Archive for the ‘Football: Premier League’ Category

Not just a paper tiger …

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This exclusive interview feature in the Independent on Sunday on December 1st has certainly had reper­cus­sions. Including some that for me, as a sports jour­nal­ist, I did not expect. The manner in which one sports editor for whom I’d worked for 14 years has behaved in par­tic­u­lar. Despite the fact I was asked by the Indy to provide a Hull piece, and so went up to carry out the interview in their name, said editor is so miffed he wasn’t offered the story he has brought our asso­ci­a­tion to an end. Not by saying so of course, simply by ignoring any attempts at com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Yes folks, such can be the world of British sports journalism.


Dr Assem Allam: ‘I don’t mind them singing ‘City till we die’.

They can die as soon as they want’

It may be that Dr Assem Allam, the owner of Hull City, is unaware of the unfor­tu­nate his­tor­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions of the descrip­tion “hooligan” in con­nec­tion with the game in this country.

However, it seems unlikely given what else the 74-year-old busi­ness­man has to say about those sup­port­ers who object to his deter­mi­na­tion to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers, and who express their feelings by peaceably unfurling a banner reading “City till I die” at a given point during each home game.

How can they call them­selves fans, these hooligans, this militant minority, when they disturb and distract the players while taking away the rights of others to watch the football, and of companies who have paid good money for their advertising?

If they want to express their feelings they are free to do so, either outside the stadium or pay to take space. Seriously, they are welcome to talk to the stadium man­age­ment about buying a space for a permanent banner, 10 times as big if they want. I am a supporter of democracy. I would have no issue with that.”

So, as happened against Crystal Palace last week, will stewards attempt to prevent a second banner reading “We are Hull City” being displayed during today’s televised game against Liverpool? When they did so against Palace the situation threat­ened to become con­fronta­tional, before wiser counsels prevailed and the banner was allowed a moment – and it wasn’t much more than that – in the spotlight.

According to Allam it will not be his decision, as he insists it was not during the Palace game.

I have pro­fes­sional man­age­ment capable of handling the situation. The main thing is that freedom of expres­sion does not prevent the freedom of others to watch the game, or the rights of those who have paid to advertise.

But can I remind you, we lost that match. And we still talk about these people as ‘fans’? Again, how can you be sup­port­ing a club when you distract attention during a game?”

And the chanting? “I don’t mind ‘City till we die’. They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football.

These people, they want influence and authority without respon­si­bil­ity. The fans went against me when I sacked the previous manager, Nick Barmby, a nice man and a local hero who I liked a lot. But it was my respon­si­bil­ity to act and thank God I did not listen to them. I will never have other people taking decisions while I take responsibility.”

His message, he says, is very straight­for­ward: look at my record and trust me. The alternative?

I’m a simple man. Do they want me to stay? If it’s ‘No thank you’, fine, in 24 hours the club is for sale, I do not put in one more pound and hopefully things happen quickly.”

This appears to be the first time Allam has posited the nuclear option. Because that, effec­tively is what it is. Without his financial support, the club would almost certainly go to the wall, as they were within hours of doing when he paid £27 million to avert an HM Customs and Revenue winding-up order in December 2010.

If that was not an act of pure phil-anthropy, the most cynical would have to acknowl­edge it was not far off. Having arrived from Egypt in 1968 as a penniless refugee from the Nasser regime – he says he was beaten for his oppo­si­tion to the dictator – Allam has become one of the area’s richest men, owner of a company he describes as the country’s biggest inde­pen­dent generator manufacturer.

Political and civil unrest in the Middle East – Allam Marine’s primary export zone – means business is not as good as it was three years ago, when turnover was £185m and he paid himself a dividend of £16m. Even so, this year’s Sunday Times Rich List esti-mated his family’s wealth at £317m.

However, Allam has put plenty back. Hull University, local hospitals and Hull Truck Theatre have variously received sub­stan­tial six– and in some cases seven-figure donations. Two years ago the rugby league club Hull Kingston Rovers were handed £1m. A great squash lover, he has sponsored the British Open – on condition it is played in Hull.

But it is the football club on which Allam has spent by far the largest sum: by last July, he cal­cu­lates, some £66m. It was not, he says, what he orig­i­nally intended: “After the initial £27m, I had in mind to spend another £30m increas­ing the stadium capacity by 10,000 [to 35,500], which would have cost about £12m, and the rest improving the infra­struc­ture, build cafe­te­rias, a small super­mar­ket, a hotel, offices, to allow the club to generate income so it would never have to depend on someone like me again.”

