English Premier League – Early impressions of a ‘minnow’

It always seems easy for fans, pundits and bookmakers to forecast the three promoted teams of the English Premier League as relegation candidates. These clubs come into the highest tier of English football and face considerable odds in ‘staying up’ and forging their own brand and identity. The EPL is definitely the toughest league in the world but as we have seen so far in the first seven games, a ‘minnow’ can mix it up with the established clubs in the division. While it is early days with only seven games played, one of these ‘minnows’ has already left an impression and sounded a warning to the other clubs in the division that they should not be underestimated.

HULL CITY RESULTS

I have been very impressed with manager Steve Bruce and the Hull City side which is in eighth place in the table on 11 points. Although they had a slow start where they struggled to put away scoring chances, they have settled into a very competitive outfit. Hull has lost to Chelsea and Manchester City and drawn with Cardiff City and Aston Villa. They have beaten Newcastle, West Ham and Norwich on their way to their top half of the table position.

TACTICS

Steve Bruce was very successful in last years Championship division using a 3-5-2 formation which utilized the creative talents of midfielder Robert Koren. This season he has generally used a 4-3-3 sometimes shifting to a 4-4-1-1. Bruce impressed in the one nil win over Norwich when Sagbo was sent off, setting up his team behind the ball in a compact manner which gave Norwich very few goal scoring opportunities and saw out a one nil away victory. Bruce has a bit of a reputation of making his sides tough to beat. I suspect this will be a trait of Hull City this season as well.

 TOM HUDDLESTONE’S INFLUENCE

Whilst watching their first game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge I noticed that they were being overrun in midfield and were not using the ball very well. They could have been four down at the interval but played a decent second half where the introduction of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore settled them down. Hull City had better ball possession in the second period and Chelsea retreated somewhat into their defensive block knowing they did not need to chase the game. Huddlestone’s calm silky passing style from deep changed the game by restoring parity to the midfield battle and it was clear that he would be an important player for Hull this season. His ability to spray the ball around and get the attacks in gear have impressed and he certainly will benefit from playing with a side that is built around him rather than at Tottenham Hotspurs where this was not the case. Huddlestone’s club manager Steve Bruce has already tipped him for an England national team recall. He may not be the quickest player around but surrounding him with terrier like ‘shuttlers ‘ makes for a balanced brew in midfield.

PLAYER POWER

Huddlestones’s presence and passing ability combined with the industry of Livermore and the commanding displays of club skipper and defender Curtis Davies have made Hull a tough side to oppose. Left footed midfielder Robbie Brady has also impressed with three goals thus far and his directness, pace and excellent set piece ability will be invaluable to Hull this season. A recent hernia problem and resulting operation have threatened to slow him down but the club is hopeful that he recovers during the current international break.

While it is early days yet in the EPL, Hull City has done well at this point  to compete with established sides in the division.  Just to put it into another perspective, some of the so called smaller sides in the league like Southampton and Norwich are investing in 15 million pounds signings so the work is cut out for Hull City to achieve this season. Hull may lack a top class striker but I suppose there is always the January transfer window to address this need. They did try to sign striker Shane Long from West Bromwich Albion at the end of the transfer window to address the deficiency up front but were rejected in the last hours. Nevertheless, the early signs look good despite the injury setbacks suffered by defender James Chester and midfielders Robert Koren and Robbie Brady.

Not bad so far for a ‘minnow’!

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CPL : THE RED STEEL COME ALIVE

After starting the inaugural Caribbean Premier League with three losses, the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel franchise rebounded with back to back victories at the Queen’s Park Oval.  They won over the Guyana Amazon Warriors by three runs and the Antigua Hawksbills by one run respectively. This has brought the Red Steel back into the fray for semi final qualification.

It has been an adjustment for Trinidadian fans in supporting the local franchise as some of the best local cricketers like Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard, Lendl Simmons and Denesh Ramdin are spread amongst the other franchises. While there has been some skepticism about the CPL, the crowds across the Caribbean have come out in their numbers to support the League. The Trinidadian fans have also begun to embrace the foreign players in the Red Steel team.

Red Steel captaincy

Dwayne Bravo has not impressed as a captain. His captaincy credentials are questionable as he has not performed at this level to any great degree despite holding the West Indies vice captaincy once. He was recently appointed captain of the West Indies 50 over side and has also flattered to deceive. He has never been groomed to lead in his career and it shows with his strange rotation of bowlers and field placings. He  was also in poor form for the first three games of the CPL following from his meager returns in the recent two series for the West Indies. His insistence to bowl in the death has also backfired as seen in his 26 run over against the Amazon Warriors. In the last couple matches he has regained some form and who knows, his captaincy skills may develop in time.

Foreign players step up

It has been pleasing to see Ross Taylor, Kevin O’Brien and lately Sulieman Benn step up to the plate and deliver strong performances. The form of the first two mentioned players has stabilized the top order of the batting which crumbled in the first few games. This has allowed a comfortable launching pad for the other batsmen to build upon. Benn has also been stingy and accurate with his left armers which has minimized the scoring rate of the opposing teams.

