Last look at Russian kaleidoscope

THE cup has been paraded along the Champs-Elysees, the players are on the beach or their pre-season tours, the pitch invaders already in jail. But we are still rubbing our kaleidoscope eyes.

Yep, that was some trip they gave us, the memories not just lingering but merging into a magical, if transient, blur.

Such was the impact of a World Cup that many feared would be blighted by thuggery, apathy and racism from the hosts, an African walkout and an English wipeout.

If that was the doomsday scenario, it could not have been more wrong: Russia is now back in Russian hands after the most exuberant occupation in its history. If Western Europeans didn’t go, the rest of the world did – and had a ball.

But it wasn’t just politics behind the pessimism – let’s be honest, it was football. More precisely, international football. It had a bad name. The last three World Cups had been dire – you struggle to remember a decent game – and those international breaks drive us to distraction.

Club football is king, loyalties are to clubs that are more easily identified with than countries – especially for non-participants – and the standard is better anyway. All the best players are in the Champions League; many were missing here.

As it was, the two immortals left early doors and the pretender didn’t even pretend. If Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t lift their mediocre teammates single-handedly, Neymar couldn’t manage it even with a talented supporting cast.

If he is the undisputed winner of the Golden Raspberry, no one quite earned legend status. Kylian Mbappe is the anointed one but for all his pace, youth and exuberance, he has yet to belong to the same lofty pantheon.

Nor do his teammates. France were good but, playing with the handbrake on, not much better than Croatia, Belgium, Uruguay or Brazil. (Or even Spain or Germany if their managers had not screwed up). Yes, they have a structure where Croatia do not – and the Croats were the better side until VAR intervened.

So, if the best individuals fell short and the best teams failed to reach the heights, just why was this tournament such a blast?

Frankly, and from a vantage point no better than a fourth floor office along the Federal Highway, it was a favourable combination of factors, the biggest of which was our low expectations.

But the hosts put on a great show, the weather was good – few realise how home failure and winter cold put a dampener on the South African finals – the people were friendly, travel was free and the stadiums were space-ship sensational.

It also got off to a flyer. Every World Cup needs the hosts to stick around and Russia did – far longer than expected.

Scoring five in the opener was their dream start and it was quickly followed with a classic (Portugal vs Spain) on the second day.

Once up and running, things never really slackened off and there was the unexpected bonus of favourites falling. Of storylines and drama, there was no shortage.

The sacking of Spain’s manager before a ball was kicked was an off-the-Richter own goal that wrecked their chances while VAR was a constant source of debate.

There was not a glut of goals but their timing and circumstances – late, great and own – with lots of penalties kept tongues wagging. And the way the results unfolded, there were few dud rubbers.

Previous tournaments had seen momentum drop but this time it never really did and the final had the most goals since 1966. Underpinning all this, football as a whole is enjoying one of its more attacking cycles and the coaches were mostly a more enlightened bunch.

Yes, France – and Brazil to some extent – never hit top gear but overall there was more freedom of movement than we’ve seen in decades. Only Spain played possession for possession’s sake but that can happen when you lose your leader.

Credit for the overall tenor has to go to Pep Guardiola who has built on the late Johan Cruyff’s football philosophy and shown the world just how the game can be played.

France are understandably crediting their scouting network and Clairefontaine academy but their clash with Croatia did bring echoes of Harry Lime’s famous skit in The Third Man.

”For 30 years under the Borgias, they (Italy) had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The point here is that while France had the democracy and peace, Croatia not only had bloodshed but their football is in chaos, blighted by corruption and, until quelled by reaching the quarterfinals, there was a rebellion against their own team.

Slogans like “We hope you lose” were daubed on the stadium walls at a pre-tournament friendly with Brazil only last month when the home side was booed.
Luka Modric bore the brunt having lied in court in support of a corrupt official who’s in hiding after getting a six-year jail sentence.

To watching associations, the advice must be “don’t try the Croatian method at home”, but it shows that success is still possible even if all the algorithms and tea leaves suggest otherwise.

Last look at Russian kaleidoscope

THE cup has been paraded along the Champs-Elysees, the players are on the beach or their pre-season tours, the pitch invaders already in jail. But we are still rubbing our kaleidoscope eyes.

Yep, that was some trip they gave us, the memories not just lingering but merging into a magical, if transient, blur.

Such was the impact of a World Cup that many feared would be blighted by thuggery, apathy and racism from the hosts, an African walkout and an English wipeout.

If that was the doomsday scenario, it could not have been more wrong: Russia is now back in Russian hands after the most exuberant occupation in its history. If Western Europeans didn’t go, the rest of the world did – and had a ball.

But it wasn’t just politics behind the pessimism – let’s be honest, it was football. More precisely, international football. It had a bad name. The last three World Cups had been dire – you struggle to remember a decent game – and those international breaks drive us to distraction.

Club football is king, loyalties are to clubs that are more easily identified with than countries – especially for non-participants – and the standard is better anyway. All the best players are in the Champions League; many were missing here.

As it was, the two immortals left early doors and the pretender didn’t even pretend. If Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t lift their mediocre teammates single-handedly, Neymar couldn’t manage it even with a talented supporting cast.

If he is the undisputed winner of the Golden Raspberry, no one quite earned legend status. Kylian Mbappe is the anointed one but for all his pace, youth and exuberance, he has yet to belong to the same lofty pantheon.

Nor do his teammates. France were good but, playing with the handbrake on, not much better than Croatia, Belgium, Uruguay or Brazil. (Or even Spain or Germany if their managers had not screwed up). Yes, they have a structure where Croatia do not – and the Croats were the better side until VAR intervened.

