Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Premier League 2011/12 Review - Week#2 - Tuesday 23rd August

Week 2 of the Premier League will be remembered as one where the wheels came off at Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs laid down markers for the season.

Firstly, lets start with the bad news at the Emirates.  Arsenal lost 2-0 at home to a cohesive Liverpool side, admittedly it took the needless sending off of Frimpong (two in two for Arsenal on that front) and the introduction of Luis Suarez to inject something into the rain-soaked affair.  Suarez's intervention led to Aaron Ramsey putting through his own net, though a clearance ricocheting off his chest over the stranded Sczezeny can be construed as unlucky, and then Suarez tapped in the sealer in injury time.  
    Before that Arsenal looked limp in attack - devoid of creation and impetus.  The encouraging aspect was that Frimpong was the best player before his dismissal, but the constant ill discipline (81 players sent off in the Wenger era) coupled with absentism through injury of vital players such as Wilshere, means that Arsenal have started the season with no continuity and no formula for success.  Along with the uncomfortable saga of Samir Nasri's move to Man.City and you have an anguished Wenger on the sidelines cluthcing at straws putting a team together as best he can. 
    And all this before a vital Champions League play-off game on Wednesday night in Italy against Udinese, where Arsenal hold a tentative one-nil lead - though Udinese showed enough combative effort to make sure that the second leg will not be easy.  Arsenal may well score, but the lack of Wilshere travelling means Wenger may force City's bluff and play Nasri rendering him cup-tied for the season in that competition.

Man.City kept up there 100% record beating Bolton 3-2 at the Reebok thanks to goals from David Silva, Gareth Barry and Edin Dzeko. 
   Silva was inspirational, whilst Agureo looked a little off the pace in his first start - later to be substituted by Tevez in a like for like situation.  Dzeko led the front well and relishes the prospect of having two people behind him feeding balls to him, and he took the third goal well.
    However, it is in defence where the questions will be asked.  Kompany and Lescott could not handle the imposing presence of Kevin Davies, who scored Bolton's second with a header simply by outjumping Lescott.
    If Mancini, has the belief that they can outscore every team then they probably are capable but teams will ask more questions of their defence than Bolton did, and last year's incarnation of City would probably have dropped points.

As for Man.Utd, they joined their neighbours and Wolves as the only teams who are perfect.  United continued their impressive PL record at home against Spurs, not losing at home to them since 1989 when Gary Lineker scored a winner.  Gazza did not cry until 1990, now he cries all the time, thats how long ago Spurs last won at Old Trafford.
   Spurs, playing there first league game of the season, following the postponement of their home game to Everton following the civil unrest in the area looked a bit of the pace by the end of the game, but for an hour more than held their own against the Champions.  Good in possession, creating chances and with Van der Vaart employing a shoot on sight policy against the ropey David de Gea, Tottenham looked good for a point.  Until the hour mark when a cross from the ever stable Tom Cleverley was met by the head of Danny Welbeck who again started with Rooney. 
    After that, the wind fell out of Tottenham and the fight left them and United with the lead and the superiority and a typical boisterous crowd roaring them on, had the wind in their sails.  And it was scary at how good United looked, the last half hour was a passage of irresistible passing and movement, never more apparent than the second goal when Welbeck in a one-two with scorer, Anderson, backheeled to the Brazilian who had an easy task of scoring past Brad Friedel, who was impressive in goal on his Spurs' debut and was blameless for any of the goals. 
   Jermain Defoe hit the post on 88 minutes, and that might have made it interesting but the introduction of a trifecta subs of Hernandez, Park and youngster Giggs meant United could keep possession of the ball and Giggs duly teed up Rooney for the third with a well-placed header.

City may be going to plan at the moment, but United worryingly look a better side at this stage with a stronger squad this season compared to last year's Champions League finalists.  With Vidic and Ferdinand injured, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans did an admirable job and maintained a clean sheet, no matter how many times De Gea fumbled the ball - Cleverley is growing slowly in stature, Ashley Young is offering something different on the wing and Welbeck's loan spell at Sunderland has paid dividends as he looks stronger and hungry to impress up front this season.  And Fergie has Chicarito and Berbatov available on the bench, and he could still add to the squad with nine days left of the transfer window.

