Tuesday 20 September 2011

In bed with Bilbao – a brief history of football in Euskadi

Didier Deschamps. Bixente Lizarazu. Ivan Campo. Xabi Alonso.  These four footballers boast a combined trophy cabinet full of: three World Cups; three European Championships; six Champions Leagues; twelve European league titles and eighteen major domestic cup competitions. Yet barely a handful of international caps? Well, Euskadi Selekzioa, or the Basque XI to you and me, only tends to get together once a year. For any country, be they established, emerging, or, like Euskadi, a nation trapped within another nation state, a presence on the international football stage is a vitally important thing. 

"I felt so lucky to be able to play for my own country at last," said former-Sudanese striker James Joseph after making his debut for his newly-founded nation, South Sudan, last month. Whether you are recognised by UEFA, FIFA or not at all, an international football team one of the defining features of a country to so many people. It is more than simply the right to compete at a World Cup (a right Euskadi do not enjoy), it is a means of expressing your distinct identity in a form the masses can enjoy. The significance of exercising this simple sovereignty is ten-fold to those groups who have traditionally felt persecuted, marginalised or who have struggled to preserve their cultural heritage.

Euskadi’s exclusivist, cultural nationalism and the conflict with Madrid are as ancient as the Basque people themselves, who are said to be the oldest indigenous group in Europe. In Franco’s Spain, the Basques suffered the most concerted attacks on their fragile culture. Both the Basque flag or ikurriña, and Basque names were outlawed and the regime made a concerted attempt to destroy Euskera, the Basque language. As a result Euskera is now spoken or understood by less than 40% of the population.

Football has been one of many ways in which the Basques have tried to preserve a culture so desperately in need of protection.

The initial incarnation of the Basque selección started in 1915 and played only friendlies versus a Catalan XI until a hiatus imposed in 1936 due to the start of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, war still raging, the team now under the name Euskal Selekzioa resumed activity and embarked on a tour of Europe and Latin America. Games against France, Poland, the Soviet Union, Denmark and Cuba had a dual-objective: propaganda and fund-raising for the cause of Basque independence (ETA had not yet conceived the masterplan of blackmailing Bixente Lizarazu). However, the tour also created the convenient bi-product of a good team who played the game in a manner befitting the Basque national character: tough, spirited and direct. With this new persona growing in confidence, in the 1938-39 season Euskadi entered the Mexican League and achieved the unthinkable, emerging as champions.

Glory was short-lived as in 1939 the team was again forced to disband, this time under the orders of General Franco, and did not play as a nation again until 1979. However, for those forty years football, like nationalism, did not stagnate but flourished in the Basque Country. While the Basque club sides enjoyed significant on-the-field success, some of the greatest strides were perhaps made off the pitch.

According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, "The Real [Sociedad] and Athletic [Bilbao] players have done as much as political parties have towards the recovery of the ikurriña.”

In the Scociedad-Bilbao derbies of the 70s the respective club captains would take to the field each carrying an ikurriña¸ an illegal act at the time and in 1977, while Athletic’s Jose Angel Iribar held the ikurriña aloft, adopted Catalunyan Johan Cruyff joined him with his region’s flag, the senyera. These actions made Iribar one of the most respected Basque footballers ever, and furthered Cruyff’s reputation in Catalunya. The Dutchman had previously endeared himself to the region by claiming he could never play for Madrid because of their association with Franco and by calling his son ‘Jordi’, a Catalunyan name. Today, he manages the Selecció Catalana.

In 1979, four years after the death of Franco, the Euskadi Selekzioa re-established itself with the primary objective of supporting the cause of the endangered Basque language. Their first international in forty years would come against Ireland, though it was not without controversy. Club Atlético Osasuna refused to allow prolific striker Iriguíbel to play in the game, in a bizarre attempt to avoid acting in a way that could be interpreted as political. However, it seems the game itself, a 4-1 Euskadi victory, was a success. Newspaper reports the following day indicate a good-natured, enthusiastic fiesta, “in which politics remained on the margins”. A party in the San Mamés is indeed quite unlike any other in the world, but the press downplayed the political implication of the spectacle in an effort to trivialise the significance of what was undeniably an historic occasion.