Future bright?

It has been refreshing to see the brave performances of young wicketkeeper/batsman Nicholas Pooran. The 17 year old played an audacious knock of 54 in the first match against the Amazon Warriors where he showed composure and power. His ability to improvise to get boundaries has been impressive and surely Denesh Ramdin must be looking over his shoulder with regards to his place as T&T’s number one keeper/batsman.

Advice from the great Murali

The great Muttiah Muralitharan, one of the world’s best spinners who retired from international cricket after the 2011 World Cup, had some advice for CPL organisers. He indicated that the organisers should aim for an international cricket window so that more talented players over the world could be attracted to play in the CPL.  The tournament has mainly attracted foreign players from New Zealand and Pakistan with a sprinkling of cricketers from other nations. While he praised the promise of the league, he also advised organizers to seek funding and assistance for better pitches.

Clearly the CPL organisers have some work to do to raise the standard and profile of the league but it has been a relative success thus far in its first year of existence.

Let’s go Windies! Let’s go Warriors!…sigh…

My intention for a while has been to express thoughts on our beloved and frustrating West Indies cricket team, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup is on now and supporting the Trinidad and Tobago Soca Warriors football team is akin to similar fan frustration in ‘another universe’. Supporting these two teams over the years has been a chore for myself and many avid fans alike. Even the brilliance of our local sporting icons, Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy and Brian Lara could not lift these sporting teams to ‘the promised land’. Qualification for the 2006 football World Cup was an exception, but the decline has since been very rapid. At the end of this post, I will take a different angle at explaining one of the possible reasons for the poor performances of our local footballers and regional cricketers, but let’s first take a look at the recent performances of the West Indies.

THE WINDIES

The Windies crashed out of the Champions trophy in England via the Duckworth Lewis formula which was applied because of a rain stoppage against South Africa. During the Tri Nation series in the Caribbean against Sri Lanka and India, the Windies failed to reach the final after winning the first two games. I might add that before these two tournaments it was decided by the West Indies Cricket Board that Dwayne Bravo should replace Darren Sammy as captain in the 50 over format due to poor results in this form of the game.

Collectively the West Indies showed no inclination to bat sensibly with a measured approach, especially when confronted with pitches that offered movement to the bowlers. The ‘slam bam, thank you Ma’am’ method which can be applied in the T20 version of cricket seems to suit the West Indians as this form of the game is shorter and requires less patience and diligence. Indeed many of our current team members are stars of the top T20 leagues around the world. No batsman in the top order seems to be able to consistently attempt to bat through the innings.

The experienced Chris Gayle should know that trying to bludgeon every ball out of the ground is not the wisest approach and better shot selection will get him bigger scores. Gayle has often been getting good starts and then giving his wicket away with loose shots when his aim should be to bat through and allow the other batsmen to bat around him. His scores recently have read 22,39,21,36,109,11,10 and 14. He is the senior batsman in the side and when one compares his performance to the senior batsmen of other countries such as Sangakkara for Sri Lanka and Clarke for Australia it is like chalk and cheese. Young batsmen Johnson Charles and Darren Bravo have flickered in between but it has not been often enough to help the team amass impressive totals. Pollard and Samuels have hardly scored a run and have been getting out via the rising delivery pitched outside off stump. Could there still be room for the ‘Tiger’ Chanderpaul? The Windies should be milking him till he retires as his experience and temperament can offer much to the team. In my opinion he is the perfect man to bat through the innings while the stroke players bat around him.

The bowling has been good in spells but tends to fall off either in the middle or end phases of the innings in different games. Tino Best’s brainless method of running up and pounding the ball in short at pace is a joke and should be rewarded with an immediate dropping by the selectors. Injuries have affected the consistency of Kemar Roach, Ravi Rampaul and Sunil Narine.  Have our players lost the ability to concentrate and have their techniques also suffered due to the amount of T20 cricket they play? This may be a reason but I will give another reason later.

THE WARRIORS

The Trinidad and Tobago football team has been on a downward spiral since the historic qualification for the 2006 World Cup in  Germany. Poor administration and a dogfight between the players and the former TTFF-Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (now TTFA) are the main causes. The new administration has aimed to wipe the slate clean with an approach of running  the game in a more structured and professional manner. Trinidad born Stephen Hart was hired as head coach and former coach Leo Beenhakker was appointed as technical director. The coaching staff had three weeks with the team preparing for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Warriors have drawn 2 all with El Salvador and lost to Haiti 2 nil.

 Brief Observations:

1. What is Densill Theobald doing in this team as a player? Just to make it worse he was appointed as captain in a team that   contains seasoned veterans, Carlos Edwards and Kenwyne Jones. Theobald has offered nothing defensively or offensively in both games and this has hampered the team’s performance badly. He does not look fit and his passing has been woeful. This man is the ‘engine of our team’!!!??? Please Coach Hart, put us fans out of our misery and replace him for the final group game against Honduras. Perhaps Chris Birchall or Andre Boucaud can be inserted into the lineup giving the midfield more bite.