So, if the best individuals fell short and the best teams failed to reach the heights, just why was this tournament such a blast?

Frankly, and from a vantage point no better than a fourth floor office along the Federal Highway, it was a favourable combination of factors, the biggest of which was our low expectations.

But the hosts put on a great show, the weather was good – few realise how home failure and winter cold put a dampener on the South African finals – the people were friendly, travel was free and the stadiums were space-ship sensational.

It also got off to a flyer. Every World Cup needs the hosts to stick around and Russia did – far longer than expected.

Scoring five in the opener was their dream start and it was quickly followed with a classic (Portugal vs Spain) on the second day.

Once up and running, things never really slackened off and there was the unexpected bonus of favourites falling. Of storylines and drama, there was no shortage.

The sacking of Spain’s manager before a ball was kicked was an off-the-Richter own goal that wrecked their chances while VAR was a constant source of debate.

There was not a glut of goals but their timing and circumstances – late, great and own – with lots of penalties kept tongues wagging. And the way the results unfolded, there were few dud rubbers.

Previous tournaments had seen momentum drop but this time it never really did and the final had the most goals since 1966. Underpinning all this, football as a whole is enjoying one of its more attacking cycles and the coaches were mostly a more enlightened bunch.

Yes, France – and Brazil to some extent – never hit top gear but overall there was more freedom of movement than we’ve seen in decades. Only Spain played possession for possession’s sake but that can happen when you lose your leader.

Credit for the overall tenor has to go to Pep Guardiola who has built on the late Johan Cruyff’s football philosophy and shown the world just how the game can be played.

France are understandably crediting their scouting network and Clairefontaine academy but their clash with Croatia did bring echoes of Harry Lime’s famous skit in The Third Man.

”For 30 years under the Borgias, they (Italy) had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The point here is that while France had the democracy and peace, Croatia not only had bloodshed but their football is in chaos, blighted by corruption and, until quelled by reaching the quarterfinals, there was a rebellion against their own team.

Slogans like “We hope you lose” were daubed on the stadium walls at a pre-tournament friendly with Brazil only last month when the home side was booed.
Luka Modric bore the brunt having lied in court in support of a corrupt official who’s in hiding after getting a six-year jail sentence.

To watching associations, the advice must be “don’t try the Croatian method at home”, but it shows that success is still possible even if all the algorithms and tea leaves suggest otherwise.

A compelling but contrary affair

A CHAOTIC and controversial final that was a fitting climax to a compelling yet contrary tournament.

Whilst you don’t want to take anything away from France, only a curmudgeon would deny that Croatia were the better side for much of the game – but ran out of luck after an epic run that defied logic.

The analysts will say that France triumphed because of their organisation: reaping the rewards of both their youth network, academy and tournament strategy of tempering the flair of individuals for the common good.

But what will they say of Croatia, with just four million people, who had none of this: their team was hated by many of their own fans who had turned on Luka Modric; they had a manager parachuted in to scrape through the qualifiers and a player sent home for refusing to play.

Nope, organisation obviously helps but so does fighting against the odds and no one fought harder than the Croats. And to fight that hard, you must have something they can’t teach in academies.

National pride is one thing but in Croatia’s case, it was a new spirit forged in a war recent enough for many of their players to remember. And it overcame the bitterness caused by the corruption in the running of their domestic game.

The events of a dramatic final day summed up the tournament and make it devilishly difficult to come to any conclusions about style, method, VAR, new trends or the tried and trusted.

There were contradictions at every turn. But the biggest shock is that international football, so long maligned, has made a comeback. Club football may be of a superior standard but for drama, you can’t beat nations going head to head.

It was a triumph for Europe – and one the EU gloatingly tweeted. All four semifinalists were European to leave Africa and Asia further away than ever from winning it. Yet no less than 17 of France’s 23-man squad are the children of immigrants – mostly from Africa.

England’s unlikely lads managed to win back a lost public; Spain, team of the pass masters, committed hara-kiri.

Germany, of all people, got it badly wrong with complacency, cliques and poor selection to fall victim of the curse of reigning champions.

Japan were guilty of shamelessly killing their final qualifying game yet won through on the fair play rule!

Russia, the hopeless lowest-ranked team in it, reached the quarterfinals. Dubbed racist, violent and not a football nation, they were fantastic hosts. Putin really can turn it on like a tap.

Brazil were just not Brazil – pale shadows of former incarnations and victims of the Neymar circus. And Lionel Messi was just not Messi, the burden of carrying a desperate nation being too much. Ditto Cristiano Ronaldo.

Just as the little maestro and CR7 enter the twilight zone, Neymar is in danger of missing out on the succession. Kylian Mbappe could steal it while even Paul “cameo” Pogba did more than he does for United. So did Romelu Lukaku and even Victor Lindelof, but not Phil Jones.

Goalkeepers made some phenomenal saves but also some howlers; Croatia’s Danijel Subasic turned to stone for the last two goals while Hugo Lloris turned into Loris Karius.

VAR may explain why there were more penalties, but not more own goals. Nor did it stop play-acting, rather it encouraged it.

And after starting the tournament as an interfering busybody, it ended it hardly being used – apart from persuading the ref to change his mind – and the game – in the final.

Making the referee’s job easier? It puts pressure on him to change his decision and slow motion is a distortion as we saw with the decisive penalty. It is also nowhere near ready.

