18 June 2013

You must be Joe Kinnear!

Joe Kinnear is the greatest manager in the history of association football. Says Joe.
Joe Kinnear's return to Newcastle United is already destined to end in tears, even though he's only officially been employed by them for a few hours.

Former Magpies boss Kinnear is back on Tyneside as the club's director of football.

That's right, lads. Newcastle have brought back a man who took charge of 26 games during the 2008/2009 season, winning five of them, and contributing largely to their relegation from the Premier League. Even Graeme Souness did a better job at St James's Park.

The 66-year-old Irishman announced his return to Newcastle on Sunday, in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News. He then held another 'exclusive' interview, this time with Talksport, on Monday. But it wasn't until Tuesday that Newcastle officially confirmed that he'd signed a three-year deal with them.

The first interview, with SSN w*nkerman David Garrido, smelt strongly of self-promotion. The following day's radio interview was even worse as he displayed arrogance and stupidity in equal measures.

Calling the managing director Derek 'Lambezi' or the star midfielder Yohan 'Kebab' was ignorant at best, though not completely unacceptable. Even the much-loved Sir Bobby Robson mistook Shola Ameobi for Carl Cort more than once. But the Toon Army members who revered Sir Bobby began to revile Car Crash Kinnear when he claimed to have "more intelligence" than those who criticised him.

Then, as John Bunnell would say on World's Wildest Police Videos, things went from bad... to worse. Kinnear committed a horrendous oral crime, as he suffered reverse amnesia and claimed to have brought goalkeeper Tim Krul to Newcastle. The Dutchman was actually signed by Souness in 2005, and thus predates Kinnear's first reign at St James' Park by three years.

Those are the three big talking points, but what other garbage did Joe the Eejit come up with in those two interviews?
  • JOE SAID: "Geordies are Geordies - they want locals in charge. Because I wasn’t a Geordie, that went against me." TDTR SAYS: Kevin Keegan was from Doncaster in south Yorkshire, but the Geordies didn't turn against him.
  • JOE SAID: "Just for the record, I’ve never been manager at a club that’s got relegated." TDTR SAYS: Apart from the time his Luton Town team were relegated to Division 3 in 2001.
  • JOE SAID: "I've never been sacked in my life." TDTR SAYS: Luton sacked him two years later.
  • JOE SAID: "Last year, I was at the [LMA] awards when Alan won it. I said, ‘Congratulations, but you have to get two more to catch me!" TDTR SAYS: Alan's already caught you, Joe. Messrs Pardew and Kinnear have each won just one LMA Manager of the Year award, with Joe's coming in 1994.
  • JOE SAID: that he played more than 400 times for the great Tottenham Hotspur side of the 1960s and 1970s when talking about how much experience he has. TDTR SAYS: He only played for them 258 times - a mere 142 shy of the quadruple-century.
It is incredible that a man with such an overrated opinion of himself, and such an average record when it comes to signing players, can be placed in charge of transfers, meaning that Newcastle's excellent scout Graham Carr and managerial mastermind Alan Pardew both have to answer to him. May I remind Kinnear that it was Carr who brought players like Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse to United, and Pardew who turned those underrated players into bona fide Premier League stars.

Last season's very disappointing 16th-place finish was perhaps a sign that Newcastle needed to approach this coming campaign a bit differently, but it wasn't exactly a bright idea to bring back Kinnear, who in his earlier spell would have relegated the Magpies sooner had he not suffered a heart attack in February. That reminds me of another thing that Joe said in his Sky interview: "When I had my heart attack we were flying... we were 12th." No, they were 15th, and hadn't won for six matches.

Kinnear's appointment makes the decision early last season to give Alan Pardew a new eight-year contract look even more crazy. If the new director of football undermines his manager over new signings, I can't see Pardew staying in his job beyond 20 July, let alone 2020.

Hopefully, Newcastle will figure out exactly what Joe Kinnear is all about... before it's too late. Again.

Donald Trump called - he wants his ego and haircut back.