Over the next three decades the Euskadi Selekzioa played a selection of friendlies, traditionally one Christmas-time fixture a year. These have included historic victories over Uruguay (2-1 and 5-1), Yugoslavia (3-1) and Tottenham Hostpur (4-0) and as well as those superstars mentioned at the beginning of the piece, players including Gaizka Mendieta, Fernando Llorente, Mikel Arteta, Asier del Horno, Francisco Yeste, Joseba Etxeberría and Manuel Almunia have all turned out for Euskadi at one stage or another. Furthermore, the current squad includes three starlets from the much-lauded Spanish U21 European Championship winning side: Mikel San Jose; Iker Munain and the captain, Javi Martinez.

On the political side of things, under PSOE president José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero concessions to the Basque cause seem further away than ever. Far from being the soft-touch the right feared, Zapatero has on the whole continued the policies pursued by the previous regime. It seems that Basque autonomy is a dream that will never be realised. However, in a world where the very concept of ‘the nation’ is as fluid as football itself, the minor victories –a goalkeeper who is prepared to risk life and limb to parade your flag or World Cup-winning superstars  who turn up for games that FIFA do not acknowledge – really do matter.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Continuing our successful Quarterfinal predicitons

With the first two quarterfinals done and dusted, and after the resounding, undeniable success of yesterday’s predictions, enjoy Man On!'s foray into the next two games the Copa has to offer...

First up, Brazil. Like Argentina, guilty of some well-publicised underwhelming performances before springing to life in their final group game. Against Ecuador, Pato and Neymar opened their accounts with two goals each, but the concerns remain that Brazil would benefit from a true centre-forward. Despite goals for the two strikers, the change in Brazil’s fortunes didn’t come from up front, but at right back. Maicon came in for the underperforming Dani Alves and made a real difference to the balance of the side, contributing an assist. His performance certainly warrants another start on Sunday.

In Brazil’s quarterfinal the opponents come in the familiar shape of Paraguay. When the two sides met in the group stage, only Fred’s last minute goal denied Paraguay what would have been a famous victory, and they will be full of confidence that they can repeat the heroics of one week ago, especially as Brazil are unlikely to add a focal-point to their attack in the shape of a true number 9. This game sees the tournament’s two top-scoring sides face-off, but don’t necessarily expect goals galore. With the caution that comes with a previous encounter under their belts and on a poor pitch in La Plata, both teams will also be desperate to avoid adding to their ample ‘goals conceded’ column as well.

Quarterfinal prediction Brazil 1-1 Paraguay, Brazil to win on penalties.

After the underperformance of all the seeds in this competition, many people would point to Chile as a team with the potential to go all the way. Talismanic striker Humberto Suazo is yet to find the net and despite scoring the equaliser against Uruguay Alexis Sanchez has not played as well as he is capable of. All the same, Chile put in some good performances so far and are perhaps the most well-balanced side in the entire competition. The attractive football that many of you will remember from the World Cup is continuing into the Copa, but as always the Chileans don’t throw caution to the wind and tend not to push on until mid-way through the second half.

The last side to make up the quarterfinals are the unbeaten Vinotinto, Venezuela. Definitely the opponents that the Chileans would have chosen themselves but underestimate them at your peril. On paper, more of a force going forward than reliable at the back, but something of an anomaly in the game against Paraguay might be skewing that figure. In reality, the Venezuelans certainly know how to defend, as they showed against Brazil and Ecuador. Cesar Farias’ side can be astoundingly resilient and might spring a surprise here.

Quarterfinal prediction Chile 1-0 Venezuela

Man On! are fortunate enough to be heading to La Plata this afternoon, and will be no doubt spanking all our hard earned cash on Quilmes, Choris and betting against Brazil. Don’t follow our lead, you saw how yesterday’s predictions went!

Friday 15 July 2011

La Copa begins in earnest

The results are in. With the group stage over, you have had a day to catch your breath, sip your mate and take in the best Argentina has to offer. For Man On! it was more a case of having a night off,  picking our brains for something to write and sorting out our ticket to the final. I’m sure you will be relieved to hear that, after some gruelling hard work, all three of these goals have been achieved. 

