Finally the transfer window slams shut and we can all discuss football with some common sense. Invariably chatter will focus on the top. Who is going to win the league? Who will challenge for European honours? Which summer transfer will flop and which will justify his big-money move? And while all these are interesting issues, I’d first like to spare a thought for Brighton & Hove Albion.
Seagulls Flying High
Nearly two decades ago my primary school teacher and football coach, the late Malcolm Madden, addressed our weekly school assembly on the subject of his local football club. He began by suggesting most of us supported clubs with the glamour of Manchester United or AC Milan or Liverpool. He, however, supported the team of his hometown, Brighton. Needless to say, none of us knew of the south coast club. His short speech focused on the classic 1983 FA Cup Final, Brighton’s most famous moment, but the gist of his message was to enlighten us international kids about lower league football, local clubs and a whole history of the sport we wouldn’t see on television or read in the sport headlines.
As with most teachings passed on to me in school, I quickly forgot about Brighton. It wasn’t until university that a nearly fatal addiction to Championship Manager led me back to the club. My roommate at the time had also attended the same primary school and, being a good student, remembered Mr. Madden’s speech. So we chose the Seagulls as our virtual project for European domination.
At that time, in the real world, the club was scraping to stay in the Football League, were without a stadium and in dire financial straits. At least things on the pitch were interesting. Bobby Zamora entertained during those four years at university as Brighton won three promotions and suffered relegation. Midtable mediocrity it was not.
Recent investment, a new stadium, promotion and some consistent management under Gus Poyet has injected a Herculean amount of confidence into the club. The Championship can be a tricky league, but Brighton have kicked off spectacularly. A last minute win over Doncaster on the opening day christened their new Amex Stadium. A tidy 1-0 win away to Portsmouth followed and then another away victory, this time incredibly against perennial promotion favourites Cardiff City. They should have beat Blackpool in a match that finished 2-2, then knocked Premiership side Sunderland out of the League Cup before beating fellow Championship new boys Peterborough 2-0 at home.
Despite the media’s constant pestering of Poyet and Co. on the possibility of back-to-back promotions, it’s early, early days. Six matches go by quickly. While the opening six have led to optimism, six matches without a win in mid-winter might have critics and fans singing a different tune. Still, for now, the Seagulls are flying high.
Overdose de los Clasicos
I swore I wouldn’t watch the Spanish Super Cup. Like a scabby, weak addict I promised myself I could quit. Of course I failed, and like most addicts, I was more than glad to. Barcelona might have kept matters at the status quo by winning over the two legs, but Madrid made it more difficult for the La Liga and European Champions than they have for a long time. And some entertainment finally! The nine goals were superb (David Villa’s in the first leg an absolute corker); both sides scored twice away from home and in the second leg we were treated to some nice handbags.
Yes, Barca won again, but Madrid looked to have closed the gap. They had gobs more possession than recent encounters and their pressure off-ball paid dividends. How much of this is down to Mourinho getting the team organized for The Second Season? The only new recruits are in positions that are already well covered (Coentrao looks set to fill in at a few positions; Sahin is totally surplus in a side with Kaka, Ozil, Khaderia, Xavi Alonso, Diarra and Di Maria) so maybe the side has finally gelled and The Special One has the Madrid players finally singing the same song.
Barca, on the other hand, have splashed out big for Alexi Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. Similar to Madrid, these signings seem unnecessary, and on face value could unbalance the best side in the world. Yet, they have the trump card of trump cards: Lionel Messi. No one seems to be talking about Ronaldo vs. Messi any more. It’s obvious that while Ronaldo is a fantastic footballer, Messi is the greatest player today.
Both sides kicked off their league campaigns with big wins. Madrid thrashed Zaragoza six to nil and Barca almost matched them in a five to nil victory against Villareal. La Liga looks set for another dull, pointless season. Fernando Roig, Villareal president, put it best, “If [Real Madrid and Barcelona] only want to have two matches, let them have two matches, but this isn’t good for football. I give it three or four years. Either this changes or we kill Spanish football.”
Bring Your Gooners To The Slaughter
As I began writing this piece Arsenal were in a spot of bother. They’d lost their creative force with the departures of Fabregas and Nasri, their midfield and defense were decimated by injuries and suspensions and they hadn’t even managed to score in their first two league matches. A fortnight later they’ve scored two goals at Manchester United in the league for the first time since 1985, progressed to the Champions League group stages, unleashed a £52 million spending spree and are now in total crisis. Which works out well, because modern football demands a crisis.
Arsenal’s current malaise can be traced back to the humiliating/hilarious Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City. One minute they were on their way to winning the first in a quadruple, with London journo’s licking their lips like they were at a FIFA buffet, and then the next minute they were finishing another trophy-less season with the inevitable painful summer saga of will-he-won’t-he on the horizon.
Well, He finally went. So did Nasri, Ebuoe, Glichy and Bendtner. The latter three though not nearly as talented or crucial to the side were nevertheless experienced first team players with European experience. New recruits Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Gervinho, Park and Santos are all unproven at Champions League level; while Arteta, a quality player, is probably passed his prime. Alex Ferguson is often praised for his ability to rebuild sides. Can his greatest rival Wenger match the Scot and, seven years later, finally rebuild a new side to win major honours?
The Gunners passed their first test and held off a tricky Udinese side to make it through the Champions League qualifying round. At times though the London side rode their luck and things could have been very different had Udinese taken a few more of the chances they created. The group stages, however, won’t be kind as Marseille and Dortmund are difficult places to visit and Wenger has less than two weeks to get his side in order prior to their trip to the Westfalenstadion.
In matters closer to home, Arsenal have, to put it lightly, stuttered. Last weekend, in what cannot be news to anyone, they succumbed to a shocking 8-2 loss at Old Trafford. While the champions were in scintillating form, Arsenal were equally abysmal. Despite fielding a second string squad, due to injuries and suspensions, Wenger set out to play his style of football. But without the quality of Fabregas, Nasri or Wilshere their play had no fluency. And it’s best not to even think about things at the back!
While they certainly won’t suffer a defeat of this magnitude again this season, its hard not to see this frail side struggling, especially away, to sides with the, um, physique of Stoke City and Wolves. The aim, although not publicly, must be a top four spot.