12 June 2013

World Cup 2014 qualifiers: How things stand

Rio, here we come! Japan are already preparing for the 2014 World Cup assault.
There is exactly a year left to go until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and we're approaching the business end of the qualifying stages.

203 teams started out on the road to Rio de Janeiro (amongst other cities, of course), and as things stand, just one team - Japan - has booked their place in the finals, and 101 are still in qualifying contention. The next five months will decide which 30 teams join Brazil and Japan in next year's big dance.

With 365 days to go until it all kicks off in Sao Paulo, what is the current state of play? Today, TDTR looks at the runners and riders, along with some of the big-name fallers.

In Round 2, 40 teams are split into 10 groups of four. The winners of each round-robin group will advance to Round 3, where they will be put into five two-legged knockout ties, with the winners qualifying for the World Cup.

With only ten teams advancing to the final round of Africa's qualifiers, we are certain to see some big-name casualties, and we're also likely to see some unheralded nations rise up.

With two rounds to go, Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Egypt are in control of their respective groups, although neither of them is yet assured of a Round 3 place, while Congo are set to move a step closer to their first ever World Cup finals. Zambia are one point ahead of 2010 quarter finalists Ghana in Group D, while the hosts from three years ago - South Africa - trail Ethiopia in Group A.

Nigeria and Algeria are also leading their groups, but both sides are still under some pressure. Elsewhere, Groups I and J are exceedingly tight - in both groups, a mere two points separate the top and bottom teams! Libya and Senegal are the respective group leaders at the moment.

In Round 4, 10 teams are split into two groups of five. The top two of each group will automatically qualify for the World Cup. The third-placed teams will face off in a two-legged tie, where the winner will meet a South American team in another two-game play-off for one of the last remaining World Cup berths.

Next week's final round of matches will see three teams join Japan in booking their plane tickets for Brazil. The two victors from Group A are yet to be decided - South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan all remain in the running. The Koreans top the group and are almost there, barring a disaster, and Iran will also qualify unless they lose to the leaders and Uzbekistan beat Qatar. Were that to happen, the Uzbeks would be in a World Cup for the very first time.

Group B has already been won by Japan, who have completed their qualifying fixtures and can now relax. Australia can't, though, despite the fact that they are in 2nd place. Were they to slip up against the already-eliminated Iraq, they could open the door for either Oman or Jordan - who face one another - to qualify automatically, although Jordan would need to win by double figures to do so.

Holland are running like clockwork in the World Cup qualifiers.
53 teams are split into eight groups of six teams and a ninth group consisting of five teams. The group winners will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the eight best runners-up will play-off for the four remaining European places.

Group A is basically a straight fight between Belgium and Croatia. Belgium have the upper hand, holding a three-point lead with three games to go, although the two teams' meeting in Split on 11 October will be crucial in deciding who qualifies. From this group, Scotland became the first European team to be officially eliminated from the 2014 World Cup.

Group B is headed by Italy, although they are still looking behind their shoulder, as Bulgaria and Czech Republic aren't yet miles behind them. Armenia and Denmark are also in the running for a potential play-off spot.

With four matches left, Germany lead Group C by five points, and one feels that only a complete stromausfall would stop them from qualifying. The battle for that play-off place couldn't be any tighter, though. Austria, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland all have 11 points, and those three will fight to the finish.

Holland traditionally saunter through the qualifiers, and Group D is already theirs to lose. They are the only European team to have a 100% record in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and have four games to repeat their perfect run in the 2010 preliminaries. What about the others? Hungary are second, but Romania are just one point behind them, and neither Turkey nor Estonia can be discounted at this stage.

Group E is very interesting. Switzerland are, unsurprisingly, the standout team in a competitive group and lead by four points from Albania. Third place is occupied by Iceland, who are one point behind their fellow World Cup virgins, and Norway are another point shy of Iceland. Slovenia, who qualified in 2010, are currently 5th but still retain some hope.

Portugal are the Group F leaders, but that's not to say that they are the favourites. They have 14 points with three matches to go... but Russia have 12 with five matches left, and Israel have 11 with four. What's more, Russia are still to have their two meetings with Luxembourg, so I'd put a sizeable chunk of money on Fabio Capello's side to qualify automatically.

