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The glorious paradox of Ben Stokes

Ben_Stokes 2

So often a key figure in England cricket’s latest resurrection, so often a symbol of the inconsistencies that still blight them, Ben Stokes has assumed a vital role under Paul Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss- and the ride looks set to continue this winter…

‘‘What England did with him is like telling Cristiano Ronaldo to play at right back…He could’ve won you the World Cup.’’ Paul Collingwood was not mincing his words when asked for his views on the omission of Ben Stokes from England’s World Cup squad. Stokes himself had been venting his own personal fury in a slightly different manner- bludgeoning 151 off 86 balls for England Lions against South Africa A, an innings including 15 sixes.

Fast forward a month and a Stokes-less England were being dumped out the tournament by the not quite so hopeless Bangladesh, ending the tournament as meekly as they had started it. Collingwood, and many others both in the media and the general public, had been vindicated. Stokes could, and maybe would have made a telling difference.

Trouble is, up until the World Cup, Stokes’ ODI performances hadn’t warranted inclusion. In the 24 games he had played before the squad announcement, he had averaged 15.66 with the bat. In the series preceding the announcement- against Sri Lanka- his bowling was the big concern as he sent down eight wicketless overs at an economy rate of 10.

The issue of him batting down the order was somewhat justified (he batted number 8 in his two innings against SL), but it is also worth remembering what an awful 2014 Stokes had with the bat overall. Earlier in the year the Durham all-rounder had broken his hand punching a locker during a tour of the Caribbean, a mark of intense frustration which pointed quite obviously to his run of low scores. In the summer that followed, Stokes was omitted from the England squad mid-series against India, having accumulated three ducks on the trot.

Hapless is a word that barely covers many of his performances for England during that period, so to say there was a genuine sense of mystification when he was left out of the World Cup simply highlights the paradox that is in Ben Stokes. Capable of everything, and yet capable of nothing.

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After a successful summer for both individual and team, Stokes is now ensconced in the England set-up. It’s how it always should have been. Stokes has played every game this summer. He has looked altogether at home. England’s fastest centurion at Lord’s against New Zealand, following an almost run-a-ball 92 in the first innings. A match winner with the ball in the same game.

Later in the summer, with the Australians about, Stokes once again rose to the fore at crucial moments. Important runs in the first test, a dogged 87 at Lord’s amid collapse, and a spell of 6-36 at Trent Bridge to seal the Ashes deal. But in typical fashion, these telling moments have been interspersed by moments of nothingness. Three more ducks to add to the ever-increasing tally, accompanied by large spells of inconsequential bowling.

Stokes is now an Ashes winner, and deserves praise for his meaningful contributions. But had he ended up on the losing side, his capricious performances may have been preyed upon. Must be more consistent for a number six batsman, must be more consistent for a fourth seamer. This is the paradox of Ben Stokes.

Stokes’ ODI figures for the summer also exhibit his inconsistencies and promises in one. Batting at number five against Australia and NZ, Stokes averaged 29.1 in 10 innings, scoring one half-century. Across both series, he took 12 wickets at an average 31.91, going at 6.27 runs per over. He now averages 20.14 with the bat, with two half-centuries in 34 matches. He has 32 wickets in that time at an average of 34.24, at an economy of 6.22 per over.

They are not figures that would take a side to World Cup glory, especially the haunted bunch that Eoin Morgan inherited from Alistair Cook. Stokes’ latest performances might not even keep him in the one-day side. Taylor may have done enough to stay at three, yet Root has to and will find a way back into the line-up. With his bowling not all-important, Stokes may find himself out of the middle order.

As Yogi Berra once said, it would be be déjà vu all over again. Stokes may warm the bench. The problem is, it does feel a bit naïve, maybe even stupid, to drop him again. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? It feels a more of a risk to drop him than to play him. It isn’t necessarily a question of merit; it is a question of necessity. To miss out on one of those awe-inspiring knocks would be harrowing. This is the paradox of Ben Stokes.

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This winter will prove a litmus test for this burgeoning England team, and few players will play as big a role as Stokes. As Telegraph columnist Jonathan Liew points out, winning the Ashes is still a milestone, but due to the regularity with which they are now played, it is not a ‘career-defining’ milestone. This England team must win on the road to become great. Only South Africa of the modern day sides has an impressive away record.

England hinted at greatness with wins over Australia and India, only for Pakistan to interject with a 3-0 win over Strauss’s men in the UAE in-between. Back to back wins over Pakistan and South Africa, on the back of an Ashes win, would be unexpected and stunning.

If they are to do so, you feel Stokes will have to be influential. Being influential does not necessarily mean being consistent, and given his career path so far, consistency may be a little too much to ask. It is up to the top five to provide as much stability as possible, and in turn it will be up to the frontline bowlers to shoulder regular wicket-taking responsibility. Stokes is there to sprinkle some belligerent magic on both facets. A hundred here, a five-wicket haul there. In short: match-winning performances.

The talent is there for consistent performances, but maybe we hope for them to come rather than expect them. Maybe Stokes isn’t set-up to be that way. Maybe he is set up to dominate individual matches as opposed to whole series.  Thing is, none of us are quite sure.

He might play a KP at Mumbai style innings to defeat Pakistan. He might nail the reverse swinging delivery and wreak havoc amongst the South African middle order. He might punch a locker, or a ball away from the stumps for that matter. The options are as infinite as they are spectacular.

The Ben Stokes paradox is set to continue. It should be embraced.

The impending international return of Mohammad Amir

 

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

A fall from grace can be a quick and somewhat startling affair, often consigning yesterday’s heroes to today’s scrapheap.

Take Milli Vanilli, the popular West German pop act, who suffered a spectacular fall from grace in 1990 when it was revealed that the band’s two ‘singers’, Robert Pilatus and Francis Morvan, actually had nothing to do with the records that had made them so famous in the first place. The pair had merely been recruited as frontmen, preferred to the ‘unmarketable’ vocalists who had recorded the album. Just days after a disastrous MTV performance lead to the revelation, the band had their Grammy stripped.

Sport has had its fair share of villains who have suffered equally irredeemable falls from grace. Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods are two modern examples who spring to mind. Like Milli Vanilli, both have failed to return to the top of their profession, professions that they once would have considered their own private fiefdom.

In August 2010, three Pakistani cricketers suffered their very own fall from grace, when they were found to have deliberately bowled no balls in exchange for dirty cash, during a test match against England– at Lord’s of all places. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and an 18-year-old Mohammad Amir were the three shamed parties. All were banned for five years each, all received jail time.

Many of the cricket world will never forget that day at Lord’s, where the News of the World’s shocking expose collided with the end of a thrilling test match series (which England won 3-1). To this day, the story rightly serves as a warning to cricketers – and all three players were rightly harangued and shamed from all quarters.

Yet the story of the baby-faced Amir assumed an extra layer of tragedy, due to his fragile age and place in the Pakistani dressing-room hierarchy. Butt (then captain at the time) and Asif were both well-seasoned pro’s whose taciturn actions were not ambiguous, but with Amir it can be hard not to think he was badly manipulated, dragged through this regrettable ride through cricket’s Stygian underworld.

‘Please don’t let it be the kid,’ were the words of Sky’s Nasser Hussain on that day at Lord’s, reflecting the thoughts of cricket fans across the world. Amir had burst on to the international scene before he pulled the rug from out under his own feet. He had become the quickest bowler to reach 50 test match wickets (in 14 tests), and was ironically named man of the match at Lord’s for a brilliant 6fer, hours after the wildfire of scandal had engulfed the home of cricket. That was the end of his cricketing career for the near future. That was then.

