Monday, 30 June 2014
Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by James Graham
Starring Joshua McGuire, Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya, Michelle Terry
Theatre Donmar Warehouse
When The Ephemeric first heard about Privacy alarm bells went off. Artists are traditionally pretty left-wing to begin with, and here was a play about privacy in the post-Snowden era, featuring contributions from staff of the Guardian, and even dramatizing a large portion of the Guardian/Edward Snowden history.
That's not to say that we don't sympathize with their position to an extent, or that we consider ourselves anti left-wing, far from it. But the chances seemed good that this might be a politicized production designed to agitate and preach more than a genuinely compelling piece of theatre. Any contentious issue, when being described by one of the key parties, runs an obvious risk of bias, and here all the signs pointed to a complete political whitewash.
In addition "technology" as a subject generally has never transferred well into media. The fact is that most people really don't understand much about technology, and to a large extent that includes the playwrights. This makes it all too easy to craft a heavily exaggerated and stilted presentation of internet privacy issues, simplified into nice alarmist packages for your average layman to digest, but in reality far from representative of the real issues.
The Donmar's latest production attempts to take these concerns head on. Before curtains up, everyone is handed a sheet of card presented in the style of an aircraft safety brochure, which includes a wifi network name and password and instructions on how to connect. During the production people are invited to submit various information and photos to the network server, which are then worked into the production by the on-stage IT guru, permanently sat at a desk with a very impressive looking computer set-up.
It's all very clever and slickly produced, but the real brilliance comes when an audience member is called upon, and the on-stage tech guru then proceeds to pull all kinds of intimate information about them, and make eerily accurate inferences about many personal aspects of their life based on seemingly innocuous online activity.
Brilliant, because instead of simply telling us how scary the internet is, they go one better and actually show us. This expertly sidesteps any accusations of hyperbole by showing us an actual practical example. It's clever, funny and quite terrifying. In this first act the production accomplishes everything it set out to do and more, despite The Ephemeric's serious doubts.
But unfortunately all is not as it seems. At the end of the production all audience members are sworn to secrecy, but since a good few months have now passed (and since it is absolutely vital to any true review of this play) I feel obligated to inform at the very least that most of what has just transpired is completely fake.
Suffice it to say that none of the techno-wizardry that has seemingly been employed to such devastating effect has actually happened. It's fiction masquerading as reality explicitly to avoid accusation of bias, and the fact that none of it is real completely undermines the effect. At the end of the day, everything Privacy shows us is just fiction, and so all the pre-show concerns of hyperbole, politicization and, frankly, bullshit, still apply.
There's still much to be enjoyed here. Privacy is highly entertaining: funny, well produced and acted, and raises awareness of an important issue. But as is all too inevitable with such plays it runs the line of being a tool for political gamesmanship and revisionist history, rather than an actual sober consideration of a very technical subject. Privacy is good fun, but ultimately it is shown up just as scaremongering, a tool for the author's political views, and not to be taken too seriously.
Wednesday, 18 June 2014
Genre Alternative Rock
Producers Tim Bergling, Coldplay, Paul Epworth, Daniel Green, Jon Hopkins, Rik Simpson
It's been three years since Coldplay's last album Mylo Xyloto, and six years since their last good album Viva la Vida, and yet such is the band's star power that a new album commands worldwide attention. Ghost Stories is no exception.
This latest album marks quite a departure for the band, which has become synonymous in recent years with roof raising, stadium filling anthems. The first album to be written since frontman Chris Martin's much publicized break up with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ghost Stories takes a decidedly more introverted style, full of ballads and semi-acoustic tracks.
On paper it's a good move for them, seemingly a throwback to the band's earlier style in the days of Yellow, Trouble and the Scientist, but unfortunately Ghost Stories never really recaptures the delicate brilliance of those songs, and far too much of this album feels lacking in inspiration.
There are bright spots. A Sky Full of Stars is a stunning track, Coldplay at their stadium filling best. This is the only track on the album that attempts this style and it's a real corker. Maybe there's a reason Coldplay record so many songs in this style after all.
Midnight, on the other hand, shows how good the band can be when they try something different. Not quite a throwback to their early acoustic stuff, not quite embracing the electronica bent of Mylo Xyloto. Midnight will inevitably draw unfair comparisons to Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek, but this does a disservice to a wonderful song.
Unfortunately other than this, there's not much else of note in the short 9 track album. It's not that the other songs are bad, mind you; Ink, Oceans, True Love, pretty much every song is perfectly decent and pleasant to listen to, but they're very unremarkable. There is nothing here that anyone will remember in a year's time.
It also doesn't help that many songs here happen to sound distractingly similar to other songs. Ink bears a guitar riff identical to that of Tracy Chapman's classic Fast Car, and hugely similar verse structure. Another's Arms has pretty much the same verse as James' Peaches. Say nothing of Midnight which we've already covered. Again, it's not that they're bad songs, it's just that even on the first listen I could have sworn I'd heard them all before.