Group G now, and the next four months could be the biggest in Bosnia & Herzegovina's footballing history. The Bosnians lead Greece by three points and have a massive advantage in goal difference, so they're the favourites to finish top and make their debut appearance in a World Cup. However, the Greeks still have to play little Liechtenstein twice, and the Bosnians must play third-placed Slovakia home and away. The Slovaks will be hoping to act as spoilers for Bosnia, while boosting their bid to qualify for successive WCs.

I couldn't possibly call Group H. Montenegro are on 14 points (three games left), England are on 13 (four games left) and Ukraine are on 11 (also four games left). Importantly, though, Montenegro and England have both slaughtered San Marino twice, while Ukraine are yet to play the minnows. Add six almost guaranteed points to their total, and you'd have to make Ukraine the oh-so-slight favourites.

Group I was always going to be dominated by Spain and France, and thus that is the case. With three games to go, Spain have a single-point advantage, and they don't have to play Les Bleus again. Three easy wins against the group's smaller fish will see the world champions home and dry, and France are almost certain to hold off Finland and Georgia to secure the play-off berth.

In Round 4, the six remaining teams will play one another home and away. The top three teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-placed team will meet Oceania's top side New Zealand in a two-legged play-off for the right to join them in the finals.

We're just over halfway in the final round of North America's qualifiers. It's currently advantage United States, but only just, while Costa Rica are also in a healthy postion. Mexico's hopeless home form (all of their home ties in this final stage have ended goalless so far) could prove to be the continental giants' downfall, with Honduras and Panama both primed to pounce. Jamaica have yet to register a win, and they have a mountain to climb if they're to reach Brazil.

Oceania's qualifiers were completed in March. As one would expect, New Zealand got through with a 100% record in the final round, so they go through to the inter-confederation play-offs. The Kiwis will meet North America's fourth-placed team in a two-legged tie, with the winners qualifying for the World Cup.

The nine teams will play one another home and away. The top four teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the fifth-placed team will meet an Asian side in a two-legged play-off for one of the last remaining places in the finals.

Argentina haven't been at their very best, but they are guaranteed a top-five finish, and one more win will ensure that they will be in next year's finals. Colombia are second and can expect to go through as well, while Ecuador and Chile occupy the other automatic places. Copa America holders Uruguay are only in 5th place, though, and if they're not careful, one of my tips to win the 2014 World Cup won't even be there!

Venezuela have their best chance in decades to qualify for their maiden World Cup, and Peru still have an outside chance of a play-off spot. Bolivia are struggling, though, and Paraguay - who have qualified for each of the last four finals - are bottom, and odds-on to miss out in 2014.

Cheer up, Gonzalo Higuain! Argentina are almost qualified for Brazil 2014!

5 June 2013

2013 European Under-21 Championship preview

For the next two weeks, Israel is the place to be for the European Under-21 Championship.

Eight teams, featuring some of the best young players on the continent, will battle it out for the right to lift the trophy in Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium (which I am fairly sure is NOT named after Teddy Sheringham) on 18 June.

To be eligible for these championships, players must be born on or after 1 January 1990. That means we've got a few 23-year-olds in an Under-21s tournament, but them's the rules.