This is now, and Amir is back. Although not on a world scale, the youngster has been reintroduced to the professional game, playing a string of T20 games in his homeland, with a fair degree of success. It seems highly probable that he will return to the national side at some juncture. His international ban ends this month. He would even be free to play against England, although he has not made the squad for next month’s series.

But is the cricketing world- fans and players alike- ready to accept Amir? Fans, especially those in England, may well decide to boo. It is their choice, and in a way it is fair. It was he that brought the game into such callous disrepute at Lord’s, and to some that act will never be forgiven. Many more fans will simply feel conflicted.

The player issue is perhaps even more pressing. How will he be treated in the Pakistan dressing room? Will he be treated like an outsider, a man who irrevocably let his country down? Or he will be treated as a new person, a man who has ultimately learnt and paid for his past crimes? Much will come down to the leadership fulcrum of the Pakistan team. The role of elder statesmen such as Misbah-ul-Haq (test captain), Shahid Afridi (ODI captain) and coach Waqar Younis will be crucial in the coming months, as reintegration talk becomes more pointed.

One thing that is beyond doubt is that Amir has served his time. A 5-year ban and a prison sentence was what the respective authorities deemed to be fair punishment, and that period has now come and gone. A look at other sports and it seems that Amir should be allowed to return to the international stage. Athletes from many different corners have returned after drugs bans, and football teams have often returned to the top after being punished for match-fixing.

Sport moves on, and second chances are usually granted. Cricket’s authorities must strive to tackle the ugly side of its game, which undoubtedly still looms large, but not at the expense of justice.

Another uncertainty about Amir’s return is the level of performance he can attain. His performances in T20 cricket appear solid enough on the surface, and on the evidence of restricted video footage, his action perhaps unsurprisingly hasn’t changed too much. A prolonged hiatus through the tender years of adolescence may have even reduced the chances of debilitating muscular injuries.

But international cricket is concentrated on fine margins, and it remains to be seen whether that extra yard of pace and the ability to control the swing so acutely remains. If Amir does return at the same level, it will be hard to contain that frisson of excitement every time he bounds to the crease in his trademark fashion, before releasing a thunderbolt with that rapid and beguiling left-arm.

It is five years since Amir took leave of the cricketing world that he had left such a vehement mark on in such a short space of time. Many will be pontificating over his return. But ponder this: is his return to the fold a bigger threat to the integrity of the game than the powers that be at the current big three? It was Giles Clarke who famously gave Amir that scornful look at Lord’s, but in the intervening period it is he and his cronies who have begun to systematically destroy the game.

Reputations hanging in the balance at Villa Park

 Football - Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United

There are plenty with a point to prove as the former Spurs man takes over from Paul Lambert…

You may already be aware, but Tim Sherwood does in fact hold the record for the highest win % of any Tottenham manager in the Premier League era. Higher than his predecessor, Andres Villas-Boas, by a whopping 5.4%. Higher than Martin Jol, too.

Sherwood also has a better PL win % at Tottenham than Harry Redknapp, the man who guided Spurs to the coveted fourth position in the league on two occasions.

But you probably knew that already. It was no secret.

From that statistical viewpoint, it might be fair to say that Sherwood could be considered a downright success as Tottenham boss. He won five of his first six Premier League games as manager, straight off the back of a 5-0 home defeat by Liverpool, which ended the short reign of Villas-Boas.

He even reinvigorated the erratic, disinterested Emanuel Adebayor, who had vanished during the tenure of AVB. Sherwood gave Harry Kane his first Premier League start. Another axiomatic success.

Yet despite all these compelling positives, it is hard to believe that Sherwood really changed Tottenham for the better. His brand of blood, sweat and tears football and his adherence to 4-4-2 didn’t damage the club, but it didn’t catapult it forward either.

AVB was sacked with Tottenham in seventh position and eight points off Arsenal at the top of the table. Tottenham, under Sherwood, finished the season one place higher in sixth, 10 points off Arsenal in fourth and 17 points of Manchester City in first.

There was never a sustained Champions League push, unlike many previous years. There were humiliating thrashings, too. A 5-1 defeat at home to City, a 4-0 away to defeat to Chelsea and a 4-0 mauling at Anfield.

Tottenham were beaten 2-0 at the Emirates in the third round of the cup. They were beaten at home by West Ham at home in the Quarter-finals of the League Cup, shortly after Sherwood was placed in charge. They were undone by Benfica in the last 16 of the Europa League.

The fortunes of Spurs didn’t take a drastic turn upwards.

This is not meant as a scathing personal attack on Sherwood himself, either. There were good wins during his reign too. It is worth pointing out he took the Spurs under 21’s to the final off the inaugural under-21 PL crown as Technical Director of the club.

He may turn out to be exactly what Villa need.

But Randy Lerner isn’t appointing a proven winner, or a proven loser for that matter. He is appointing a managerial rookie.

This is Tim Sherwood’s first sustained chance to prove his worth, and he could do with a few of his new players following suit.

Villa’s malaise has lasted too long now. It has lasted long enough for this to be their fourth relegation battle on the spin and perhaps the most perilous yet. 

It may be down to Randy Lerner’s lack of interest, his insistence on selling the club, but you sense there is more to the Villa Park conundrum than just that.

Villa haven’t exactly been afraid of spending money in recent times. Players such as Christian Benteke, Carlos Sanchez, Leandro Bacuna, Jores Okore, Libor Kozak, Ron Vlaar, Ashley Westwood and the forgotten Charles N’Zogbia have all cost substantial money.

Yet a sense of mediocrity has pervaded the club since the reign of Alex McLeish and continued under fellow Scot Lambert, with the empty blue seats painting their own story.

Both left with a win percentage under 30%, and Lambert’s team became so hopeless in front of goal towards the end that they basically gave up on the notion of scoring altogether.

But the fault can’t simply lie with McLeish and Lambert, as dour as their sides seemed to be. It has come to the point where many of Villa’s players either have to prove their worth, or risk ruining their careers once and for all.

Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark are both young centre halves still learning their trade, but they must begin to eradicate their error-strewn ways.

Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Tom Cleverly must all develop a method that allows them to contribute to Villa’s attacking play, whether it be a goal or an assist. Their collective failure to help Villa create something that isn’t a counter attack has weighed the team down heavily.

Tom Cleverly, exiled from Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United, looks a lost soul in a struggling midfield, haunted by his ultimate failure at Old Trafford. His creative output has simply deteriorated.

Charles N’Zogbia, hampered by injuries and a lack of form, is still yet to shine at Villa Park since he joined in 2011. Andreas Weimann’s career has begun to stall, as has Leandro Bacuna’s.

 There won’t be many strikers envious of Benteke, whose indifferent form is intrinsically linked to Villa’s all-round lack of attacking threat. The Belgian may be hoping a good few months under Sherwood will help him escape the bowels of Villa Park.

Scott Sinclair, who barely played a minute under Manuel Pellegrini, has joined on loan and adds to the growing list of players looking to resurrect their careers under the new boss.

In his short time as manager, Tim Sherwood has generated a fair bit of debate. There are some who clearly take to his up and at ‘em style, believing he possesses the tools to become a worthy man manager, a man who can give under-performers the hunger to play again.

There are others who like to look beyond supercilious bravado, and the talk of win percentages.

The truth is; neither side really knows how good a manager Sherwood will be. A prolonged spell at Aston Villa, a club which has fallen on tough times, is the best way for us all to find out.

His own self-belief is the only thing not in doubt. 

