Wales manager John ToshackLast night’s game was a strange one.

Wales quickly asserted their superiority, and within three minutes Jason Koumas reminded all those watching just how badly he had been missed against Ireland with a slide-rule pass down the inside right channel which Giggs calmly lofted over the keeper.

Toshack’s men completely dominated their stubbornly unadventurous opponents for the whole game, and Gareth Bale’s 20-yard curler midway through the first half was a beauty.

But the anticipated stuffing failed to materialise. A close-range lob from Giggs that looped up and over the bar just before half-time was testament to things to come in a second half which came perilously close to descending into complete farce.

The shameless playacting of the San Marino players was eclipsed only by a display of laziness and pettiness from the referee that had to be seen to be believed. Wales fully deserved to go three goals ahead, but the foul on David Cotterill that led to Koumas’s (comically fortunate) penalty took place a good two yards outside the box.

San Marino reacted to this setback by defending even deeper, and yet Wales’s uncertainty in attack meant they escaped further punishment. By this time every theatrical tumble from one of the opposition drew whoops of derision from the 19,000-strong home crowd, who were powerless to contain their mirth when the referee beckoned one of his linesmen onto the pitch to bring the wall back for a free kick on the Welsh right flank because he couldn’t be bothered to go over there himself.

So, three goals and three points. But the hilarity of the occasion – played out in front of 53,000 eerily empty seats – served only to illustrate just how far Wales have to go to regain credibility on the international stage.

I’m going to watch Wales versus San Marino tonight. Ryan Giggs is predicting a goal-fest. I hope he’s right.

There is, however, something a little bit embarrassing about playing a team like San Marino in an enormous stadium like the Millennium Stadium when there are only 15,000 people there.

I agree with Jason Koumas that games like this really should be played at Cardiff’s Ninian Park (capacity: 22,000), or Swansea’s Liberty Stadium (capacity: 20,000). A full house at either of these grounds – and particularly Ninian Park – would generate a much better atmosphere.

I spoke to Bluebirds chairman Peter Ridsdale yesterday. He’s also going to the game tonight, but he told me he’d love to have Wales games at Ninian Park.

Apparently all the FAW have to do is pick up the phone, so maybe that rift isn’t as serious as I thought

Same old Tosh

March 25 2007

Giggs against IrelandAnother much-hyped Euro 2008 qualifier, another dismal defeat for Wales. In mitigation, it was a fairly close game – and in the second half Wales actually managed to play some decent football – but once again there was no pace or penetration to our play, and we looked worryingly feeble at the back.

And why, when our defenders are the most inexperienced members of our squad, does John Toshack go out of his way to field five of them? The 5-3-2 has to be abandoned against San Marino on Wednesday. Defensively we have been weak for a long time, and it’s time to start playing to the few strengths we have, namely pace and enterprise on the flanks and the ability to pass the ball in midfield.

Our lack of presence up front was typified by the fact our nominal centre forwards – Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy – were wearing numbers usually worn by wingers (11 and 7). Neither Giggs nor Bellamy want to be a centre forward, and in the absence of a target man, why were we once again reduced to lumping aimless balls into the box?

Thankfully Jason Koumas will be back in the team for San Marino. We certainly missed his composure on the ball and eye for a pass at Croke Park.

Watching us limp apologetically towards another dispiriting defeat, I began to think about how great our team could be if we weren’t beset by injuries and Toshack hadn’t hounded some of our best players into retirement.

Imagine a 4-2-3-1 with Gabbidon and Delany restored to the defence, Robbie Savage and Gary Speed anchoring the midfield, and Giggs, Koumas and Davies supplying the ammunition for Bellamy up front. And John Oster on the bench. Why, when there is such a dearth of quality in the squad, does he continue to be overlooked?

So more questions for John Toshack to answer. Most Welsh fans accept that we are still going through a transition period. But he’s been in charge for nearly two and a half years now, and if results and performances don’t start improving, the fans’ patience will begin to run out.