2.  Our centre is a bit soft and there seems to be a lack of communication between Hyland and Theobald in the center of the midfield and Power and Mitchell in the center of the defence.

3. While the Warriors showed some improvement in the game against El Salvador, especially with regard to possessing the ball, there was regression in this aspect against Haiti. The team had no answer for Haiti’s pressing and defensive organisation. At no time did T&T get behind Haiti’s defence and cut balls back into danger areas.

4. Kenwyne Jones has been huge for the Warriors in both games but his impact in the second game against Haiti was negated by the fact that his midfielders played too far from him and the link up play necessary was non-existent. Our #10 Daniel who played behind KJ did not get into the game and was not able to bounce passes between himself and Jones to get other attackers into play. Long balls hit to Jones had no effect most of the time as there was no midfielder to latch on to his knockdowns.

I will conclude by pointing out that what you put into your body as an athlete you will get out. There is no hiding from it and a poor diet results in poor performances. In March of this year the psychologist with the West Indies cricket team, in his letter of resignation, noted that he had been unable to make the West Indian cricketers change their diet. Mr Hoad was quoted as saying that the players “eat too much fried foods and as everyone knows, fried food is not good for you, it makes you weak”-Trinidad Guardian, April 2, 2013. This says a lot and explains why our cricketers cannot concentrate and perform over longer periods but excel at T20 cricket where a game is over in 4 hours or less. It also explains why our cricketers succumb so frequently to injury. Bear in mind Mr Hoad’s statement when you agonize and invest so much of your emotion into the West Indies cricket team.  If we as fans care sufficiently enough we will insist on better from our cricketers and those that run the game in the region. Do they care? Should we care if they don’t? Similarly the penchant for fast food or ‘junk food’ in our country is hurting our local sportsmen’s performances including the footballers. The Soca Warriors’ stock has dipped so low from the heights of 2006 and it will take a herculean effort from the TTFA, the footballers and the new technical staff. Hopefully Mr Hart and Mr Beenhakker will recognize that the simple things like getting our boys to eat properly can make a difference.

Let’s go Windies! Let’s go Warriors!…sigh…

LE FOOTBALL BELGE – THE GOLDEN GENERATION?

As an eight year old in 1982 I sat and watched Belgium upset Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup in Spain by one goal to nil. The goal was scored by Erwin Vandenbergh and that Argentine side contained the best player in the world at the time, Diego Maradona. I was so disappointed as my childhood football hero was Maradona.  Belgium was able to get past the first round but succumbed in the second round. Therefore, my first impression of Belgian football was that of a talented side but not yet the finished article.  Four years later, they achieved their best ever run finishing fourth and defeating some very good sides along the way including Russia who had world class players such as goalkeeper Dasaev, striker Belanov and midfielder Sergei Aleinikov.  I enjoyed the performances of the gangling captain Ceulemans, acrobatic goalkeeper Pfaff and the young attacking midfielder Enzo Scifo, especially against a talented Spanish side where Belgium won on penalties. The Belgian national team qualified for World Cups from 1982 to 2002 and after a lull in 2006 and 2010,  they have a supremely talented bunch of players to help them return to the  World Cup stage  in Brazil in 2014. The sides mentioned previously contained players that could be considered pioneers of Belgian football and it would be remiss of me not to mention Philippe Albert who was the first Belgian player to play in the English Premier league. Albert played for Newcastle United and the defender became a cult hero on Tyneside.

TWO MOST INFLUENTIAL PLAYERS

Let us fast forward to 2013 and football today is littered with Belgian talent with the main league beneficiary being the English Premier League. Vincent Kompany has been the biggest Belgian influence in the EPL thus far. During his four years in England, he has helped Manchester City lift the FA cup and Premier League title. The uncompromising defender is one of the world’s best in his position and his leadership qualities are also evident as both club and country have granted him captaincy. The recent Belgian invasion into the Premier League started with midfielder Marouane Fellaini in 2008 and he  impressed  initially as a rugged defensive midfielder, but has recently been used higher up the pitch behind a central striker with the departure of Aussie Tim Cahill from Everton’s ranks. Fellaini is now a much sought after player by Europe’s top clubs and is a player you just cannot miss with that outstanding Afro hairstyle.

Young talent coming through

Many of Belgium’s top stars and promising youngsters play in the English Premier League and they include Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspurs), Christian Benteke (Aston Villa), Romelu Lukaku(Chelsea) and Moussa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspurs).  My focus is on the endless young talent coming through and Eden Hazard is the finest talent I have ever seen from Belgium. The twenty two year old made his debut for the national side at 17 years of age and joined Chelsea in 2012 at a Belgian record transfer of 32 million pounds. He has had an up and down first season in England but his skill, speed, vision and supreme technical ability sets him apart from many other players. Hazard was the most sought after player in Europe before Chelsea snapped him up and I see him becoming a great player for club and country. Christian Benteke is also twenty two years old and has scored 18 goals thus far in his debut season for Aston Villa. His physical presence, impressive hold up play and finishing ability have been outstanding and he seems perfectly suited for the demands of the EPL. Surely bigger clubs will come calling and Villa will do well to keep him after the 2012/13 season ends in May. Mention must also be made of those Belgians shining outside of the EPL such as Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts of Zenit St.Petersburg , Steven De Four of Porto and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who is a Chelsea loanee to Atletico Madrid.