After winning promotion with Crystal Palace, will Wilf Zaha be triumphant again?
These will be Guy Luzon's last matches as Israel Under-21s boss before he heads off to Belgium to manage Standard Liege. A number of his players have featured for the senior national team, including captain Nir Biton, fellow midfielder Eyal Golasa, and defender Omri Ben Harush. But in such a difficult group, it's hard to see the hosts picking up points from more than one match.
Prediction: 4th in Group.
Stuart Pearce is managing England for a fourth European Championship, but can they go a step further than 2009, when they were runners-up? With the exciting attacking talent of Wilfried Zaha and an improved defence that includes centre-back Steven Caulker and keeper Jack Butland, anything's possible. There's no wow factor, though, and that - I think - is the difference between success and failure.
Prediction: Semi Finals.
I've got a feeling that, if Norway win their opening game against the hosts, they can be dark horses. A few of their players will be familiar to British fans, like Thomas Rogne and Joshua King, but one man that catches my eye is the Norwegian Iniesta - Harmeet Singh, a veteran of 35 Under-21s internationals. I don't think this team will be short on goals or ability.
Prediction: 3rd in Group.
Young coach Devis Mangia took charge in the closing stages of the qualifying campaign, and he has such a strong attacking force to work with. Ciro Immobile is anything but, and Mattia Destro is already an Italian senior international, as is their midfielder Marco 'Sinead O'Connor' Verratti. I'm a bit concerned, though, about a defence that has limited Serie A experience.
Prediction: Runners-Up.

Iker Muniain looks like a young Fernando Torres - can he score like him?
Julen Lopetegui has so much talent to choose from that the players he DIDN'T pick could have been a real force at this championship. Among those he did select are midfielder Thiago Alcantara, forward Iker Muniain, and Manchester United's David de Gea, who all won the 2011 tournament in Denmark and are back for one more time. Will La Furia Roja rule once again?
Prediction: CHAMPIONS.
At least one major giant is destined to be knocked out in this group, and sadly, it could be the Dutch. This team doesn't have the exceptional talents that the 2006 and 2007 winners boasted, even if their defence is slightly stronger thanks to Stefan de Vrij and Ricardo van Rhijn. AZ Alkmaar midfielder Adam Maher will be absolutely key in deciding their ultimate fate.
Prediction: 3rd in Group.
Russia have perhaps the oldest squad (just three players are also eligible for Euro 2015), and I think it's the weakest. They do have two players at big Iberian clubs, but neither striker Denis Cheryshev of Real Madrid nor Braga goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk have pulled up any trees. Their one genuine star is Alan Dzagoev, who did so well in the big boys' Euros last summer.
Prediction: 4th in Group.
We all want to play like Germany right now, but can Rainer Adrion win the first of perhaps many trophies for the Mannschaft over the next few years? Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Lewis Holtby is the captain, and one of two squad members based outside Germany, the other being Everton alumni Shkodran Mustafi. I can't wait to see Bernd Leno, though - he's apparently yet another brilliant Kraut keeper.
Prediction: Semi Finals.

4 June 2013

First to qualify!

"We've done it!" Japan are the first team through to Brazil 2014!
BREAKING NEWS: Japan have become the first team to book their place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

Keisuke Honda's injury-time penalty against Australia gave the Japanese a 1-1 draw in Saitama, and earned them the one point they needed to secure their tickets to Brazil. 12 months from now, they will grace the biggest stage in world football once again!

2014 will be Japan's fifth consecutive World Cup, having not made a single appearance since the start of that unbroken run in 1998.

The Samurai Blue were not seen as one of Asian football's leading lights until the mid-1990s, when the J-League was formed, and football in the land of the rising sun became professional.

In 1993, the year that the new league launched, Japan agonisingly failed to qualify for the following year's World Cup when Iraq scored a late equaliser in a decisive qualifying match. Japanese fans still refer to that day as the 'Agony of Doha', after the neutral Qatari capital where the game was held.

Doha was the turning point. Four years later, Japan finally made it to world football's big dance, courtesy of a 3-2 golden-goal win over Iran in Malaysia. Had they lost that match, they would have faced an inter-confederation play-off against Australia to decide the final place at France 1998.

Japan lost all three group matches in their first ever World Cup finals, but did significantly better when they co-hosted the 2002 tournament with South Korea. They got all the way to Round 2, where home interest was ended by Turkey.

2006 saw a group stage exit for Japan, but four years later in South Africa, they were better than ever. An excellent 3-1 win over Denmark saw them advance from their group into a Round 2 showdown with Paraguay. The Asian giants were the better team in a dull 120-minute contest which ended goalless, but Yuichi Komano missed a crucial penalty in the resulting shoot-out, and Paraguay made him pay to go through 5-3.