To do so, however, he required the club to acquire the KC Stadium freehold – “Would you build an extension on a house if you were just the tenant?” – and the city council, which built the stadium at a cost of £43.5m (realised by selling a sub­stan­tial share in the unique publicly owned local telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions provider), wanted a co-operative approach.

Whether a com­pro­mise was ever possible is unlikely, but now seems almost impos­si­ble given Allam has severed relations, accusing some coun­cil­lors of publicly mis­rep­re­sent­ing what was said at a meeting between the two parties.

He has still pumped in a further £38m, though, money used to buy the players who got Hull promoted last season, pay the necessary uplift in contracts, then bring in and pay the likes of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to provide a decent chance of staying up.

Hence the need to generate more income, and so the name-change. Or, as he insists, the name-shortening, because he claims the word “Tigers” has been part of the club’s official name “for ages”. This is news to most sup­port­ers, many of whom find the marketing case – that “Hull Tigers” will be a far more effective global brand than Hull City, or even Hull City Tigers – uncon­vinc­ing at best and spurious at worst.

Many feel it is some sort of reaction to the fall-out with the city council. The “No to Hull Tigers” campaign group, an amalgam of the various sup­port­ers’ groups, has been trying des­per­ately to make Allam under­stand that while every fan fully appre­ci­ates what he has done for the club, and is as ambitious for the future as him, tradition also matters.

When he met rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the group recently, Allam admits he was impressed. “They were good listeners and I was a good listener, and someone said, ‘OK, what if we come back to you with alter­na­tive ways of gen­er­at­ing com­mer­cial income?’ I said, ‘I would love that’, we agreed to make a joint statement and that’s how we left it.

Unfortunately they issued their own statement and I am still waiting for them to come up with com­mer­cial alter­na­tives. So far they have only come up with banners and actions that affect the players.”

Even the announce­ment that Hull will be the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 has not given him pause for thought. “I am very pleased about this, but it is not relevant to football. Every-body uses ‘City’, which is why I said it was a common name. What is relevant is colour, logo and name of area. The uni­ver­sity is not Hull City University.

Where were these militant fans when Hull City AFC was dead in December 2010? I made it clear to everybody that I will run the club the only way I know, on sound business policies. That is what I have done, and it is what I will continue to do.

If the majority of fans are saying now, no, it doesn’t work, OK, tell me that and I am off. Not a minority who shout loud, they will not force me out, that would be a Scargill scenario. You remember [Arthur] Scargill? Where is the mining industry now? No.”

If the club stay up this season, Allam believes that next season mid-table will be achiev­able, followed by possible European qual­i­fi­ca­tion. And if not, and the income falls off a cliff?

I don’t want to answer hypo­thet­i­cal questions, but the militant fans will have to deal with the issue. Will it be their fault? If they affect what happens on the pitch it will be. If the majority want me to go, I will. Remember this. Trust me on this.”

Fans: He’s being offensive

The City Till We Die campaign group, who have set up a mem­ber­ship scheme aimed at forming a sup­port­ers’ trust, is asking Dr Allam to launch a con­sul­ta­tion on the issue of the name with all sup­port­ers, using the database of 20,000 season-ticket holders.

In a statement they said: “The intem­per­ate sug­ges­tion that singing ‘City Till I Die’ or holding a banner with Hull City’s name on it con­sti­tutes disorder is ill-informed, unhelpful and will be con­sid­ered by many to be offensive; nor is it credible to believe that such measured actions will have any effect upon the team. We reiterate our advice to all City fans to continue their fine support for our fantastic team while pos­i­tively express­ing a pref­er­ence for our current name. We remain committed to working with the club on this and other issues. We are par­tic­u­larly mindful of Dr Allam’s comments when he took over the club in 2010 about broad­en­ing sup­port­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion at Hull City AFC. We are keen to assist the club with estab­lish­ing this.”

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Written by RichardRae

December 11th, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Onwards and upwards

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So, once again it’s been a while. Odd the way the more you have to do, the more time you find to do it, and vice versa. Or perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, last Saturday night found me at Carrow Road, quite possibly watching a manager’s fate turn on a goal­keeper dropping an easy catch. Here’s the Guardian report on Norwich City 3 West Ham United 1. It’s been mainly football reporting for the last few weeks, as it usually is at this time of year, though I have also written a piece about the Polish racing driver Robert Kubica for The Independent, and I’ve been over to Trent Bridge to interview Chris Read for one of the cricket magazines. Also some BBC days.