The first week of the Copa was hardly rollercoaster stuff. You don’t need your finger particularly firmly on the pulse to have noticed that favourites have underperformed, centre-forwards and their goals have gone AWOL and that the most over-quoted stat of the last fortnight involves Venezuela, Copa America wins and Miss Universe competitions. In fact, the lack of action was so stark that we bet that not all of you were still paying attention when late flurry of goals, slightly more befitting of South America’s football showpiece, finally arrived. With this in mind, Man On! is proud to bring you up to speed on what’s happened so far and what to expect in the coming weeks. First, to Saturday’s quarterfinals…

Some reports would have you believe that Colombia topped Group A purely because of some terrible performances from Argentina. Although based in fact, this fails to tell the entire story. Of course, victories against perennial minnows Bolivia and a ten-man, predominantly under-23 Costa Rica do not justify hyperbolic praise. However, against the tournament hosts Colombia posed a real and dangerous threat and only failed to win for the grace of a man of the match performance from goalkeeper Sergio Romero. With Radamel Falcao leading the line after a prolific season at Porto (39 goals in 42 games), Colombia should be seen as a side capable of taking advantage if the favourites continue to slip up.

In Cordoba, their opponents will be Peru, who qualified for the quarterfinals as the best third-placed side from the group stages. Under Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarián they play an expansive, attacking brand of football. However, they are certainly over-reliant on Hamburg’s Paolo Guerrero, scorer of both their goals in the Copa thus far. La Rojiblanca are certainly capable of springing a surprise, but also of a late defensive lapse and of poor marking from set-pieces, as seen against Chile in Mendoza. 

Quarterfinal prediction: Colombia 3-1 Peru

Saturday’s other game sees the return to action of the hosts, Argentina. After well-publicised no shows against Bolivia and Colombia their array of attacking talent rediscovered their touch versus Costa Rica. Batista changed his formation to what was effectively a 4-2-3-1, and we finally got a glimpse of the Lionel Messi that we all know and love. Equally significant was the introduction of Gonzalo Higuain to the starting line-up. Despite missing most of the chances that Messi laid on a plate for him, he successfully dragged defenders out of position and open up plenty of space for the three behind him to play into. Presuming that the much-maligned Batista sticks with his new improved game-plan, you can expect to see Argentina firing on all cylinders again on Saturday.

Just over the Rio de la Plata await Argentina’s fierce rivals Uruguay. Man On! was lucky enough to be in La Plata for their nervier-than-necessary win over Mexico and can confirm that La Celeste are indeed yet to find the form that saw them reach the World Cup semifinals last summer. Diego Forlan seems to be carrying an indifferent season with Atletico over into this tournament, and Luis Suarez continues to perform better at club level than on the international stage. However, even without their attacking powerhouses playing as they can, organised at the back they certainly are. If, as rumoured, Cavani is out for el clásico rioplatense then chances might be at a premium, but Uruguay can normally rely on a stable defensive unit. Versus Mexico, Egidio Arévalo looked particularly controlled sweeping up in front of the back four.

Quarterfinal prediction: Argentina 1-0 Uruguay, and expect fireworks.

Monday 25 October 2010

Liverpool start on the long road to recovery, but the corner they’re turning will take some time.

Yesterday, Roy Hodgson steered his misfiring Liverpool team to their second League win of the season. It seems that the immediate pressure on the former Fulham man has eased ever so slightly, and rightly so. What Liverpool have been needed, as much as anything, is a change in fortune. Less experienced men than Hodgson are aware that these tend not to come through miraculous turnarounds but through hard work and on a steady gradient. Hodgson will hope that the result at Anfield yesterday was the first small step taken by his side on the road to recovery.

Against Blackburn, the first thing Liverpool remedied was the movement of Fernando Torres. When he is not performing up to his own high standards, people correctly identify the lack of goals in the team as a major problem and there is no denying that this is the case. However, probably as significant as the goals he scores are the opportunities he opens up for those playing behind him. Most notably, Steven Gerrard, who remains Liverpool’s driving force, really struggles when Torres fails to stretch defences. It is particularly telling that this season Liverpool have played no better with him than with his deputy, David Ngog. Until the Blackburn game, he had failed to regularly pull defenders out of position and create any space for those behind him to move into. Sunday was reported as the crucial piece of luck, a goal that could finally boost Torres’ confidence. However, getting on the score sheet was more like the reward for a slightly-overdue hardworking performance, in which he contributed far more than one finish in the second-half.