United were my prediction for the title and so far (apart from that worrying keeper) they remain the favourites in that degree.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie

Firstly, lets set something straight.  Some people will like this film because they like the C4/E4 sitcom, whereas some small-minded film critics will hate this film because they did not get a chance to see this film before everyone else.  The distributors did not allow press/preview screenings so one notable film review site gave it a 1-star vicious review.  It does not matter what this reviewer thinks of this film, it does not matter what that reviewer thinks of said movie.  The Inbetweeners Movie is critic-proof, the producers and writers - Iain Morris and Damon Beesley - are hoping that people who liked the show and invested time in the 'shittest boy band ever' to go see them again, and this time pay £7-9 to do so.  They are entrusting the fans to spread the word of mouth, and they will not be disappointed.

Like most British sitcoms that go big screen, it involves our motley crew going on abroad on holiday (a la Kevin and Perry Go Large) to indulge in 'sex, beer, girls, sex, beer, sex, minge, fannny, vag, sex and sex' - to quote Jay (James Buckley)

The film cleverly sets up the Inbetweeners for people who have never seen the television series in the first 15 minutes, giving a basis of all the guys in brief, along with school and the embarassing parents.  Then the holiday starts as they arrive at Gatwick in all pink matching t-shirts with nom de plumes on the back such as Mr.Ladykiller for Neil and Mr. I Fuck Kids for Will, although Mr. I Touch Kids would have been funnier, as all the characters swear enough for us to laugh, we do not have to read a swear word also.

The boys check in to a grotty apartment, there is a joke about a bidet and then they hit the town at the emptiest bar in town, when the boys attempt to dance to entice some girls when talking to them would do the trick.  From there on in, we have situation comedy on the big screen and the film does play like a feature-length special of the sitcom with a fist-fight between friends and new girlfriends ditching them. There is also the threat of the gym rat muscle bound rep who is all chessy smile but no class.  Tellingly, the boys do not stand up to him in a fight (as anticpated), but instead the characters do not break their seal and do something unexpected.  We all know these four cannot fight, so the douche gets his comeuppance another way that saves the boys face and makes the rep look stupid.

Most of the characters remain the same - Will (Simon Bird) is the straight man of the piece though the most un-PC when it comes to a wheelchair bound holidaymaker; Neil (Blake Harrison) gets all the best lines and has some enlightening theories on theology and religion; Jay (Buckley) is gross but is just that guy who says what you think and after initial resentment develops a fondness for the fat bird who is his equal, whilst Simon (Joe Thomas) is the odd one of the group.  He gets a storyline, his girlfriend Carly dumps him, prompting the holiday for the group but he acts like a complete tool when missing her and is downright disrespectful to Lucy, the new girl who actually likes her.  Generic conventions clearly mark out that Carly is bad (blonde, bimbo, user) and Lucy is good (brunette, smart, honest).

The film ends happily enough, with all the boys paired up and genuinely happy.  Although the writers have indicated this may be the last we see of the boys for a few years, as a fan I would be impressed with this send-off.  The gags and laughs come thick and fast in the same method as the sitcom; embarassing scenarios, bad language, gross humour and some nice touches of humanity; when Will is facedown in an ant's nest similar to Jay earlier in the piece, Jay is the one who picks him up and carries him to bed, a moment that Jay would not have done in the sitcom.

And unlike that other critic-proof movie that made shedloads of cash (The Hangover Part 2), this movie actually held my attention an made me laugh out loud on more than just the two occasions that inferior American product did.

In A Better World

In spite of other competing more notable films, Biutiful for instance, In A Better World won the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film at this years Academy Awards surprising many people.

The film now gets its English release, from Axiom Films, and it is a compelling picture full of ideas and theories about violence and pacifism.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works for Medecins Sans Frontieres in a war-torn country of Africa, where he regularly treats pregnant women who are mutilated by a warlord who bets on the sex of the foetus before birth.  When said warlord himself becomes injured, should the good doctor treat a man who has killed a woman he could not save.  Such moral dilemmas abound in this film. 

Our good doctor is currently separated from his beautiful wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) yet remains close to his children.  His youngest, Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school and only finds refuge through the friendship of the new boy, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) who confronts and stands up to the bully.