More spare time means running is back on the agenda, the moti­va­tion a fourth London Marathon and a fourth PB, which means ducking under 3.30. I’m a long way from that sort of form at the moment, and as I’ve long since learned there are no short cuts, it’s a case of getting my head down and racking up the miles, while avoiding injury. If I can get in four long runs — 18 miles plus — before Christmas, I will have some sort of chance. Being a member of the Stamford Striders helps, massively.

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November 12th, 2013 at 10:59 am

The beautiful game. No, really.

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When you get to watch a lot of football over a long period of time, you do learn something, even if it’s only what you like. Watching Wigan at Carrow Road on Sunday was a really enjoyable experience.

One of the top five managers in this country. Fact.

Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 1: Victor Moses saves a point for wasteful Wigan Athletic at Norwich City

Richard Rae at Carrow Road, Sunday 11 March 2012 18.10 GMT

This was a match Wigan Athletic probably had to win, and it is a match they unques­tion­ably should have won. That they did not do so, despite dom­i­nat­ing for long periods, is likely to prove terminal to their chances of remaining in the Premier League, because included among their next six opponents are Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

At the same time their per­for­mance summed up why Roberto Martínez’s side appear destined for the Championship. Taking only one of at least six out­stand­ing chances rep­re­sented profli­gacy of an almost unfor­giv­able order, though having publicly ques­tioned his manager’s selection policy following the poor per­for­mance in defeat against Swansea City last week the Wigan owner, Dave Whelan, is likely to be more sym­pa­thet­i­cally disposed at this week’s meeting.

It’s been a difficult week, we’ve been a little bit out there in the media, but in the Premier League every week is difficult,” Martínez said. “We were dis­ap­pointed that we lost the game at home but we had been trav­el­ling all over the world and the players were put in a position where they couldn’t compete.”

To go on and describe the pugna­cious Whelan as “a joy”, as Martínez did, may have been over-egging it a little, but there is little doubt the rela­tion­ship between them remains strong, and is likely to remain so even if the Latics do go down, not least because if they play like this in the Championship they will surely come straight back up.

The manner in which they fell behind in itself spoke volumes. Instead of hoofing a backpass back upfield, the Wigan goal­keeper, Ali al-Habsi, was trying to pick out one of his players when he side-footed the ball into touch. Norwich then simply reacted more urgently than their opponents, Simeon Jackson running on to Adam Drury’s quickly taken throw-in and crossing for Wes Hoolahan, having got in front of his marker Gary Caldwell, to somehow steer the ball over the des­per­ately reaching Habsi.

Wigan’s reaction was impres­sive, and as always under Martínez, measured. At times their passing had Norwich chasing shadows and they created enough shooting oppor­tu­ni­ties to have drawn level well before the break. Jean Beausejour shot straight at John Ruddy, as did Hugo Rodallega soon after­wards, and Emmerson Boyce saw a cross deflected on to the Norwich bar. Rodallega’s miss two minutes before the break was a bad one. Ruddy could not hold Jordi Gómez’s shot but although Rodallega was first to the rebound, the Colombian spooned his attempt to turn the ball past the men on the line high over the bar.

The visitors continued to pile on the pressure in the second half and, with just over 20 minutes remaining, it told. The man who made the dif­fer­ence was a sub­sti­tute, Shaun Maloney, whose threaded ball between the Norwich centre-halves put Victor Moses clear. The former Crystal Palace winger dribbled around Ruddy and turned the ball into the empty net.

Both sides then had great chances to win the game, Wigan twice through Mohamed Diamé, Norwich twice through Steve Morison. Diamé missed the target both times, once from no more than six yards, while Morison at least forced Habsi to make one out­stand­ing save.

It was always going to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest game, because of the expectancy,” said the relieved Norwich manager, Paul Lambert, whose starting XI included nine of the players who started the Championship game against Portsmouth last season which secured them promotion.

I’ve always thought that if you can’t win a game, don’t lose it. We showed great resilience and we had to, but it’s another point towards safety. I don’t think you can switch off. The league is too big, too demanding. Until someone shows you are math­e­mat­i­cally safe you keep going.”

That sought-after status may already have been secured. Most managers seem to think that 36 points will be enough this season, and Norwich, in 12th, have already amassed that total. Wigan, on 21 points, remain at the foot of the table.

