The true value of a player - The story of Andy Carroll and Shane Long

Just before the Premier League January transfer window of 2011 closed Liverpool paid Newcastle United £35 million for striker Andy Carroll.
At that time Carroll had only a half a season top flight experience behind him but Liverpool were still prepared to fork out a fee that would make Carroll the eight most expensive player in the history of the game. When the transfer went through Carroll was already carrying an injury, this meant he only made 7 league appearances for the remainder of the 2010-11 season where he pitched in with 2 league goals.
In August of 2011 West Bromwich Albion signed Reading striker Shane Long for an undisclosed fee which was believed to be in the region of £4.5 million.
At the start of the 2011-12 season Long was 24 years old and Carroll was 22. Six months previous Carroll was sold for nearly 8 times the transfer fee Long commanded so one would assume that Carroll is a vastly superior player and Liverpool should in theory get 8 times more performance form their purchase.
When you analyse their respective performance in this season’s Premier League the truth is a little different. Since the start of this season Carroll has played 728 minutes of football for Liverpool while scoring 2 league goals, this is a return of a goal for every 364 minutes on the pitch. In the same period Long has managed to play 982 minutes for West Brom with a return of 5 league goals, this is a goal for every 196.4 minutes on the pitch.
The varying plight of each club doesn’t put Carroll’s performance in any better light. Liverpool are doing better than West Brom and scoring more goals. They currently lie in 7th position in the Premier League while West Brom are further down the table sitting in 14th spot. West Brom have a haul of 13 goals this campaign so far while Liverpool have fared a little better scoring 17 times. This shows that Shane Long has so far accounted for 38.5% of his sides’ league goals while Andy Carroll has only shared the burden by scoring 11.8% of Liverpool’s league goals so far.
It would not be entirely fair to judge either player just on their so far short stay at their new clubs, they both have a long way to go on their respective contracts and in their careers. The figures though are telling.
So the question is why is there such a disparity in the transfer money paid for both players? If Andy Carroll had a glittering career previous to joining Liverpool the astronomical fee paid for him would be more understandable. However in his last full season in the Championship (2009-10) he scored 17 times for Newcastle and ended up joint 6th top scorer in that division. In Shane Long’s last full season in the same division (2010-11) he tallied 21 goals for Reading finishing joint 2nd top scorer.
Carroll did burst into the limelight during the first half of the 2010-11 Premier League season when he bagged 11 goals in 19 games for the then newly promoted Newcastle. Much hype was created by this performance, Newcastle had an "Old Style" English centre forward and he was banging in the goals for the Toon Army. Alan Shearer had a successor at last, all was looking rosy in the North East of England and all going well the English national side itself may also have a new saviour.
It is however very hard to believe that this 11 goal haul and the accompanying hype could inflate his transfer fee to the figure Liverpool eventually paid. There is little evidence apart from this half season performance that he should stand out from the crowd or that he could be considered the eight most expensive player in the history of football.
It should be mentioned though that Andy Carroll does qualify for the Premier League ‘home grown’ quota, where eight of the first team squad must have trained with an English or Welsh club for 3 years before their 21st birthday. Long misses out on that rule by 6 months. Qualifying for this quota will undoubtedly put a premium on player’s value but it cannot explain the fee stumped up for Carroll.
 When Liverpool bought Carroll they had just received £50 million from Chelsea for Fernando Torres and Newcastle United, like the rest of the world, knew this. However it would make very poor business practice if Liverpool merely paid the price they did for Carroll because Newcastle knew they had money burning a hole in their pocket. It would be fair to say that Kenny Dalglish needed to replace Torres for the remainder of the season at the very least, but as is mentioned above Andy Carroll was injured and not fit to play when the deal went through.
Also off the field Long looks to be a far more stable bet than Carroll, and is unlikely to attract all the negative attention that has so far blighted the big forward’s career.
So are West Brom the best run business in the Premier League and has Roy Hodgson got the best eye for a bargain? Or are Liverpool and Kenny Dalglish the exact opposite of how things are run at The Hawthorns? The truth is probably somewhere in between these two assertions. So far though Shane Long has proved to have been a good bit of business for West Brom. The same cannot be said for Andy Carroll.

Andy Carroll
Shane Long
Price Paid at Last Transfer
PL Minutes on Field in 2011/12
PL Goals Scored in 2011/12
Minutes on the field per PL Goal
Overall Team PL Goals so far in 2011/12
% of Teams PL Goals Scored
Goals in Last Full Season in C'ship

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Trapattoni gets good return from available resources