There were goals in every game but one yet not that many overall. Harry Kane won the Golden Boot but the announcement was booed after his increasingly poor tournament. Of his half dozen, three were pens, one a deflection and two from two yards.

Luis Suarez, the Devil Incarnate at the previous two World Cups, was like a choirboy. In Kieran Trippier, an unheralded Tottenham right back, England discovered a new Beckham – without the baggage.

A former nomad of an Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand became a national hero.

Russians can play football and they found a gem in Aleksandr Golovin. All in all, the hosts seemed to like what they saw and so did we.

It’s just a pity we can’t look forward to the next one with much optimism.

But let’s savour the contradictions, not least of which was FIFA making Putin look like a liberal, England winning a penalty shoot-out and, for France, the water carrier turning the stuff into wine.

The War Lord: Hail the Miracle Man of Cardiff, Neil Warnock

PRIDE of place to odd couples this week must go to Donald J Trump and Kim Jong Un. But to many people in football, the coming together of Cardiff City’s Tan Sri Vincent Tan and Neil Warnock is only a little less astonishing.

Like the duo meeting in Singapore, the reputations of owner and manager precede them with some fanfare – at least from certain members of the British media. Both are very much their own men and don’t suffer fools.

Tan has, shall we say, become a pretty hands-on football owner since being stung by a previous regime that, he claims, “went crazy” and “overpaid for players”.

For his part, Warnock is just as celebrated for brooking no interference in how he runs his teams.

“They call me the Marmite Man [either loved or loathed] and that’s a kind one,” he quipped during a stopover in Kuala Lumpur last week.

And, sure enough, one half of his Wikipedia page is devoted to his record eight promotions and the other half to his disputes – with players, with other managers, with referees and with clubs.

Longevity, then, was not on the agenda when he took over Cardiff in October, 2016. When asked if he’d regarded it as a long-term project, Warnock drew laughter when he replied: “I think you’ve got to say, when you’ve got an owner like Vincent Tan you’ve got to say, no.”

Second to bottom of the Championship, struggling to score a goal and losing support faster than Barisan Nasional at the last election, chairman Mehmet Dalman told him: “Just try to keep us up.”

He did that with some comfort and, crucially in Tan’s eyes, minimal spending. A cull of players “who didn’t want to fight”, a couple of judicious signings and, most of all, a rejuvenation of spirit that is his trademark took them to a 12th place finish. It was enough for him to tell Dalman: “Now let’s try to get us up.”

Besides avoiding the abyss of the dreaded third tier, Warnock had allayed fears Tan may have had about clashing with a man who has fallen out with the great and good, and not so good, of English football. Far from it, in the common-sense, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, he had discovered a kindred spirit.

“Neil is different,” said Tan. “He doesn’t want to spend a lot of money – he likes to do it with players from the lower leagues and build a team. It’s not necessary to spend big money. Look at Burnley – they hardly spent anything and came seventh.” But to do it you need a certain type of manager.

Asked what his management style is, Warnock explained: “Mine is more man-management. I think it’s more important than ever these days.

“If you can get people to give a bit more of themselves you get success in any walk of life.

“I’m like the Red Adair of football,” he added. “He put out the fires at the oil refineries and that’s what I seem to have done most of my career.”

He once said he actually preferred the muck and nettles of the lower leagues, having not had the best of luck in the top flight.

Three times he’s been there and three times his sides have been relegated, but there were extenuating circumstances each time.

Sheffield United were cheated by the Carlos Tevez affair; Crystal Palace had points docked due to administration and at QPR he was never in the bottom three and sacked prematurely.

“Tony Fernandes tells me that decision cost him £200 million (RM1 billion),” he says.

It also came after one of his greatest triumphs. QPR were a basket case under Formula One moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. But once Briatore met Warnock, he knew he had the “strong manager” he’d always wanted. He let him manage. Similarly, Tan saw a man who would neither kowtow nor be cowed – and a mutual trust developed.

Warnock, 69, recalls: “When I first met Mehmet and Vincent, it was one of those meetings when you feel it’s the right bond. And the emotional ride we’ve had since – getting away from relegation and this year getting promoted – is by far my biggest achievement ever.”

It surpasses even Rotherham which was his previous best bit of escapology. “When I took over they were six points adrift and basically gone” [at the foot of the Championship] he remembers. Putting out that fire he regards as the turning point in his career and one that renewed his appetite for football.

He had actually quit the game to look after his wife Sharon when she developed breast cancer. But her recovery and a less-than-distinguished stint doing the house chores led to his return.

Admitting that he felt unfairly typecast as a lower league manager with critics claiming he couldn’t do it at the top level, he said at Rotherham: “I’ve come here to show people.”

Now he says: “It’s a bit like that at Cardiff but this will be my finale. I’ve always loved proving people wrong.”

It’s another trait he shares with his boss but now he thinks there’s a good chance of topping even last season – by keeping Cardiff up. “This is possibly the best chance I’ve had of building something.

“Whilst it would be a success to be fourth from the bottom next year, I’d like to think we could stabilise the club and look further than that. Like what Burnley have done.

“Our wage bill will be the lowest in the Premier League by a long way but if I can get a few of the right players in – we don’t want any prima donnas or big-time Charlies – I feel we can do it.

“We may not have the quality of the £40 million (RM214 million) to £50 million (RM267 million) players, but I don’t think they’ll have the quality that we have in the dressing room when things aren’t going well. They won’t have that togetherness. That’s important in whatever sport. If you’ve got that it’s amazing how that can get you the results you need. Miracles can happen.”

