1. Beaten But Unbowed
Sunday’s defeat to Man United, while not increasing our points tally, did provide us with another competent performance and no qualms about the efforts of the team, nor approach of the management.
While Rob Green had little to do, United’s quality shone through in the end and if you’re going to go down to the champions, better to succumb to their best available team and to a goal from the distinguished Scholes-Giggs axis.
We lacked the requisite cutting edge upfront to unlock a classy defence, but thankfully for us, this weekend we face permeable defenders such as Chris Riggott and Emanuel Pogatetz.
This Saturday we take on the lamentable Middlesbrough in the 5th round of the FA Cup. A home tie against this paltry bunch provides us with a great opportunity to progress to the Quarter-Finals and from there, who knows?
At the start of the season, ‘Boro boss Gareth Southgate assured fans that he would implement a more attacking style in a bid to entertain the dozen or so die-hards who bother to turn up at The Riverside each week.
This policy is obviously an abject failure and the brevity of its application before being ousted in favour of survival-at-all-(aesthetic)costs, a damning indictment on this pox of a team. Middlesbrough remain as tedious as ever and are long overdue a visit to The Championship.
While one can applaud Southgate’s intentions, the quality to realise his dream has been lacking from Teeside for some time. Not since Juninho has there been a genuinely exciting player at The Riverside, and how long ago was that?
(In answer, initially in 1995 and again in 2002.)
‘Boro are on a nightmarish run of late, having won just two of their last 15 matches in all competitions, and both of those coming in the FA Cup against lower league opposition (Barrow and Wolves).
A stunted if sensible budget is one hurdle to the acquisition of real quality, as is the tricky task of selling Middlesbrough as both a club and somewhere to live, but Gareth Southgate’s comical hindrance of a nose to (a) conversation, (b) self-composure and (c) the canteen, must also prove a stumbling block.
Middlesbrough improved against Man City last week and to presume victory is to set ourselves up for a fall. They'll view this game as a great opportunity to kick-start the battle to avoid relegation, but we've got to fancy our chances.
Elsewhere, Stewart Downing is hugely overrated, having accrued one performance of note in his career to date during a recent outing for England in Germany. There hasn’t been a bigger left-sided disappointment since Josef Stalin.
We did of course beat Middlesbrough in the semi final in 2006, en route to the Millennium Stadium after Marlon Harewood battered in a 2nd half winner, so you can read good omens into that should you wish.
I watched that game on a giant screen in a Sydney casino in the small hours, surrounded by huge stacks of chips - potato chips, obviously.
It is interesting to note that Middlesbrough have gone out of the Cup to the eventual runners-up in each of the last four years, which I can’t decide is a good or a bad thing.
4. True Story
I googled 'Gareth Southgate's nose' and this came up:
You've gotta love the internet.
5. Roman Had His Phil
The week’s big headlines constituted the sacking of Big Phil Scolari from Chelsea, making it three managers in a year for the west London club.
As the news was announced, immediate efforts were made to unsettle our own management team as Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke were installed as favourites to take over at Stamford Bridge.
More plausible targets Frank Rijkaard and Guus Hiddink later emerged on the back pages and Hiddink has now taken over until the end of this season whilst maintaining control of the Russian national side.
In their ruthless pursuit of success, Chelsea have turned their manager’s seat into something of a poisoned chalice. Jose Mourinho’s taste for a hefty pay-off prevented him leaving sooner, but the writing was on the wall once Avram Grant was appointed as Director of Football and Andrei Shevchenko arrived at the behest of the owner and not the manager.
Avram Grant was only ever a stop-gap and found it hard to divide his time effectively between Stamford Bridge and Toad Hall, but the shedding of Scolari, a proven winner, is a surprise to many. Any portrayal of Scolari as unfit for the job or somehow out of his depth is laughable.