Anton then encounters a local ruffian who slaps him in front of the children.  His passivity to the attack, and his argument that if he fights back he is but merely the equal of this lout, serves notice to the children.  And yet here is where the films message becomes hazy - violence begets violence, and the case is made clear by young Christian's actions where the innocent get injured.

However, for all the moral quandry and minefield of social troubles, the film remains a brilliantly acted film by a sterling cast who although spending a lot of the time in humdrum poses do exhibit a warmth when required.  Susanne Bier constructs a telling observation of the slowly decaying nuclear family - all of the characters are touched by abandonment, divorce and/or death, and yet Bier has a track record in deconstructing family relationships - After The Wedding (2006), Brothers (2004)

The cinematography by Morten Soborg of both the harsh desert in Africa and the lush countryside of suburbia in Denmark is shot expertly and gives a real stillness to proceedings in contrast to the many questions abounding on screen. 

Given greater credence following the tragic events in the neighbouring Scandanavian country of Norway, In A Better World shows that violence may well get results but ultimately it is the last resort when communication breaks down, or violence is a sign of weakness of the socially inept.

The original title of the film Haeven may look like Heaven, but is in fact 'Revenge', the filmmakers cleverly chose a better English-language title - as the sheer optimism of its title means an audience familiar with Bier's oeuvre will guarantee an arthouse audience.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Barcelona v Real Madrid - The Never-Ending Rivalry

After last season's incredible string of four El Clasico games in 16 days, Real Madrid and Barcelona returned to warfare in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup last night at the Santiago Bernabeu in the traditional two-legged tie between the La Liga Champions and Copa del Rey winners.

In what should be a pre-season warm up and run out for players returning from international duty, the game last night took on a session of bragging rights and holding ground before the season starts properly. 

What transpired was a game befitting the term El Clasico, the greatest pre-season friendly ever seen, a match played at such a pace, with such cut and thrust, it left that which the Premier League could offer over its first weekend proper trailing in its wake. 

The sheer physicality deployed by Real Madrid was brutal, and typical of Jose Mourinho's side.  The midfield cannot match the gracefulness of Xavi and Iniesta, so instead intend to disrupt their flow by fouling and leaving a mark in the tackle, as Barca attempt to ghost away from challenges.  Pepe and Xabi Alonso were generals of this army, with new baby-faced assassin Callejon joining the fray with a half hour remaining targeting Xavi especially.

Madrid started off much the livelier and gaining the lead after a dozen minutes when Benzema laid on a square pass to Mezut Ozil to convert pass Victor Valdes who was the busier of the two goalkeepers.  And yet it was his opposite number, Iker Casillas who had to pick the ball out of the net twice.  Firstly, due to a wonderful curler by David Villa and then by another slalom run by Messi who capitalised on some tentative defending by Madrid and then outmuscled any tacklers to give Barca a narrow (yet undeserving) half-time lead.

In the second half, the physicality to disrupt the Barcelona tempo was more apparent and eventually it came to fruition when after a scramble at a corner, Alonso placed a shot in the corner past a flat-footed Valdes, although the lack of attempted block and defenders turning their back will leave much for Guardiola to ponder - even though they hold the upper hand before the 2nd leg on Wednesday night at the Nou Camp.

When Madrid looked lively, I wondered if that was what we were going to see.  A hungry and tenacious Madrid side who want to usurp Barcelona from the throne of Spain and Europe, a squad fully fit with new faces, whilst in Catalunya a team who may have reached their zenith and pinnacle.  Messi and Alves looked tired after their Copa America exertions, yet Alexis Sanchez looked a great buy - a strong, versatile frontman who made good runs and defending from the front.

However, once the game got longer the thirst of competition and the rivalry came to the surface, Barcelona did not want to give their long-term rivals an inch of victory over them or anything to shout about.  The Madrid onslaught in the last ten minutes could not muster a winner, and yet this pulsating tie has a second chapter in two days time.  If it is anything like this game, it may leave you breathless but expectant for the forthcoming Spanish domestic campaign.

Premier League Review - 15th August 2011

And we are off.  The 20th Premier League season has begun, with less fanfare than recent years.  Perhaps it is because it has not come on the back of another dismal international campaign by our ever failing national team.  The constant rumours of transfer dealings occuring between London and Barcelona, and Manchester and Milan or Argentina seems to have taken most of the headlines. 