Reason for this upsurge in top Belgian talent?

We cannot claim that the glut of football riches possessed by Belgium at this time is due to careful planning from the Belgian football federation as most young Belgians leave in their early teens to ply their trade in Holland or France. Some teams in Belgium have however increased their commitment to youth development. Standard Liege and Racing Genk have invested millions of dollars in their academies thereby producing some gems. However, the existence of this fine array of Belgian players nowadays can be largely attributed to a generational coincidence. This sometimes happens in football and Belgium national coach Marc Wilmots will do well to take advantage of this abundance of talent.

Belgium is poised for great things and many believe that not only will they qualify for the World Cup in 2014, but they will also excel in Brazil and progress deep into the tournament. Should they get there they would definitely be one of my ‘dark horses’ for the title.

BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE 2012/13 FOCUS: ITS A STRUGGLE!

Yes folks, it has been a while since I have posted. Lets just say it was a combination of work commitments and a period to observe and collect thoughts. My focus in this post is on the 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season and its all about the strugglers with a special look at the two North London giants.

Defensive stats and trends

Fourteen (14) games have been played thus far. It has been clear to see that team defences have struggled with even the established top 4 clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City struggling to keep goals out early on. This settled a bit with Manchester City returning to their stinginess in the back from last season, while Arsenal and Chelsea who started well defensively have begun to ship more goals than they would like. Manchester United has been very leaky in the back but they have offset this with an impressive goals per game figure of 2.4. As it stands Manchester City and Stoke City have conceded the fewest goals with Arsenal and Chelsea behind them. The shakiness of Thomas Vermaelen for Arsenal and David Luiz for Chelsea have contributed largely to poor defensive showings on occasion from both sides. At the same time both sides have not defended well as a team. Chelsea’s superior standing certainly has been due to their ability to put together more wins and score more goals. Stoke has always been notoriously tough to break down especially at their Britannia stadium.

Traditional contenders for top 4 struggle – Whats wrong?

These two North London clubs have traditionally challenged for top 4 status in the Premier League with Arsenal being a frequent qualifier for the UEFA Champions League. Arsenal has qualified for the Champions League for 15 years in a row while Spurs has played Europa league football for the past few years after getting a taste of Champions League football a few years ago.

Arsenal

Many pundits felt that Arsenal had a great start to the season before the recent dip in form. I beg to differ. It is always difficult to lose your two best players from the previous season, especially if one is Robin Van Persie who scored 30 odd goals. The other loss being the reliable and much improved midfielder Alex Song. Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were signed to fill the gaps and integrating them into the existing setup for the beginning of the season was the challenge for manager Arsene Wenger and his staff. What resulted was a slow start with two goalless draws against Sunderland and Stoke City where the team lacked penetration in the final third of the pitch and the few chances created were wasted with Giroud being especially culpable.

On the other hand, Arsenal showed a new found defensive resilience. The team’s defending had clearly improved, especially in and around their own penalty area. In their third game they defended tightly and counter attacked nicely against Liverpool yet again getting a clean sheet in a two nil victory. After some good results against Manchester City and Southampton they stumbled to their first loss of the season against Chelsea. They have been on a rocky road since and one of the turning points was the injury to Abou Diaby in that Chelsea game. His dynamism in the midfield in tandem with the crafty Cazorla was a big positive for Arsenal and this has been sorely missed since. Arsenal has struggled to break teams down at times and of late have been shipping goals at an alarming rate. They also seem to lack a plan to get past packed defences or sides that defend with ‘two lines of four’.  Arsene Wenger was at one point also considering a new system employing three central defenders with two wingbacks to stem the flow of goals. One problem that stands out in the defence is the lack of communication in the center of defence. Very often both stoppers are caught square and one through ball as a result is beating both men. The form of captain Vermaelen is especially worrying and he has not imposed himself in the heart of the back four sometimes making some ‘schoolboy errors’.

Even though the contributions of Walcott and Giroud have been encouraging, recently, there seems to be a school of thought that if Cazorla is shut out of the game Arsenal can be impotent as an attacking force. A few teams this season have employed tactics to keep Cazorla off the ball and forcing him deep which has worked in limiting Arsenal. Some teams have also pressed high on Arsenal not allowing Arteta to take the ball off the back four and start the play. This has also thrown Arsenal off their stride. We await Wenger’s tactical shift to accomodate for these strategies of opposing sides. In addition to that the team does not have the depth of quality to challenge for a title and the activity of Arsenal in the January transfer window will be interesting.