Premier League 2013-2014: Each team ranked-Part one

 

 

1. Manchester City: Given the depth in quality and the attacking prowess of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad, winning the title would be the only thing that constituted as success for City. Poor form on the road early on in the campaign put this objective in jeopardy, as Arsenal sprinted into an early lead. In the second half of the season it was Liverpool and Chelsea who proved to be the danger, but City’s ability to rotate three top quality strikers in Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo proved vital. With Aguero flirting with injury and Negredo worryingly out of form post-Christmas, Dzeko shouldered responsibility in impressive fashion, with help from a host of attacking midfielders.  Yaya Toure was the most obvious candidate for player of the season with 20 goals from midfield, often the difference in making sure City quashed sides of a smaller ilk. As for the defence, the partnership of Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis towards the back end of the season ensured the Blues could work from a more solid base. Despite a greater net spend than any of the other clubs City’s season must be counted as a success, and there is plenty more to come from this exciting squad. Rating: 8.5/10

 

2. Liverpool: Despite failing to claw their way over the line in the final stages, Liverpool were undoubtedly the stand out team of the season. Their devilish forward play was a joy to behold, and the abandonment of any defensive shape at times meant that games involving Rodgers’ men turned into thrilling contests. Luis Suarez was irresistible, with his partner Daniel Sturridge clinical in equal measure. The development of young English talent such as Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan was an added bonus. All three have grown up playing in the Premier League, showing that given a chance young English talent can flourish at the highest level from a young age. Eventually a lack of defensive nous caught up with the Reds, most notably the 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, which ended hopes of their first Premier League title. You can only hope that this won’t be their only title challenge in the next few years. Rating: 9/10

 

3. Chelsea: Despite the much-anticipated return of the special one, Chelsea’s season ended in an underwhelming manner, finishing below their two title rivals and crashing out of Europe in the semi-final stage. Despite finishing seven points better off, Mourinho finished in the same position as public enemy number one Rafael Benitez the season before. The lack of a world class striker proved telling, as Chelsea failed to capitalise on doing the double over both Manchester City and Liverpool. Defeats away to Crystal Palace and at home to Sunderland cost them a league that was there for the taking. Next season should be a different story, with Diego Costa touted as the man to turn their striking woes around. Except Chelsea to come roaring back. Rating: 7/10

 

4. Arsenal: Up until Christmas Arsenal looked like serious title contenders, with new signing Mesut Ozil adding class to an already talented crop of midfielders. Yet injury to Aaron Ramsey and a failure to bring in another striker alongside Olivier Giroud in January meant the Gunners season once again drifted into consolidation of fourth spot, something that Arsene Wenger and the board clearly see as a great success. Injuries along the way to Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil meant Arsenal were perhaps a little unlucky, but their decline was alarming. A victory in the FA Cup would somewhat salvage their season, but Arsenal must invest properly this season if they are to challenge their rivals for the major crown next year. Kim Kallstrom is not the answer. Rating: 6.5/10

 

5. Everton: While Everton failed to qualify for the Champions League in Roberto Martinez’s inaugural campaign with the Blues, stats show it was a successful one. 72 points is their highest points total in the Premier League so far, with 21 victories in a season also a record. The emergence of Ross Barkley has been exciting, whilst the permanent signing of James McCarthy and the loan move for Gareth Barry ensure that Everton’s attacking players could thrive. Another Loan man Romelu Lukaku provided the goals, and John Stones provided excellent cover for Phil Jagielka despite his young age.  While David Moyes opted to make sure Everton were built from a solid hard-to-beat base, Martinez has sought to maximise the potential of his attackers, resulting in a much more fluent style of play. His side have reaped the benefits. Their biggest test will be how they cope without Lukaku if he is not around next season, and if he does go back to Chelsea a new striker will need to be purchased. Rating: 8/10

 

6. Tottenham: Another season of upheaval at White Hart Lane means Tottenham fans endured another rough ride. Andres Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood both paid the price in the end, despite statically being Tottenham’s two most successful managers in the Premier League. Many of the big signings that came in the aftermath of the Gareth Bale have flattered to deceive, apart from Christian Eriksen and Vlad Chiriches. Paulinho has looked disinterested in the second half of the season, Erik Lamela has rarely featured and Roberto Soldado has been a flop. Perhaps the major concern at the Lane was the fact that Spurs never looked like gaining Champions League qualification. AVB was  harshly removed from his post but his high defensive line saw a rampant Liverpool pull them apart too easily. Tim Sherwood came in and ripped up his predecessor’s scrapbook, preferring a 4-4-2 featuring Emmanuel Adebayor. The results were generally pretty positive, but you get the impression he was only a stop gap as Daniel Levy scouts around for his next managerial saviour. Perhaps the chairman should start taking some of the blame. Tottenham meanwhile need to find someone who will shake up the new recruits and make sure they don’t fall away from the main pack. Rating: 5.5/10

 

7. Manchester United: Where to start? Manchester United’s abject failure to continue the dominance under the Sir Alex Ferguson era shows that someone with more experience in the hunt for trophies should have been appointed ahead of David Moyes. That’s not to say the players should be exempt of the blame. Attacking creativity often fizzed out, replaced by cumbersome, predictable football. The defence was guilty of making too many simple mistakes, whilst Michael Carrick was a shadow of himself. His midfield partner Tom Cleverly failed to improve this season, and often took a lot of the blame for his side’s problems. Maroune Fellaini was a complete waste of £27 million, and Juan Mata failed to deliver the expected spark that he was supposed to bring from Chelsea. The only positives were the emergence of Adnan Januzaj and the continued development of David De Gea. Expect probable new boss Louis Van Gaal to shake things up a bit. It certainly can’t get much worse. Rating: 3/10

 

8. Southampton: A breath of fresh air. Like Liverpool and Everton, Southampton’s intense possession game is a reflection of their coach Mauricio Pochettino, who has coached his side into better players. Southampton’s form tailed off towards the end of the season, but sat in eighth place they had little to play for. Adam Lallana became an almost certainty to start in Brazil, whilst Rickie Lambert and 18-year-old Luke Shaw will join him on the plane.  A lot of sackings in this day and age are unjustified, and many people thought that might be the case when Nigel Adkins was given the boot last season. But Pochettino has taken his side to a different level, and Southampton are now the best side after the elite. Keeping hold of Lallana, Shaw and therefore the boss himself will be their biggest problem. Rating: 8/10

 

9. Stoke City: Mark Hughes’ first term at the Britannia stadium has been one of quiet improvement. After many good years things under Tony Pulis were becoming just a little stale, and Hughes has done well to freshen that up despite not being too active in the transfer market. Marko Arnautovic and Peter Odemwingie have added extra menace going forward. An unsubtle long ball game has been slightly dispersed, with Stoke now more comfortable with playing the ball along the ground. They have still maintained their defensive solidarity, meaning they are incredibly hard to beat on their own patch. It will be difficult to improve on a ninth place finish next year. Rating: 7/10

 

10. Newcastle United: It seems strange that a season that ended in a quite predictable tenth place finish ended in such a poisonous manner. The fans want Pardew gone, and it is more understandable when you consider they lost eight of their last ten league games, showing little fight along the way. Not to mention the fact that Pardew managed to head-butt Hull City’s David Meyler during a rare victory, which probably should have cost him his job alone. Instead Mike Ashely will likely stick with Pardew, for money saving reasons if nothing else. Newcastle find themselves in a state of limbo, and they continued their policy of selling their best players whenever they become any good, Yohan Cabaye to PSG in this case, is quite obviously flawed. Like so many other clubs it is hard to see where Newcastle go from here, without any significant investment on the horizon. One thing is for certain, their loyal supporters deserve better. It is time for Ashley to put his cards on the table, either sell up or commit to making his squad better. Rating: 5/10

England v Sri Lanka: Who should feature in the first Test this summer?