Ultimately though, Ghost Stories marks a definite improvement on the mediocre Mylo Xyloto. When this album hits it hits good with some of Coldplay's finest moments in a long time. Sky Full of Stars in particular is an instant Coldplay classic. The rest is perfectly fine, but fairly forgettable. Pop a few tracks on your summer playlist and move on.
Must Listen :
A Sky Full of Stars
Wednesday, 11 June 2014
I don't know about you guys but I for one am starting to feel the symptoms of football withdrawal. It's a seasonal disorder that tends to affect English men in the summer and is associated with increased sobriety and an obsession with otherwise tedious transfer gossip.
Well the good news is help will soon be at hand. This summer belongs to the World Cup in Brazil. 32 teams will do battle over 64 games and all that is certain is that there will be but one winner, and that England will go out early.
The host this time around is the homeland of joga bonito, the beautiful game. Brazil is famed as one of the finest purveyors of football in the history of the sport, and their national team has won the competition more times than any other team. Sadly this year's tournament has all too often been mired in controversy amid claims of corruption, failure to get stadiums and infrastructure ready in time (at the time of writing, merely a week before the big kick off, the stadiums are still not entirely ready), and general criticism levelled at a Government that is spending millions on an extravagant party while so many of their people remain destitute. Ever the optimist, The Ephemeric decides to focus primarily on the football, and leave any politics to those so inclined. I am absolutely buzzing with excitement, and on the pitch at least the tournament promises to be quite the celebration of the game.
As always, each team has it's own unique story to tell. So here is our team by team guide to World Cup 2014.
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Key player: Neymar
World ranking: 3
The Brazilians have won the tournament more times than any other team, but have not won it since 2002. Such is the weight of expectation on the Brazilian football team that any time they fail to win is considered an upset back home, and it will be about ten times worse this year with the country hosting the tournament.
The manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has already won the World Cup previously with Brazil, and following trophiless spells at Chelsea and Portugal, he returns to his home country with the hopes of becoming only the second manager to win the competition twice.
The squad has been criticized in recent years as underwhelming by Brazilian standards, but in reality it still contains attacking talent from stars such as Hulk, Willian and Neymar. Defensively the team is arguably among the stronger in Brazil's history with David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves, while youngster Oscar has been key in his deep lying midfield engine role.
The key man certainly is Neymar, a young man upon whom great expectation has been placed. Some pundits already rate him among the best in the world, while his goalscoring rate at such a young age has earned him comparisons with Pelé.
Brazil are expected to win, and Neymar is expected to be the man to deliver the trophy. Brazil have the home advantage, and it's worth noting that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. That makes Brazil a strong favourite, and The Ephemeric's bet for victory.
Manager: Niko Kovač
Key player: Ivan Rakitić
World ranking: 18
This Croatia side have gone off the boil recently, having once been tipped as the next big thing. The performance throughout qualification has been poor, just scraping through the qualification in what was not the most difficult group. But still, there is plenty to like in the squad.
Croatia is blessed with two of the finest central midfielders in Europe this season, Luka Modrić of Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitić who is on the verge of signing for Barcelona. Add to this Bayern Munich's formidable Mario Mandzukić up front, and Southampton's in-form Dejan Lovren at the back and this is a team with some solid talent. However at the same time this is still a team that relies on has-beens like Vedran Ćorluka and Darijo Srna in their starting line up, and suddenly it's clear why qualification was such a chore.
Most remarkable about this Croatia side is the stewardship of the tournament's least experienced manager; Croatia legend Niko Kovač, national legend though he may be, only took over the side for the two-legged qualification playoff, and has just 7 competitive games to his CV, 5 of which were in charge of the U21s team. Huge question marks hang over a side that is unlikely to get out of the group stage.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Miguel Herrera
Key player: Oribe Peralta
World ranking: 20
It's been somewhat of a stop-start qualification campaign for Mexico, full of managerial changes and mass rotations in squad makeup. Still this is a side with enough quality to qualify for the knockout round.
Oribe Peralta is the key man, having scored 10 goals in 10 games for Mexico, while the mercurial Giovani dos Santos usually turns up for the big tournaments, and at 24 is now reaching a point where he must take on a key role. Former star player Javier Hernandez will be on the bench due to a lack of game time with Manchester United, but still presents a potent threat if utilized. Beyond this the bulk of the squad plays their club football domestically, so there may be a surprise package or two for European viewers.
Manager Miguel Herrera was the fourth manager to take the Mexico job over the space of a month during an unusually turbulent period, and like Croatia's manager has only been in the job since the playoff stage, but an able 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand certainly marks a strong start.
Mexico are nevertheless a strong side with great motivation and the advantage of playing a World Cup in South America. They stand a good chance at going through to the next round, but any further than that may be a stretch.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Volker Finke
Key player: Samuel Eto'o
World ranking: 56
Despite qualifying for the World Cup an impressive 7 times, Cameroon have only once made it out of the group stage. New manager Volker Finke has had a remarkable career in German club football, and has brought a much needed focus to a team otherwise plagued with internal politics and moody players.
No player is more moody than Samuel Eto'o; one of Africa's greatest ever footballing superstars, and yet has never reproduced his form for Cameroon. Many fans of the Lions consider him to be more of a disruptive influence on the team rather than a boon. Still, it is the Chelsea striker who captains Cameroon for this World Cup.