According to the bookies, a miracle is needed – Cardiff are odds-on to go straight back down. But in the hands of the game’s great escapologist and motivator, it’s one you wouldn’t bet against.

Doom for Blues, new dawn for Spurs

IT’S hard to know which set of fans is losing more sleep: Spurs’ at the prospect of losing their manager and the break-up of their best team in 50 years, or Chelsea’s, who fear they might lose everything. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans look on, barely able to wipe the schadenfreude off their faces.

You’d have to say it’s the Blues who have a deeper sense of impending doom: managers and players are replaceable but Roman Abramovich is not. With over £1.5 billion (RM7.99 billion) already ploughed in and another billion earmarked for the new stadium, the prospect of his departure has always been Chelsea’s worst nightmare.

Now that has become alarmingly real since his visa difficulties have persuaded him to mothball plans for a new stadium. The Russian’s decision is perfectly understandable if he’s not allowed into the country. But where does that leave Chelsea?

They were already in a mess before the nightmare scenario loomed. Their manager is desperate for a payoff, his chosen replacement’s club are demanding a payoff and their star players want to take off.

Abramovich will not want to leave them in the lurch – it would damage his own reputation as well as Chelsea’s. But without both his bankrolling and a new stadium, it is hard to see how they can remain as one of Europe’s super-clubs.

As everyone at Stamford Bridge was aware, the owner’s days as the ultimate Sugar Daddy had ended long before Spygate put an unexpected spanner in the works.

His interest had waned and transfer funds had been cut. But he saw the stadium as a way of making the club self-sustaining by boosting match-day revenues to the levels of their rivals.

Chelsea called it a “cathedral of football” and it was meant to be a permanent legacy of Abramovich’s contribution to the club and to football in Britain. But there were problems even before the Russian said “nyet”.

The search for a site was botched and the complexity of building on the present ground meant that Chelsea would have had to use Wembley as a home for four seasons – while Spurs needed only one. But even that was thrown into doubt by Wembley’s possible sale.

At least the Blues won’t have any “curse” to worry about and their fans will not need to trek across the capital, but these will be no consolation for the doomsday situation they could soon be facing.

Chelsea were bankrupt when Abramovich arrived and, although a decent cup team who had a few flair players, they had never threatened to become one of Europe’s giants.

That all changed with 15 trophies in 15 years, but with just a 41,000 capacity and a possible ownership vacuum, it could change again – in the opposite direction.

First Antonio Conte has to be put out of his misery or given a proper budget. And big names must be bought or wantaways Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Thibaut Courtois will leave. Right now, you wouldn’t bet against an interim manager, a mass exodus and a slide down the table.

They used to say that the only buyer for Chelsea would be another oligarch but with the crackdown, even that door has closed. Blue is not the colour but they may have to look further east.

Compared to all that, Real Madrid making eyes at Mauricio Pochettino can be brushed off. Yes, Real tend to get their man and he did say, “When Real Madrid call, you have to listen”.

But Poch has just signed a new five-year contract that doesn’t include a release clause. He has an excellent relationship with chairman Daniel Levy and it is inconceivable that the Madrid job – or any other job – was never discussed.

The Argentine has also reiterated – at last week’s book launch in Spain no less – that he was “genuinely happy and excited” to be at Spurs. To do an about-turn now would seriously damage his credibility and make future suitors wary. And he would need future suitors – Real Madrid is only ever a short-term posting as Zinedine Zidane has shown.

Poch may well end up at Madrid one day and even ticks the box of having declared that Barcelona is one of two clubs he would never manage. His career at Catalan rivals Espanyol explains that just as it rules out Arsenal.

Of course, the fear for Spurs fans is that if Poch’s head were to be turned, he wouldn’t be the only one leaving. They’re terrified that the side he has built and brought to the cusp of glory would disintegrate with big name departures.

Well-known for being paid a lot less than their counterparts elsewhere, Spurs players have mostly bought into the current project. Next season they will be playing in a spanking new stadium with a capacity of 61,000, and see this as the dawning of a new golden era.

More funds are needed to complete a team to match the surroundings but this is something on which the manager himself has been assured before agreeing to stay on. If a couple of big buys are made, you feel the exodus will be minimal.

For those worried why Poch has not already given Madrid the brush-off, consider this: if he does think he’ll end up there one day, he has to do it politely. And he did warn them: “Be careful, Daniel Levy bites.”

He is smart enough to know that he’s on to a good thing at Spurs and a few years and trophies later, he could be in even greater demand. To go now and clear up the mess – for it is a mess despite the third European Cup in a row (!) – he risks becoming just another Madrid cast-off – and maybe still without a trophy.

So Arsenal fans, with both manager and stadium sorted, may chuckle at Chelsea’s expense, but they won’t be reinstating St Totteringham’s Day any time soon.

Roll on next season

STILL reeling from that distorted Champions League climax? Already missing the EPL?

For fans who prefer the club game to internationals, the good news is that next season is only 10 weeks away. The better news is that the EPL is already shaping up pretty well.

There is the small matter of 64 games in Russia to watch in the meantime, but before we switch to World Cup mode, it is worth noting that the coming season could be a cracker.

The sackings have yet to be completed for 2017-18 yet the new one is unlikely to be another Man City-led procession: Liverpool are 2-0 up in the transfer window before it’s officially opened!

Now the Reds have added Fabinho to the long-secured Naby Keita, they could have an engine room that might have given Messrs Modric and Kroos something to think about in Kiev.