However, Manchester now holds two title contenders with one still firmly set in the west of London.  With two more in the northern territory of the capital with a sleeping giant of Liverpool attempting to waken from a season of slumber of last year.  Liverpool aim to recapture glory by splashing out, all for the guarantee of the treasured fourth place.  Seemingly, the season looks like a three-horse race for the title with three gunning for one place.

Arsenal gained 4th place and yet with the departure now of club captain, Cesc Fabregas to his beloved Barcelona, the future seems uncertain at the Emirates.  The talisman has gone, leaving two teenagers to protect a midfield.  The opportunity for Liverpool or Tottenham to snatch fourth is there.

I predicted a top 4 of United, Chelsea, City and Liverpool, if Fabregas was sold.  Now I look assured in my selection.

As for the first weekend of action, well following on from the thrilling Community Shield at Wembley last week goals were hard to come by for the most exciting league in the world.

The most goals came at Loftus Road for the returning Queens Park Rangers, who were dealt a harsh lesson, being virtually abused by Bolton who ran out 4-0 victors with goals from Gary Cahill, Ivan Klasnic, Federic Mulumbu and an own goal.  QPR will have to get to grips quickly, and use Bolton as a model of stability and continuity to succeed in the division.

Wolves who survived by three minutes on the last day last season, ran out 2-1 victors away at Blackburn who look like they may encounter problems due to a lack of potency up front.  Whilst Wolves look stable, have talent and in signing Jamie O'Hara from Tottenham have got their own talisman.

Liverpool for all their money and new faces ran out of steam at home to Sunderland in a 1-1 draw.  For the first half they were irresistible, with Adam spreading play and Downing finding woodwork on dazzling run.  Yet Sunderland, who themselves have splashed out this summer, found an equaliser from Seb Larsson a steal from Birmingham. Both sides need time to gel with the new faces, Liverpool need immediate results whilst Sunderland can have a chance at a Europa League place on either league finish or cup run.

Fulham and Villa cancelled each other out at Craven Cottage, expect more from both sides especially the attacking nature of Martin Jol's side.

At Newcastle, in another goalless draw, Arsenal seemed to have the same problems in any season.  All flair and technical prowess with no finishing touch.  The Gunners had enough possession to dominate but chances went begging and the loss of Gervinho for raising his hands to Joey Barton did not do any favours.  Newcastle have Barton who provides passion, but without Kevin Nolan (West Ham) and Jose Enrique (Liverpool), plus the loss of Andy Carroll it could be a long haul on Tyneside.

Andre Vilas-Boas' first game for Chelsea at Stoke was largely forgettable, but for some penalty appeals.  Typically physical at the Britannia, Fernando Torres found some form but no final quality, but AVB will have the familiar problem of attempting to keep Torres, Anelka and Drogba all happy.  The 4-3-3 formation with Torres leading Malouda and Ramires of him.  Stoke again are a sum of all their parts but with a back four that include Upson, Woodgate, Shawcross and Huth it looks formidable.

The champions returned at the Hawthorns, where last season they had their worst performance and prompted Gary Neville's retirement, on this occasion they ran out 2-1 victors thanks to the work of Ashley Young who set up Wayne Rooney for the first and then his dribble and pass led to the own goal of the winner.  Although new goalkeeper, David de Gea again fluffed his lines in conceded WBA's equaliser, though for a young man to come to a new culture he has still a lot of adjusting and this will come in time.  Otherwise, the movement and passing of United led by the growing maturity of Tom Cleverley in midfield means Alex Ferguson finally has the youth coming through and in Young and De Gea the notable signings to match the demands.  But for their awful away form last year, they would have won the title at a canter.  Last year's team would have drawn yesterday, today's team won, albeit somehow, which shows why they are the team to beat.

Tonight, Manchester City host Swansea City at the City of Manchester Stadium.  United have laid down a marker, can City reply and with Sergio Aguero not likely to feature the reliance will be on Balotelli and Dzeko to lead from the front.

Monday, 1 August 2011

England's Cricket Selection Dilemma

England are 2-0 up against the top cricketing side in the world - and one more win will give England the place at the summit.  And yet so dominant have England been in the two tests in London and Nottingham thus far, they have a dilemma. But it is a dilemma of the nice persuasion.