Tottenham Hotspurs

Spurs had a tough start under new coach Andre Villas Boas but just when it seemed they had steadied the ship they lost at home to Wigan in a toothless display followed by a 2-1 defeat away to Manchester City. They were also were badly beaten in the North London derby by Arsenal. Spurs have been playing a high defensive line and against teams with quick forwards/wingers that can time their runs from behind they have been found wanting. An example of this was in the game against Arsenal where Theo Walcott exploited the space in behind. They have clearly missed new signing Moussa Dembele in midfield with his incisive dribbling and passing from deep as he was injured on October 16th, however, he returned to action in the 2-1 victory over Liverpool this week.

Villas Boas has shown a lot of faith in Jermain Defoe and the experienced striker has so far delivered with seven goals while Gareth Bale has been very consistent with some excellent displays on the left side. AVB has maintained the Spurs tradition of two out and out wingers in Lennon and Bale but there are clear issues in the back as veteran William Gallas has produced several mistakes resulting in goals against. AVB has departed from his usual 4-3-3 system and shown the willingness to try a 4-4-2 formation when he lined Spurs up in that fashion against Arsenal. Unfortunately a red card for Emmanuel Adebayor did not allow us to see how this would pan out but a combination of Adebayor with Defoe would be an interesting front pairing of pace and power. AVB has always believed in a lone frontman with two wingers and a three man midfield so we anxiously await the return of Adebayor from suspension to see if the manager will once again line up his side as 4-4-2. Another interesting development is the recall of ‘the forgotten man’ Michael Dawson who was also handed the armband on his return. With Dawson back and the emergence of talented young stopper Steven Caulker I expect Spurs to improve defensively.

New signing Jan Vertonghen has also begun to settle at White Hart Lane and the returns of left fullback Assou-Ekotto and midfield enforcer Scott Parker are anxiously awaited by the Spurs fans. The verdict is still out on Spurs under AVB but with a strike force of Defoe, Adebayor, Bale, Dempsey and Dembele they cannot be written off.

Will these two top four contenders continue to struggle for consistency? Or will they rise to the occasion and cement a top four spot?

We anxiously await…

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SWANSEA CITY: SMALL CLUB LEAVING A BIG IMPRESSION

The 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season has begun a few weeks now and so have all the other major leagues in Europe. As most fans are saying these days, ‘Football is back!’. As football fans we gravitate to big name clubs and high profile players most of the time. This may cause us to overlook the smaller teams that face more obstacles to success. They have to compete with larger clubs who are heavily financed and have bigger fan bases. The smaller football clubs have to depend on proper youth programs and meticulous scouting networks to enhance their player pool. I would like to highlight a ‘new kid on the block’, Swansea City of the English Premier League.

Debut 2011/2012 season

Swansea City is the only Welsh club to have played in the Premier League since it was formed in 1992.  The ‘Swans’ as they are nicknamed finished their debut Premier League season(2011/12) in 11th position. This was certainly a creditable performance for a promoted club in a tough league and they played the game with style and some substance. Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers has been responsible for Swansea’s success and his football philosophy has meshed successfully with the club and its players. Rodgers is a proponent of the ‘tiki taka’ style where maintaining possession and working the ball through various channels is emphasized. High pressing was also adopted by Swansea to stifle the opposition, win back the ball and launch attacks. Rodgers has been able to develop Swansea’s talented players and some of them enhanced their reputations during the 2011/12 season resulting in moves to bigger clubs. Rodgers himself was snapped up by Liverpool after they sacked club legend Kenny Dalglish.    Outstanding players were goalkeeper Michel Vorm, Joe Allen, loanees Gylfi Sigurdsson and Stephen Caulker, winger Nathan Dyer and rightback Angel Rangel. Swansea were difficult to beat at home in their Liberty stadium and racked up one of the best home records in the league. They were one of the most technically gifted sides in the Premier League and neutral supporters were attracted to their brand of football. Swansea had the 6th best passing accuracy in Europe(85.2%) and midfielder Leon Britton(93.3%) had the highest passing accuracy for any player beating ‘passmaster’ Xavi of Barcelona.

Adjustments made

This season Swansea has had to make adjustments due to the departure of Brendan Rodgers and high profile players Scott Sinclair, Gylffi Sigurdsson, Joe Allen and Stephen Caulker. Rodgers was replaced by Dane Michael Laudrup who tweaked Swansea’s style but more on that in a bit.  The club has recruited quickly to fill the void and Jonathan de Guzman, Ki Sung-Yueng, Michu, Pablo Hernandez and Chico have been signed. Swansea have started with a bang, registering  a resounding 5 nil victory over Queens Park Rangers, 3 nil victory over West Ham and a 2 all draw with Sunderland. This club is clearly on the up and they are being called ‘ the Welsh Barcelona’ by sections of the media due to their silky style.