Japanese football has come on leaps and bounds over the past two decades. Indeed, their women's team (nicknamed the Nadeshiko) are world champions, having defeated the United States 3-1 to lift the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Nowadays, the Japanese men's team are a force to be reckoned with as well. They are coached by veteran Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, and have a number of world-class players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Therefore, you can't rule out the possibility that the first team to book their place in Brazil will also be one of the last to leave the 2014 World Cup.

Scottish Premier Non-League

Paul Gascoigne: A Scottish Premier Division signing from the 1990s.
In the late 1980s and the best part of the 1990s, Rangers dominated Scottish football, winning nine Premier Division championships in a row.

How did they do it? With big name signings such as Mark Hateley, Duncan Ferguson and Paul Gascoigne. They even managed to persuade Danish great Brian Laudrup to swap the warmth of Fiorentina in Italy for the less sunnier climes of Glasgow.

Retrospectively speaking, Rangers spent way beyond their means, but they formed one of the greatest football teams ever to come out of Scotland. An even in those glory years, spent largely under the management of current Gers chairman Walter Smith, there were plenty of teams fighting for second place.

Aberdeen were briefly semi-competitive until 1995, when they nearly got relegated, while Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell both had a go of playing second fiddle to Rangers. Celtic missed out on the top two for an incredible seven consecutive seasons, and during that time, they brushed with bankruptcy, but they would come back with a vengeance soon afterwards.

When I was growing up in the early 2000s, the Old Firm were still reasonably competitive on the European stage, and they had some big-name players as well. Celtic had Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and UEFA Champions League winner Paul Lambert, while their rivals at Ibrox could boast Claudio Caniggia, Ronald de Boer and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Between 1997 and 1998, Rangers' squad included future FIFA World Cup winner Gennaro Gattuso.

Even back then, the other Scottish Premier League teams - Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts, et cetera - were recruiting a significant number of players from teams in the English Premier League or what was then known as Division 1. There were a few from the lower English leagues, but not that many.

And now I get to the reason why I wrote this article. Inverness Caledonian Thistle finished 4th in last season's Scottish Premier League. That means that they are, according to the league table at least, one of Scottish football's leading teams. Therefore, one would expect Inverness to show a bit of ambition, and try to recruit some players from the Championship or League One as they bid to break into the European places.

Yet when their manager, former England hardman Terry Butcher, looked south of the borders, he didn't sign players from League One, or even League Two.

In recent years, some SPL also-rans have signed the odd player from the English Conference. Striker Clayton Donaldson moved to Hibernian from York City in 2008, I recall. To sign one non-leaguer in these austere times is understandable, to sign two is worrying, but Caley Thistle have - in the last couple of days - snapped up THREE English midfielders from non-league football.

One of them is our old friend, Ben Greenhalgh, formerly of Inter Milan and other football luminaries such as Maidstone United and Welling United. The winner of Football's Next Star in 2010 has swapped the fifth tier of English soccer, where he most recently played for relegated Ebbsfleet United, for the first tier in Scotland.

Joing him at Inverness is James Vincent, whose Kidderminster Harriers side played against Greenhalgh's Ebbsfleet in last season's Conference Premier. To be fair to James, though, Kidderminister did at least reach the play-offs.

The third new boy at the Caledonian Stadium is Danny Williams, who took time out of singing "Moon River" and fighting Vitali Klitschko for the world heavyweight title to lead Chester to Conference North glory this season.

The 24-year-old left-winger was only on loan to Chester, though. To whom was he actually contracted before moving to the SPL? Kendal Town. In the Northern Premier League Premier Division. From which they were relegated this season in 21st place.

In other words, the 4th-best team in Scotland have signed a player from the joint 221st-best team in England! Is that how desperate the Scots have become? You couldn't imagine it the other way round! I certainly can't see Arsenal bringing in a new goalkeeper from the local pub team in Kincardine O'Neil!

Either Danny Williams is a MASSIVELY underrated footballer, or Scottish football is continuing to plumb to new depths.
Danny Williams: A Scottish Premier League signing from 2013.