On Friday evening in Tallinn the Republic of Ireland will be 180 minutes from qualifying for their first major tournament since 2002 and only their second ever appearance at the European Championships.
Regardless of whether qualification is achieved or not the performance of manager Giovanni Trapattoni will be the subject of much debate. If we qualify some may argue that it was done the hard way and quite possibly another manager could have the job done by now and not needed the lottery of the playoffs. Two points were dropped away in Zilina when Ireland escaped with a draw when the game was there for the taking. The home performances against Russia and Slovakia drew much criticism also. Against the Russians Ireland were torn apart on a home pitch in a fashion rarely seen. The visitors were so far ahead of the Irish side that night that their 3-0 advantage on 50 minutes was kind to the home side. The fact that the game finished 3-2 merely puts a nice gloss on the records, Ireland were annihilated that night. The midfield were constantly outnumbered which allowed the Russians to pass their way to goal time and time again. Many questioned why changes weren’t made earlier in that game to redress the numerical imbalance in the engine room.
The home game against Slovakia was another let down for Irish supporters. The night promised much, a home win and we could have conceivably topped the group. Ireland displayed in Zilina that we have players that are more than a match for Slovakia, so three points at home should be well within our compass. What followed was one of the worst home performances seen for years, and only for a heroic block by Sean St. Ledger Slovakia could have plundered the Aviva for all three points. Few would have said that they did not deserve them.
If we don’t qualify the knives will surely be out for the Italian manager.
Trapattoni could argue that a place in the playoffs is a decent return for the players at his disposal, and his much criticised tactics are designed around the players he feels are worth their place in his first eleven.
It is worth comparing the squad that qualified for our first appearance at the European Championships in 1988 to the current crop. Of the players picked by Jack Charlton for those qualifiers seven were in the squads of the top two finishers in the top division of English football in the summer of 1988. Jim Beglin, Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge were on the books of the champions Liverpool. Aldridge was their top scorer in that title season. Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath were with second place Manchester United. In addition to this Frank Stapleton had left Manchester United for Ajax in 1987 and Kevin Sheedy was plying his trade with Everton who finished fourth in England that summer.
The late eighties were during the period when English clubs were banned from European competition so the English game was not awash with continental and South American stars as it is today. However it was only four years previous to 1988 when Liverpool were crowned champions of Europe. So that illustrates that the league, even with its exile from European competition, still contained some of the top sides on the continent. In today’s terms this would be the equivalent of seven of our squad playing for the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea.
Darron Gibson is on the books at Manchester Untied but he is very much a fringe player at Old Trafford and has also fallen down the pecking order with the national squad. 
In 1987 Liam Brady returned from his seven year stay in Italy. This was when the Italian league had a two foreigner rule for each squad so only the finest players were imported into Serie A.
Trapattoni can only dream of the resources available to Jack Charlton in 1988. Our current squad are found in the middle to lower reaches of the English top division. Of the team that will probably take to the field on Friday night two, Keith Andrews and Sean St. Ledger, play in the second tier of English football. The mainstays of the current squad are more likely to be involved in the relegation fight in the English Premier league rather than the title chase. Our captain plays in the MLS, a league which is realistically a retirement home for European stars or a staging post for U.S. and Mexican players looking to attract the eye of suitors from European clubs. However that move can be dressed up it is highly likely that if we qualify that Ireland will be the only side at Euro 2012 whose captain plays in the U.S. league.
The current squad contains some talented players and some excellent prospects for the future, Aiden McGeady being an example of this. Many of our better players, Keane, Duff, Given and Dunne, are in the autumn of their career. Although Richard Dunne’s recent performances would suggest that he is in the form of his life. Trapattoni is certainly no miracle worker and despite the erratic results that were a feature of the closing stages of the Euro 2012 Group B Qualifiers the Irish players are certainly good enough to finish where they did, and are full value for their place in the playoffs.  There are certainly other managers who could also have steered Ireland to a playoff spot but there are many more that would have floundered and it would have been another campaign of “what ifs”.
Too often he is accused of not getting the most out the players available to him and imposing a defensive straightjacket on players. The players that Trapattoni does not pick is another stick that is issued to beat the Italian. At the start of his tenure there was an outcry for Andy Reid to be employed as a lynchpin of our midfield. The subsequent decline in Reid’s club fortunes may hint that the correct call may have been made here by the Italian. Other names suggested that would improve the team have been James McCarthy, Wes Hoolohan and more recently Leon Best. There is also he who should not be mentioned.
Too much time is spent musing over the players that he could or should call up without a thorough evaluation of how they would really improve the side, Stephen Ward being a recent example of this.
Many Irish fans will quite rightly expect the national side to progress past Estonia and book a place at Euro 2012. If that does happen Trapattoni should get the praise he deserves. Some level of realism needs to be engaged when evaluating the players he has available to him. 

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Trapattoni’s destination trumps the journey