The belief is always there that we can stay up,” Martínez said. “From the outside the first team to go down is always Wigan Athletic but that’s never affected us, you learn to live with that.

We are bottom of the league but we don’t play like a team at the bottom of the league. That makes me very proud and there are 30 points still to play for. We are ready for the rest of the season.”

Man of the match James McCarthy (Wigan Athletic)

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Written by RichardRae

March 12th, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Give them their Villa back

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Shall I play five in midfield? Or six?

It was a genuine shock to see what Aston Villa, cus­tom­ar­ily a top eight club, have been reduced to. Or to be exact, what their manager Alex McLeish has reduced them to. Surely, surely, you have to trust your creative players enough to have a bit of a go. After all, if he’s sacked he’ll have a great severance deal — I well remember him telling us it was the first thing in any contract he sorted out.
And another poor headline, given the piece is all about Villa.

Wigan 0 Aston Villa 0: Wigan peer into the abyss

Richard Rae at The DW Stadium

The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, signed off his programme notes with the Spanish phrase Sin Miedo, meaning he intends his side to play without fear. It is a concept that seems alien to Aston Villa’s manager, Alex McLeish.

To the increas­ingly noisy frus­tra­tion of the Villa sup­port­ers, the Scot’s caution in the way he sets up his team is reducing once creative players to frus­trated, ges­tic­u­lat­ing ciphers of their former selves, their instincts stifled. “We want our Villa back,” chanted the away fans after 70 sterile minutes, once McLeish, with Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland also on the bench, turned first to Emile Heskey.

To make matters worse, shortly after­wards McLeish lost Darren Bent to an ankle ligament injury. McLeish expressed fears he could be out for a lengthy spell. The striker is almost certain to miss England’s game against Holland on Wednesday.

That Villa left the DW stadium with a point, however, against a side who have won once at home all season, was jus­ti­fi­ca­tion enough for McLeish. “Our con­cen­tra­tion was good today, I don’t think Wigan really pen­e­trated, and we had the best chances,” he said. “The fans expect Aston Villa to come to Wigan and win.”

Wigan played neat, thought­ful football but made rel­a­tively few chances and still remain in with a chance of avoiding rel­e­ga­tion. They dominated pos­ses­sion but it was Villa who went closest to scoring, first when Keane’s shot was turned around the post by Wigan goal­keeper Ali Al Habsi, and then when the Irishman put Bent clear on goal.

Again Al Habsi came to Wigan’s rescue, blocking the shot with his knees, and he was once more in the right place to save when Carlos Cuellar had a free header on the six-yard line. Wigan’s best chances came in the second period, Franco di Santo forcing a good diving save from Shay Given, and then Mohamed Diame setting up Hugo Rodallega to shoot over the bar.

The per­for­mance was something to be extremely pleased about,” said Martinez. “We tested them enough to get three points but we needed a little lucky bounce.

But to be able to play against a team like Aston Villa and be as dominant as we were suggests a big scoreline for us is just around the corner.”

Wigan Athletic: Al Habsi 8, Alcarez 7, Caldwell 7, Boyce 6, Figueroa 7, McCarthy 7 (Diame 78min), McArthur 7, Beausejour 7, Di Santo 7, Moses 7 (Crusat 89min), Gomez 6 (Rodallega 65min)

Aston Villa: Given 7, Hutton 6, Collins 7, Cuellar 7, Warnock 6, Albrighton 5 (Heskey 70min), Gardner 6 (Ireland 74min), Bannan 5, Agbonlahor 5, Keane 7, Bent 5 (N’Zogbia 78min)

Originally published in The Sunday Times

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Written by RichardRae

February 26th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Who’s better value: Holt or Torres?

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Grant Holt, Holt, Holt (repeat ad infinitum)

No doubt it was deeply unfair to compare Norwich City’s Grant Holt and Chelsea’s Fernando Torres purely on their goal-scoring record this season, but given the respec­tive transfer fees it was also inevitable. This piece in the Indy got 73 Facebook rec­om­men­da­tions and was retweeted 64 times, so it pleased some.

Norwich’s £400k striker is proving he can hold his own with the mul­ti­mil­lion pound men

Richard Rae

Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they are irre­sistible, and 12.45pm at Carrow Road today is surely one of those times. On one side will be Fernando Torres, the former Atletico Madrid and Liverpool striker for whom Chelsea paid £50m, who has scored two Premier League goals in 16 appear­ances this season. On the other will be Grant Holt, the former Barrow and Shrewsbury forward for whom Norwich paid £400,000, who has scored seven in 20.

