Monthly Archives: August 2014

Show Us Your Poker Face!

Could you fool a panel of poker experts in our bluffing booth? I couldn’t!

You’re invited to test your bluffing skills on poker professionals at Exchange Square, near London’s Liverpool Street station today from 7am until 8.30pm.

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The Summer’s smartest Premier League signings

Paddling in an ocean full of TV cash, all 20 Premier League managers have treated themselves to bundles of extravagant new signings this summer. At the time of writing, 131 transfers have gone through to be precise. But how will it affect the football odds?

But which have been the shrewdest deals?

As the clock ticks down towards the close of the transfer window I try and separate the clever from the crazy…

Five of the summer’s smartest signings…

Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham to Swansea – swap deal with Ben Davies)

Any player that’s noted for his long-range blockbusters gets a thumbs-up from me, but there’s more to Swansea City’s new boy than just thumping hit-and-hopes from distance. Serenely flitting between midfield and attack, the Icelandic playmaker is a creative talent I’ve always admired from afar. Although he never seemed to fit in at White Hart Lane, the 24-year-old (yes, he’s still that young) has always been capable of unlocking the door with a pass or a clinical finish. Very much at home in South Wales, I can see his second spell at the Liberty Stadium being a big success.

Fernando (FC Porto to Manchester City – £12million)

Manuel Pellegrini needed to find a way to relieve Yaya Toure of so much muscular defensive duty, and in the understated Brazilian I believe he’s found the right guy. Disciplined and aggressive, yet neat and tidy on the ball, Fernando’s presence makes Manchester City’s engine room more robust, without sacrificing quality in possession. The six-footer looks a snip at the price. Toure can now spend more of his energy trying to hurt opponents at the other end of the pitch.

Eric Dier (Sporting Lisbon to Tottenham – £4million)

Hands up if you’d heard of the central defender before he joined Spurs? If you had (well done) you’re in the minority, but Tottenham’s 20-year-old newcomer is fast becoming a name on everybody’s lips. Born in Cheltenham but raised in Portugal, the versatile and confident England Under-21 star has scored two goals in his first two Premier League matches. It’s only downhill from here, but Dier’s ability looks fantastic. Comfortable on the ball, quick and aggressive, he appears an absolute steal at £4million.

Fraser Forster (Celtic to Southampton – £10million)

I’m always surprised goalkeepers aren’t valued higher. If you find a good one he can save (or win you) at least ten extra points a season, and Ronald Koeman will be hoping that’s the case with his big acquisition from Celtic. Big, is of course the operative word for Forster, who at six foot seven inches is one of the most intimidating custodians around. Remarkably agile for a man his size, the word is Joe Hart needs to up his game to prevent the Saints newcomer taking his England spot.

Calum Chambers (Southampton to Arsenal – £12million)

We might have known Arsene Wenger was one of the shrewdest managers in European football but even so, eyebrows were raised at his decision to pay such an extortionate price for a teenager that wasn’t even a regular for Southampton. Now, just a handful of appearances into his Arsenal career, he’s already being tipped as the new Tony Adams. The youngster is a seriously smart signing because he can play centre-back, right-back or defensive midfield, all with ease. Chambers gives the Gunners so many new options.

 

And three that might not be so smart…

Mario Balotelli (AC Milan to Liverpool – £16million)

Mario Balotelli

The Italian may have bags of talent, but he’s never produced it for anybody on a consistent basis. His slack attitude and tendency to do something utterly silly, will I suspect quickly begin to grate inside the Liverpool dressing room. I hope I’m wrong as I love big characters, but I fear it will end in tears.

Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kiev to West Brom – £10million)

If the Nigerian had cost in the region of £2million he’d escape this short list, but for the Baggies to fork out an eight-figure sum on a striker that’s done OK (but nothing more) in Swiss, French and Russian football seems reckless to me. Manager Alan Irvine has confessed to never seeing Ideye play live before doing the deal, and even though he looked sharp on his debut last week, I can’t see him proving value for money at the Hawthorns.

Marcos Rojo (Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United – £16million)

In their desperation I wonder if Manchester United have paid well over the odds for a defender that’s not worthy of a regular place at a club their size. I see the logic in acquiring a left-sided defender (although Luke Shaw may not see it that way) but very few credible experts in South America or Portugal have chosen to sing his praises as a player. Most feel United have dived in prematurely for someone that’s got a lot to learn – even if he did have a half-decent World Cup.

 

Photo credits: Flickr (Creative Commons – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

How good are Cook’s Class of 2014?