This move has acted to expose Chelsea for what they really are – a billionaire’s plaything and no more. Intermittent success has come at the expense of soul and credibility and any manager eyeing a move to the Bridge knows that all their decisions are subject to approval from the very top.
Ask Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti, Barry Fry or ‘Jossy’ Blair of the Glipton Giants, and they will all tell you that continuity is key in management.
Roman Ambramovich’s impatience for success cuts through reason like a Siberian gale, stripping away the façade that Chelsea are a competently run football club. And I love it.
6. Cup Contenders
At the risk of putting the kibosh on Saturday afternoon, I sense a great opportunity this season for a memorable Cup run.
Having already gracefully pirouetted potential banana skins Barnsley at home and Hartlepool United away, ‘Boro provide our first debatably top-flight test.
With Man United sure to put the FA Cup behind the Premiership and Champions League on their list of priorities and Chelsea’s proclivity for self-harm increasing by the day, the remaining contenders are all beatable in a one-off encounter.
Once you reach the Quarter-Finals, anything is possible and with this year’s semis being (contentiously) held at Wembley, a day out at the national stadium is a realistic prospect for us all.
Wednesday night saw England travel to Spain for an international friendly, losing 2-0 to the European Champions.
A goal in either half proved England’s undoing, a game notable for Carlton Cole’s international debut as he came on in the second half.
Cole came closest for England, having an effort cleared off the line, and Robert Green and Matthew Upson both made 2nd half appearances in a raft of halftime changes by Fabio Capello.
Essentially this game served as a timely reminder that England are some way from the upper reaches of international football, as the diminutive but technically superior Spaniards toyed with us for much of the match.
This fixture also saw David Beckham equal Bobby Moore’s record for international caps won by an outfield player, with 108.
Before anyone rides the wave of celebrity to an illogical conclusion, the inflexible, cold statistics tell us that Bobby Moore started and finished all 108 of his England appearances, whereas Beckham has started 99 and completed just 54 full matches.
Anyone who tells you that Beckham now holds a rightful place alongside Moore in football’s pantheon is the type of person who gets their political insight from Heat Magazine.
8. Squad Formation
Zola seems to have settled on his favoured starting line-up, naming the same 11 players for our last four games.
Rob Green is showing he is the ‘keeper we’ve been harping on about for so long and Collins and Upson have formed what could be considered the best centre-back pairing in the league behind Ferdinand and Vidic.
They make an effective unit – Green solid and reliable (bar Bolton), Upson an astute defender, competent on the deck and Collins willing to hurl himself at most anything. Both central defenders are dominant in the air and the only thing lacking from them is their share of goals.
Scott Parker has been our best player in recent weeks and is showing the consistency that seemed so elusive in his first year at the club. Behrami’s work-rate demands a place in the side.
Young-guns Jack Collison and Mark Noble have taken the opportunity to cement their first team credentials, although Mark Noble needs to push on if he is to fulfil his early promise.
Upfront, Carlton Cole makes a passable impression that he is at least partially aware of his surroundings and David Di Michele has learnt how to put in the graft and make himself available. Both have provided a decent return on goals scored this season and one hopes that the mantle which now rests largely on their shoulders does not prove too heavy.
Savio has had a panoramic introduction to Premiership life, starting as he did with our domination of Hull City, then coming on at the Emirates and at home to Man Utd.
While making a competent if unspectacular start and with it being too early to make any informed judgement on our £9million investment, the young attacker still has to adjust to the pace of the Premier League.
That he was tracked and dispossessed by Dimitar Berbatov on Sunday speaks for itself. This is English top-flight football, not Italian 2nd division – no time to pause for a cappuccino and change of government here.
10. Ashton's Ankle Odyssey
Yet another operation on Dean Ashton's ankle is reported to have gone well, with the striker touted as making a return some time in the 23rd century.
West Ham's medical team are doing everything they can to aid Dean's recovery and the big striker has swelled the ranks of experts, appointing his own personal fitness guru.