Unfair? To Holt and to his team-mates, def­i­nitely. The Cumbrian’s return for the Canaries is impres­sive, but if there is one thing the Premier League considers it has learned about Norwich this season it is that the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Less readily acknowl­edged seems to be the fact that those indi­vid­ual parts are of a con­sid­er­ably higher quality than many people were prepared to admit.

Holt is a pretty good example. Given the quality of the goals he has scored and the assists he has provided this season, one of these days people might stop referring to him as “old-fashioned”. Not many who were at The Hawthorns last Saturday to see him sprint down the left wing before curling in a perfect cross for Steve Morison to head home City’s second-half winner against West Bromwich Albion would continue to place him in that category.

Well, I’m certainly old, but I know what you’re getting at,” the 30-year-old smiles, a little wryly. “A lot of people have put me in a bracket where they think all you get from me is, ‘Stick it up in the air and Grant Holt will knock it about.’ I think people are slowly starting to realise I’m much more than that really. Those who saw my turn of pace down that left wing last week… it took a few people by surprise.”

As he quickly points out, however, hoping he has been value for money is not the same as saying he has been better value for money than Torres.

You’re only worth what someone wants to pay for you, so if someone wants to pay £50m for him that’s what he’s worth, and someone pays 400 grand for me, that’s what I’m worth. Actually, with the club just having been relegated into League One [in July 2009] I was a big invest­ment, but I’m hoping they think I’ve been good value for that.

Of course I’m happy I’ve got more goals than him, but I’ve got more goals than a few. I’m not going to get drawn into that [comparing my record with Torres], because if he wants to he can bring his World Cup winner’s medal to the table. I’d have that.”

Of rather more interest to Holt is why and how he and Norwich continue to out-perform expec­ta­tions this season, so much so that even those pes­simists who cite Blackpool’s late collapse last season have begun to go quiet. As their manager, Paul Lambert, said yesterday, Norwich could still undergo a similar slide – but it has to be accepted that the two clubs are very different animals.

For Holt, Lambert is one of the reasons why. Like his players, the Scot has learned with every game, and in terms of tactics and systems has made City into arguably the most flexible side in the division.

The thing we’ve got at the minute is I don’t think any opposing manager knows what team we’ll be putting out until the team-sheet goes in, and when you do that it’s very difficult for the oppo­si­tion to work on through the week on the basis we will come with a 4–5-1 or 4–4-2, because they just never know,” said Holt.

Against Chelsea, we ourselves won’t know who is starting until the morning of the game. From Monday to Friday you train on the basis you’re going to play, so that whichever formation he goes with you’re ready for the challenge. It gives you that belief that if your name is written up there, he knows you are ready for that game, and that’s what he’s going with.”

It helps, says Holt, that Lambert clearly trusts in the ability of every member of the squad.

A lot of lads travel [to away games], he keeps the squad really tight-knit, that’s the way we’ve done it for the last two years now and it’s worked. But it doesn’t matter whether you play five minutes or 90 with the gaffer, he expects the same level of performance.

When he tells you something you listen, and if you don’t listen you’re out. He doesn’t need to say anything to me – he knows, and I know, what he expects from me, and when he puts me in the team he knows what he’s going to get, and if I drop from that he’ll be the first to jump up and tell me.”

At the same time, he says, it has helped that Norwich’s players have learned what to expect from each other. “I think that’s what has started to happen over the last six or seven weeks – everyone knows what Anthony Pilkington is going to do, that if Elliott Bennett gets the ball wide he’s going to put it in. I know if I get the ball wide Stevie [Morison] will be at the back stick.”

The like­li­hood is that whatever formation Lambert decides is likeliest to confuse Andre Villas-Boas, at some stage in the afternoon Holt and Morison will be matched against John Terry and Gary Cahill. “You want to test yourself against the best, and when you look at them two they won’t be far off being England’s two centre-halves this summer,” said Holt. “We played against Cahill at Bolton and ‘Moro’ gave him a good game, and I gave John a good game at Chelsea, It’ll be a good battle.”

Rather better than many people predicted, in fact.

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Written by RichardRae

February 8th, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 2: Away win delights Dalglish

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Dalglish makes his point.