 

After a miserable winter of defeat and upheaval, England’s new boss Peter Moores and his selectors have a lot to ponder before the first Test against Sri Lanka in June. Here is how England should line up…

1. Alistair Cook:

England’s new captain had just about the worst winter imaginable down under, as his side were whitewashed by a rejuvenated Australia, just months after comfortably beating their great rivals 3-0 in England. Cook’s captaincy throughout the tour was routinely questioned by former cricketing greats now turned pundits, and an inability to produce big runs placed him under further scrutiny. As if this wasn’t enough, his subsequent decision to axe Kevin Pietersen from the set-up has paved the way for a new wave of abuse from media and fans alike. Cook will be hoping for a return to form for both himself and the team this summer against Sri Lanka and India, and without Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen behind him, he now anchors a batting line-up with a considerable lack of international experience. Every field change he makes and every ball he faces with the bat this summer will be rigorously examined. It is time for the skipper to come out fighting.

 

2. Sam Robson

Sheer weight of runs in recent times means Sam Robson deserves to open up with Cook when the first Test comes around this season. Although Michael Carberry didn’t look too perturbed by Australia’s menacing pacemen in the winter, just one score above fifty during five tests indicates that he failed to properly grasp his opportunity. There were no such problems for Robson on the England Lions tours in the winter. The Australian-born opener hit two centuries for the England Performance Programme before Christmas against his country of birth, and then three centuries in four matches on the Lions tour to Sri Lanka. Coupled with an impressive start to the county season, including 77 in Middlesex’s record-breaking chase against Yorkshire, Robson’s consistent ability to produce centuries when playing for the Lions should see him get his chance.

 3. Joe Root

With Jonathan Trott out of international action for the foreseeable future, England must keep the faith with arguably their best young prospect, Joe Root. Like many of his team mates the winter was a chastening experience for young Root, but his 87 in the second innings of the second Test at Adelaide proved his ability to stand up to high class bowling even with wickets tumbling around him. His 180 at Lords last summer highlighted his appetite for big runs, something England have notably missed in recent times. Nick Compton can perhaps feel hard done by once again, but you feel this summer is a perfect opportunity to fully embed Root into the top of the order, with pace attacks that won’t have quite the same venom.

 

4. Ian Bell

Ian Bell is the only batsman going into this summer’s tests with no serious question marks hanging over him, but it hasn’t always been that way. The Warwickshire man has often been accused of too much style too little substance in the past, but he put that to bed last summer with three beautifully composed hundreds last summer against the Aussies, while others were failing to convert around him. His winter was a mixed bag, often looking comfortable but playing loose shots to throw away his wicket, a habit he won’t want to creep back into his game. If this new England side are going to thrive, they will need the experienced Bell to build on his run-scoring exploits from last summer.

 

5. Gary Ballance

 Like Robson, Gary Balance should get into the England side based on his ability to accumulate big runs. Unlike Robson, Balance has already had a small taste of Test cricket, in the most difficult of circumstances. Ballance’s one Test at Sydney yielded only 25 runs, but his composure spoke volumes given the circumstances. The big left-hander is a grafter with the ability to turn on the accelerator if needs be, but with Bell in front of him and Moeen Ali and Matt Prior both potentially behind him, Ballance’s cool demeanour and sensible game plan may allow other’s flamboyance to flourish. An average of 54.42 in 72 first-class games is mightily impressive, and given recent form he appears almost certain to feature against Sri Lanka.

 

6. Moeen Ali

Moeen Ali may not be the perfect spin bowler to replace Graeme Swann long-term, but whilst England assess their options, the Worcestershire man can combine his developing off-spin in tandem with Joe root, and a long with his undoubted batting ability he will be a very handy number six for England. Ali’s performances for England’s one-day outfit in the last few months have been a mixed bag, but his willingness to play his own adventurous game was noticeable. He is a wristy player, and therefore the spin-heavy nature of Sri Lanka and India’s attacks should suit his game nicely. England have the potential to bat to eight with Ben Stokes, and therefore there is little risk in playing Ali at six.  

 

7. Matt Prior

After a poor winter it is really time for Matt Prior to deliver for England, otherwise he will find himself out of the side, replaced by up and coming star Jos Buttler. Prior has always played a vital role for England, with a mind-set to dominate for the bowler from the very beginning of his innings. His fifties often come in rapid time, often providing much-needed momentum in a stagnating innings. However, Buttler has proved he has the ability to bat in the same way and Lancashire’s new signing has age on his side. Prior has picked up a small injury but should be ready for the start of the first Test, and after the service he has given England; he should be offered another opportunity to prove just how important he is.

 

8. Ben Stokes/Chris Jordan

Ben Stokes was the shining light of England’s tour to Australia, with a magnificent 120 in Perth in just his second test match. The Durham all-rounder endured a testing time of it once the Ashes was finished, and missed the World Twenty20 following an incident that saw him punch a locker following a dismissal against the West Indies. With Stokes at 8 England’s line-up may seem batsman heavy, but with a six wicket haul in Sydney the Durham all-rounder proved his worth as a fourth seamer, and with Ali and Root sharing spin duties, England should have enough to back up Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions. Ali, Prior and Stokes can be interchangeable at six, seven and eight, all depending on the game situation and individual form: Stokes batted at six for England in the winter. His hostility when bowling could well prove troublesome for this summer’s two touring sides.

If Stokes is unable to prove his return to fitness ahead of the first Test match then Chris Jordan should step in. The Sussex bowler was excellent with the ball in the one-day series in Australia, and he has continued his form with wickets for Sussex. He Can also play a role with the bat.

 

9. Stuart Broad

Stuart Broad was public enemy number one in Australia this winter following his decision not to walk at Trent Bridge earlier that year, but he soon silenced the crowds with 6-81 in the first Test at Brisbane. And that is exactly the sort of spell that means Broad is rarely ever dropped from the England team. He produced the same sort of performance to clinch the Ashes at Durham, and spells against New Zealand at Lords and India at Trent Bridge have further reinforced the message that when Stuart Broad is on song, little is going to stop him. With Anderson and Onions there to probe away at batsmen and wear them down, Broad is the man to provide that extra bit of pace and firepower.

 

10. Jimmy Anderson

Anderson had a quiet winter, but he has burst back into life with Lancashire at the start of this campaign, with 18 wickets in his three first-class matches. He remains the spearhead of England’s attack, and with pitches in May likely to suit his hooping swing bowling, it won’t be long before the Burnley Express is back to doing what he does best, taking wickets for England. He is now just 40 off the all-time leading test wicket taker for England, Sir Ian Botham. He is well on course to reach 400 Test wickets.

 

11. Graham Onions

Quite simply, Graham Onions can’t do anymore to prove his worth. County cricket’s best and most consistent bowler, Onions should have added to his nine tests in the winter. Instead England plumped for the towering trio of Steven Finn, Christ Tremlett and Boyd Rankin to bolster their bowling attack. A mistake. Onions’ nine Test matches have produced 32 wickets at an average a touch under 30, and he has 455 first-class wickets at 26. He is the best option in English conditions with his wicket to wicket seam bowling, and it would be a major oversight to overlook him for the first Test. 

