and QPR – three matches next month against Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City in the space of 13 days, for example – and it will certainly be interesting to see how they build on a promising few weeks, both on and off the pitch. Either way, it would not be a surprise to see Alejandro’s left foot continuing to do the business.

The Miss of the Millennium?

Things were finally looking up for Fernando Torres: he scored a cheeky chip at the start of the second half while delivering his best performance in a Chelsea shirt - against the imperious Manchester United, no less.
But, such is the brutal beauty and unpredictability of football, he then went and missed an open goal with the match at 3-1; ensuring that goal and all-round performance will be forgotten in the minds of many.

That ground's not opening up any time soon, Fernando.
Already, it is being branded as the "miss of the century". As we are only eleven years into the century, why not up the stakes a little and call it the miss of the millennium? Oh wait, somebody already did...
Torres\' \"Miss of the Millennium\"
Once Torres skillfully rounded De Gea, the goal was at his complete mercy. We waited for the net to bulge, and for Torres and his team-mates to wheel away in celebration as they were back in the game.

But, in this universe at least, that didn't happen. Instead, the £50m man, who had only one goal in 23 appearances for Chelsea prior to Sunday, ruined the chance of an exciting final ten minutes for all of us by completely fucking up his finish. Like a wounded animal, he was now the merciful one; as millions across the globe laughed their arse off, rolled on the floor laughing or, for the Chelsea fans reading, fucked their lives. (Yeah, so that last one didn't really work...)

Torres can probably thank Ronnie Rosenthal for it being labelled the miss of the century, rather than 'of all-time'; with the Israeli's perennially considered the worst miss ever. There are definite similarities between the two misses: both expertly rounded the keeper, and both used their left foot. And, of course, both missed - but at least Rosenthal hit the bloody bar!

Ronnie Rosenthal\'s worst miss of all time

One man that did also inexplicably miss the target is Ryan Giggs. Due to him scoring a sickeningly good goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final in 1999, his terrible miss against Arsenal in the same competition four years later is often forgotten. Again, like Torres and Rosenthal, he rounded the keeper with no problems, but then went on to miss an open goal with his wrong foot. The scoreline at that moment was 0-0 - Arsenal went on to win the match 2-0.

Still, we reckon "Giggsy" more than made up for it by recently hitting the target, instead, with Imogen Thomas. There you go, Fernando, chirpse with a celebrity hottie and all will be forgotten. Or just start scoring again. (In the football goal, you dirty bastards.)

As nice as Ryan Giggs' goal against Arsenal was, we reckon Imogen Thomas is a tad easier on the eye. Follow his lead, Torres...
With or without these, it probably isn't the worst miss of the century: see our very own Tim's article on the worst misses of last season for evidence, with number two on his list easily ranking as the worst I've ever seen.

But, with respect (or not), no one really cares about Asian football, do they? Its Torres' reputation and current form (or lack thereof), strengthened by the miss coming at a crucial time in a match between England's two most successful clubs in recent years, that will ensure it lives on forever.

To illustrate my point, I leave you with a, frankly, fucking hilarious recreation of it on FIFA 11.

Torres\' \"Miss of the Millennium\" - recreated on FIFA 11

"Shovel, and spade, and dig." You wish, El Nino.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Do Manchester City have a genuine 'Group of Death' to navigate?

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Every time World Cup groups are drawn, one of the first things many observers enjoy, whilst scanning through the illustrious names, is selecting a ‘Group of Death’. The name, while overly dramatic, generally speaks for itself: it is the group that every other side looks upon breaking a sigh of relief, with the sides within it cursing that they will have no easy match in attempting to reach the knock-out stage.

In the Champions League, however, this generally hasn’t been the case. The expansion from 24 to 32 teams in the group stages over a decade ago clearly made Europe’s elite competition a bigger spectacle, but quality was slightly sacrificed for quantity as a result. The group stages, then, arguably became a lucrative ‘warm up’ -- listen closely and I’m sure you will hear Graeme Souness utter “this competition begins in the knock-out stages” at some point in the next few months – for the big clubs and UEFA alike. Moreover, Platini’s recent alterations to the qualifying format have allowed champions and/or runners-up from ‘lesser’ nations an easier route in qualifying, with those finishing 3rd or 4th (depending on coefficients) in more competitive leagues suffering as a result, meaning the Champions League ‘proper’ has witnessed more debutants, in terms of clubs and nations, than before, with many limply exiting at the first major hurdle.

Two of those debutants this year are Manchester City and Napoli, who both finished 3rd in the Premier League and Serie A respectively after very successful league campaigns. Generally, that sort of form in a major league would cement a club as a favourite to finish at least second in a group. However, while the Champions League looks stronger in general (on paper at least) this year, there is little doubt that the aforementioned two sides have been handed a genuine ‘Group of Death’ upon embarking on their first Champions League campaigns. Drawn together in Group A, they will also face four-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich and the 2006 semi-finalists Villarreal. A group containing four sides from Europe’s top four leagues is quite incredible; but clearly it is as a result of Manchester City’s and Napoli’s lack of European success and experience in recent years. This is in stark contrast to their group rivals: Bayern Munich were competing in the Champions League final a mere 16 months ago, while Villarreal reached the Europa League semi-final last season, beating Napoli along the way.