Two games left, two points behind the group leaders and one point clear of second place. Ireland’s passage to a play-off spot is now in their own hands. If that scenario was presented to Giovanni Trapattoni and most Irish football fans last September when Ireland started out on this qualification campaign it may not be a stretch of the imagination to guess that they would have grabbed it with both hands. Added to our second spot in the group table we also have arguably the easiest run in of the four sides still in the mix for the top two spots. Although Armenia’s win in Zilina may have to change some peoples assessment of how easy our fixture against Vardan Minasyan’s side will or will not be on October 11th in the Aviva Stadium.
As one former political leader was often heard say “we are where we are”, but most Irish football fans will be wondering which is more important, the destination or the journey.
In this case the destination is far less gruesome than the journey that took us to this point. The journey of the last two games in particular made very hard viewing for many.
Heading into the game against Slovakia last Friday night the optimism was palpable. There was a feeling that we had let the visitors off the hook in the reverse fixture in October of last year. The game finished one all but Ireland missed a penalty through Robbie Keane, and Keane was again guilty of squandering a glorious chance in the closing stages of that game to take all three points. Quite reasonably Ireland felt hard done by to leave Zilina with only one point. There was an air of unfinished business about Friday’s fixture.  Unfortunately what transpired over the ninety minutes took most of the home support by surprise, and for all the wrong reasons. The game finished scoreless, which would have been a disappointment with the performance aside, but it was that performance that left so many deeply disenchanted.
So many of our regular performers were way below par. Kevin Doyle, who is usually a guaranteed seven out of ten performer at the very least, had one his worst games in a green shirt, in addition he appeared frustrated and annoyed. Aiden McGeady, John O’Shea and the midfield duo of Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews were way below the standard required on the night. Individual failings are one thing but the lack of collective design or game plan was galling. One a night where we should have been taking the game to the opposition our midfield showed no desire to take the ball from the back four and direct affairs. For all that was wrong on the night the hosts could have still won the day. It was through Damien Duff, a player who led on a night when few followed, that Ireland could have won all three points. On 74 minutes Duff sent a beautiful cross in with his left foot to Robbie Keane who was lurking at the back post. The Slovakian defence were caught flat footed, the ball dropped invitingly to Keane who is no more than eight yards out. Keane only had to direct the ball either side of the Slovakian goalkeeper Mucha with his head. What followed only drew howls of derision from the home support in the Aviva, howls that would have made a sailor blush. The visitors themselves could also have taken the win if it wasn’t for a heroic block by Sean St. Ledger.
For Tuesday’s game in Moscow there were some fanciful predictions that Ireland could win the game, that our away performances have been far superior than our efforts at home under Trapattoni and that had to be a factor. What followed on the night was an onslaught on Shay Given's goal. The Aston Villa custodian reminded all that he is a world class keeper, if reminding was indeed necessary. Even better than Given on the night was Richard Dunne. The centre half turned in one of the finest defensive performances in an Irish shirt for years. It was a performance of the magnitude that it should quite rightly be spoken in the same terms as Paul McGrath's in the Giants Stadium some seventeen years ago. Worthy of a mention too is Darren O’Dea. The defender who is currently on loan at Leeds Utd was out of necessity thrown in at the deep end and into the lion’s den that was the Luzhniki Stadium. O’Dea was shoulder to shoulder with Dunne in repelling what seemed to be an irresistible Russian attacking force which was skilfully orchestrated by Andrey Arshavin.
The game somehow finished scoreless. Quite rightly Dick Advocaat and his Russian charges will feel very hard done by, but finished scoreless it did and Ireland left with a point.
Going into the last two games of this campaign it’s probably fair to say that Slovakia may not be as good as many may had thought, and equally Armenia could well be better than many had thought.  Ireland’s draw in Moscow gave Giovanni Trapattoni’s side their seventh consecutive clean sheet, an Irish record. A commendable feat indeed, but it is at the other end that the boys in green will need improve things if they are going to achieve qualification for Euro 2012.
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Ireland’s destiny in their own hands

With just Tuesday’s friendly in Liege against Italy to negotiate before their Summer break, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland squad can feel satisfied with their weekend’s work. With six games played and four left to contest in their campaign in Group B of qualifying for the 2012 European Championships the Irish squad know that their passage to Poland and the Ukraine is entirely in their own hands.
That said two of the four remaining games are against their rivals for qualification, with Slovakia visiting Dublin on September 2nd and then Ireland’s visit to Moscow four days later. Qualification chances are helped by the fact that Russia visit Slovakia on October 7th, so at least one of the sides that night will drop points. That means a return of four out of a possible six points during September should guarantee at least second place for the Republic of Ireland. Second place would most probably mean the unhappy hunting ground of the play offs. Of course beat both Slovakia and Russia and Ireland will qualify automatically as group winners, that is barring a disaster against either Andorra or Armenia. Slovakia’s victory in Moscow in September of last year and Russia’s unconvincing performance against Armenia in St. Petersburg at the weekend illustrate that victory on Russian soil for this Irish side is not beyond the realms of belief.
The Irish win in the Macedonian capital on Saturday was thanks to two Robbie Keane goals. Both goals were somewhat fortuitous, the first on eight minutes via a significant deflection, while the second nine minutes before the break was thanks to some atrocious defending by Boban Grncarov. Keane’s anticipation for the second was highly commendable, the Irish record scorer was already in full flight before Grncarov stubbed his pass back into the turf. That anticipation was followed up by a fine finish when Keane slotted the ball into the bottom left hand corner of the net.
The game in Skopje was played in the reconstructed Philip II Arena. A fine modern arena that is in complete contrast to the dimly lit dirt tracks that lead up to the stadium. Trying to find the correct entrance on Saturday left the travelling Irish fans longing for the sometimes over regulated colour coded ticketing and turnstile system used for the Aviva Stadium.  
At times the contest in this revamped stadium on Saturday seemed like a battle of the two defences, as to which one would prove the most inept. In the end both defences let their guard down all too often but the difference was that the Irish attack punished their hosts rearguard while the Macedonians let Ireland off the hook more than once. The penalty miss by Ivan Trickovski was more mercy than the Irish defence deserved. The Macedonians could well have had another penalty earlier in the half when John O’Shea hauled down Goran Pandev. Had Florian Meyer pointed to the spot on that occasion it could have been double disaster for Ireland as he would have been well within his rights show O’Shea a red card.
After Ireland’s previous bad experiences and poor fortune in Skopje they should make no apologies for the few slices of fortune that allowed them to leave with all three points.
One of Ireland’s better performers on Saturday night was Aiden McGeady, at times he was carrying the threat to the hosts alone. His forays down the left wing were a constant worry for Macedonia. He usually faced two if not three defenders when he ball came to his feet, an illustration of the concern he caused in the home defence.  If Slovakia assign the same level of cover to McGeady when they visit Dublin in September an overlapping full back could cause serious damage to the visiting defence. That is of course if Trapattoni allows his full backs cross the half way line.
McGeady and his overlapping full back aside Ireland could well have a much stronger side facing the Slovakians than took to the field in Skopje at the weekend. Due to return from suspension and injury are the key men of Dunne, Doyle and Duff. These considerations added to the fact that Ireland let Slovakia off the hook with a draw in Zilina back in October mean that Trapattoni’s men should feel confident of taking all three points. Three points that would tee them up for their formidable task of the visit to Moscow on September 6th.   