Nine years after their much publicised beginning, FC United continue to thrive in an alternative footballing environment

 

fc united 5

 

‘‘I am an FC fan,

  I am a Mancunian,

  I know what I want and I know how to get it,

  I wanna destroy, Glazer and Sky,

  Cause I, wanna be, at FC’’.

 

Bury FC’s Gigg Lane is a temporary home for FC United of Manchester, but on every other Saturday it certainly doesn’t feel that way. As their team battle to a 2-1 victory over a stubborn Matlock Town, their eighth win a row, FC fans provide their own rendition of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, a swipe at their former love, the somewhat better-known Manchester United. With around 2,000 fans in attendance, they create an atmosphere rarely seen in the higher echelons of the English game. Flags are a constant fixture in the main home section, whilst banners cover the two uninhabited stands. ‘Making friends not millionaires’, one reads. It neatly encapsulates the manifesto of FC United, a club built by the fans, for the fans.

 

At the end of the game, the bond between the fans and the players becomes even clearer for all to see. Fans swarm towards the front of the stand, whilst the players do half a lap of honour, shaking hands with the supporters that have helped to shape the team they play for. It is akin to the relationship fans and players share in Germany’s Bundesliga, where the feeling is more of mutual admiration than grudging acceptance of one another. The Bundesliga model has many similarities to the way in which United are run, albeit on a grander scale, where clubs must be controlled with at least 50% plus one of votes on important decisions, by their members, the fans.

 

FC United have now spent nine years in non-league football, and crowds remain unwavering in their loyalty, showcasing the strength of a supporter-run institution. Much like supporting Manchester United, players move from team to team, but the fans remain the one constant.

 

United were famously formed in 2005, as a rebellion against English football’s modern ways. ‘‘Changing kick-off times for the benefit of television, soulless all-seater stadia full of ‘new’ supporters intent to sit back and watch rather than partake in the occasion, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculously priced tickets’’, all playing a support role to the main enemy of the piece, the Glazers. 

The Glazer family controversially acquired a stake in Manchester United in 2003, much to the dismay of many fans of the club, once it was realised the debt they would be have to take on, after years of being debt free. The majority of United fans chose to live with the decision, but a substantial amount, enough to form the beginnings of a new team, decided it was time to defect, with Glazer shares standing at 57%. It’s a decision they have not lived to regret.

 

‘‘It’s been brilliant. A refreshing change both on and off the pitch. On it with players who actually care about the club and the supporters, being able to mix with opposition fans, the chance to stand with your mates on the terrace. Off it, the fact that we as members own the club and directly shape its future…no one can take that away from us, which is the most important thing of all’’, says Michael Holdsworth, from the North West and Lancashire supporters’ group.

 

FC are effectively the polar opposite of the way current Premier League clubs are run, democratically owned and controlled by its members, the fans. There are seven core principles that help to define the club, as outlined by the official website; the board will be democratically elected by its members, decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis.

 

The club will develop strong links with the local community, admission prices will be affordable as possible, young participation will be encouraged by the club, the board will strive to avoid outright commercialism, and the club will remain a non-profit organisation. The rules appear to have been strictly adhered to since the emergence of the club, helping to form a distinct community feel around Gigg Lane. Michael credits this spirit to a number of different factors, ‘‘we’re all here for a common goal, to show that there is a better way for football.

 

‘‘The fact that ordinary supporters own the club democratically for the benefit of supporters and the community gives us that family spirit and feeling.  The atmosphere crowd-wise is down to the fact that ordinary people and youngsters can afford to come along and watch the games, as well as the type of people a club with our ethos attracts’’.

 

The early years of FC United proved an unmitigated success, and despite promotions stalling, they are still very much on an upward trajectory. Given the strength of the club’s foundations from the very beginning, a rapid rise up the leagues was somewhat inevitable. The inaugural season in the North West Counties League division two resulted in a title, with 6,032 fans flooding Gigg Lane to celebrate on the final day. The next season followed the same pattern, as United clinched division one. Promotion to the Northern Premier League division one north proved no obstacle. Despite being denied a hat trick of league titles by Bradford Park Avenue by just one point, United gained by promotion by virtue of a 4-1 victory over Skelmersdale United. 

 

For the first time in their history, FC United failed to gain promotion at the first time of asking, narrowly missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the season after a sterling effort towards the end of the campaign.  The following season saw United’s most disappointing league effort to date, a middling 13th place. That disappointment however was offset by a trip to Hamburg to take part in St Pauli’s 100th year anniversary celebrations, United’s game with Germany’s famous anti-fascist club ending in a 3-3 draw.

 

The 2010-2011 season for United proved a bittersweet pill. The FA Cup was the scene of arguably the club’s greatest achievement, as they overcame League one side Rochdale, 97 places above them in the football pyramid. Victory resulted in a meeting with another League one side Brighton and Hove Albion, and once again United would not be moved, securing a 1-1 draw. In front of a huge crowd at Gigg Lane United eventually bowed out, but nights like these will live long in the memory.

 

But the joy was slightly short-lived with the news that the proposed new ground at Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath was cancelled, with the local council citing funding cuts as the reason for the decision. Failure to get planning permission for a new ground was a hammer blow for the club, compounded by three straight play-off final defeats in three years, which left them tantalisingly short of promotion to the Conference North.

 

Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season and things are once again moving apace for United. In a race for promotion, they also have their new stadium to look forward to at the start of the 2014-2015 season, a 5,000 ground stadium in Moston. United’s general manager Andy Walsh believes the move to the new facility will have a seismic impact.

 

‘‘I think as a club we need to get established in the new ground. That’s going to have a big impact on us, nobody can underestimate the big change there is going to be to the football club when we move to the new ground. We are effectively going to be a new organisation really.

 

‘‘We’ve got a facility to run as well as putting on football matches and that really is the prize because running the facility will allow us to achieve our ambitions for developing community support and access to community sport for people in Manchester’’.

 

Andy describes the opportunity to build the new ground as the ‘real prize’, and it is particularly special given the difficulties United have had in securing their own home, ‘‘we gained planning permission at Ten Acres Lane in 2010, but within four or five months we had to shelve them because of changes with government funding and we had to look for a new site which we found in Moston, North Manchester.

 

‘‘We went through a new planning application, and we had some legal challenges on that as well which delayed us by a couple of years. We started building in November 2013 and we are roughly halfway through that programme now.

 

‘‘So yeah it has been a long, stony road but it’s been fantastic. Our membership is now as high as it’s ever been. We have over 3,200 members, we have got over 1,000 season ticket holders and we’re sitting at the top of the table. So it’s good times at the moment’’. 

A move towards a new stadium would be all the more sweet if it coincided with promotion to the Conference North, a league that stands just two levels away from professional league football, an attainable goal. But despite the unparalleled joy that promotion can bring, there is a feeling that success is not the central thing that breeds happiness for the supporters.

 

‘‘I certainly still think we’ve got a great chance of going up automatically and we can beat anyone in the play-off places. I must admit, I’m not all that worried. If we don’t go up, we don’t go up. As nice as it would be to play in a higher division, I do like this league’’, says Michael.

 

Going into the final league game of the season, United once again find themselves in familiar territory at the top end of the Northern Premier League first division. They currently sit one point behind Chorley, and the current league leaders must win away at Buxton to claim the title.  The crunch tie between the two sides earlier in the month ended in a 2-2 draw, and the last day is bound to be dramatic. Andy Walsh, like all United fans, projects an element of caution when discussing future goals.

