Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

James Lawton: Idealists can delight that ugly chase may yet end with dreams of Roman ruined

Poor little Roman. All he wants – on top of his large slice of the mineral wealth of a great but largely poor nation, his latest young trophy partner, an army of yes-men, a Knightsbridge mansion, two huge yachts, and more or less anything under the sun that money can buy – is a team capable of beating Aston Villa and looking vaguely beautiful in the process.

That he couldn't have either, and as a consequence appeared to produce the body language of some boorish little rich boy denied the winning prize at his own birthday party, is maybe not the least glory of a new Premier League season which has given a glimpse of something stunning like genuine competition.



By now it should be obvious even to the Chelsea owner that his dream of superior football, the kind that Arsène Wenger has made his stock in trade at Arsenal, is never going to be fulfilled by Jose Mourinho.



The Special One has many qualities but they do not stretch beyond extremely functional and, at its heart, prosaic football. It meant that Abramovich's swift exit, with four minutes of added time to play, from his seat at Villa Park – where Chelsea, despite Mourinho's standard whine, were beaten fair and square by a team who have, after a year under Martin O'Neill, acquired width, a little wisdom and an admirable work ethic – was especially pathetic.



It just went to show that it doesn't matter how many oil wells you own, common sense can still run dry easily when you find yourself in a new world and with inadequate advice.



If Abramovich had anyone to blame for the clear indicators that Chelsea are not the team they were two years ago, it was only himself. It is he who brought mayhem to the playpen. Mourinho is blameless according to his career-long terms of reference. He hasn't changed since he led Porto to Champions League glory. He is still the hustler coach, the man who demands work, power, iron defence and a little more work. This makes winning, not exquisite, football and it is something that should have been pointed out to the fabulously rich innocent abroad when he lashed out his half a billion or so and expected everything at Stamford Bridge to be both successful and spectacular.



The biggest clue to his misconceptions – and the low quality of the input from his large cast of advisers – came when Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, started hounding Mourinho's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, with the football illiteracy that what was expected was long-distance goals and 5-0 victories in a league which he later projected as a "bunch of one".



Right now, and despite the temporary absence of Manchester United, it remains a bunch of four, with Chelsea suddenly looking much less than the team with the ultimate power and depth.



Having Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack imposed upon him – and taking it lying down – has plainly weakened Mourinho to the point where his claims of bad luck and bad justice are becoming risible. He was plain lucky at Anfield to get a draw, leaden – ask Roman – against Portsmouth, and after half-time never looked in with a serious shot of rescuing the game at Villa Park.



As the Premier League takes it first break for international action, you have to say that Liverpool, Arsenal and a United with Louis Saha at last bringing an authentic point of attack and Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on their way back, all look at least as competitive – and decidedly more exciting.



Indeed, Abramovich's ire must have been intensified by the power of Liverpool's football, admittedly against a deeply inept Derby County. The signings of Fernando Torres and Andrei Voronin have provided strike power – and there is plainly a growing authority with the renaissance of Xabi Alonso and the increasing assurance of Javier Mascherano, arguably the toughest young midfield presence in last summer's World Cup and one which now is plainly beginning to find its Premier League feet.



For the perfect counterpart to the Abramovich show, however, football idealists are surely borrowing Arsenal, at least for one season.



Those of us who saw 10-1 as an offer that could not be refused – the title odds are down to 7-1 now – can only be heartened by the brilliant form of Cesc Fabregas and the early evidence that suspicions that Wenger's young team were likely to come out from the shadow of the overripe Thierry Henry appear to be well-founded.



Of course, Arsenal still have to produce a lot more iron – though the way their 10 men outclassed the strong and generally well coached Portsmouth was impressive enough to be going on with – but then it was not so hard to warm to Wenger's post-game reaction to suggestions that his disavowal of the need for his friend David Dein's foreign millions was "illogical". Wenger said he had built his squad in his own image and was happy with his resources – and his chances.



Most of all, no doubt, he was content that his work – which, ironically, is again showing the beautiful results Abramovich craves – was not currently judged, in the most public and dismissive way, by an owner who, in terms of football at least, has a lot more money than sense – not to mention, class.



Aggrieved Ohuruogu should realise that she clouded her own triumph



Lectures, all round, then, for those who found Christine Ohuruogu's triumph in the athletics World Championships something less than a source of utterly uncomplicated joy.



Perhaps not surprisingly, the most egregious ones came from the athletic establishment, notably Dave Collins, the performance director of UK Athletics, who wrote in this paper: "The mixed response to Christine's success is unfortunate. It's been made clear that she had no intention to gain advantage when she infringed the drug-test laws. It was all reported last year when she received her penalty. It's in the past and people should celebrate her success without innuendo."



Such is what passes for self-analysis in the sport of athletics. It would be tragic if you gave the sport any serious chance of rising above the culture of cheating that now appears to run through the sport that anyone who doesn't swallow, automatically, every assurance it offers to a public that has been betrayed more times than it cares to remember is immediately said to be operating from a position of unbreakable prejudice and vindictiveness.



It just isn't so. It is an inevitable caution against the possibility of more deceit.



Ohuruogu (left) is apparently hurt and bewildered by the "mixed response". She cannot understand that, as a leading athlete, she had a duty, to herself, to her sport and the public who were expected to react to her victory in Osaka with unqualified rapture, to comply with testing regulations.



Ohuruogu missed three drug tests. Concern for her family's privacy is the latest plank of her defence, on top of forgetfulness.



Somewhere around here, though, there is a bottom line. It is that trust has been broken down more profoundly than many in athletics, and in much of sport in general, fail to grasp.



Christine Ohuruogu may well be innocent and have reason to feel aggrieved. But then someone she trusts should explain why it is so – and how, precisely, in however small or unconscious a way, she made her contribution to the doubt that so clouded her triumph.



Scholes' absence insult not injury



As Emile Heskey returns to the England squad, and attracts the cruellest comment on the extent of the crisis that has befallen the coach Steve McClaren, we can only mourn again the absence of Paul Scholes.



However, if McClaren's plight is unfortunate, and deserving of some sympathy, the Scholes situation can only provoke a fresh burst of angst. It was partly reignited at the weekend by Arsène Wenger's enthusiastic willingness to compare the unfolding talent of his Cesc Fabregas with that of the man who no longer hears the call of his country.



Fabregas is being freely tipped to be the midfielder of his generation in the most strenuously critical quarters and this can only increase the sadness that an English player of similar craft and bite wearied of his treatment on the international stage at a time when he had reached the peak of his powers.



His ability to shape a midfield, to give coherence and rhythm and purpose to an entire team effort, was neglected too many times in favour of showier, less competent rivals.



It means that on England's casualty list for the vital games with Israel and Russia there should be an added entry: not of a pulled ligament or a broken toe or a damaged metatarsal. Put it down as flawed judgement, of the most serious and apparently irretrievable kind.

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