Follow me on Twitter @shanegunning
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Manchester United in Pole Position to Claim Premier League Title

Five points clear with eight games remaining. That is the enviable position Manchester United find themselves in as the Premier League gears up for action this weekend following the recent International break.  Granted second place Arsenal do have a game in hand but Manchester United must be clear favourites at this point to capture the 2010–2011 Premier League title.
The crucial ties for Alex Ferguson’s side will be the May 1st visit to London to play Arsenal followed by Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford seven days later. Before United can contemplate those heavyweight clashes they must first visit Upton Park to play West Ham United this Saturday. West Ham themselves are in desperate need of points as they only have their noses just out the relegation zone by virtue of a superior goal difference to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
West Ham are in fine form and have lost only one of their last seven Premier League matches. They are hoping to welcome back striker Frederic Piquionne from injury to bolster their attack. One forward they will certainly have available for selection after a spell on the physio’s  bench is Robbie Keane, who is on-loan from Tottenham Hotspur. Keane’s confidence should be high as he found the net last Saturday for the Republic of Ireland in their 2-1 Euro 2012 qualifier win against Macedonia in Dublin.
The return of Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic from injury will come as a welcome boost to Alex Ferguson as he knows Upton Park can be a tricky place to visit. United’s last visit there resulted in an embarrassing 4-0 reverse last November in the Carling Cup quarter final. This though is the business end of the Premier League and is a very different setting to the Carling Cup on a Winter’s evening. Anything other than an away win really is unthinkable.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal can welcome back from injury key man Cesc Fabregas for Saturdays game against Blackburn Rovers at The Emirates Stadium. Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Abu Diaby also return. Wenger must have sweated a little as he waited to hear the full extent of Robin Van Persie’s injury he picked up playing for The Netherlands during mid week. Van Persie opened the scoring for The Netherlands in that tie but had to be withdrawn on 46 minutes with an injury. This now appears to be a minor knock and he should fit for selection.
Despite Blackburn being five spots above the relegation zone in thirteenth place they are very worryingly for them only one point above safety. Given their perilous position Blackburn would crave anything form this weekend’s tie. Arsenal though are hot on the heels of Manchester United for the big prize and will surely pick up all three points.
Third place Chelsea, four points behind Arsenal, are now almost certainly out of the race for the title. They face a very tricky visit to Stoke on Saturday. Stoke are in high spirits and will be looking forward to their FA Cup semi final against Bolton Wanderers on 17th April. That distraction aside Stoke will fancy their chances against their visitors this weekend and should expect at least a point from the game.
At the other end of the table the clubs currently in the relegation zone Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham City and bottom club Wigan Athletic face Newcastle, Bolton and Tottenham respectively. Of the clubs in trouble Wolves are probably best placed to pick up something from these games. However the recent international break was very costly for Wolves as star forward Kevin Doyle picked up and injury playing for the Republic of Ireland. Doyle could be out of action for eight weeks.  With just three points separating Wigan in bottom spot and Blackburn in 13th the race to avoid the drop is even closer than the race for glory at the opposite end of the table.    

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Ireland fail to get the best out of McCarthy