 

‘‘How far we go on the pitch is a question everybody asks us, and really that’s down to the management. We’ll give the resources that we can, within the football club to the manager and to the players to see where we can go. I always have the view that clubs tend to level out where their crowds are. When you’ve got a crowd of roughly 2,000, then you talk about the top end of the Conference, possibly getting into League Two but as a football club that is a realistic ambition for us’’.

 

Football ownership is becoming an increasingly divisive and thorny subject in the English game. Clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Notts County, Portsmouth and Coventry City have all been cast under the spell of little-known owners promising big money, all have fallen from grace in ugly fashion. A report released in November 2013 revealed six out of 72 football league clubs are facing ‘critical financial pressure’, with many others struggling.

 

FC United’s fan-owned model has proved to be a viable alternative for clubs across the land, with the likes of AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Exeter City all choosing the same mode of ownership. At the other end of the spectrum, FC Barcelona have proved that clubs owned by their fans can still keep up with the game’s conglomerate giants, and have success at the very highest level. All the current examples point to fan ownership being a better way of running a football club, and Andy hopes that this will happen across the UK in the future.

 

‘‘I’m confident it will happen. This is a growing movement. You look at ourselves, you look at Chester, you look at Scarborough, you look at Wimbledon, you look at Exeter, you look at Portsmouth, it’s a growing movement.

 

‘‘We’re still trying to find the best model, and it’s not a panacea to all evils of the game, but supporter ownership is a better way of running a football club than the traditional model of running a football club’’. 

John Horricks, however, from the Moston supporters group is less hopeful that there is change round the corner, ‘‘I think all clubs should be owned by the fans as they are the club. Unfortunately I can’t see it ever happening unless the government stepped in which isn’t going to happen. Money is the king, and football is now a very big business’’.

 

Given the community spirit that engulfs FC United, it feels a sad waste that all clubs are not run in this way, designed as a pillar of the community rather than a company run to satisfy the needs of its rich hierarchy. But despite appearing as a mere footnote on the footballing landscape, clubs like United provide hope that all fans still have the ability to wrestle power and decide their future. United’s accomplishments in their brief history reinforce the message that success in football strays further than the glitz of the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, dominated by the modern day super clubs and their vast network of resources. FC United’s way is not the norm, but everything about their manifesto and their subsequent success says there way is a viable way. 

Moyes’ sacking ten months into a six year job proves he was the wrong man all along

 

When it eventually came, there was no real surprise. Maybe a slight element of sympathy for a decent football man, but there will be few tears shed by United fans across the country. Over the season David Moyes’ sacking became more obvious, more inevitable. The decision had backfired.

In this emphatically disastrous season for Manchester United, perhaps the hardest decision is which statistic to use to portray just how out of his depth David Moyes has been. This campaign was the first time in which both Liverpool and Everton have done the double over the Reds in the same season, not to mention the fact that local rivals Manchester City also completed this feat with consummate ease. United were set to finish seventh under the Moyes’ stewardship, they have previously never finished outside of the top three in the Premier League. Manchester United took just seven miserly points out of a possible 39 against the other top seven clubs in the league, in arenas where Ferguson once thrived. This will be a season that lingers long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Without wishing to patronise, there is something a little sad about seeing someone drowning under the weight of mammoth expectations, especially with the spotlight honing in on him. While many assumed it would be difficult for Moyes to retain the title in his first season, no one expected such a sheer collapse both in terms of results and performance. Throughout the season United and their manager have portrayed a side burdened by their history, when it’s something that should be embraced and used as a springboard for future success.

The calls emanating from many former United players, in particular Gary Neville, were to give Moyes time. However, as results became progressively abject, these voices of support seemed borne out of duty rather than genuine belief that things would get better. There was simply no evidence that Moyes was assembling a team capable of returning to the top of the league. The Maroune Fellaini signing proved a severe error of misjudgement, whilst the arrival of Juan Mata in January failed to lift performances, suggesting it was a move designed to quell growing fan frustration rather than one to fit into a particular playing system implemented by the new boss. Stability should not come at the cost of progression, merely to make United a martyr for the cause of crumbling football loyalty.

More than anything the sheer lack of good performances under Moyes was the most worrying aspect. There were brief flickers in the Champions League, with victories over Bayer Leverkusen and a second leg comeback against Olympiakos giving occasional moments of hope amidst growing despair. Yet the league form equated to embarrassing at times, especially against the sides in the top half of the table. Solid wins against sides below them in the league were too often offset by morale crushing defeats, which left United back at square one. Not one single player apart from David De Gea showed any real signs of improvement from the last campaign, and there was no clear system in place.

Adnan Januzaj’s rise was a shining light, but even his performance levels and number of appearances began to tail off towards the latter stages. The declining form of Michael Carrick was particularly alarming. Moyes was successful in tying down Wayne Rooney to a new deal, but the rest of his transfer business left a lot to be desired.

Although he was left a squad many argue had plenty of deficiencies, Moyes has now had two full transfers to address such issues, to no real avail. The chase of Cesc Fabregas was ill-judged, and the only summer signing Fellaini was a waste of £27 million, with the Belgian not in the mould of a United player. There was more excitement around the arrival of Juan Mata in January, but the poor form of the Spaniard instead served to highlight the fact that United’s new boss was struggling to squeeze the very best out of top class players. Nemanja Vidic announced mid-season he would join Inter Milan in the summer, whilst Rio Ferdinand has appeared discontented throughout. Academy graduate Danny Welbeck’s comments that he was thinking of leaving highlighted Moyes’ poor man-management skills more than ever, the final nail in an already nail-ridden coffin. An inability to work with top players and a clear lack of subtle tactics were his downfall, a poisonous mixture for any manager. His lowering of expectations, most notably ahead of the home game to Liverpool, who he described as favourites, will not have helped his cause either. This is Manchester United.

Changes in United’s squad are needed in the summer, but in the latter stages of the season the signs suggested that Moyes would not be the right man to oversee such an overhaul.

The continuous failure of Manchester United under Moyes suggests that he was never the right man for the job. While it’s undoubtedly easier to judge that in hindsight, it appears Sir Alex Ferguson left his most patent error till the very end. You get the impression Ferguson’s mind was clouded by thoughts of dynasty and a smooth succession, an idealistic world where one strong Scotsman takes after another, bound by terms of contract to rule English football for another 20 years.

Perhaps everybody in the boardroom forgot to mention the fact that David Moyes was trophy-less in a modestly successful tenure at Everton, where cautious tactics and a strong team ethic ensured they were a match for any team, despite their failure to ever win at the homes of any of the big four teams under Moyes. What his Everton team lacked in glamour they more than made up for with earthy grit. Yet United have always been team who look to thrive off moments of genuine inspiration, something that was not often found at Goodison Park. Old Trafford was once a haven for relentless comebacks and virtuoso football. Instead this season it has appeared more like a breeding ground for mechanical, nervous football devoid of any real spontaneity.

Ferguson’s error may have cost United not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. With both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola being seen as genuine candidates to replace Sir Alex the first time round. While it is unclear whether Guardiola ever received a concrete offer, there was clearly a window of opportunity after his departure from Barcelona and his subsequent sabbatical from the game. Jose Mourinho’s advances for the role were less discreet. When Real Madrid defeated United controversially in the last 16 of last year’s Champions League, the Portuguese boss was so gushing in his praise of Ferguson and United as an institution that it was hard to see it as anything but pandering to the United hierarchy to consider him for the role once the great man had left. Yet United went about the recruitment process with blissful ignorance, clearly set in their own ways. Mourinho has often got himself into bother with ill-discipline, but it’s worth remembering that Fergie was no stranger to finding himself the wrong side of the law.