With the Euro windfall adding to the Coutinho money, Jurgen Klopp has cash to splash.

A third top midfielder, Nabil Fekir, has been targeted and with a big-money keeper one of several other additions, we can see why they are firming up as the bookies’ second favourites.

But they are not the only ones to burst from the blocks brandishing a chequebook. In fact, all of the Big Six are showing signs of stirring in one way or another.

Champions City appear to be gearing for another majestic campaign.

They are close to snaring Napoli’s Jorginho to lift the burden on the overworked Fernandinho while Riyad Mahrez looks to be on his way too.

Both are class acts but whether they get regular starts is another matter. However, the intent is clear – a deepening of the squad for an even more focused assault on the Champions League.

Last season they had a tilt at all four trophies but fell short in the end, with tired minds as well as limbs a major factor.

Losing to Wigan was a blip but losing to Liverpool was not. The Reds shocked them with their intensity and it looks like that painful lesson has been learned.

The two domestic cups may just be used to give squad players a run-out.

Although Guardiola did rotate, Fernandinho and Kevin de Bruyne were the mainstays he couldn’t do without.

With Bernardo Silva expected to make more impact – and maybe even young Phil Foden – plus the aforementioned duo, City will have a bench to match Real Madrid’s.

Across town, Jose Mourinho knows this is the season he must match City in either Premier League or Europe.

He will have a huge budget but his recent signings have not really come off and he must resist Ed Woodward’s wish for a mega signing with Gareth Bale. Not at the numbers being mentioned anyway.

Bale is on an insane £650k (RM3.6 million) a week and his price is £200 million (RM1.1 billion). For a player who’s injured half his time, they just don’t add up. In fact, dare it be said, for those figures Neymar might be better value.

Nor does a fading Ronaldo look worth bringing back. Rumoured to have played in the final, he does look to be on the downward slope yet his wages are still astronomical.

Nope, Mourinho appears to be showing his pragmatic side in chasing Marko Arnautovic and Toby Alderweireld who could be had for just £50 million (RM275 million) apiece. Both are 29, experienced internationals and Premier League veterans, but neither are likely to have much resale value – a sure sign of a short-termism.

A clearout and a couple more judicious signings – Antoine Griezemann at £100 million (RM110 million) is looking almost a bargain compared to some – could change the mood. But Barcelona look to have the Frenchman all but signed.

Fullbacks are also needed while Eric Bailly should be restored. Just hanging on to David de Gea – although an absolute must – won’t be enough this season.

Elsewhere, the good news for Spurs is that Mauricio Pochettino is staying and should go some way to preventing a mass exodus of players. Daniel Levy has to do his bit with new improved contracts. And buy another striker to support Harry Kane. The new White Hart Lane is too good for the Europa League.

Chelsea have also had some good news in that Roman Abramovich has changed nationality to ensure easier entry to Britain – a sure sign his love for the Blues has not waned. But they need to put Antonio Conte out of his misery or give him a budget to compete properly.

Even Arsenal are stirring. New manager Unai Emery may not have been first choice for any Gooner but he has started as if he knows what he’s doing.

He had great success at Sevilla and being unable to control the egos at PSG should not be held against him. If he can sort out the defence, Arsenal could make a run for the top four.

All in all, it’s looking like a more competitive season at the top. If only there was someone to challenge them, but at least we’ll have a Big Six game almost every weekend once again which is something to savour.

We can’t be too sure about what the World Cup will have in store but a closer look at that can wait until next week.

• Bob’s latest book, “Living the Dream”, is on sale at all major bookstores.

Bitter loss but Reds are back

EVEN now there’s a bitter taste. Going on four days later. With an extra (non-publication) day to think about it, an extra day for it to rankle. Wesak Day! Where’s the karma when you need it?

When it comes to Sergio (asterisks deleted) Ramos, it is conspicuous by its absence.

He robbed the world of one of its great sporting spectacles, cheating a global audience of hundreds of millions out of a potential classic. And in Madrid he’s being hailed as a hero.

Not since Harald Schumacher karate-chopped France’s Patrick Battiston in the 1982 World Cup semifinal has a big game been so outrageously distorted. A
French poll put the German keeper ahead of Hitler as the country’s “most hated man”.

On a sad night for humanity as well as football, the other villains belong to a very different category – the sad, brainless lowlifes who threatened to kill Loris Karius. From the sanctity of their keyboards and behind their shield of anonymity, of course.

Don’t these idiots know what happened to another German keeper who worried about silly mistakes? Former Barcelona and Germany international Robert Enke threw himself under a train.

Karius is not known to suffer from depression as Enke did, but he will be tested now. He did not make those errors deliberately and deserves sympathy, not death threats.

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority are wishing him well and hoping he can recover for he will have to live with this night for the rest of his life. Every time, decades from now, when people spot him they will whisper, ‘Isn’t that the guy who …”

If we treat Karius not just as a footballer but as a human being, then we have to do the same with Ramos. And the view is not favourable.

It was an Everton fan, of all people, who said: “He’s the sort who would turn off your life support to charge his phone.” It’s hard to improve on that.

The centreback’s record precedes him: all-time high number of red cards in La Liga and Champions League as well as internationals for Spain. But we know that doesn’t tell the half of it.

It’s his cry-baby antics, his outrageous diving, arrant feigning of injury to get opponents sent off that make him so despised. He was at it again in Kiev with Mane and also blatantly elbowed Karius minutes before the keeper’s first brain fade.