Laudrup’s philosophy, tactics and early influence

There were fears that Brendan Rodgers’ departure would have led to a fall off in Swansea’s success and style. This has not been the case under Laudrup who has had modest success in his managerial career so far. He has maintained the neat passing game that Swansea have had even before Rodgers’ reign but added a bit more directness. The wingers Dyer and Routledge have been encouraged to tuck inside and link up closer to frontman Danny Graham. This has given license to fullbacks Rangel and Taylor to get forward into advanced positions. La Liga recruit Michu is less of a playmaker than Sigurdsson who he replaced but has already scored 4 goals in three games. He reminds me a bit of the Frank Lampard of old, ghosting into the penalty area with well timed runs and scoring. Late recruits Sung-Yueng and Hernandez are yet to play but both add to the depth and quality of Swansea’s squad. Laudrup also seems to have instilled more discipline into the team defensively and their shape without the ball reflects that organization.

Can Swansea maintain this run, establish a top 10 position and even make a run at a European place? Time will tell, but they are fast becoming everyone’s second favourite team and are leaving a big impression.

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2012 OLYMPICS: THE RED,WHITE AND BLACK STANDS TALL IN LONDON

What an amazing weekend of Olympic action! The track and field competition began on Friday and the events came thick and fast on Saturday and Sunday. We also saw the start of the men’s cycling sprint or ‘Flying 200′ as it is popularly known. Trinidad and Tobago athletes excelled in these two sporting disciplines and three of them are in contention for medals tomorrow. Jehue Gordon and Lalonde Gordon have both qualified for the final of the 400 metre hurdles and 400 metre races respectively. Young cyclist Njisane Phillip has made it to the semi-finals of the Flying 200 in impressive fashion. Lets take a look at our heroes’ performances.

Kelly-Ann Baptiste

Kelly-Ann made it to the women’s 100 metre final and placed sixth in a time of 10.94. Her personal best is 10.84 and her season best is 10.86. Kelly-Ann made a great start and was out of the blocks well but after 60 metres she was passed by most of the field. When interviewed after the race she indicated that she was proud to make the final but a bit disappointed in her placing and aware that she could have done better. All the same, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago are proud of her being the first woman from the twin island republic to get to a sprint final at the Olympic Games. Kelly-Ann has suffered with achilles trouble during the season and did not race as much as she would have liked. Congratulations to the winner Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who defended her Olympic title with a blistering 10.75 clocking. Silver went to American Carmelita Jeter in 10.78 and bronze to veteran Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown who was timed in 10.81.

Richard ‘Torpedo’ Thompson

Richard Thompson exceeded the expectations of many by getting to the men’s 100 metre final today. He has had a quiet season by previous standards and has not been the same sprinter since a car accident some years ago. ‘Torpedo’ finished down the field in 7th spot in 9.98 seconds. After the race he spoke about the tough season he had and how grateful he was to come out of it in a healthy state. He did indicate disappointment in his placing even though he realised it would have been difficult to medal. Thompson ran his heart out but just did not have a good finish to challenge the top sprinters. He must be given credit for becoming the third Trinidad and Tobago male to compete in two consecutive Olympic sprint finals. Ace Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt confirmed his greatness with a magnificent victory in 9.63 seconds, a new Olympic record. He shattered the old Olympic record set by himself four years ago in Beijing which was 9.69. The silver medal went to Bolt’s impressive training partner and World Champion Yohan Blake who clocked  a personal best 9.75. American Justin Gatlin gathered bronze with a 9.79 run.

MEDAL HOPEFULS

THE GORDONS

Jehue Gordon

Jehue Gordon ran an amazing semi final in a new national record of 47.96 to finish second, shatter the form book and gain a place in tomorrow’s 400 metre hurdles final. Jehue beat some ‘big guns’ like World Champ Dai Greene and Trinidad born American runner Kerron Clement. He powered home after the 200 metre mark and finished behind veteran Felix Sanchez the 2004 Olympic champion. The final includes some big names like American Angelo Taylor and Puerto Rican Javier Culson. Jehue however is running without fear and with confidence.  Some may have forgotten, but this young man stunned the world in the 2009 World Championships where he finished fourth and was barely 17 years old! He was then earmarked for future greatness and his success at these Games should come as no surprise…….. Do not be surprised if he gains a medal tomorrow!

Lalonde Gordon

Now this was the shocker for local fans and fans worldwide. 23 year old quarter miler Lalonde Gordon today stunned the world when winning Heat one in the fastest qualifying time of 44.58. This time was a personal best for him and his win was quite comfortable. Lalonde looked in total control coming off the final bend and gave the impression that he had a lot of ‘gas left in the tank’. He was certainly not mentioned as a favourite for this event but is clearly in contention for a medal tomorrow.  Grenadian World Champ Kirani James and the Borlee brothers from Belgium will be favoured for medals tomorrow. It is interesting to note that Jonathan Borlee beat Kirani James into second at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco a week before the Olympics. Could Lalonde be the surprise medallist for Trinidad and Tobago? Time will tell but my gut feeling is that he will shock the world tomorrow.