The rest of the squad is an interesting mix of promising players, and players who never lived up to their promise. They'll give a decent showing at the tournament, but will find it difficult to advance to the knockout stages for the second time in their history.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Vicente del Bosque
Key player: Andrés Iniesta
World ranking: 1
What more can you say about the defending World and European Champions? Few teams have ever done the World Cup/European Championship double, and no team has ever won three major competitions in a row. Spain has done just that, and while the prospect of pulling of an unprecedented double double might seem ludicrous, so was claiming that third title in a row in 2012.
In Vicente del Bosque they have an old school manager, and a proven winner, while their team is full of world class experience. Players like Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas have seen and won everything, while hungry young superstars in the making have recently joined the squad like Koke, Alcântara, and Azpiliqueta. Also joining the squad is Chelsea's new man Diego Costa, a man who has had a phenomenal 40 goal season last year.
Still, as good a side as they are, the odds are firmly stacked against them. Not only is there the statistical and historical unlikeliness of yet another victory, there's the fact that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America, there's the fact that Brazil have the home advantage, and there's the fact that many of Spain's best players are just that little bit older now. Surely they won't win it again. The Ephemeric concludes that they probably will not.
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Louis Van Gaal
Key player: Arjen Robben
World ranking: 15
You never know what you're going to get with the Dutch. In Euro 2008 they faltered in the knockout stages, having played some of the most stunning football seen in International competition for decades. In World Cup 2010 they reached the final playing some horrendously ugly and physical football. Then in Euro 2012 they didn't even make it out of the group stage. Who knows what team will turn up this year?
The problem with the team is clear when looking at the roster. The team sheet is full of big names, none of whom command as much respect as they once did. Robin Van Persie was arguably the best striker in Europe a year or two ago, but has had a torrid season at Manchester United; Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar were once pretty big deals, but now no longer; Wesley Sneijder was one of the best midfielders in the world back in 2008, but now languishes in the Turkish league. Only key man Arjen Robben is currently playing to his peak abilitiy. This is a Dutch side where the best players are past their peak or out of form, meaning extra responsibilities will need to be placed on less experienced players like Jasper Cillessen and Bruno Martins Indi.
The Netherlands still have a strong team, and their World Cup qualification campaign was very strong, albeit against some pretty weak teams. The good news is that after last time, expectations are low. Chile will give them a hard time, but the Netherlands' relative strength throughout the squad should see them through past the group stage. Unfortunately with a likely Brazil match up awaiting, probably no further.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
Key player: Arturo Vidal
World ranking: 14
Chile were something of a surprise package in 2010, coming close to upsetting eventual champions Spain and performing far above what most people expected thanks to some stunning fast paced attacking football.
Chile are blessed with some exceptionally gifted attackers in Alexis Sánchez of Barcelona and Arturo Vidal of Juventus. Their weakness in the past has always been defensively. Chile would attack relentlessly and perform well against teams who are similarly oriented, but against any team with defensive tactics they'd struggle. This is where key man Arturo Vidal comes in; the versatile Juventus midfielder solidifies that Chile core, and can even fill out in defence if needed. He will be absolutely vital to any challenge Chile hopes to pose to more prestigious sides.
Attacking sides like Spain and Netherlands probably suit Chile just fine, but while they could well upset one of the two sides, they are unlikely to beat both, and third place seems likely.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Ange Postecoglu
Key player: Tim Cahill
World ranking: 62
Yes, Tim Cahill is still the key man, that should say it all really. Not to disrespect Australia's all time top goalscorer, he's been a quality player who can change games in an instant for both club and country, but he's 34 now and plies his trade in the MLS, he's not going to be able to salvage anything in such a tough group.
Manager Postecoglu will have to come up with a bold gameplan in order to have any impact on this tournament. Most probably Aussie fans should look at this as a warm up ahead of the Asian Cup they're hosting this year.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Jose Pekerman
Key player: James Rodríguez
World ranking: 8
As a footballing nation with a proud history, it's hard to believe that this is the first time that Colombia have qualified for the World Cup in 16 years. Colombian football has seen something of a renaissance recently, spearheaded by Radamel Falcao, arguably one of the finest strikers in the world right now. Unfortunately Falcao is set to miss the World Cup through injury, and so too seemingly goes any real hope of Colombia causing a major upset at this year's tournament.
But that doesn't really tell the full story. Falcao has been injured for much of the season, and Colombia have remained impressive without him. This is a Colombia that, even without their talisman, is not lacking for talented technical players like Jackson Martinez up front and Monaco playmaker James Rodriguez in the midfield. But equally strong is their defensive unit, with the more cautious midfielder Freddy Guarin and goalkeeper David Ospina particular highlights.
With Falcao, this is a team that could have gone far as a surprise package this year. Without him they're still good, and will qualify for the knock out stages, but are unlikely to go any further.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Fernando Santos
Key player: Sokratis Papastathopoulos
World ranking: 12
Euro 2004's shock winners have qualified for another major competition, and once again, little is expected of them. Greece have carved a reputation for adopting an all out defence mentality, and nicking the game by the odd goal. It won them Euro 2004 and it has earned them qualification to every major tournament since.