It has to be said that without deciphering Ramos’s brain we don’t know for absolutely certain that he intended to injure Salah – but the armlock is pretty conclusive evidence. The pros say you never see it on a football field even in the worst entanglements.

It was conclusive enough for almost all non-Madrid commentators to come as close as they dared to saying it was deliberate. From this vantage point, he crossed the line – and it worked. At a stroke, Liverpool’s star and main threat was taken out. Seldom can a big game have changed so dramatically.

To the apologists who say Ramos is a man to have on your side, I say, perhaps – in a dirty war. But football is only a game. Beautiful? If it’s not beautiful, it’s not worth playing. After all, if it’s not to entertain, what is the point?

Gareth Bale’s first goal was certainly a thing of beauty and has to be one of the greatest ever scored anywhere. Real may have won even if Salah had played 90 minutes, but now there’s a certain hollowness to their victory. They, too, have lost something – at least in the eyes of the rest of us.

Liverpool lost a final, yes, but by now they’ll realise they had an incredible season – way beyond expectations. And in Kiev, the back four held up well with Dejan Lovren and Andrew Robertson making last-ditch tackles of the highest class.

Sadio Mane was a gallant lone ranger up front but in the end, their lack of depth caught up with them and once Salah departed they had no chance – not with a bench that was no more than a rickety plank.

Klopp must finally admit defeat over the goalkeepers although what Karius experienced was not so much poor keeping as a meltdown. Now at least the debate is over – a new glove man is desperately needed.

And Liverpool fans have been given a timely pick-me-up with the news that Brazilian holding midfielder Fabinho has signed for what looks a bargain £40m (RM211m) from Monaco. With bids for other big names in the offing, there can be no doubt that the Reds are back in the big time and FSG mean to keep them there.

Yes, “moving on” and “coming back stronger” are the phrases you always hear after a disaster. And we’ve heard both plenty of times this week. We certainly hope that applies to both Salah and Karius, but the German surely cannot be first-choice for Liverpool again.

Although history is written by the victors and bad guys often win, there is a greater game going on here. It is called life. And being called “a cancer on the game”, as Ramos has been by many critics if not by Klopp, as some have claimed, suggests a lowest of low places for him in the greater scheme of things.

In contrast, Salah is reaching exalted levels. He has come to mean so much to so many – in the Middle East as well as on Merseyside – way beyond the touchline.

Mumin Khan, CEO at Liverpool’s Abdullah Quilliam mosque, told The Independent: “He is an excellent role model who is breaking barriers about the negative perception of Muslims and Islam.”

Not only is he a superstar but he’s become a beacon of hope for improving relations between the faiths, winning hearts and minds with his humility, generosity and all-round decency.

Countless film crews and journalists made the pilgrimage to his village of Nagrig in Egypt on the eve of the game. As well as chronicling his rise from humble beginnings, all declared him a force for good.

Now, thanks to Ramos, his World Cup and the hopes of 100 million Egyptians hang by a thread. All this and Real Madrid are still celebrating with their skipper an apparently karma-free zone.

But let us end on a positive note. Despite all this, Liverpool looked like they belonged on the big stage and next season with Fabinho, Naby Keita and possibly Nabil Fekir, they’ll have a midfield to match the Fab Three. Yes, Kiev was a bitter night but all has not been lost.

* Bob’s latest book, Living the Dream, is available at all major book stores.

ThunderKlopp can clinch it

UNDERDOGS vs overdogs. A team vs individuals. Working class vs royalty! Hang on, Real Madrid have won the last two crowns and aren’t Liverpool also European royalty?

However the Champions League final is hyped, there is an overlap that doesn’t allow either side to be pigeon-holed – whatever Real think of themselves. Both clubs have an illustrious history and are mostly a rojak of imports, cheap and expensive.

But if we really have to separate them, it’s because of their managers: one a 22-carat, superstar who has won everything on and off the field, and the other a journeyman player who has won… very little.

Zinedine Zidane needs an aircraft hangar to store his trophies of which the Ballon d’Or (1997), World Cup (1998), Euros (2000) and European Cups (2002 as a player and 2016 and 2017 as a manager) are just the highlights.

Against that Jurgen Klopp can carry his two Bundesliga baubles in his rucksack and has been beaten in all his five finals. It says an awful lot then that Liverpool are far from alone in thinking they have the superior man in the dugout.

Great players are often accused of getting the top job because of their name. And this was certainly the case with Zizou after his apprenticeship stretched to nothing more than coaching Real’s kids.

Even now, two European Cups and one La Liga later, he is regarded as little more than a “clap yer hands manager”.

The champions have no discernible style of play and they’ve laboured through this season to third place in La Liga – a grave disappointment after the summer Barcelona had suggested the title was Real’s for the taking.

Zidane has failed to get the best out of the precocious Marco Asensio and Isco, let alone Gareth Bale. Tactically, he has often looked bereft and his selections can be mystifying. But he is still there. He is Zidane.

Klopp this week admitted that he was glad he didn’t have to face him on the field – as a journeyman defender at Mainz. But implicit in the compliment was that he didn’t mind facing him in the dugout.

This season, win or lose in Kiev, Klopp has emerged as an inspirational leader for the ages.

He has overcome transfer disappointments, a difficult start, the loss of Philippe Coutinho, injury disruptions and the loss of his right-hand man at the worst possible time, and still steered Liverpool from the qualifiers to the Champions League final.

He has come up the hard way and knew early doors that he would not be much of a player.

A striker-turned-defender for second division Mainz, he might have been forgotten but for being handed the top job.