Secondly, Lucas’ performance yesterday marked a clear departure from the side who had so toothlessly capitulated against Everton, Blackpool and others. The young Brazilian is regularly derided both for giving the ball away cheaply in the middle of the park and for lacking creative ambition. More often than not, these criticisms are richly deserved. However, against Blackburn, 40 of his 41 passes were successful and, furthermore, many were made into the final third. Hodgson, who has sent out some very defensive sides so far, needs to ensure that Lucas continues to operate in this manner and develops into a creative, disciplined midfielder who contributes to his own side’s attacks as well as disrupting the opposition’s. This is something he is clearly more than capable of doing.

Yesterday, Liverpool were unrecognisable from their previous eight games. However, they only beat a rather average (the inspirational Paul Robinson apart) Blackburn side at Anfield, a result which should have always been par for the course. If Hodgson is to avoid running out of time he still has a huge amount of work to do, and two painful facts will no doubt be keeping him awake at night. Firstly, many Liverpool fans would still like to see him replaced and for the club to turn to Kenny Dalglish. More importantly, Liverpool still sit in the bottom three.

To start to resolve these, the first thing the manager must address is the way his teams approach in the first-half of games. So far in the League they have scored only one first-half goal and that was the rather farcical affair in the opening stages of the game against Sunderland. This statistic is troubling in itself, but the deeper underlying cause that displeases Liverpool fans so much is the attitude that Hodgson has equipped his team with. Rafael Benitez, although at times criticised as overly cautious, knew how to fire up his side and see them come out of the Anfield dressing room at 100 miles-per-hour. This approach was responsible for some of the finest performances under the Spaniard, it was how Liverpool overcame Juventus and Chelsea en route to the 2005 Champions League final, and Hodgson could benefit from revisiting those famous nights to see how Liverpool fans would like to see their side walk onto the pitch.

Hodgson also needs to recreate the organisational discipline he conjured at Craven Cottage. Fulham were such a hard team to break down, especially at home, because of the shape they maintained whilst without the ball. Some of the best teams in the world struggled to pick holes in his well-drilled side, but when Hodgson’s Liverpool are forced to defend, organisation is bizarrely lacking. It is one thing for an under-fire manager to send out a defensively-minded team, but to do so and then to watch them fail to defend is simply unacceptable. The Liverpool players are clearly not responding well to the new manager’s training methods, and it is down to him to sort this out.

Finally, one problem that the Blackburn result did nothing to address is the team’s away form. Hodgson himself has not won an away game in the Premier League since August 2009, when Fulham went to Fratton Park and overcame a very poor Portsmouth side. He has not yet cracked a winning formula away from home, and with a tricky trip to Bolton next weekend he must think fast. Does he revert back to type, set up a side that should be hard to break down but risk inviting on pressure or settling for a 0-0. Conversely, does he attack the game as he would be expected to do is Liverpool were at home? Coyle’s Bolton play a good brand of football, and might pick holes in Liverpool if Hodgson adopts too cavalier an attitude.

It is hard to predict where this Liverpool side will go from here. As we all know, it is easier for players to say that one result will turn their form around than it is for them to convince themselves of the same assertions. One thing is for certain, that on the long road to recovery, the corner Liverpool are trying to turn is a slow one. They must keep their eyes on the rocky path ahead, where the next stop is the Reebok Stadium.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Manchester City vs Liverpool - The battle to get back to basics

Tomorrow night, Liverpool visit the City of Manchester Stadium for both the visitors’ and the hosts’ second “season-defining” fixture in as many games. On paper the tie looks enticing, but those of us now familiar with Mancini’s 1990’s Italian style tactics may argue that we should prepare for a spectacle more akin to last seasons bore draw.

An undeniable fact, that will likely have football purists up in arms, is that this game will not, and perhaps could not, be won with a cavalier attacking attitude. However,  the spoils will not necessarily go the team who siply embraces most cautious approach. Tomorrow night, expect the victor to exemplify one quality over all others - organisation.

Last season, Hodgson’s Fulham side comprised a host of players who seemed to be playing above their natural level. The Cottager’s much praised defence contained the likes of Paul Konchesky, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and John Paintsil - players who have failed to perform at a range of clubs, yet looked like world beaters in black and white.. As Danny Murphy observed,

“The manager doesn't sprinkle magic dust on us… The manager and his staff work damn hard to make sure the lads know their jobs… He is a manager who organises his team well."