This year we expect more of the same, and the key man through all this will be Borussia Dortmund defender Papastathopoulos, the lynchpin of this defensively minded Greece side. Going forward though the team is still very suspect, a major problem when facing other teams with a similarly cautious approach. Greece will do their best to frustrate and win at all costs, but are likely to come up short again and fall at the first hurdle.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi
Key player: Yaya Touré
World ranking: 23
It's a case of too little too late for the Ivory Coast. Long regarded as one of the more promising squads in African football, Ivory Coast has featured stars from all over Europe including talismanic captain Didier Drogba, midfield dynamo Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and others. But every year they have been drawn in tough groups featuring the likes of Brazil and Netherlands, and fallen at group stage.
This year the Ivory Coast has found itself in what would be a very winnable group, but it may simply be a case of their star players being just a bit too old to reach their potential. Didier Drogba is a shadow of the player he used to be, as is Kolo Touré. Salomon Kalou never reached his potential, nor did Didier Zokora or Gervinho. It's only Manchester City's all-conquering midfielder Yaya Touré who appears to be in the peak of his game, and newcomer Swansea striker Wilfried Bony. These two will be the key men for any hopes Ivory Coast have.
Group C is arguably the hardest to call in the tournament, with four very evenly matched teams. Ultimately The Ephemeric expects that Ivory Coast will have enough power to break through Japan and Greece, and are likely to finally progress to the knockout round, but unlikely to go any further.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Key player: Keisuke Honda
World ranking: 46
A hugely underrated side, Japan were impressive in World Cup 2010 where they reached the second round, and were unlucky not to make the quarter final. For a team that until recently considered itself lucky just to qualify for the World Cup, a lot has changed very quickly. Japan recently won the Asian Cup and were the first team to qualify for this World Cup tournament.
The Japanese team now finds itself full of players with real top European league pedigree, from Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa to AC Milan's play maker Keisuke Honda. They are no longer just a team with some fancy technical skills, but a well honed and experienced side.
It is unfortunate for the Japanese that what is generally a pretty lightweight, non-physical team has found itself in a group surrounded by three teams which are the exact opposite. While Japan have the quality to push for the knockout stages, there's too great a risk of them being bullied into submission by the far more physically imposing opposition, and are more likely to fall in group stage.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Óscar Tabárez
Key player: Luis Suárez
World ranking: 7
Last time the World Cup was played in Brazil, it was Uruguay who won it. It was their second and last World Cup victory at a time when Brazil had yet to win any. Originally it was Uruguay who were the big boys of world football.
Their star has fallen in the decades since, but recent years have seen a rebirth for the nation. Semi finalists at the last World Cup, and they've only gotten better since then. Luis Suárez has questions remaining over his fitness, but if he's in good shape then Uruguay will thrive. His sheer brilliance gives Uruguay the freedom to sit back and focus on defence more while he rampages up front, it's a hugely effective balance. Suárez is arguably one of the world's form players at the moment, and with his country facing the opportunity to relive their most famous hour, and the benefit of playing in South America, Uruguay are without doubt one of the key sides to watch at this year's tournament.
They are unlucky to find themselves in one of the tougher groups, facing the likes of Italy and England, but with the home advantage and a fit Suárez they look good to get out of group stage and could well go far this year.
Verdict: Semi Finals
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto
Key player: Keylor Navas
World ranking: 28
Don't let their decent world ranking fool you, Costa Rica are whipping boys here.
That's not to say that they don't have talented players. Fulham's Bryan Ruiz will be huge for them, as will goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has been a revelation in La Liga this season. The trouble is they don't have enough of them, and the rest of the squad is padded out with relatively mediocre talent. Costa Rica can count themselves among the weaker teams in the tournament and are highly unlikely to get out of this tough group.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Key player: Wayne Rooney
World ranking: 10
England surprised many with a decent showing at Euro 2012, but no one was ever fooled into thinking they had what it takes to go all the way. Now they find themselves in a very tricky group, one from which they could well struggle to escape.
The sad thing is that as always, England's problems are of their own making. Divisions are still rife within the team and the mild mannered but unremarkable Roy Hodgson has yet to convince while wielding an England team largely built by his predecessor Fabio Capello. And following the FA's ill-advised campaign to force talismanic captain John Terry out of the set up, we can't even say we have our best squad available. Together John Terry and Gary Cahill have formed arguably the strongest central defensive pairing in all of Europe if not the world, and it is mind boggling that we will not be making use of by far our greatest asset.
Instead much of our hopes will now have to rest on Wayne Rooney's shoulders. Poor Wayne has never really lived up to his billing for the England team since his stunning Euro 2004 breakthrough was cruelly cut short, and has yet to score a goal in the World Cup finals. In a team bereft of many of the leadership figures of old, Wayne will need to have a massive tournament for England to meet their goals.
Elsewhere one would hope that emphasis will be placed on the young talent in the side, especially those in Liverpool colours on the back of such a remarkable season. England would be foolish not to put the gifted goalscoring talents of Daniel Sturridge, and the youthful energy of Raheem Sterling up front and centre in this team.