But a judicious mix of inspiration, perspiration and tactical nous earned promotion and then a switch to Borussia Dortmund. Relishing the challenge of facing “F.C. Hollywood” Bayern, he mixed and matched kids and castoffs to win the Bundesliga twice in a row. It earned him the eternal gratitude of the Yellow Wall.

Burnt out, he took a brief sabbatical but couldn’t resist the lure of Liverpool, a similar, blue-collar club with a devoted following. And as at Dortmund, he is loved by players and fans alike.

Indeed his charisma and character suggest he could be the closest the Kop has seen to the immortal Bill Shankly.

He still has a way to go and Real can be formidable opponents on the big occasion, but Liverpool already have every confidence their manager can win the battle of the technical areas.

He will have had two weeks with his men – what he called “a perfect preparation” since the last Premier League game against Brighton when the Reds showed what one week’s rest can do.

That welcome return to form and fluency – especially of Mo Salah – was just the tonic they needed after looking drained in the preceding league games.

The Egyptian star had been running on empty and with Zeljko Buvac disappearing before the return leg at Roma, it briefly looked as if things might go awry.

But Klopp steadied the ship and a warm weather break in Marbella has them raring to go.

Real’s Tony Kroos, who knows a thing or two about facing Klopp’s teams from his Bayern days, says: “It will be like facing 11 animals, all really up for it.”

Facing Salah and Sadio Mane will certainly feel like facing a couple of gazelles and up front is where Liverpool boast their greatest strength – sheer blinding pace.

The only answer to it is to deny them space but that would mean Real’s own attack not getting their normal service.

Real are favourites but not overwhelmingly so as everyone has been mesmerised by the brilliant counter-attacking of the Fab Three.

Roberto Firmino has been the perfect foil to the two speed men and has grown in influence since his compatriot Coutinho left.

The biggest worry for Kopites is still defence and whether the improvement since Virgil van Dijk arrived can be sustained.

Cristiano Ronaldo may be fading but is still capable of magical moments. But then so is Salah – and his are more often.

As Klopp says, “It’s a football match – anything can happen.” There could be a few goals, it could be close and it could be down to the managers to swing it.

Divock Origi remembers the effect Klopp’s histrionics had in the Europa League comeback against Borussia Dortmund at Anfield. He told the players, 3-1 down at halftime, “to create something we can tell our grandchildren about”. They won 4-3.

Mats Hummels, then at Dortmund, recalls it too: “We started bricking ourselves at the sight of Klopp on the touchline.” On Sunday morning, Zidane may clap his hands but from Klopp, there will be a clap of thunder.

*Bob’s latest book Living the Dream is available at all major book stores.

It looks black for Blues if Roman can’t get in

“YOU ain’t got no ‘istry,” is an enemy chant that Chelsea fans turned into their own defiant battle cry. But as they celebrate a 15th trophy win in 15 years, they are now wondering if they have much of a future.

The FA Cup winners are in a mess. Their manager is begging for the sack. The star player is demanding better signings. Others are eyeing the exit. The stadium project is stalled. And the owner hasn’t got his visa.

Of course, Chelsea have been in a mess before. Many times. They thrive on the chaos theory. If turning a post-Fergie Man United around looks like refloating the Titanic, Chelsea can do it overnight.

From 10th place to champions; from a thrashing in Naples to kings of Europe; from Scolari refuseniks to FA Cup winners; from Champions League flops to Double winners. They write their own “istry”.

But as they woke up on Monday morning, Blues fans wouldn’t have been sure whether they were suffering the mother of all hangovers or their worst nightmare: could the Roman empire be about to fall?

It may be a blip, a bureaucratic bungle or a bit of misfiling. Nothing untoward. The delay just part of the chilling of relations between Britain and Russia following Spygate. He may have got it by the time you read this.

But for the first time since half the Soviet Union’s oil wealth became their transfer kitty, the unthinkable is being thought: he couldn’t, could be?

Even if Roman Abramovich is denied entry to Britain, it does not mean he would leave the club. There are plenty of absentee owners and he’s been absent quite a bit himself. But there’s already been an ominous feeling that he’s losing interest.

The slashing of spending, the frustrations over the stadium, another divorce and the fact that Chelsea have won everything anyway have all suggested he is no longer living the dream.

This season in particular he’s not been the trigger-happy owner that managers feared to look in the eye. If he had been, Antonio Conte would have been sleeping with the fishes since September.

No one has tested the Russian’s patience more. Not even Jose Mourinho. Roberto di Matteo won the supreme prize but his face didn’t fit. Luis Felipe Scolari caused a dressing room revolt, AVB lacked authority. Carlo Ancelotti barely raised his left eyebrow. All got the thumbs down.

But Conte has questioned the competence of Abramovich’s chosen people as well as the club’s ambition. His sins have been cardinal yet he’s survived. For the owner to tolerate this level of insubordination just to avoiding paying him off could be telling.

If he’s not feeling the pinch – scraping by on his last £9 billion (RM48 billion) – it’s a new message he’s sending out: Chelsea no longer offer the most sumptuous buffet on the managerial gravy train.

He wants them to be self-sufficient and no longer dependent on his handouts. And the ace he once had in his hand has been trumped – Man City are richer. They also have Pep Guardiola, the manager he tried so desperately to woo.

Although he has enjoyed consistent success, there is still a gnawing sense of unfulfilment. His dream was not just to win but to win with style and Chelsea have for the most part been a bit too workaday for that.