Njisane Phillip

Njisane Phillip has left an indelible mark on the cycling competition at the London Olympic Games. He has qualified for the semi finals of the Men’s sprint and will oppose hometown rider Jason Kenny. Njisane beat Kiwi rider Edward Dawkins, German Robert Forstemann and Russian Denis Dmitriev to get to the semi finals. Njisane has taken the cycling world by surprise and the fans and commentators at the velodrome have warmed to him and he is now a fan favourite. Clearly Phillip has had no regard for ‘big names’ and ‘reputations’ and has performed fearlessly. Njisane was the slowest qualifier out of the four semi finalists however and it will be an uphill task for the young man to medal. Either way he has already won the hearts of his countrymen and at the tender age of 21 to reach the last four of the Olympics is an achievement. He probably has two more Olympic Games ahead of him and is a great cyclist in the making.

TOMORROW IS RED MEDAL MONDAY!!!  GO T&T!

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2012 OLYMPICS: HIGH HOPES FOR THE RED,WHITE AND BLACK IN LONDON

The 2012 Olympic Games in London begins this weekend and I will take a look at the pre-Olympic form and medal hopes of our beloved Trinidad and Tobago athletes. Trinidad and Tobago will be represented by 30 athletes and they will be going to the Games with one of their largest female contingents ever.

MEDAL HOPES

Kelly-Ann Baptiste

A lot is expected of Kelly-Ann Baptiste as she is one of the world’s leading sprinters and the World Championship 100m bronze medalist. She has a season’s best of 10.86 finishing second to World champion Carmelita Jeter of the USA in Jamaica recently. Kelly-Ann has high hopes of earning precious metal in this event in London. She has struggled with some achilles discomfort this year but seems to have put it behind her in time for the Olympic Games.

Relay teams

There are also high hopes for the men’s 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams. The shorter relay team is composed of Marc Burns, Emmanuel Callender, Richard ‘Torpedo’ Thompson, Keston Bledman and Rondell Sorillo. The team is second on the 2012 IAAF Performance listing behind Jamaica’s Racers (37.82). They clocked 38.23 at the Aviva London Grand Prix a few weeks ago and I feel confident that they can medal despite a minor injury concern for national champion Keston Bledman. It is often how proficiently the baton passing is accomplished rather than raw speed that decides the winner of the relay. With this in mind maybe T&T can upset the all powerful Jamaicans? All Trinis keep the faith!!

There has been major improvement in the men’s 4×400 metre relay team recently. At last month’s National Championships, Renny Quow, Lalonde Gordon, Jarrin Solomon and Deon Lendore combined for a new national record, the T&T quartet stopping the clock at three minutes, 45 seconds. Gordon and Solomon subsequently improved their personal best clockings in the individual 400m. The 4×400 national record relay time at the National Championships put T&T among the top 5 times this year with a definite chance of a medal in London.

The women’s sprint relay team will also be contenders for precious metal in London. They have one of the fastest times for the year and their main competition will be USA and Jamaica. Semoy Hackett, Kelly-Ann Baptiste, Kai Selvon, Michelle – Lee Ahye and Reyare Thomas cannot be ruled out of contention for honours.

Surprises in store?

There are some athletes in the T&T contingent who have put together impressive performances in the last year and they may be able to spring surprises in London. George Bovell III in swimming and Njisane Phillip in cycling are two such athletes. Phillip has already been earmarked for success in the match sprint event in the 2016 Olympic Games. Even though Njisane is only 21 and making his Olympic debut in London he comes into the games with impressive credentials. In March this year he won the match sprint in the Pan American Championships in Argentina and followed up in June by setting a new national and Pan American record in the flying 200 in Colorado with a 9.775 second recording.

George Bovell III has also had some impressive results recently in the 50m and 100m freestyle and his decision to come back home to train under former coach Anil Roberts seems to have sharpened his competitiveness. George can get to the final in the 50 free in my opinion and anything can happen in a short sprint event final.

An impressive comeback

One of the great stories leading up to this year’s Olympic Games has been the road to qualification of sailor Andrew Lewis. Last December, in Australia, Lewis fell short of the qualifying standard to get into the Olympics. He was left with one final chance at the Audi Laser World Championships in May in Germany. At this final event 29 countries were competing for 12 spots to get into the Olympics and Andrew started badly, ending up in 15th position after Day One. He then steadied his nerves and gradually climbed into the top 12 to qualify. Andrew displayed much grit and determination and became the first Trinbagonian to qualify for the Laser class in sailing at the Olympic Games.

All the athletes qualifying for the Olympic Games are already winners. The gala Opening ceremony is out of the way and in a few hours events will be in full swing. RIBSPORT joins with all of Trinidad and Tobago in wishing all our athletes the best in their events at the Olympic Games in London.

LETS GO FOR GOLD T&T!

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FEDERER REIGNS BUT SPARE A THOUGHT FOR ANDY MURRAY

Roger Federer wrote his name in history today with a magnificent 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4  victory over hometown favourite Andy Murray. The first two sets were agonisingly close and points tally numbered as Federer 86, Murray 85. However, after a rain delay, Federer  powered to victory with a combination of booming serves, crisp volleys and breathless groundstrokes. Federer also upped the ante and attacked Murray’s serve much more. In the first set especially, Murray was able to hold serve easily while Federer had to work harder to hold.