At Liverpool, Hodgson is working with, in majority, the same players that were available to his predecessor. However, as was hinted at against Arsenal, he will be attempting to mould them into an unrecognisable unit, first and foremost by instilling in each and every player the paramount importance of their own role in the team. Roy tends to promote organisation to the fore, and to create a uniform consolidated side who, as every visitor to Craven Cottage last year will testify, will be hard to break down. Hodgson‘s natural empahisis on neatness and rigidity is why his appointment at a side under such extreme financial pressure now seems so shrewd. He will not be heard to complain about his transfer kitty, any organisational failures must be ironed out on the training pitch, no matter the player’s apparent market value.

Both sides tomorrow night have potential match-winners in their squads, as teams like Liverpool and this nouveau riche City side always will. But, whereas a visiting Liverpool side last season tended to go out with only one thing in their mind - clean sheet - and regularly failed to achieve that goal, this season we should expect Hodgson to opt for a more balanced approach. Organisation will not come at the expense of all attacking guile. Under Benitez, Liverpool at times looked so cautious that they inadvertently increased the pressure on their own goal. Hodgson will be careful not to fall into that same trap, starting with Monday’s tricky opposition.

City, however, lined up for their first game of the season at White Hart Lane with the least ambitious starting XI one could imagine. Three defensive midfielders left them looking devoid of options, and happy with a point from the offset. This reflects the Italian Mancini, a man used to Serie A where an impeccable home record combined with consistent draws when playing away can be enough to win a title or two. What Roberto needs to work out, and quickly, is that this doesn’t cut it in the Premier League. Here, the required points total to be crowned champions is consistently higher than the Italian equivalent. Hopefully we will see a more adventurous team from Mancini on Monday night, although his pragmatic nature will prevent him from removing the reins on his new superstars completely.

An extremely exciting prospect is the first Premier League glimpse of the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. It is likely that in a game set to rely on nerve and concentration, one moment of magic will provide the difference. “Super Mario”, along with several others in this City side, is certainly a player capable of providing that. This is another example of the coach’s Italian influence, the classic theory of setting up not to concede and allowing your unplayable front man to grab the single goal that makes the difference. At Inter, Mancini tended to rely on Ibrahimovic, and with unquestionable success. It remains to be seen whether Tevez, Adebayor or indeed Balotelli will be able to provide this service with the consistency that the City faithful crave. The man who without doubt could have completed Mancini’s will feature tomorrow night, but will, to the delight of millions and the frustration of millions more, be wearing Liverpool’s number nine.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

The wisdom of Wenger and the homegrown rule.

“The new rules on squads are a disaster for this country. It’s ridiculous.

“The homegrown rule is all artificial. From 1966 to 1996 this country won absolutely nothing. England won nothing and they had not one foreign player. How has it changed?

"You cannot just close your eyes and say: ‘Let's kick the good players out’ and produce the same quality. I've been educating players since I was 25 and I know one rule. The first thing you do to develop a player is to put him with another good player.

"In my opinion if you are a great player, you want to play with great players. If you are a great musician, you want to play with an orchestra where you have the best musicians. If you offer the guy the chance to play in an orchestra with poor musicians, he will not be happy.

The words of ‘Man On!’, I hear you cry? Well, sadly not. 

The insights of Arsène Wenger, a true innovator of English Football, are all too astute. There is a tendency to blame the ills of the English game, from simulation to predictably uninspiring international performances, on foreign imports and the cosmopolitan nature of the league. This is all too easy, and furthermore, it is startlingly inaccurate.

Wenger himself has oft been criticised for his reluctance to spend his transfer kitty on young English players. Sirs Trevor Brooking and Alex Ferguson have at times played the role of Wenger‘s judge and jury on this matter, and Alan Pardew, a man noticeably less credible than Wenger, remarkably claimed Arsenal were “losing the soul of British football”.

On this matter, “The Professor” feels no need to list the young English players he has gambled on, with varying levels of success*. Instead, the defence Arsène tends to offer is simple, English players offer poor value. Furthermore, it has been suggested that, in tandem with their inflated prices and pay slips, they bring inflated egos into the dressing room.