This time round, the options are a little thinner on the ground. Borussia Dortmund’s vibrant boss Jurgen Klopp has already ruled himself out of the running, an early dent for the Reds. Current Holland coach Louis Van Gaal appears to be the front runner, but with a World Cup in mind this summer the may find it difficult to map out United’s new strategy and sign new players, whilst concentrating on the largest tournament in football.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side have surpassed all realistic ambitions and expectations to go toe to toe with larger domestic and European rivals, but his inability to speak English means he still remains a little unsuited to the job. Ryan Giggs, who will take over Saturday’s game against Norwich City as caretaker manager, knows the club like no one else does, but his lack of experience will count against him in equal measure. Aside from that Antonio Conte of Juventus and Rudi Garcia of Roma would prove interesting options, but whether they would be prized away from the obvious lure of Champions League football from their current clubs in Italy remains highly questionable.

The mess that United now find themselves in could well have been avoided with the appointment of a manager used to winning trophies in the first place. They now find themselves in unfamiliar territory of appointing a new manager just ten months after their last was placed in charge. While many other successful clubs sack managers on a regular basis, often at the first signs of failure begin to emerge, United do not have experience of upheaval. They must tread carefully when deciding their next move, and they cannot afford to have another season like this current one. For that, they must appoint someone with a track record of winning, and someone who has a clear football philosophy that will suit the club. Perhaps Sir Alex ought not to let his ego get in the way this time when looking for a suitable candidate.

City still in the title hunt after comfortable victory

 

Aguero PA

Manchester City remain in the title race after they strolled to a 3-1 win over West Brom at the Etihad, their first win in three Premier League outings.

 While strife continues to engulf their neighbours United with the imminent sacking of David Moyes, City went into the game in danger of throwing their own season away, after recent poor results against Liverpool and Sunderland threatening to derail a once promising campaign.

 With rivals Liverpool having completed their 11th straight win on Sunday at Norwich, the onus was very much on the Blues to make sure the Premier League race goes down to the wire. City now lie six points off the top but with a game in hand, and must win all their league fixtures in the hope that Liverpool slip up in their remaining three league outings, one of which is against Chelsea.

 The subdued atmosphere at the Etihad perhaps reflected the position that City now find themselves in, where the title is out of their hands, when for much of the season it seemed as if they were in firm control.

 Although the result was never in doubt, the victory was somewhat overshadowed by the departure of David Silva 20 minutes before the end.

 The Spaniard, City’s most impressive player at Anfield last week, went down in visible pain under a seemingly innocuous challenge close to the half way line. With his ankle strapped he was carefully lifted off the field to chants of ‘one David Silva’, to join fellow midfielder Yaya Toure on the sidelines going into the backend of the season.

 Despite injuries affecting City throughout the course of the season, they were undoubtedly buoyed by the return of star man Sergio Aguero for the Baggies visit. Aguero was vital in the opening goal, which came just two minutes in.

 Liam Ridgewell’s headed clearance was weak, landing right at the feet of the Argentine on the corner of the box. Aguero’s control was impeccable, his shot fierce. The ball was hit straight at Ben Foster, but such was the pace of the effort that he was only able to palm the ball to an onrushing Pablo Zabaleta, who guided his header into the corner of the net.

The Blues were full of confidence, and West Brom were reeling. Aguero wasted no time at all in doubling his sides’ advantage. Picking the ball up 25-yards from goal, his misdirected pass was laid straight back into his path, allowing him to smash past a helpless Foster.

It was electric stuff from Aguero, and it all but ended West Brom’s hopes of extracting anything from a game that they were unlikely to excel in from the very beginning. However, the best moment of the game was yet to come.

The Baggies goal was a moment of pure footballing beauty, yet it was utterly avoidable in equal measure from City’s point of view. With a free-kick around 30-yards from goal, Silva and Fernandinho were guilty of a little complacency.

Their extravagant routine did not work, resulting in Zabaleta receiving the ball wide in an uncomfortable position. Ridgewell was quick to intercept, finding Stephane Sessegnon down the left hand side. Sessegnon found Matej Vydra, who guided the ball into the path of Graham Dorrans.

The beauty of the finish lied in its instinctiveness, as he reacted to a high pass to control and chip over Gael Clichy before firing a pinpoint left footed volley into the top right hand corner of Joe Hart’s net.

If the goal galvanized West Brom it failed to show, and order was restored ten minutes before the interval, as Martin Demichelis avoided his marker far too easily, tapping in a corner at the back post. City went into the break with a two goal lead, with the game very much in their control.

The second half was more notable for the injury of Silva rather than any defining match action, as their seemed to be a mutual agreement by both sides that the game had already been put to bed.

Nasri was blocked by a last minute tackle after a slick move, substitute Stefan Jovetic volleyed wide, and Edin Dzeko had an effort which curled just the wrong side of the post. James Milner, often effective off the bench, was thwarted by Foster.

For West Brom, the result simply confirms that they remain in a relegation fight. For City it was a bittersweet evening. Whilst it was vitally important to secure three points with the league title still on the horizon, the injury to Silva could prove costly with tough away games at Crystal Palace and Everton to come, with every game a must win.

Hales keeps England alive with a dazzling hundred

 

England’s World Cup Twenty20 hopes were kept alive after a breath-taking unbeaten Alex Hales hundred, which helped them chase down 190 with four balls to spare, their highest ever chase in the shortest format of the game.

It was Hales, alongside Eoin Morgan who added 152 for the third wicket, a record in twenty20 internationals, as they maintained a freakishly high run rate throughout after England had slumped for 0-2 in the first over. Earlier on a beautifully-timed Mahela Jayawardene had elevated Sri Lanka to 189 off their 20 overs.

England’s perilous position in the tournament made their chase all the more stunning, a defeat to Sri Lanka would have left them on the verge of an early exit after a controversial defeat to New Zealand in their opener.

The game was characterised by dropped chances at crucial stages of each innings. Jayawardene was dropped three times on the way to making 89, whilst Hales was dropped on the boundary by Jayawardene himself as he anchored an unlikely chase. It will bring England some much needed confidence, after series defeats to both West Indies and Australia in respective Twenty20 series going into the tournament.  

The win adds greater significance to Saturday’s clash with South Africa, who snuck home to victory against Netherlands prior to England’s epic, despite an edgy performance. If England beat South Africa and then the Netherlands on Monday, they should progress to the last four.

The game started off in a blazing fashion, Jade Dernbach controversially dismissing Kusal Perera, caught behind down the leg side. Replays showed Perera was unlucky, but the scores were evened by the umpires in the very next ball, in bizarre circumstances. Dernbach was full and straight at Jayawardene, the veteran batsman getting a leading edge into the offside that Michael Lumb appeared to hold onto after a sprawling dive.

Jayawardene was well in his rights to stand his ground and wait for video conformation, but replays showed no signs that the ball had fallen out of Lumb’s hands. But after minutes of deliberation the third umpire called not out, incensing Broad and his men.

Their fury seemed to get  the better of them, as Tillikaratne Dilshan and Jayawardene proceeded to take the attack apart, via a few dropped catches. In the sixth over Jayawardene got under the ball and skied to mid-off, where a toppling Dernbach dropped a sitter.

Dilshan was subsequently dropped on the leg-side boundary after a Dilshan swipe, with the score on 58. Both batsmen duly took advantage. After coming in on 4-1, Jayawardene eventually departed with the score on 149, with four dropped chances accumulated between him and Dilshan in the process. Dilshan followed him back to the dugout shortly after an ugly yet dogged 55, the brazen opener battling against his own form more than anything.