Federer the great

Federer may be the greatest to play the game and surely the best to ever set foot on a grasscourt. He seemed to get into ‘a zone’ in the third and fourth sets and was unstoppable despite the pluckiness of Murray. Many fans and pundits had written off Federer and the term ‘washed up’ appeared on occasion, but he is still able to compete at the top even though he is 4 or 5 years older than his main rivals Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. This graceful athlete surely still has it in him to add to his 17 Grand Slam titles and it is no secret that he wants to add an Olympic tennis singles medal in London to his list of achievements.

Spare a thought for Murray

There was a lot to admire about Andy Murray today and this is apart from his tearful and gracious speech during the post match ceremony. He started the match brilliantly and served consistently in the first two sets making it hard for Federer to get a grip in the match. Murray’s impressive start forced Federer to raise his game to heights that made an enthralling spectacle for fans. He therefore played a significant role in bringing the best out of the great Federer and enhancing the overall quality of the tennis match.

It certainly would not be an easy task for Murray to beat Federer in front of his own countrymen. The weight of expectation from a nation was heavy on his shoulders and he manfully gave it his best shot. It was certainly no disgrace to lose to a man who is in such imperious form. Murray has now lost his fourth Grand Slam final but at age 25 and with the guidance of his new coach, former great Ivan Lendl, I suspect he will eventually scale the heights of Grand Slam champion.

Well done Federer and Murray!

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THOUGHTS ON SPAIN AND ITALY ON EVE OF EURO 2012 FINAL

Ahhh…. the final of Euro 2012 is upon us and it pits defending European and World champs Spain against Italy. These two teams met earlier on in a fascinating  Group C fixture which ended 1-1. Spain have been very stingy defensively and have maintained their regular quota of possession normally approaching 60% or more. They have lacked a cutting edge offensively however and this can be attributed to the loss of David Villa and the indifferent form of Fernando Torres this year. Coach Vicente del Bosque has therefore used a system without a striker where one of the midfielders would operate as the furthest advanced in a ‘false nine’ position. This task has generally been given to Cesc Fabregas with David Silva alternating with him in that role against Italy. The concept of a ‘strikerless’ formation is not the ideal tactic but is beautiful when there is a team with quality midfielders who are comfortable and versed at verticality and making runs from deep to get on the end of through balls. Indeed Spain equalised against Italy with this tactic and when using a forward in other games did not excel barring the Ireland game. Spain have looked threatening when introducing wingers Navas and Pedro late in games and I expect del Bosque to do the same in the final. On another note Spain’s back four has been resolute in this tournament and they have conceded one goal in 5 games. Sergio Ramos has been solid and goalkeeper Iker Casillas has not put a foot wrong. However, the real find for Spain has been leftback Jordi Alba who has defended and attacked  superbly.

Is Spain boring?

This has been the cry of some fans recently. The relentless Spanish possession has been lulling them to sleep so to speak. Spain’s game in their recent domination of world football has been based on keeping possession which is a defensive and offensive tactic. They are bent on controlling the game and this takes away the chance of a spectacle for the fans of end to end football which creates excitement. Teams also change their style when they meet Spain in an attempt to stifle their effectiveness and this tends to create stalemates in midfield. Spain’s strength is their midfield and crowding the centre of the pitch and closing down space contributes to boring games at times. This is especially so as Spain does not play with much width.  We must remember that France played with two rightbacks, benched their playmaker Nasri and crowded the midfield to stifle Spain.

Boring? NO!, Predictable? Sometimes yes!

The Italians have surprised many including yours truly with an entertaining brand of football featuring lovely passing movements and quick breaks into attack. Italian sides have become renowned for a ‘defence first’ approach but coach Cesare Prandelli has spearheaded a shift in philosophy towards a more attacking nature. Italy now play a fairly high defensive line and also play with a midfield diamond. Prandelli has not hid the fact that Italy’s strength is in their midfield and he has sought to build his side around the outstanding deep lying playmaker, Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo, Montolivo, Marchisio and De Rossi have made up the four and when teams neutralise Pirlo in his natural position in front of the back four it is common for De Rossi to drop deep to compensate. The system employed is geared to allow Pirlo to dictate and create opportunities. The versatility of Italy’s midfielders has been impressive. They can all pass, tackle, defend and attack. The two talented forwards, Cassano and Balotelli, are unpredictable and potentially explosive as Balotelli showed in the semi final against Germany with his brace of goals. Italy has always been famous for great defenders and whilst their defence may not compare to great defences of the past I would single out Andrea Barzagli as one of the best defenders I have seen in Euro 2012. He missed the opening two matches due to injury but the Juventus stopper was immense against England and Germany.

New Italy? YES!

Prediction

 I can’t call a winner for this final. I expect a tight,low scoring game that may go past 90 minutes.

ENJOY!!!

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