They say 27 days is a long time in cricket. Actually they don’t, I just made that up, but in England’s case it rings true as loudly as they were applauded off The Oval pitch last weekend, having crushed India to a pulp for a third Test match in succession.

Described as ‘absolutely pathetic’ by ex-captain Michael Vaughan in the wake of their dismal 95 run defeat to the tourists at Lords on July 21 (a seventh loss in nine matches) the ensuing trio of quickfire wins has transformed the perception of Alistair Cook’s team beyond recognition.

From pitiful to promising in less than a month, English cricket is now blooming with pride once more.

But are there genuine grounds for optimism?

Or were the out-of-sorts Indians so dire that anyone with their own set of whites could have skittled them out with ease?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

What’s crystal clear is that England NEEDED to win this series, and win it with plenty to spare too.

Sorry defeats to Australia and Sri Lanka had caused what was beginning to seem like irreparable damage to the dressing room. The blame game had set in, players were bereft of confidence, and one star turn after another couldn’t quit the set-up quickly enough. Some supporters were no doubt contemplating desertion too.

Peter Moores and his new-look team had no choice but to stop the rot – and it’s a mighty relief that they did.

The stats suggest fans should try not to get carried away though. In 2013’s international cricket calendar only two visiting teams won Test matches – both in Zimbabwe. And since the start of the decade, 35 of the 70 Test Series’ that have been played around the world have ended in a winning whitewash for the host nation. Victory on home turf should therefore be greeted with an element of caution.

That said, we’ve learned plenty about England’s cricket team these past few weeks, and here are some of my observations…

Captain Cook can lead us into the future

At 29, the England skipper might just have learned more about himself in the last month or so, than he has done in his entire career. Looking devoid of self-belief at the crease and with frenzied pundits queuing up to slam his captaincy style, the out of form opener was probably just one more bad innings and defeat away from telling his country to stuff it.

Thank goodness he didn’t. Having made three big scores in his last four innings, and leading the side with the sort of astute captaincy that’s silenced his critics, Cook has re-established himself as the leader of his country. The guy is made of strong mettle.

New heroes

The next generation of English cricket stars made their mark against India, and have given supporters reason to believe the side can reclaim the Ashes in 2015.

The pick of the bunch was batsmen Gary Ballance. Stubborn yet surprisingly stylish, the 24-year-old’s three centuries this summer have boosted his Test match average to over 60.

New wicket keeper Jos Buttler, 23, is also a shining light. He arrived on the scene with a reputation for slogging the ball in one-day cricket, but scores of 85, 70 and 45 have proved he has cool-headed maturity to his game too.

And then there’s Moeen Ali. Picked as a batsman that could turn his arm over for a spot of occasional spin, the rookie took 19 wickets in the series, including a couple of match-winning spells that predecessor Graeme Swann would have been proud of.

These three should be here to stay.

A terrific tandem bowling attack

James Anderson and Stuart Broad are bowling better than ever, and proved against the Indians that in favourable conditions they can be the most dangerous pace duo on the planet.

Anderson – on the verge of breaking Sir Ian Botham’s all-time Test wickets record – makes the ball talk with his swing and intelligent variation, while Broad offers pace, bounce and intimidation aplenty.

If these two are fit, England will always have a chance.

Two weak links

While the balance of the starting XI is good, England can still improve in two key positions.

First, I sense they need to find a more talented opener than Sam Robson. I’m loathed to criticise a player that’s so new to the international arena (and he has chipped in with big scores) but at times Robson has laboured badly at the crease. Yorkshire’s gifted Adam Lyth may be a better long-term bet.

Chris Woakes is the other player who finds his position under threat. He’s performed OK with bat and ball, but at Test level I’m unconvinced he can do either job with enough distinction. Moving forwards I feel Chris Jordan is the most natural all-rounder, and that Woakes should be replaced by a top line bowler. The rapid Steve Finn possibly deserves a second chance in 2015.

Prospects for 2015

Test cricket now takes a backseat until next April, as the Three Lions concentrate on the one-day game in readiness for the World Cup.

When Cook’s side do return to the Test arena, they’ll tour the West Indies, and play a home series against New Zealand, before the Aussies arrive in Blighty for yet another summer of Ashes fever.

Between now and then, England’s on-song batters must prove they can handle quicker bowling attacks than the powder-puff Indians, as well as unearthing another wicket taker who can turn a match on it’s head if Anderson and Broad aren’t at their inspirational best

There’s work to be done, but Cook’s Class of 2014 have earned the right to look forward to 2015 with trust, not trepidation.