If England's young talent is used effectively, if Wayne Rooney finally hits his peak, and if Cahill can form a good defensive partnership with Phil Jagielka, this England team can get out of this group, but it's a tough ask, and the smart money says they'll drop at the group stage.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
World ranking: 9
Italy are always a hard side to predict. For one they have a fantastic World Cup record over the years. But at the same time they often exceed low expectations, winning in 2006 despite pre-tournament billing as also-rans, and then defending said title by bowing out pathetically at the group stage in 2010. Euro 2012 saw a strong performance from the Italians, reaching the final, and if Prandelli can keep that momentum going it could be a good tournament for Azzuri.
The usual caveats apply for Italy; old, defensive, overdependent on Juventus. But since when has that ever stopped them? Andrea Pirlo will still pull the strings in midfield, and every indication is that his strong form since joining Juventus has carried right on through to the World Cup. Meanwhile Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi (if fit) make a formidable strike partnership up front. Giorgio Chiellini is still one of the finest defenders around, and Buffon remains an example to all goalkeepers. Equally interesting are some of the youngsters included in the squad, if called upon to play. PSG's Marco Verratti is extremely hotly tipped, as is Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne.
As we've stated, group D is a very difficult one. But you would be a fool to ever bet against Italy progressing in the World Cup, and The Ephemeric's mama didn't raise no fool.
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri
World ranking: 6
The sixth best team in the world if FIFA's world rankings are to be believed. It's a little less ridiculous sounding when you look at the excellent qualification campaign they've just had, storming convincingly through what was a reasonably difficult group, at the same time amassing the best qualification record in all of UEFA.
How did this happen? After all just a few years ago Switzerland were a Greece-lite, disciplined and defensive, nicking 1-0 wins to advance. Well that has all changed now. This Swiss team places the emphasis on attack, and is generally considered to be among, if not the, best Swiss football sides of all time.
They are coached by one of the great old pros in football Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man who has won everything... twice. He has crafted this Swiss team into a surprisingly incisive, tactically flexible unit. The key man without doubt is Bayern Munich star Xherdan Shaqiri, an explosive winger in the mould of teammate Franck Ribéry. Shaqiri provides that bit of special quality, but is flanked by very capable team mates Barnetta, Behrami, Fernandes and others. Particularly worthy of note is fullback Ricardo Rodriguez, who scored more goals and provided more assists than any other fullback in the Bundesliga last season.
All the dark horse attention is on Belgium, but Switzerland are worth a look too. The Swiss should be able to navigate this group, but with a likely Argentina match up awaiting, that should be the extent of it.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Key player: Antonio Valencia
World ranking: 26
Colombia-lite. Good all-round football, full of energy and stamina that never runs out. Many will remember Ecuador's solid run into the knock out stages back in 2006. This is not a team to be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time one shouldn't expect too much of note.
Ecuador's energy levels are buoyed by their home ground being some 3,000 metres above sea-level, a ground on which they are undefeated (not too surprisingly) they won't have that advantage here, but they will still be well equipped to deal with some of the harsh climate conditions in Brazil, and with the high stamina that high altitude training affords.
Antonio Valencia is the clear star, hugely experienced in the English Premier League and a role model for the rest of his team. Otherwise the side mainly consists of local players, a double edged sword in that none of them are superstars, but on the bright side they all know each others' game well. Ecuador won't be easy, but they'll have to up their game to pip Switzerland to the next round.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Key player: Franck Ribéry
World ranking: 17
France's disastrous early exit from World Cup 2010 was the stuff of legend. Fortunately manager Raymond Domenech was promptly shown the door, a move long overdue for a man who, 2006 aside, had managed to internally sabotage his country's performances at tournaments every year since 2002.
The new man in charge, Didier Deschamps, has revitalised the side on the back of a strong qualification campaign. Karim Benzema has regained his club form and rightly taken his place at the front of an impressive French attack which sees him flanked by Franck Ribéry and backed by one of Europe's top young prospects in Paul Pogba. Meanwhile the side also features some very impressive deep lying midfielders in Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi. France was always a better team than 2010 suggested, and now they have the confidence and competent management to help bring that potential to the pitch.
If the team does have a weakness it's the lack of real leaders on the pitch. There's no Zidane or Vieira or Thuram. But the group they face is not the toughest in the tournament, and they should have enough to progress to the next round. Realistically though anything beyond a quarter final finish seems unlikely.
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez
Key player: Wilson Palacios
World ranking: 33
Something of a surprise qualifier, but as they showed England in the recent friendly encounter they are no pushover. After all they did qualify ahead of Mexico, a side that is generally pretty well regarded in the competition.
Still it is never a good sign when your star man is a Stoke City player. Wilson Palacios is strong and good at starting his team's plays from his deep midfield position. But he will have a job on his hands to get anything out of the group stage. The Ephemeric does not expect much.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Alejandro Sabella
Key player: Lionel Messi
World ranking: 5
The two-time World Cup winners can always consider themselves among the favourites for the competition, especially when they play in South America. Still they have not won since 1986. All the stops will be pulled out in order to win the World Cup this time on the soil of arch rivals Brazil.