After 65 minutes of Tuesdays international friendly against World Cup semi –finalists Uruguay at the Aviva Stadium James McCarthy was withdrawn from the action. It had been a frustrating night for McCarthy who was deployed as an advanced midfielder playing behind front man Shane Long.
All too often McCarthy dropped into space showing for the ball, palms open and pointing to his feet. McCarthy wasn’t in the mood to hide, he wanted to get on the ball. Unfortunately his showing for the ball was usually in vain, as more often than not the ball was launched long towards Long. McCarthy had to spin without the ball and play the lottery of trying to guess where the knock down would drop, that’s if the defender didn’t win the challenge with the Reading front man. Instead of linking the defence with attack or wide men with the distribution that he is well capable of, McCarthy had to chase lost causes or hope for the scraps that may drop from Long’s tussles with the Uruguayan defence.
When the Wigan midfielder did get on the ball he had a positive impact on proceedings. Epitomised with winning a penalty on 48 minutes. This followed some great work by Shane Long to get to the by line and feed the ball across the area to the on rushing McCarthy. Fahey dispatched the penalty beyond the Uruguayan goal keeper Muslera. This pulled one back for the hosts to make it 3-2 to Uruguay and would prove to be the last goal of the game. Although how Andy Keogh missed with a header from two yards with the goal at his mercy on 80 minutes is anyone’s guess. This would have given Ireland a draw that they would have probably been fortunate to get.
The scoring was opened on 12 minutes when Lugano slotted the ball home from close range for the South Americans. Westwood would have expected his defence to be sharper to clear the ball on this occasion when they all appeared to stand waiting for an invitation to clear their lines. Three minutes later Ireland responded when the superb Long finished with his head from a fine cross by Liam Lawrence. Twice more before half time the Irish defence would be culpable of failing to protect Westwood, the beneficiaries were Cavani on 22 minutes and Hernandez on 44 minutes. Giovanni Trapattoni and Westwood can’t have been pleased with the Irish defending over the 90 minutes tonight. The Coventry keeper could hardly have been blamed when he vented his spleen at any one in a green shirt within ear shot after Hernandez found the net. Despite conceding four goals in two games Westwood surely has enhanced his reputation tonight and against the Macedonians on Saturday. His fine double save on 69 minutes from Cavani and Hernandez illustrating Westwood’s pedigree.
McCarthy’s withdrawal on 65 minutes for Keith Treacy was coupled with Fahey been withdrawn for Darron Gibson. These withdrawals produced a few groans of frustration from the meagre crowd in the Aviva. McCarthy may not have set the world alight while he was on the pitch but in this player there is always the potential to open a defence and any good passing movements the hosts produced were usually strung together by Fahey. This left Paul Green was the surviving starter left in the middle of midfield. Green again did not have his finest match for Ireland. He battled manfully to cover ground and close down opponents. This was rarely effective and his mistakes left his team mates on the wrong foot on more than one occasion. Green’s distribution again looked short of the standard required at this level.
Aside from his part in Cavani’s goal Fahey was impressive on the night and he will have hoped that he did enough to edge himself closer to a starting berth for the trip to Skopje in June.
Before then Ireland have two Carling Nations Cup games against Northern Ireland on the 24th May and Scotland five days later. Hopefully James McCarthy will get an opportunity in these two games to prove what he can offer to Trapattoni. Playing behind a front may not have worked as hoped tonight, but the project should not be abandoned altogether. There would appear to be little point in playing a link man between midfield and attack if he is ignored when showing for the pass. McCarthy has proved at club level he can also play in a midfield two, but given Trapattoni’s strict pecking order for positions it appears unlikely he will dislodge others given the nod in this position to date. The upcoming Nations Cup games seem ideally scheduled to see McCarthy perform in either of these positions. If he is given this opportunity it will offer a better picture of what this undoubtedly talented player can offer Giovanni Trapattoni in his quest to get Ireland over the line in the battle for qualification for Euro 2012.

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Midfield Central to Trapattoni’s Task

If the Republic of Ireland are to progress from Group B and qualify for 2012 European Championship the future composition of the middle of midfield will be central.
This may appear obvious but five games into the qualifying campaign the Irish central midfield is still the most erratic and inconsistent area of the team. Central midfield appears to have become the soft underbelly of the Irish side.
On a night when the Republic of Ireland can feel quite lucky to take three points from the visit of Macedonia to the Aviva Stadium, central midfield again was the big disappointment of the night. The ever present Glen Whelan was accompanied by Darron Gibson for tonights game. Neither can be fully satisfied with their performance. Gibson had a shaky start giving the ball away cheaply on far too many occasions. For a player who would cite his delivery of the ball rather than his defensive qualities as a strength, this produced many groans of frustration from the punters who paid into the Aviva tonight. Glen Whelan who is mainly picked for the cover he gives the back four didn’t exactly shine in his aspect, and like Gibson wasn’t shy about picking out a Macedonia with the odd pass or two.
In what is the most important part of the field for any side you would feel that the current midfield partnership puts somewhat of a glass ceiling on any future achievement for the Republic of Ireland. The home side’s failure to keep the ball only served to hand possession to the Macedonians far too often tonight. Ireland in fact appeared content to sit back and let the visitors pass the ball in front of them. Macedonia may not be world beaters but they have enough competent players that were going to do something sooner or later with the amount of possession that they enjoyed. That sooner or later arrived in the 45th minute when Ivan Trickovski sent a classy finish beyond Kieren Westwood, this followed some good work by his captain Goran Pandev. Happily for the hosts though this goal was preceded by two earlier Irish strikes. After only ninety seconds Aiden McGeady cut in from the left and let fly on his preferred right foot. Macedonian goalkeeper Edin Nuredinovski won’t be happy with his part in McGeadys opener. Robbie Keane too sensed the Macedonian keeper was not having a good night as he was on his toes as Gibson struck a 21st minute free kick at the visitors goal. The strike was very central and shouldn’t have proved too troublesome but Nuredinovski spilled it and Keane was on hand to punish the visiting keeper.
It wasn’t until the 77th minute when Giovanni Trapattoni changed things in the Irish midfield. Gibson was withdrawn for Keith Fahey. The Birminham City man seemed to have an immediate effect, passes were sticking, like Gibson he was showing for the option when his team mates needed someone to pass to, unlike Gibson though Ireland were more likely to retain possession if he was used as the option. Fahey only spent 13 minutes plus added time on the field tonight, but it is not too much of a stretch to assert that in that short space of time he provided more stability to the Irish midfield than Gibson did in the 77 minutes he spent roaming around the patchy surface of the Aviva Stadium.
One wonders if the James McCarthy ‘allegiance’ to-do of recent times hadn’t been whether he would have got the nod or not to take to the field in the 87thminute. In the five or so minutes he spent on the field he had a very positive effect on proceedings. It may seem like a basic requirement of a central midfielder but he could take a pass and give a pass, keep things moving and most importantly keep the ball at the feet of an Irish player.
Other results in group B earlier today certainly gave a boost to the qualification hopes of the Republic of Ireland but if that qualification is to be secured surely the middle of midfield has to addressed. After the game Trapattoni defended his system and insisted that it wouldn’t change. That is fair enough but for an allegedly ‘negative’ system Ireland have a nasty habit of conceding goals, six so far in five qualifying games. Systems aside it is players that will secure qualification. The players so far selected in the centre of midfield have done little to instil confidence that they can provide the goods to navigate this Irish side through the challenges remaining in this group. Huge challenges like the visit to Skopje and Moscow await. 
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Barcelona Brilliance Overshadowed by Red Card