And he’s not had the best of luck. He was denied the Holy Grail in his home town by John Terry’s slip and a year later in the semifinal against Barcelona there were those penalty claims. And when he did win it, it was with a manager he didn’t rate.

Off the field, it has been even more frustrating. Almost since he arrived in 2003, he’s wanted to move from Stamford Bridge. But a forensic search of central London produced only Battersea power station that was big and close enough.

But the chance of an iconic backdrop was lost when he was outbid by none other than a Malaysian consortium. So it was back to the drawing board and a rebuilt Bridge.

But the planning rules and rights of obstructive neighbours have driven him – a man who rode roughshod over the old Soviet Union – to distraction.

And now, when all that has been finally sorted, he finds that Wembley stadium, where they’ll have to play for at least two seasons while the new stadium is built, could be sold to the owner of Fulham, of all people.

The home of football may never be the same after Shahid Khan has done with it as he has big plans for gridiron among other desecrations. Slotting home games around them on a pitch that has been defiled the day before is not part of the master plan.

Abramovich loves the club too much to leave Chelsea in the lurch but the days of unlimited largesse – outbidding the rest – are already over. If he can’t come back, its days as a super club might be over too.

It would mean no more silly money – either for players or managers – no more ridiculous payoffs; some seasons in the Europa League and the top four would still be aspired to but not the default setting. It could also mean fewer trophies.

The new stadium? Only he knows. Whatever happens, at least the fans will be able to look back fondly – and even shout about – their “istry”. It wouldn’t be much consolation.

Conte on Chelsea to surprise

IT helps that they don’t like each other. The Special One and the Unappreciated One’s mutual hostility should ensure an appropriately feisty finale to England’s domestic season at tomorrow’s FA Cup final.

For this famous old trophy needs all the assistance it can get these days. Shoved to an after midnight kickoff (in Malaysia) and with not even a place in Europe for winning it, it’s a well-documented shadow of its former self.

This is just one reason no one is trying to hype this into a blockbuster occasion despite the pedigree of the heavyweight contestants. Indeed, both Manchester United and Chelsea are a bit like the Cup – in need of something more than a tin of Brasso to restore their lost lustre.

A curious element to this clash is that although both managers have endured disappointing seasons, one may want to win the thing (and boast about it) more than the other.

Jose Mourinho sees it as a golden opportunity to snare yet another trophy – a fourth in two years by his count, but just a third by anyone else’s. Yep, he includes the Community Shield…

Once a serial collector of high-class silverware, he is becoming more and more like a dodgy antique dealer no longer able to get hold of the genuine stuff. But that hasn’t stopped him from pretending otherwise or hitting below the belt.

Last week he again alluded to Antonio Conte being accused of match-fixing even though the Italian was completely exonerated. It suggests their rift has not been repaired.

Even after conceding the Premier League crown to Manchester City, he oozed defiance: “I know how to win titles, in case some of the new guys don’t know, I won eight championships in four different countries and three in this country. I know why you win and I know why you don’t win.”

This after finishing the length of the Manchester Ship Canal behind City who broke records for fun! It’s not as if he has to win the Cup to save his job, but he will know that only a massive improvement in both the Premier League and Champions League can extend it beyond next season.

For Conte, you feel the gig is up anyway and has been for a while. We may never know who has really been to blame and if we give the manager the benefit of the doubt over incoming transfers, he and he alone sent the fateful text to Diego Costa.

To swap that most awkward of customers, that indomitable powerhouse for the woeful weakling that is Alvaro Morata was probably the single biggest factor in their demise – Chelsea swapped a battering ram for a peashooter.

But the Italian also has to front up for tactics, team selections and substitutions, the last of which are often too little too late. His side for the Huddersfield match is being seen in some quarters as his suicide note; the performance at Newcastle the deed itself. Yet you wonder whether they were necessary.

The turnaround from the all-conquering title-winning first season is still nowhere near as bad as “the Mourinho season” yet still inexplicable with the quality at his disposal.

But given his transformation from manically combative to almost begging for the sack (and the millions in compensation) you feel his fate was sealed early doors.

Still, there have been moments when Chelsea have looked very good indeed: at Atletico and against Barcelona at home they were outstanding and in the league too there were spells when Eden Hazard and Willian looked unstoppable.

All of this suggests that Conte, while losing the boardroom, has not lost the dressing room. No manager who presided over such a brilliant first season in a new league and new country as Conte did can become a mug overnight.

And with the board culpable for much of what went on, he is unlikely to find that his standing has been seriously damaged in the eyes of his many suitors abroad. Indeed, most will shrug and repeat what Hazard said this week, when asked to explain their ups and downs: “This is Chelsea. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Indeed, you wouldn’t put it past them to produce a farewell performance – if that is what it is to be for the manager – worthy of last season when perhaps least expected. They defied most pundits in the 2017 final by failing to show up against Arsenal and it would be entirely in character – and their DNA – to do the opposite this time.

In Olivier Giroud they have found a target man worthy of the name and one that can trouble United’s central defenders. Noises coming out of the Bridge this week suggest that the senior players are up for it and Chelsea like nothing better than being cussed and contrary.

United are favourites mainly because of Mourinho’s record in finals and they also have a few players with something to prove. So there should be no lack of incentive even if one manager just wants to end the season by boosting a flagging reputation and the other just wants the money.

(Bold & Italics) Bob’s latest book, Living the Dream, is available at all leading book stores. Bob will be signing copies at D’Legends, 24, Jalan Datuk Sulaiman, TTDI tomorrow night at the big in-house preview before the FA Cup final.