Cristiano Ronaldo wins the penalty that knocked Middlesbrough out of the FA CupOK, this really has gone too far now.

First we had Gareth Southgate voicing the opinion that it’s OK to want to hurt Cristiano Ronaldo. Then we had George Boateng saying it’s only a matter of time before an opponent does hurt Ronaldo. And now we’ve got Belgium goal-keeper Stijn Stijnen revealing that his team have already planned how they’re going to hurt him!

UEFA are right to want to investigate this. And maybe they should have a look at Southgate and Boateng’s comments too. Ronaldo may irritate a significant proportion of football fans (and managers and players, it would seem), but he is nonetheless a wonderfully gifted player, who is no more deserving of brutal treatment than anyone else.

The fact Ronaldo is a flashy showboater does not give anyone the right to kick him. Opponents should see playing against him as a prime opportunity to test themselves against a sublimely talented player, and not a chance to give someone a kicking because he makes them look silly.

It would appear that Middlesbrough captain George Boateng agrees with his manager Gareth Southgate that a good kicking is fitting punishment for a spot of showboating.

Has he forgotten that football is entertainment? People pay money to see flair and flamboyance, not discipline and drudgery. Why shouldn’t Ronaldo indulge himself a bit? It’s surely more attractive – and more sporting – than just taking the ball into the corner.

Some of the game’s greatest players – men like Stanley Matthews, Garrincha and George Best – have been entertainers, and Ronaldo is simply following in their twinkle-toed footsteps. No-one likes to see their team’s defenders being given the run-around by a dextrous opposition forward, but it certainly gets the crowd on their feet, and that’s what football is all about.

Boateng talks about “respect”, but what he appears to mean is that, if you are better than your opponent, you shouldn’t seek to exploit that advantage too flagrantly. And yet the very nature of sport requires that one team or competitor is better than another.

If players like Boateng find outrageous skill unpalatable, maybe we should just do away with ‘unnecessary’ moves like the step-over, the dummy and the back-heel altogether?

Middlesbrough manager Gareth SouthgateGareth Southgate’s “we’d all like to do that” comment about James Morrison’s wild lunge at Cristiano Ronaldo in the closing stages of last night’s FA Cup quarter-final replay at Old Trafford was pathetic.

If Premiership managers can get hauled before the FA for questioning the integrity of referees, they should certainly be asked to “explain their comments” when they suggest that wanting to deliberately injure an opponent is OK.

Of course Middlesbrough were angry with Ronaldo. He’d just won and scored the penalty that knocked them out of the Cup. And now he was showboating in the corner to waste time. But that’s football. He certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong.

We all get angry when decisions go against our team. But kicking an opponent because you’re losing is the behaviour of a lout, not a professional sportsman.

Another person whose behaviour last night left a lot to be desired was Wayne Rooney. He was very fortunate not to receive a second yellow card for shoving Morrison after his foul on Ronaldo, and a stronger referee might well have sent him off.

Rooney was evidently frustrated at having earlier wasted two glorious chances, but Alex Ferguson must be concerned that he still seems worryingly incapable of controlling his temper.

A class apart

March 15 2007

A joy to beholdSpurs may lag a little way behind their hated North London rivals in the quality-of-football stakes at the moment, but at least they know that, in Dimitar Berbatov, they have the classiest player in the country.

His performance against Braga in last night’s UEFA Cup game at White Hart Lane was a masterclass. His touch, technique and awareness were a joy to behold.

A lot of people thought £10.9 million was a lot of money to spend on a player largely unknown outside of Germany (where he excelled for Bayer Leverkusen), but it’s beginning to look like money very well spent.

And at six foot two, Berbatov pours further scorn on the bizarre notion that tall forwards aren’t any good with their feet. Berbatov, Ibrahimovic, Kanu, Crouch, Carew, Koller… Anyone else notice a common theme?