First-half goals from Craig Bellamy and Martin Skrtel give Liverpool a com­fort­able victory and lift them to sixth in the table

by Richard Rae

That Liverpool would win this game was, given the teams’ respec­tive form going into the match, very much to be expected. Less expected was the comfort with which they would do so. Managers may con­stantly insist there are no easy games in the Premier League but this was as straight­for­ward a victory as the Reds will enjoy this season.

The only downside, from the point of view of Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, was his side’s failure to take more than two of the many chances they created against a Villa side that looked bereft of con­fi­dence, as well as their two England strikers. In the cir­cum­stances their failure to test the visitors’ defence was under­stand­able: their manifest defensive frailty was not.

Already missing the suspended Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa manager Alex McLeish could have done without losing his other England inter­na­tional forward, Darren Bent, to a hip problem. In their absence McLeish gave Emile Heskey a start against his former club, playing up front alongside Nathan Delfouneso.

The Liverpool line-up was also changed, Dalglish bringing in Craig Bellamy and Jonjo Shelvey for Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt, a selection that was amply justified after just 11 minutes.

It was already apparent that the extra man in midfield was giving the visitors more options when Stewart Downing, the manner of whose leaving Villa for Liverpool last summer ensured he was booed by the home fans from the start, won a corner on the right. Downing took it and his low, swinging delivery was flicked towards goal by Shelvey. Luis Suarez’s attempt to touch the ball home was blocked by Villa goal­keeper Brad Guzan but the rebound was turned in by Bellamy.

It was a poor goal to concede from a defensive point of view — three times in the Villa penalty area, Liverpool players had been first to the ball — but not as poor as Liverpool’s second four minutes later. Again Bellamy was involved, this time taking a corner from the left that Martin Skrtel, whose simple run towards the near post was enough to confuse both Richard Dunne and Alan Hutton, to glance a header neatly beyond Guzan and into the top corner.

The reaction of the home fans was one of res­ig­na­tion as much as anger, but the response on the field was a little more positive. Charles N’Zogbia, drifting into a central position, drove a clean shot a foot over Pepe Reina’s bar before again making the Liverpool goal­keeper scramble with a shot into the side-netting. Delfouneso then met a Marc Albrighton free kick on the six-yard line only to fail to keep his header down, but Villa were up against the team with the best defensive record in the Premier League this season and as half-time approached, Liverpool’s sense of comfort was obvious.

With a rel­a­tively inex­pe­ri­enced bench high­light­ing his club’s lack of playing resources, McLeish made no changes at half-time and almost saw his team go three down within less than a minute of the restart. Bellamy’s firmly driven cross from the left cleared the final defender but the stretch­ing Daniel Agger, arriving in at the far post, could not get his header on target.

Villa’s defending did not improve. First Hutton gave the ball away to Bellamy, and then Dunne, having appar­ently got to the resulting pass into the penalty area ahead of Suarez, allowed the Uruguyan to steal it back. Suarez then cut easily inside James Collins, but with only Guzan to beat, smashed his shot against the underside of the bar.

Stephen Warnock was the next Villa defender to give the ball away, and again his side was lucky not to be punished, Guzan diving to his right to keep out Glen Johnson’s shot. Suarez, who compared with his teammates had been looking a little out of sorts from the start, produced an out­stand­ing piece of skill to chip Guzan only to see the ball come back off the inside of the post. It was the 17th occasion Liverpool had hit the woodwork this season.

With the game in danger of becoming a pro­ces­sion. Shelvey brought another diving save from Guzan, and Charlie Adam, with Shelvey unmarked to his right, saw a goal-bound shot deflected just wide.

Aware of many tougher battles to come, Liverpool eased off. Villa’s third defeat in four home matches, lifting their visitors to sixth in the league table, had been long since assured.

Aston Villa: Guzan, Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Albrighton, Delph (Weimann 80min), Petrov, N’Zogbia, Heskey (Bannan 56min), Delfouneso

Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique, Downing, Adam, Shelvey (Carragher 83min), Henderson, Bellamy (Kuyt 88min), Suarez (Carroll 73min)

Originally published in The Sunday Times on Sunday 18 December 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 18th, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Stoke 2 Tottenham 1: Redknapp fumes after run ended

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Apparently awkward, but always effective: Peter Crouch in the act of setting up Stoke’s first goal. (Jamie McDonald)

White Hart Lane old boy dents his former club’s title bid with first-half double to condemn Spurs to their first league defeat since August

by Richard Rae

When three of a club’s former players start for the oppo­si­tion, the odds against what Italians refer to as ‘the immutable law of the ex’ coming into effect are long indeed, and sure enough, two goals from Matthew Etherington, the first created by Peter Crouch, duly brought Spurs’ winning run to an end.