There's is a team that is stocked with world class talent, from Ángel di María to Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and of course, one of the world's top two players: Lionel Messi. But while they team's attacking options may be the envy of any team in the world, defensively they are far more suspect. There is no clear star in defence, and doubt over who best to play in goal. This is a team that will have to prevail through offence as a form of defence.
After a few years in the wilderness, Argentina have finally started to show some of their promise. Messi in particular is beginning to replicate his club form for country. If he can do that consistently at the World Cup then Argentina have a good shot at winning the whole thing. The pressure is on, but with the talent available Argentina will surely be there or thereabouts.
Verdict: Runners Up
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Manager: Safet Sušić
Key player: Edin Dzeko
World ranking: 21
The perception is a team full of no-name whipping boys from a country that didn't exist until a few years ago. No-hopers who are just here to make up the numbers and will be home early. The reality is that Bosnia have a very decent team.
Goalkeeper Asmir Begović and star man Edin Dzeko will be familiar to any English Premier League fans, and Dzeko in particular can be a monster on his day, adding well rounded hold-up play to his excellent goal scoring record. The team has considerable talent elsewhere in the form of Roma's Miralem Pjanić and Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihović. Bosnia is not just here as a makeweight, they will have an influence on this group.
Getting out of the group stage will be a challenge though for a squad that is relatively inexperienced on the big stage and thin in depth beyond their starting lineup. Bowing out in the group stage is most likely, but don't be surprised if they nick that second qualification place.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Key player: Ashkan Dejagah
World ranking: 43
Iran are the team with probably the most unknown players. Many of them play domestically or in the lower leagues, and their star man is a Fulham winger, albeit a quick and tricky one.
Still Iran are not going to be the pushovers everybody expects. Their team is well drilled and enthusiastic, while they are particularly deadly from set pieces.
The problem Iran face is that while they are not a terrible team, they're probably the worst one in this group. The Ephemeric considers it highly likely that they will get knocked out at this first round.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Stephen Keshi
Key player: John Obi Mikel
World ranking: 44
Despite their relatively low ranking, Nigeria are entering the World Cup as African champions, and in a good position to have an impact on the group.
A strong counter-attacking side. Nigeria is built around a core of good top flight talent including Chelsea trio John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Kenneth Omeruo. Meanwhile goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has had a fantastic season in the French leagues, coming very close to setting a new all time record for most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal. Their considerable pedigree also features familiar names such as Joseph Yobo, Peter Odemwingie and Victor Obinna.
This is a deceptively solid team, and one of the better African teams in the tournament despite their ranking. Nigeria have a good shot at getting out of this group stage if they can negotiate their way past Bosnia, but with a potential match up against France in the next round, probably no further.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Joachim Löw
Key player: Mesut Özil
World ranking: 2
Germany: one of the best national teams in the world, with an impressive three wins, behind only Italy and Brazil in the winners rankings. They went pretty close in 2006 to winning on home soil, and gave good accounts of themselves in every major tournament since. With Bayern Munich getting such hype in recent years there is a lot of buzz that this could finally be the year for Germany.
This is a squad full of world class talent for sure, but one gets the feeling that this tournament is coming at a bad time. Many of the key players are in unconvincing form, with the Bayern stars unconvincing in Europe this season, and even talisman Mesut Özil has had a largely invisible debut season with Arsenal. This makes it seem unlikely that Germany will become the first ever European side to win a South American World Cup, but still this is Germany, and the Germans usually turn up for the big tournaments, often confounding any pre-tournament predictions.
Germany finds themselves in arguably the toughest group in the tournament, but are probably the strongest team in it. They should get through to the next round, difficult though it will be. A quarter final defeat to one of the South American big boys seems the likely end for Germany this year.
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Paulo Bento
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
World ranking: 4
Portugal have taken Spain's mantle as the world's serial underperformers; blessed with a formidable array of talent yet always just not quite up to the task of winning. Euro 2012 was a very impressive showing from the team, losing to the eventual champions despite being the better of the two sides over 90 minutes. Now they hope to go one further in the World Cup.
Leading the charge will be the current best player in the world Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is arguably one of the finest footballers of all time, and when he is on his game he is simply untouchable. An incredible blend of pace, power, technique, and vision. But that's not to disregard a squad that's strong in all departments: a defence featuring Pepe, Bruno Alves and Coentrao, a midfield with Moutinho, Veloso and Nani, and of course the big man up front. Consistency has always been an issue for Portugal and this will be no different. If they can fire on all cylinders they can go far, if not then they'll underperform yet again.
Portugal have one of the very best teams in the competition, and probably the best player at the moment. They have a very good shot of taking the big prize, perhaps more so than any European team. Their group is a very tricky one, but they should be able to navigate it successfully. The Ephemeric thinks they can make it as far as the semi finals.
Verdict: Semi Finals
Manager: James Kwesi Appiah
Key player: Kevin-Prince Boateng
World ranking: 37
Ghana have been giving a good account of themselves in recent years, in particular the last World Cup in 2010 where they became only the third African side to reach the World Cup quarter finals. But for all their strengths over the years there is the feeling that some of their previous star players may be on the decline.