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s Champions League last sixteen tie between Arsenal and Barcelona a large proportion of the analysis focussed on the second half dismissal of Robin Van Persie. The incident was replayed on the TV coverage immediately after the game to see if the moment the sound waves of the referees whistle hit the ears of Van Persie, all the while battling for his attention with the jeers and cheers of the 95,000 crowd crammed into the Nou Camp, could be determined. In the 180 minutes of the two legs Barcelona produced some irresistible football, passing moves that weaved patterns around the Arsenal players as if they were rooted to the spot. For large parts of the tie the Catalan outfit showed many why they are considered to the greatest club side currently playing the game. Surely this should have been the overriding memory of this tie.
Reducing one side to ten men surely affects the outcome of any match but this match was decided over 180 minutes, and not by a single blast of Massimo Busacca’s whistle but by the simple fact that Barcelona have superior players to Arsenal.
Let’s set one point straight, Van Persie was not sent off for kicking the ball away after he was whistled for being offside. For this offence he received a yellow card, then due to his earlier yellow – which was a monument to stupidity – the referee has no choice but to shown the Dutch man the red card. It is fair to say that Van Persie’s second yellow was harsh, some referees would have given it, others wouldn’t. It certainly was a fifty -fifty call. Van Persie argued that the noise in the Nou Camp made it impossible for him to hear the referee’s whistle, a fair point perhaps. Although Van Persie does play every other week in The Emirates Stadium, which has a capacity of 60,355. Last I checked he does not regularly incur the referee’s wrath and get awarded yellow cards for constantly kicking the ball away post whistle while playing at home. However maybe his ears have become so finely tuned to the acoustics in that London venue or perhaps 60,356 is his tipping point in the battle for the attention of his ears between the roar of the crowd and the shrill blast of a referee’s whistle. Only Van Persie will ever know if he heard the whistle, it is worth noting though that the Barcelona defender tracking his run on his left shoulder had pulled up well before the Arsenal forward shot the ball wide.
Even if that yellow card had been a total injustice it was only half the reason Van Persie had to depart proceedings prematurely. His first yellow card was for a petulant push on Dani Alves, when he clearly hadn’t calmed down following his set to with some Barcelona players moments earlier. In receiving this yellow card Van Persie displayed the temperament of a ten year old boy who had his toys taken away. Surely Arsenal who pays him his generous salary should expect more. Van Persie was quoted earlier today as branding his second yellow card ‘a joke’, surely then his first yellow card was the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.
After the match Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was reported to have had an angry exchange with the Swiss referee. One would be forgiven to despair when someone charged with managing a football club cannot even manage themselves when the chips are down. Soccer, as with most other field sports, involves a referee. In these and other sports the referee is always an unknown variable, sometimes they make good decisions, sometimes they make bad decisions and sometimes they make god awful decisions. In the fullness of a season or a competition these decisions usually balance themselves out. Please see Lionel Messi’s goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the first leg of this very tie as an example. Sometimes though when trying to scapegoat a referee a short memory helps.
It has to be said though that it helps Wenger’s cause to focus on the performance of Massimo Busacca rather than his own charges. Wenger was quoted after the game as saying that the sending off was ‘an embarrassment’, one wonders how embarrassed he was at his captain attempting a back heel outside his own penalty area in first half stoppage time, a back heel that went horribly wrong and led to Manuel Almunia picking the ball out of his net seconds later. Surely Wenger blushed a little. Another matter that should be of concern to Wenger over the performance of Busacca was Niklas Bendtner’s composure, or lack thereof, when put clean through on goal in the dying moments of the match. Had Bendtner found the net Arsenal would have been through on the away goals rule and Barcelona dumped out. Bendtner’s touch was awful, and it betrayed his standing as a Premier League striker with some 36 senior international caps, the young Dane showed that is not yet good enough to overcome the hurdle Arsenal faced in Barcelona on Tuesday night.
Wenger is not alone in this regard. Following Manchester United’s recent defeat to Chelsea in the Premier League Alex Ferguson said he ‘feared the worst' when Martin Aktinson was appointed to referee the match. Maybe then Ferguson hoped for the best when Mark Clattenburg was appointed to referee the game preceding the Chelsea match as Untied travelled to Wigan. In this match Clattenburg inexplicably spared Wayne Rooney a red card when he cracked his forearm of the side of James McCarthy’s face.  
Arsene Wenger may never encounter Massimo Busacca again but he will work with his squad tomorrow and for a few years to come. It is madness to worry about things that you cannot change. Things Wenger can change though are the decision making of Cesc Fabregas, the touch of Niklas Bendtner, Robin Van Persie's temper and the ball retention of his entire squad among other things.
Managers may always try to take the focus off things that may lay blame at their own door. Third party analysis of matches should resist the temptation though to follow this charge into the irrelevant, and certainly it should not lead the charge.
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Andres Iniesta - Europe's Finest

