Imagine, if you will, that you are the director of a marketing company based in Beijing. You have heard much about this “Premier League”, which seems to be growing in popularity year on year, and you’ve just been made aware that you could get the chance to submit a bid to host a couple of matches in three years or so’s time. To do a little research, you switch on your television set for the Sunday matches on your local cable sports channel. How much you would be looking to pay would probably depend on what time you switched it on. If you were an early bird, you might well agree that this is, indeed, a “premium product”, as these things are known in marketing circles. The Manchester derby was a pulsating affair, played out in front of nearly 76,000 people, every single one of whom seemed to be shouting themselves hoarse.
If you switched on a couple of hours later, though, you might have arrived at a somewhat different conclusion, as Chelsea and Liverpool continued their five year long war of attrition at Stamford Bridge. Matches between these two clubs have taken on the stylistic qualities of the battles of the Somme. Both sides bombard each other with the metaphorical heavy artillery of kicking the ball very high up on the air and running around very, very quickly indeed. Every few minutes or so, their players clatter into each other, then get up and exchange glares and, occasionally, harsh words. At the end of the ninety minutes, they all troop off with a point apiece and the Sky Sports archive is a slightly worse place that it was before. If I was that marketing man, I would have a few questions to ask before I decided to fling any money at the proposed project. These would be questions such as, “What the hell was that?”, “If these teams are amongst the best, then what on earth are the rest of them like?”, and “How on earth am I supposed to market this as being the future of televised sport?”.
These are fair questions, and I touched on them before when Chelsea and Liverpool contrived to produce two equally mediocre matches between them in last year’s Champions League. There seems to be something in the DNA of these clubs that combines when they face each other to produce dreadful football. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the 41,000 people that paid considerable amounts of money to witness it. What was going through the head of the Chelsea or Liverpool supporter, picking his way across London towards Fulham Broadway underground station? Were they excited at the prospect of a HIGH TEMPO ALL ACTION ENCOUNTER between two talented sides? Or did they travel with heavy hearts, weighed down with the baggage of knowing that, on previous form, this was more than likely to be a coma-inducing affair, capable of destroying the souls of all but the hardiest of observers? What of the millions watching on the television? Did they think of the £45 direct debit that vanishes from their bank account at the start of every month and shed a tear?
Further down the division (and, indeed, further down the football food chain as a whole), there was more entertainment to be had. Newcastle United scored their second goal under Kevin Keegan, but… well… they collapsed in the second half against Aston Villa, for whom John Carew (a striker whose name is usually preceded with the soubriquet “That Big Lummox”) scored a hat-trick. Somehow, Villa have scored forty-eight goals this season now, and are now level on points with Liverpool, although they’ve played a game more. Sunderland’s revival continues apace, with Saturday’s biggest crowd (43,600, for the statisticians amongst you) seeing them comfortably beat Wigan Athletic and leapfrog over Bolton Wanderers in the process. Fulham lost 1-0 at Middlesbrough, yet they still remain inexplicably in touch with the cluster of clubs just above. There are no such concerns for Derby County, though – their 3-0 home defeat by Spurs left them on nine points, thirteen adift of safety.
In the Football League, all three divisions continue to delight and infuriate in roughly equal measures. There are now just five points between the top five in The Championship, after West Bromwich Albion continued their recent patchy form in losing 2-1 at Barnsley, whilst Bristol City kep up the pressure by beating Sheffield Wednesday at Ashton Gate. In League One, this weekend’s battle of the teams that have been put into administration saw Bournemouth win 4-1 at Luton Town, although both teams remain in the bottom four thanks to their ten point deductions. In League Two Franchise’s lead has now been cut to six points, and Darlington would most likely knock them off the top of the table if they win their two games in hand. At the bottom of the League, it seems likely to be any two from Bury, Mansfield Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and Wrexham to drop into the Conference, whilst it remains nail-bitingly tight to see who will replace them – Aldershot Town are still six points clear of Torquay United, but The Gulls have two games in hand and a better goal difference. Tense times. Finally, congratulations to Egypt, who became the champions of Africa with a 1-0 win against Cameroon yesterday in the final of the African Cup Of Nations. The winning goal came from Mohammed Aboutrika, who (those of you with long memories may just recall) I picked out as one of the players of the tournament at the 2006 World Club Championships. He can probably expect a telephone call from a certain Senor Benitez in the next couple of days or so.