Michael Essien, arguably one of the best midfielders in the world in 2010, has aged very quickly and now seems a shadow of himself for both club and country. Then there's key striker Asamoah Gyan who's star has fallen considerably since his big money move to Sunderland in the wake of the 2010 World Cup. He now finds himself playing in the Middle-Eastern leagues.
Instead the focus will be on Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng, always a man for a big occasion and Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus. Most interesting will be to see the emergence of Ghana's promising youth; players like Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu, and Majeed Waris.
This is a very intriguing Ghana team indeed, but with such a tough group before them, they are unlikely o have much opportunity to showcase their talents.
Verdict: Group Stage
United States of America
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann
Key player: Michael Bradley
World ranking: 13
This is an interesting one. For a while it looked as though American football was getting increasingly better, with genuinely high quality players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey making waves in international competition. Then with the appointment of German legend Klinsmann, who as a manager almost won the World Cup with Germany and has received incredible praise for his management style, it seemed as though American football would be set for another big step up.
Instead the team seems to have gone strangely backwards in the past few years. Sure, they won the Gold Cup, but the team appears to be lacking in recognizable quality more than ever now. Even the manager concedes that his side have no chance at this World Cup, and claims to be building for 2018.
For sure, even if the roster was looking among the best of teams that the United States has fielded, this group is particularly difficult, and the USA will face Germany, Portugal and the third, easier team is their bogey team Ghana, who knocked them out of the past two World Cups. Getting out of this group will be a near impossible task for the United States.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Marc Wilmots
Key player: Eden Hazard
World ranking: 11
Everyone's favourite dark horses at this World Cup, Belgium have on paper one of the finest squads in the world. This Belgian golden age has everything: one of the best goalkeepers in the world in the form of Thibault Courtois, a strong defence featuring Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. The creative midfield has Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini. The attack Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj, and Kevin Mirallas.
I'm going on and on, but the fact is that every single one of these players is a household name, plying their trade at one of Europe's top clubs. This is a young, hungry, and high quality team, one that on paper can match up to any in the world.
But translating that potential into an actual team, and producing it on the biggest stage of all, is a tough ask, especially for such a young group of players. With all the hype that is currently pouring on them, disappointment seems an inevitability.
Group H is by no means easy, but it also isn't the most difficult group in the tournament. It is very winnable for Belgium, but the next round promises either Germany or Portugal, and for all their talent on paper, they could well come up short against the big players.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Fabio Capello
Key player: Igor Akinfeev
World ranking: 19
Fabio Capello is one of the top managers in the world and has been for a long time. After being wrongly pushed out of his job as England manager, he sought refuge in Russia, with the aim of turning them into a top national side. This is not without precedent of course; under Hiddink, Russia were one of the best sides in Euro 2008. Attacking players Arshavin, Zhirkov all sparkled. Akinfeev was formidable in goal, and youngster Alan Dzagoev was one of the top young prospects in Europe.
Their Euro 2012 bid under Dick Advocaat started well enough, but ended in disappointment. Since then they have never quite reached the potential they hinted at in 2008. Arshavin is gone, Dzagoev, once a hot talent, has fallen out of favour with the manager. Now the key man will be Akinfeev, holding that back line together as Capello likes to do. Otherwise the emphasis seems to be on young, domestic talent. Indeed, that every player in the squad plays in the Russian league is quite remarkable.
This year seems mainly to be about blooding young Russian players so that they will be ready for 2018's World Cup on home soil, but still they should not be discounted. Russia love to be the dark horse, and if Capello handles them the right way, they could have a good tournament. Qualification from the group stage seems a strong possibility, but with Germany or Portugal waiting, that will probably be the extent of it.
Verdict: Second Round
Manager: Hong Myung-Bo
Key player: Son Heung-Min
World ranking: 57
Like Russia, South Korea are probably best remembered in football as a side to be buoyed by Guus Hiddink's magic when they reached the World Cup semi final on home soil back in 2002. Since then they've never really performed to the same level, but that's not to discount them entirely. South Korea are still a collection of very technically gifted players who can cause trouble.
But make no mistake, they will be up against it here. South Korea just scraped into this World Cup past Uzbekistan, and their lightweight squad will struggle against the far more physical opposition of Algeria and Russia, while their technical abilities, though worthy of praise, will be matched by Belgium. This looks to be a very short tournament for South Korea.
Verdict: Group Stage
Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić
Key player: Sofiane Feghouli
World ranking: 22
Anyone who saw Algeria play in the 2010 World Cup will know they are not to be taken lightly. Halilhodžić likes his team to play a highly organised, tactical game, while his squad are powerful enough to tussle with the best.
The squad's main dose of quality comes from Feghouli, formerly short listed for the French national team but convinced to play for the country of his parents. Feghouli has La Liga pedigree on the wing for Valencia, and all signs indicate that he can deliver on a big stage. Indeed a promising array of youthful additions to the squad suggest that the Algerians have improved even on their 2010 showing.