Some late order hitting from Perera England was damaging the England bowlers, despite a brilliant 19th over from Chris Jordan which yielded just four runs. Bresnan was given the last over, and another solid over was ruined when Angelo Mathews nonchalantly flicked the last ball for six.

England would have to chase 190 at over nine runs an over, a score that seemed beyond them even before Nuwan Kulasekara caused utter devastation in the first over. Lumb seemed fidgety after four dot balls a row to start the innings, and his attempt to try and apply pace onto the ball was ill-fated, as he was bowled for a duck.

Moeen Ali was next, fresh of a wristy and brisk knock against New Zealand that awoke many to his potential. But Kulasekara was too good first up, finding a little bit of away movement, Ali edging to second slip.

England seemed to be on the verge of another embarrassment, a quick yet painful death against the subtlety ofAjantha  Mendis and the dead-eye accuracy of Lasith Malinga. Yet they managed to see out a succession of Malinga Yorkers early on, and purposefully targeted Mendis, who struggled for any movement off the pitch.

Mendis was bludgeoned for 52 off his four overs, Hales crucially taking 25 off the 15th over to haul his side back into the contest. There was a period where England looked as if they may fall behind again, with Morgan and Jos Buttler falling in the same over, needing over 10 an over still.

But Ravi Bopara managed to hold his nerve against Malinga, two delicate fours back to back down to the third man the moment the match swung back in favour of the England. Hales capitalised on this momentum as he destroyed Kulasekera’s last over, becoming England’s first twenty20 hundred scorer in the process.

That left just seven off the last over, a mere formality given the dramatic events that had just gone before. The match and comeback was sealed when Hales deposited the second ball into the night sky, sparking joyous scenes. England had done what no one expected them to do, turning the mood on the bench from seething to ecstatic. It may not to prove a turning point given England’s recent form, but it ensures they will go home with some sort of pride left intact. A stunning game of cricket. 

Manchester United 0-3 Manchester City: Talking Points

 

 Mata struggles to shine again, as Silva flourishes:

When Manchester United broke their record transfer fee to sign Juan Mata from Chelsea for £37 million, it was thought that there would be an automatic rise in the quality and intricacy of the their play, and rightly so after some of the Spaniards glittering performances at Stamford Bridge last term. Chelsea fans and neutrals alike had been left in a collective state of shock with the undisguised way in which Mourinho ostracised Mata from his team, the Chelsea boss citing tactical reasons for his decision-making. But now it almost seems as if Jose might have been wise to let Mata leave his position on the Chelsea bench. Once again United’s designated playmaker struggled to impose his game in a United side hurried and hassled by their Manchester rivals. Mata did have the chance to equalise in the first half, but his effort from the edge of the box after a Rafael cut-back lacked control and went way over the bar, a poor attempt that rather encapsulated his evenings work. Rather than help raise the bar at Old Trafford, Mata’s performance have simply been a symbol of United’s current slump.

David Silva on the other hand, was majestic. He played an instrumental part in City’s first after just 45 seconds, exquisitely taking a Yaya Toure ball in his stride, outfoxing Phil Jones in the process. Rafael was able to race over to make a last minute interception, but he was subsequently out of position, allowing the Blues to take advantage with devastating effect. Silva laid another opportunity on a plate for Edin Dzeko minutes later, his constant movement and awareness too much for United to handle. It was a brave move from manager Manuel Pellegrini to start Silva, Navas, Nasri and Toure in the middle of the park, but a combination of domination by possession, tireless full-backs and expert work from Fernandinho allowed City’s architects to pick United off. Silva was the jewel in the crown of an impressive display.

One step forwards, two steps back for Moyes:

If anything, the back to back wins against Olympiakos and West Ham United gave Moyes a much needed breather from unrelenting pressure and criticism. A place in the Champions League quarter-finals followed by a comfortable victory away from home were encouraging, albeit small steps for his floundering side. Yet when United have come up against real quality this season, they have failed the test miserably. Both Liverpool and Manchester City have now both done the double at Old Trafford, whilst Chelsea have collected four points against them in the league. Even Everton picked up three points at Old Trafford, something Moyes never managed whilst manager of the Toffees. Most worrying is United’s complete lack of invention in front of goal. The Reds have scored less home goals than Hull, Stoke, Swansea and West Ham, and the same as Fulham and Cardiff. Mata has yet to impress, Kagawa has been misused, Zaha has been shipped out on loan, whilst Young and Valencia have got progressively worse. If United are to move forward next season, Moyes must find a way to bring back some attacking verve.

City find defensive solidarity at last:

At times, City’s defence has completely shot them in the foot. During their poor early run away from home at the start of the campaign, the Blues looked a team on edge, one defensive disaster away from throwing away another game they had dominated. Part of the reason was the inability of Matija Nastasic, Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis to maintain their levels of consistency alongside the imperious Vincent Kompany. But it seems as though they may have finally cracked it, with the Blues having kept five clean sheets in the league in a row for the first time since 1915. Credit must go to Martin Demichelis, who has often bore the brunt of criticism directed at City’s shaky back line. Demichelis has started the last five league games in question; and despite a blip in the Champions League first leg against Barcelona which saw him being sent off, the former Malaga man has started to show everyone why Manuel Pellegrini had such faith him in the first place.

United’s midfield imbalance:

United’s decision to start 4-3-3 against a powerful City side seemed a perverse at the time, and turned out to be just that. Tom Cleverly was shifted out to the right, a position where he is not at home. The United academy graduate has taken a fair amount of flak for his side’s position this season, but his game is to get hold of the ball and keep it moving. This was simply not possible on the right, where City were able to shut him off with relative ease. Maroune Fellaini on the left of a midfield three was just as questionable. The Belgian is usually deployed in either a defensive midfield role to break up play, or just behind the striker, to exert his physical prowess. Playing out on the left allowed him to play to neither of these strengths. The only notable thing Fellaini accomplished all evening was an ugly elbow on Pablo Zabaleta, a challenge that should have seen him walk. Fellaini’s inflated transfer fee currently looks even worse waste of money than the £37 million spent on Mata.

Shinji Kagawa entered the field of play at half time, replacing Tom Cleverly in what appeared to be a show of intent from Moyes. But the Japanese playmaker, so central to Borussia Dortmund’s back to back titles in Germany, was once again inhibited by his team mates. It was Juan Mata who moved in behind Rooney for the second half, not Kagawa. The same applied earlier in the season, where Rooney was deployed behind Robin Van Persie. Kagawa does not have the pace or the physicality to play right or left of the three, and the more he does so, the more an exit from the club in the summer seems likely. It is a shame to see someone of such quality struggle, but if United feel they have better players in his position, then they should prepare to sell and look to spend the money made. After all, a few midfield alterations could be made.

City favourites for the title, like they always were:

People have often questioned Jose Mourinho’s assertion that his Chelsea side are not favourites for the Premier League, labelling his words as mind games. But given their strength and depth, City should be the real favourites to lift the league title. Win every game from here on and out and that is exactly what they will be. If they win their games in hand the Blues will be three points better off than Chelsea, with a superior goal difference. City may have a slightly tougher run of fixtures, but both sides still have to go to Liverpool, games which will help decide the title for all three clubs. City have a difficult trip to the Emirates on Saturday, but with Arsenal going through another blip and City starting to accelerate, it is hard to see them not coming away with a win. With Silva and Toure in sensational form and Sergio Aguero still to come back, City have everything they need to secure a second title in three years. Maybe Mourinho was right all along.