Not, however, before Stoke survived a period of pressure made all the more remark­able by what had gone before. For an hour, the Potters had produced a per­for­mance which appeared to have put talk about Spurs being serious con­tenders for the Premier League title firmly into context. That the visitors responded, and in the end were des­per­ately unlucky not to take a point from the game after being the victim of several clearly incorrect ref­er­ee­ing decisions, suggested that talk may not be quite so far-fetched after all.

The decisions were incred­i­ble,” shrugged Spurs manager Harry Redknapp. “We didn’t play well in the first half and they deserved to be in front, but we changed com­pletely in the second half, we really got after them and really deserved something from the game. I never complain about referees, but it was dis­ap­point­ing today.”

Etherington very nearly worked the oracle within a few seconds of the start, with a crisp, low volley which Spurs goal­keeper Brad Friedel had to be at his best to save. That Spurs were rattled was evident when full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto lost pos­ses­sion to Jon Walters only a few feet outside his penalty area: he was fortunate that the Stoke forward pulled his shot across the face of the goal. The pressure continued as Ryan Shotton’s long throw was then glanced on by Crouch for Walters to head just over.

With Jonathan Woodgate’s lack of pace at right-back, Spurs’ game plan must have involved getting Gareth Bale on the ball as much as possible, but it was ten minutes before the Welsh flyer finally got a run down the left. When he did so he left Woodgate trailing, but Robert Huth cleared the cross.

Otherwise Stoke’s dominance was remark­able, and it paid off on 13 minutes. Shotton’s deflected cross was nodded on by Walters, and though Crouch’s initial attempt to control the ball saw it run away from him — having appeared to strike his arm — the tall striker’s per­sis­tence saw him somehow retain pos­ses­sion before turning the ball back across goal, leaving Friedel out of position and giving Etherington the chance to side-foot the ball joyfully into the empty net.

It was no more than Stoke deserved. Rafael van der Vaart’s tame shot after 23 minutes, easily saved by Thomas Sorensen, was not just their first effort on target, it was their first effort on goal of any kind, and they continued to look shaky at the back, espe­cially in the air.

Two minutes remained in the first half when Stoke extended their lead, and there was nothing sur­pris­ing about how the goal came about. Shotton’s long throw from the right was glanced on by Walters — who had won just about every ball in the air he had contested — and Etherington, this time slightly for­tu­itously, again swept the ball past Friedel.

Redknapp made changes, bringing on Sebastien Bassong to give the defence more aerial presence, Jermain Defoe to give the attack more focus, and switching to a 3–5-2 formation. Gradually Spurs’ share of pos­ses­sion began to increase. A series of crosses were repelled by Stoke, but on the hour Luka Modric tricked Glenn Whelan into fouling him the penalty area. Emmanuel Adebayor sent Sorensen the wrong way from the spot, and suddenly the visitors began to hit their straps. Scott Parker brought a flying save from Sorensen and Adebayor curled a shot just wide.

Now it was all Spurs, and Stoke were twice fortunate not to concede another penalty, most obviously when Younes Kaboul, coming in at the far post to meet a Modric cross, clearly hit the ball against the elbow of Ryan Shawcross on the line.

To rub salt in the wound the ball was returned into the penalty area for Adebayor to beat Sorensen, only for the striker to be ruled offside. When the pass was played, he was a good yard onside.

The harsh dismissal of Kaboul in the 82nd minute for a second yellow card stemmed the purple tide, and there­after Stoke held out without too many problems. Indeed Shawcross almost extended their lead, first bringing a fine save from Friedel, and then heading the sub­se­quent corner against the top of the bar.

After four con­sec­u­tive defeats, three wins in a row have lifted Stoke to eighth. “Against a team that have been flying, we showed what we were about,” said Crouch. “I think Spurs are going to go very close this season, so this is a massive result for us.”

Stoke City (4–4-2): Sorensen 7: Woodgate 6 (Delap 84), Huth 7, Shawcross 7, Wilson 6: Shotton 7, Whitehead 6, Whelan 6, Etherington 7 (Palacios 89): Walters 8, Crouch 7. Not used: Begovic, Upson, Jones, Fuller, Jerome.

