Wednesday, 12 August 2009

"this one's optmistic, this one went to market"

Feel the optimism, brethren. Feel the optimism. This hallowed and blessed week is the sweetest, most hopeful and inherently beautiful week to be a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

Where a soft ignorant confidence reigns supreme in the upper echelons of that thing between your ears. This is the garden of Eden before the Fall.

Inevitably, Eve bites the apple, usually at about 5 O clock on Saturday afternoon: Benoit Assou-Ekotto falls on his arse, Heurelho Gomes jumps the wrong way, Ledley King crumples in an arthritic heap and Robbie Keane (and his manager) proceeds to blame everyone but himself. Paradise lost.

As many people who I can’t be bothered to research have clich├ęd over the years, it’s not the despair that kills you, it’s the hope. It won’t be Dirk Kuyt’s looping header winning it in the 85th minute, but the pre-match promise of improvement and 2 months meditation on the mantra “this could be our year”.

It couldn’t.

Nevertheless, this years optimism is less viral, and thus less dangerous, than the previous two summers. Under Martin Jol and Juande Ramos respectively, strong teams had (allegedly) been assembled. Strong league finishes and cup wins had wetted the appetite of both board and fans. Achievement gave way to further expectation, whilst expectation and hype gave way to the inevitability of underachievement. Jol was sacked with the side flirting with relegation, whilst the exact same fate befell Ramos a year later.

This year, as a result of the egg on Spurs fans’ faces the last few years, expectations are lower. Most fans would bite your hands off at a 6th place finish and some good cup runs. Personally, I’d absolutely demolish your hand for 17th and the FA Cup, football’s not about finishing 4th and getting richer, it’s about WINNING THINGS. But that’s another matter.

Spurs are stronger (he says, unbelievably tentatively) this season. Harry Redknapp, since his appointment, has established a settled atmosphere at the club, and the team have become, in Spurs terms at least, semi-consistent. For all Redknapp’s faults (and I’d have a wonderful time listing them to you), he has created a strong, united team and, crucially, bought players Tottenham actually need. Comolli take note.

The signing of Wilson Palacios last January was a key turning-point in the Spurs season. A Tottenham midfielder who could tackle. The sheer unheralded charm of it wowed fans last season, and completely galvanised the team. The anchor that Palacios provided allowed Luka Modric, far and away Spurs’ most important player, an attacking freedom which was key to the Lilywhites climbing up the table last spring. For a successful season this year at White Hart Lane, the creativity and guile of Modric will be key.

Spurs are far from the finished project, something that last year’s relegation scare confirmed, but they now have the base with which to build something promising. A quiet, solid season with Redknapp still around in May would continue do just that. But this is Tottenham, a team as far removed from quietness and predictability as a Jazz-punk collective. Things never happen how you think, we know that. With that, lingers the hope. That sick, damned hope.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Misery on the Mersey

Step outside, dear reader. If you can hear a loud exhalation - nay, sigh of relief, coupled with the fainter wailings of lovelorn Scousers, that’s the sound of Britain reacting to one of the summer’s most drawn-out and irritating transfers finally being laid to rest.

Like a pregnant Paula Radcliffe, Liverpool have finally given up the chase and accepted a £30m bid from Real Madrid for Spanish playmaker Xabi Alonso. And once the brief period of satisfaction at having seen the last of the tedious to-and-fro between Anfield and the Bernabeu is over, one understands that Liverpool’s title bid could be over before it’s began.

For the last 5 years, Alonso has been the calming genius in the testosterone-fuelled mad dog of the Liverpool midfield. It is he, coupled with his partner Javier Mascherano, who has given the Reds’ midfield wile and brains, stopping opponents attacks whilst - crucially - starting their own. It is he who has allowed the previously inconsistent Steven Gerrard to shine.

Gerrard has frustrated Liverpool managers during his long career at Anfield, displaying the physical and technical abilities that suit him to all manner of positions, yet displaying a mental naivety that betrays him to nearly all.Over the last ten years, the Liverpool captain has played an attacking and defensive role in central midfield, sat on the right and left wing, even helped out at full back, yet too often his lack of discipline drifted him in and out of games, gifting opponents a foothold in the match.

It was not until Rafa Benitez’s master-stroke of buying Alonso in 2004, and the later purchase of Mascherano, that the midfield could be solid defensively, meaning Gerrard’s talismanic attacking abilities could be unleashed without doing harm to the team.

While this is undoubtedly a great loss for Liverpool - and one they tried vehemently to avoid - the opposite is certainly true for his new club, Real Madrid. It has already been confirmed by the Spaniards that this is a signing requested (for once) by Manuel Pellegrini, the Madrid manager, and not by the publicity-shy and notoriously frugal owner Florentino Perez. Which suggests that despite his hefty price-tag, Alonso will be seen not as a ‘Galactico’, but as a team player who allows the likes of Kaka, Ronaldo, Benzema and Raul to play. An unassuming and modest character, this will suit Xabi fine, and will not be unlike his role at Liverpool, where he often faded into the background compared to the power and flair of Gerrard and Fernando Torres and the beautiful face of Dirk Kuyt.

In the north of England, the chances of finding an available central midfielder with the passing ability and football brain of Alonso will be very long indeed for Liverpool. Many are suggesting that this will prove a massive stumbling block for their title aspirations. Whoever they land as replacement - optimists suggest Alberto Aquilani or even Cesc Fabregas, while United fans suggest Lee Cattermole - history suggests they may take a while to bed in, and history is one thing that becomes more of a burden year after year at a Premiership-less Anfield.