Do England maintain this period of dominance and go for the jugular and the possibility of a 4-0 whitewash over the soon to be displaced world number one side.  The two remaining tests are at Edgbaston and the Oval, two pitches that again may provide England with the basis again to attack with their rip-roaring seam attack.

The question of course is where do they find space for that extra bowler, as it can be seen that no bowler really deserves to be dropped on the basis of the last four days at Trent Bridge.  Swann took no wickets for the first time in a test match for ages, but that was based more on the lack of potency of spin on a swinging pitch and an injury he suffered when dismissed in the first innings.  But it was the vital partnership of Swann and Broad that helped England recover from 120-8 to a respectable total of 221 to not end in total dismay.

Broad's hypnotic spell of 5-0 off 16 balls that dismissed India for 288, gave India only a slender lead of 67 instead of 150.  Broad is another example of the England selection policy which puts faith ahead of form.  Much was made of Broad being dropped before the first test, he responded with 7 wickets and an unbeaten 74 in the second innings which set the platform for the first England victory.

James Anderson, is in a veritable purple patch, and he has the mark of the acclaimed Sachin Tendulkar.  The Lancashire paceman dismissed him for the seventh time today with a similar lbw shout as he did at Lords, an inswinger that was too quick for the 38 year old legend.  Anderson's ability to take wickets with the new ball and potency with the reverse swing after Alastair Cook has done his handy work is proving vital on these English surfaces.

Tim Bresnan, like in Australia when he was called upon, has done a job with both bat and ball, 7 wickets for the match including 5-48 in the second innings and a bombastic 90 (off 118).  Bresnan is the power amongst the bowling attack, like Flintoff he pounds it in on the turf and provides something different to the grace and swing of Broad and Anderson.

So who to go? Well England need to make room, and perhaps Trott's shoulder injury may provide the perfect excuse.  Trott has had a long two years in test cricket since his debut at the Oval in 2009, he has played admirably in the World Cup on the sub-continent; so maybe his body is in need of a rest after wear and tear.  He is averaging only 24.50, less than Broad and Prior.  Trott is that pivotal figure at No.3, a rock like Dravid, who will not be moved yet he has been removed four times already.  Ian Bell's exquisite knock of 159 showed he can bat at first wicket down, he has the temperament and game for it.

This allows Kevin Pietersen to remain at No.4 and then Eoin Morgan at No.5.  The only problem being that Morgan is averaging 22.25, and has two ducks.  Many felt he was batting for his position in the second innings, and his 70 did answer many critics (me included); the problem remains that there is no-one making big noises in the county game with big scores (unless you count Marcus Trescothick), admittedly Bopara did score 178 for Essex this week, but his average is above 40 in spite of some numerous single digit scores this season. 

Other players like James Hildreth and James Taylor could be thrown in at the deep end.  The selection team have done this before with Trott most notably, who came in and delivered.  Maybe if England win the 3rd test and take an  unassailable lead, perhaps that might be the opportune time to inject a debutant but when a Test match still needs to be won England should stay with what they know. 

So who comes in as England have an embarassment of riches in the bowling department.  Chris Tremlett seems the most likely as he only missed one test owing to injury and did a valiant job when nursing a hamstring strain, or Steve Finn who has a long career of him but has not let England down when called upon.  There is even Graham Onions who is doing good work with Durham following his back operation which cost him a year of his career.

In spite of that, if I was to pick a 5 man bowling attack for the 3rd test in Warwickshire it would read like so:
Strauss (c), Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Morgan, Prior (w), Broad, Bresnan, Swann, Anderson, Tremlett.

The reason being that Matt Prior has elevated his game in the last year, and in this series he has shown himself more than adept to lead a counter attack and if it is for two games only he can bat at 6.  And then with Broad, Bresnan and Swann coming in later, the security and solidity is there to provide valuable runs if need be.

All in all, it is a pleasure though to see an England cricket team playing as a team.  With everyone making valuable contributions up and down the order, answering the call for their country.  And they are interchangeable with players come in and out when need be.  Also they have not had to suffer a long-term injury to somebody which has allowed people to cement positions, this has been helped by the faith shown by a solid and itself stable selection committee.

We are number 1, but we could be dominant which 5-7 years would have been unheard of.