On Wednesday night Barcelona and Andres Iniesta visit The Emirates Stadium for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie with Arsenal. Barcelona and most of the other big guns of Europe have survived to fight it out at the business end of the continents premier club competition. It is at this stage where great players usually come to the fore, great players like Iniesta.
 It’s the 6th May 2009, Stamford Bridge, London, England and Barcelona are moments from exiting the Champions League at the Semi Final stage.  The Catalans need a goal to survive and the game is deep into injury time. The ball is delivered in from the right flank by Dani Alves. John Terry can only help the ball on towards the far side of the Chelsea penalty area with his head. After poor control by Samuel Eto’o and a swing and a miss by Michael Essien the ball falls to Lionel Messi. He squares it to Andres Iniesta who has taken up a position within the ‘D’ on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area. Andres Iniesta strokes the ball with the outside of his right boot towards the top right hand corner of the Chelsea goal. Chelsea are out and three weeks later Barcelona outplay Manchester United in a Rome final to become kings of Europe.
11th July 2010, Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa. Spain and The Netherlands are four minutes from a penalty shoot out to decide the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final. The ball is worked in from the Spanish right wing by Jesus Navas towards Iniesta who is loitering a few feet outside the centre circle in the Dutch half of the field. He delivers a deft back heel to help the ball towards Cesc Fabregas to keep the move flowing. Iniesta starts to push on towards the Dutch goal. It’s only seven minutes since full back Johnny Heitinga was given his marching orders by English referee Howard Webb and the Dutch defence have yet to re-find their shape. This lack of shape finds midfield playmaker Rafael Van der Vaart making a poor attempt at clearing a Fernando Torres cross on the edge of this own penalty area. Iniesta has not stopped pushing towards the Dutch goal. Van der Vaart’s poor clearance is picked up by Fabregas who chips the ball towards Iniesta who is in an uncommon amount of space inside the penalty area. Uncommon for this Dutch side who had harried and harassed any opponent in possession of the ball anywhere near their goal, or anywhere on the pitch for that matter, throughout Wold Cup 2010. One touch to control the ball and then Andres Iniesta swings his right leg through the ball. The penalty shoot out is not needed. Spain are kings of the world.
Prior to last summer’s World Cup many potential kingmakers were touted. Following his sparkling performances in last season’s La Liga and Champions League Lionel Messi was top of most lists. His 34 goals, fully 18 goals ahead of the next highest scoring Barca player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, inspiring Barcelona in capturing the former. If Argentina could shake off the poor form that saw them struggle through their qualifying campaign and make a charge towards the title many hoped that Messi could make the 2010 World Cup his own. In the same way that his former Argentina coach did in the 1986 version of the competition in Mexico. Argentina did shake off the poor and inconsistent form that dogged their qualifying campaign and they did perform above many pre tournament predictions. However their World Cup was ended in spectacular style by a young and vibrant German side at the quarter final stage and Messi never managed to reach the heights required to make his performance at the 2010 World Cup anything approaching memorable.
Others predicted that Kaka would be the lynchpin of a victorious Brazilian side to ensure that the samba boys would remain the only side to capture the World Cup outside of their own continent. Despite his somewhat inconsistent form at the Santiago Bernabéu since moving to Spain in 2009 after six years at A.C. Milan, Kaka was in good shape to shine at the 2010 World Cup. Brazil were solid if not spectacular in the group stages. In the second round they faced a Chilean side that despite finishing only a point adrift of them in the South American qualifying group were not at the same level as the Brazilians. Brazil’s campaign was ended by a robust Dutch side in the next round. Kaka failed to hit the net in the four games he featured. He was somewhat unfortunate to receive a red card in the group stage game against The Ivory Coast. However after sitting out the Portugal game through suspension he did receive a yellow card upon his return against Chile. Kaka’s performance at the 2010 World Cup will not be remembered.
Other more fanciful predictions hinted that Christiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney may set the World Cup alight while leading their respective nations on a glorious campaign. In both these cases however these players supporting casts fell well below the standard required to make an impact at this level, and in the case of the latter many were left pondering a rethink of his standing in the game so inept were his performances.
Spain’s success at the World Cup was no surprise to anyone, the current European champions were many people’s tip to take the title. However many suggested that their star player would be the free scoring Fernando Torres, or it could be Barcelona’s Xavi pulling the strings from midfield. If Spain were to capture their first World Cup their alleged dodgy defence would need to be tightened up, if that was the case maybe Carles Puyol could be the hero of their campaign. Very few observers predicted the influence Andres Iniesta would have on the Spanish team as they marched to the title. That is the enigma that is Andres Iniesta, he is a creative force that has won all the game has to offer and yet he somehow manages to operate below the radar of the hype that seems to dominate the game of football today.  
Andres Iniesta was born in the village of Fuentealbilla in Albacete Province, Spain in 1984. His youth career started with the local club Albacete Balompie. At the age of 12 he made the move to the Nou Camp to join Barcelona. It was Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal who gave Iniesta his first team debut in 2002 in what was a somewhat lean period for the Catalans. As the decade wore on and Iniesta and his generation started to come to the fore at the Nou Camp, Barcelona’s fortunes improved dramatically picking up four Spanish league titles, one Copa del Rey and two Champions League titles. In such exalted company at the Nou Camp it would be easy for any player to fade into the background with superstars such as Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Xavi. Until recently Thierry Henry also wore the famous red and blue and before his move to Internazionale in 2009 Samuel Eto’o was another big name in the club. However fading into the background has never affected Iniesta’s form, in fact the quiet no nonsense way he goes about his business on the field mirrors his persona off the field.
Diego Forlan did collect the Golden Ball (Player of the Tournament) at the 2010 World Cup for his commendable performances during Uruguay’s unlikely march to the semi final, however Iniesta’s influence on the tournament was seismic. He did not have the greatest of starts as Spain fell to a surprise opening defeat by Switzerland. Iniesta was omitted from the starting line up for the second game to Honduras. Iniesta was promptly restored to the first eleven for the final group game against Chile, and he scored Spain’s second goal when he delightfully passed the ball into the bottom corner as they ran out 2-1 winners. Iniesta remained a regular pick for the final four games as Spain won each 1-0, culminating with his winning goal in the July 11th final. Iniesta’s influence on each of these games was immense as he controlled the flow of possession from defence to attack. Everything he did was positive and he constantly kept the ball moving. There were times when patience was called for, especially in the semi final against Germany. Spain stuck to their principles and Iniesta and co. kept the ball moving, kept passing to feet, kept working the triangles. Their goal in that game came from a set piece and the head of Puyol but it was their passing game that kept the Germans moving in defence, working hard to attempt to cut off passing options and this passing produced the pressure that induced the Germans into conceding that corner.
At age 26 Iniesta has possibly another 6 to 8 years at the top level of the game. On January 10th of this year the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or was announced, Iniesta was beaten into second place by his Barcelona team mate Lionel Messi. Andres Iniesta has already won the awards that count World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, Domestic League and Cup. Andres Iniesta the Kingmaker.
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Clark Claims Left Back Berth