Tottenham Hotspur (4–4-2): Friedel 6: Walker 6, Kaboul 6, Gallas 5, Assou-Ekotto 5 (Bassong 46, 7): Lennon 5 (Defoe 46, 6), Parker 6, Modric 6, Bale 6: Van der Vaart 4 (Giovani 88), Adebayor 5. Not used: Gomes, Corluka, Sandro, Pienaar.

Originally published in The Sunday Times Online on Sunday 11 December 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 12th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Wigan 0 Arsenal 4: Gunners find their range

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There are ways to lose .…

December is a month to enjoy, said Roberto Martinez, but there were no smiles among Wigan’s sup­port­ers as they left the DW stadium

Richard Rae at the DW Stadium

December is a month to enjoy, said Wigan’s manager, Roberto Martinez, before this match, but there were no smiles among the home sup­port­ers as they left the DW stadium having witnessed humil­i­a­tion on a grand scale.

So much so, in fact, that it was hard not to feel sorry for Martinez in the final few minutes of the game, as he stood unmoving on the touchline in teeming rain. His theory is that with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United among the Latics’ opponents during this last month of the year, Wigan could play without the burden of expec­ta­tion, but on this evidence there is little hope for them.

The Spaniard’s crumb of comfort is that few teams are likely to come here and pick his team apart in the manner that Arsenal did, once Wigan had given them a two-goal start. “We had too much for Wigan today. We looked solid at the back, we didn’t lose too many fights, and we saw some out­stand­ing com­bi­na­tions,” said Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, before pointing out with a smile that the pitch, of which he had been critical in the past, has improved.

Yet of the two managers, Martinez must have been the happier after seeing his team enjoy much the better of the opening quarter hour. In the sixth minute Jordi Gomez looked certain to score after David Jones’ cross was palmed straight to him by the diving Wojciech Szczesny, and the Arsenal goal­keeper must have been relieved when Gomez’s shot deflected wide off Andre Santos.

Arsenal were patient, however, and Wigan’s initial surge had not long subsided before the visitors started asking questions of their own. Gary Caldwell was fortunate that his botched attempt to clear Theo Walcott’s cross rebounded into the hands of his goal­keeper, Ali Al Habsi, but not long there­after the visitors took the lead. Mikel Arteta’s shot from about 22 yards was hit firmly and moved in the air but it should have been saved by Al Habsi; the goal­keeper dived and mistimed the flight of the ball so badly that it went straight through his hands.

Barely 90 seconds later, Arsenal were two ahead. Again Wigan’s defence had cause for embar­rass­ment, in that Gary Caldwell and Conor Sammon allowed Thomas Vermaelen to meet a corner from the Arsenal right with a header which, while well placed just inside the post, might again have been saved by Al Habsi.

Wigan fans who believed all was not entirely lost, given that Arsenal had let slip two-goal leads at this ground in each of the two previous seasons, were quickly disabused of the notion after the break. Although Martinez made changes after an hour, Gervinho, on hand after Robin van Persie’s shot was saved, made it three, and from that point on Wigan saw little of the ball.

Amazingly, Van Persie shot over with only Al Habsi to beat but just when it looked as though Arsenal were going to win a game in which the prolific Dutchman did not score, Walcott’s pace left Caldwell gasping and the England winger unselfishly pulled the ball back for Van Persie to register his 14th Premier League goal of the season.

It could have been more, but Wenger’s triple sub­sti­tu­tion took the rhythm out of Arsenal’s attacking game. That said, Yossi Benayoun should have made it five when put clear, but his attempt to lob the ball over Al Habsi lacked power and was cleared off the line by Caldwell.

After a good start we conceded two really soft goals and giving them that cushion helped them to use their expe­ri­ence and take control,” said Martinez. “We have to give them credit for taking advantage of the strong lead we gave them but we have to learn not to be affected by conceding goals. There are ways to lose and today we lost a little bit too easily.”

Wigan: Al Habsi 4, Stam 5, Gohouri 5, Caldwell 4, Figueroa 5, McCarthy 5, Diame 5 (McArthur 88min), Jones 6, Sammon 5 (Di Sato 59min, 5), Gomez 5, Moses 6 (Crusat 59min, 6)

Arsenal: Szczesny 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 7, Santos 6, Walcott 7 (Benayoun 79min) Song 7 (Arshavin 79min), Arteta 8, Ramsey 7, Gervinho 7 (Coquelin 79min), Van Persie 7

Originally published in The Sunday Times on December 4th, 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 4th, 2011 at 12:42 pm