The latest instance of this, clear for all to see, is the welcome end to the longest-running transfer saga of the summer. Yesterday, James Milner, aged 24, moved from Aston Villa to Manchester City for a remarkable £26m. Mesut Özil, 21, moved but two days earlier for a fee believed to be around £12.4m. Of course, factors including contracts and the inevitable inflated prices paid by City play their part, but this is by no means an isolated example. Arsenal signed Thomas Vermaelen in the summer of 2009 for under £10m, at the time 23 years old and captain of his team, Ajax. Fast-forward 6 months, and Manchester United are shelling out a similar fee for Chris Smalling, admittedly four years younger than Vermaelen, but a player with 3 senior club appearances to his name.

Overpriced English players are a serious problem, and Milner and Smalling are merely the latest members of what is hardly an exclusive club. Joleon Lescott (£22m), Glen Johnson (£17.5m), David Bentley (£15m), Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21m) and Darren Bent (an astonishing, Thierry Henry-equalling, £16.5m) are but a few choice examples.

However, the story does not end there. What Wenger fails to observe in the aforementioned interview (perhaps as it is so obvious) is that the new squad rules are only raising the desirability of English players. The invisible hand of the market will rear its ugly fingers, and prices will inevitably rise. The ability of the likes of Manchester City to artificially inflate the prices of players such as Milner will also play its part, and the premium on young English talent will only accelerate. And, inevitably, always, Arsène Wenger will be proved right.

*Pennant, Bentley, Upson, Walcott, Wilshere, Simpson, Randall, Hoyte, Gibbs, Campbell, Jeffers, Wright, Cole,  - the list goes on.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Shift in Power?

As Benji kicks off the Man On season with a thoughtful and diligent precis on the weekend's action, I am left to write inspired only by an air of disillusionment and anger. News has broken today that Craig Bellamy will be playing his football in The Championship next season, presumably leaving many premier league fans as exasperated with the news as I am. Bellamy returns home to Wales, effectively ending his top flight career. However, as we all know, the 31 year old Welshman's move across the border is nothing to do with football and marks a significant moment in the development of the premier league. Manchester City's growing monopoly on the transfer market has taken a sour turn as they attempt to ruin the career of one of Britain's most talented forwards.

Many will point to Bellamy's affiliation with Cardiff as the reason for the move; however, make no mistake lads, Roberto Mancini has achieved exactly what he set out to do. Clearly, if what we read in the press is to be believed, Bellamy and Mancini's personal relationship has deteriorated. 'He hasn't spoken to me since February', Bellamy reported as he gave an insight into Mancini's somewhat flawed man management.

Mancini is not the first manager to sell a player on the basis of personal differences; nor is he the first to show Bellamy the door. The issue is about respect and professionalism; and never in all my time of observing football have I seen a player hung out to dry in this manner. Manchester City's quite vulgar financial prowess has left them in a position of ultimate power and has illustrated further a potential shift from the much maligned 'player power' to 'club power'.

Having decided that Bellamy was surplus to requirements, Roberto Mancini made him available for transfer. Naturally Bellamy had aquired a number of suitors and claimed he had 'never had so many top flight offers'. As Tottenham Manager Harry Redknapp swooped for Bellamy's signiture, the news broke that Bellamy would not be permitted to sign for any team considered, by Mancini, to be a rival. With the Italian running scared, this was deemed to rule out any of the interested premiership parties, a policy Redknapp himself described as 'ridiculous'.

Bellamy's performances and workrate last season won him countless plaudits, winning Player of the Month twice during Mancini's first 6 months at the helm. Having performed so well in any company, such abrasive treatment would leave anyone filing for unfair dismissal. But football's different; and City know it. Not even the £10 million Bellamy could attract would sway City. Therefore, Bellamy signed for his hometown club Cardiff on loan, wandering into the abyss in terms of top flight football. A club he has turned down his country for on numerous occasion has rewarded him with the sort of loyalty you expect when wandering into an oppostion trench. With the Welshman popular at Eastlands, and with a combative, but not creative, midfielder earning nearly £1 million per month, Mancini has little time to prove his methods.

Though the main question here is this: has 'player power' plateaued? With Bellamy left snookered, Fabregas still at Arsenal, Scott Parker going nowhere and even Mascherano turning out at Anfield on Sunday, it's food for thought.