After 90 plus minutes of tonight’s Carling Nations Cup tie at the Aviva Stadium two questions appear to have been answered. The first is who should be Ireland’s first choice left back after Kevin Kilbane’s extended caretaker occupation of that role, the answer is Ciaran Clark. The second question is what sort of task lies ahead of Gary Speed for his three and half year contract as manager of Wales, the answer to that is mountainous.
Kilbane’s deployment at left back in recent times may have been argued as a necessity due to the paucity of alternatives. However Stephen Kelly or Kevin Foley may have been a more reliable option, granted neither are natural left backs, but then again Kilbane is not a natural defender.
Clark gave an assured if not spectacular performance tonight. It was by no means his finest ninety minutes, on the half hour he gave away an unnecessary free kick after fouling Nottingham Forest’s Robbie Earnshaw in a dangerous area of the field, against a more competent outfit Ireland and Clark may have been more comprehensively punished. The odd mistake here and there aside Trapattoni would have to have been very happy with the performance of his new left back. With the next qualifier against Macedonia in the Aviva fast approaching on the 26th March one would be very brave to bet against Clark’s inclusion in the left back slot. Granted Clark has expressed his preference for the centre half position but with the resources currently available to Giovanni Trapattoni, Clark at left back seems the most logical choice.
In contrast to Clark’s performance tonight the ninety minutes turned in by the entire Welsh side will surely give Gary Speed many sleepless nights. Wales were inept beyond belief; they reflected their current FIFA ranking of 116. When Speed took over the reins in December of last year he surely knew he was up against it. Wales are rooted to the bottom of Euro 2012 Qualification Group G with three defeats to show after three outings. Their next fixture is on the same night Ireland entertain Macedonia when top seeds England visit Cardiff. With zero points from nine one could argue that things can only get better for the Welsh, but on tonight’s evidence they could get a lot worse at the end of March in the Millennium Stadium. Wales were missing some key players, Bellamy, Bale and Ramsey to name three, but realistically they would need four or five more of similar quality to approach anything near competitive in their current qualifying group. Speed is contracted to take Wales up to the end of the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. With their current seeding problem that campaign will leave Gary Speed looking a lot older than he should.
The game tonight started out with a rather drab first half which amounted to nothing more than shadow boxing between the two sides. When Ireland did flex their muscles and push Wales back onto the ropes it was usually via the flanks with the equally impressive Damien Duff and Seamus Coleman worrying Neal Eardley and Sam Ricketts.
The second half saw the hosts step it up a gear and expose Wales and all their deficiencies. John Walters, Duff and Shane Long wasted good opportunities to put Ireland ahead, Duff and substitute Long being particularly wasteful. Wales were finally floored on the hour mark when Darron Gibson unleashed a screamer of a shot from twenty yards after picking up the ball from his midfield partner Glen Whelan.  It was to get worse for Wales when Chris Gunter was inexcusably robbed of possession in his own penalty area in the 66th minute by Walters, the ball made its way to Duff and it was two nil. Wales’s Captain James Collins was incandescent with rage and promptly let the embarrassed Gunter know how he felt.
Collins still appeared to be glowing with rage sixteen minutes later when he unceremoniously upended Walters outside his own penalty area. The resultant free kick was superbly dispatched to the back of the net by substitute Keith Fahey. By now the rotund lady was practising her scales; she need not have waited so long.
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