Algeria will be concerned by their defensive vulnerabilities, particularly with the likes of Belgium to contend with. They certainly have a shot at pushing for the second round, but the chances are that once again they will be home after three games.
Verdict: Group stage
So there we have it. Get excited because the tournament starts just this next week. The Ephemeric may be missing much of the tournament thanks to the joy of work, but we will be there with you all in spirit.
Wednesday, 4 June 2014
Welcome to another end of year retrospective on what will surely go down as one of the most unpredictable and astonishing seasons in Premier League history. Here at The Ephemeric we like to take this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow our carefully considered accolades.
A three-way horse-race between Manchester City, Chelsea, and surprise package Liverpool ended up going down to the last day of the season, but ultimately it was City who ended up with the top prize. It marks a successful first season in English football for manager Manuel Pellegrini with what is surprisingly only his first major honour as a manager in the European leagues. It's a victory that will no doubt hold special significance for Pellegrini having bested the man who ousted him from Real Madrid, and arguably enjoyed the fruits of Pellegrini's teambuilding, José Mourinho.
Meanwhile Brendan Rogers stunned the country by bringing Liverpool back from midtable obscurity to barely a whisker away from their first league title in two decades. The nature of the club's late slip up, having been in the driving seat with just weeks to go, will undoubtedly sting for a while. This is matched equally by third place Chelsea, who also threw away the chance to win the title having been top with just weeks remaining. It's a testament to how close this race ran that all three sides found themselves in control of the title at different times in the final weeks, a title race unlike any we have seen since the league's inception in 1992.
Further down the table it's been a remarkable season for both Everton and Southampton who wildly exceeded expectations. Roberto Martínez and Mauricio Pochettino have fast become two of the hottest properties in the football management business and it's exciting to wonder what will come next for the club; will they build on this success, or be torn to shreds by bigger, opportunistic clubs.
At the bottom it was heartbreak for Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff City, the last of which imploded in particularly spectacular fashion off the pitch, dooming their fortunes on the pitch. And on that note let's not forget the horror show of Manchester United, who's defence of the title will go down as the worst in Premier League history.
Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.
The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2014:
Winners: Manchester City - In a squeaker of a season, it was slow and steady which won the race despite not actually being top of the pile until right at the death. Manchester City were the most consistent team this season, and that's why they're champions.
Relegated: Norwich, Fulham, Cardiff - Perennial yo-yo club Norwich paid the price for personnel changes and poor transfer policy, ending a solid three seasons in the top flight. Fulham will join them, marking a disastrous debut for the club's new owner that sees the established club's 13 year spell in the Premier League come to an end. Meanwhile Cardiff took the honour of finishing rock bottom, due in no small part to the seemingly never-ending boardroom sideshow that threatens to ruin the club.
Player of the Year: Luis Suárez (Liverpool)- His antics make him easy to dislike, but there's simply no denying the quality of Luis Suárez, and this season has seen him emerge as truly one of the best players in the world. It's no longer a stretch to compare him with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Suárez's unbelievable goalscoring feats this season are comparable to the best of all time, and the fact that he accomplished this in the much more defensive Premier League compared to La Liga makes it in many ways even more impressive.
U-21 Player of the Year: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) - Pipped to the PFA's Young Player award on account of their bizarre criteria of considering 23 year olds like Eden Hazard to be "young", Sterling rightly picks up our far more sensible Ephemeric award. Sterling was absolutely electric for Liverpool this season, forming a key element in one of the Premier League's all time most dangerous attacks (their 101 goals scored this season came only 2 goals short of the current record set by Chelsea's magnificent attacking team circa 2010). Now a huge World Cup beckons for the youngster.
Best Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Chelsea) - The veteran Chelsea stopper has had a phenomenal season, winning yet another Golden Glove having collected the most clean sheets of any keeper this season. Much of this can be owed to his formidable teammates in defence, but let nothing take away from his reliability this season. Cech has shown himself to be once again among the very best goalkeepers in the world.
Manager of the Year: Roberto Martínez (Everton) - It was a season full of outstanding candidates for the top managerial prize: Manuel Pellegrini for winning the title in his first season, Brendan Rogers for transforming Liverpool from also-rans into a top side again, Mauricio Pochettino for his astonishing work at taking Southampton from a lower league team into one of the most exciting sides in the country in just two years, and Tony Pulis for dragging the seemingly relegation-bound Crystal Palace back into the upper midtable. But ultimately we have given the prize to Roberto Martínez who has turned Everton into a side of the very highest calibre, coming within just a whisker of Champions League football.
Top Scorer: Luis Suárez (Liverpool) (31) - What more can be said about the league's top scorer, he's been absolutely devastating, running riot against teams and scoring almost a goal every game with 31 in 33 league appearances.
Most Assists: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) (13) - An impressive comeback from a player who has looked a shadow of himself these past few seasons. Gerrard seems to have found a new lease of life under Brendan Rogers and has admirably driven his team's title charge this season until his cruel slip ultimately took the season out of their hands. That said, it is somewhat bemusing to read all this hype in the papers about how Rogers "reinvented" the marauding captain as a defensive midfielder, considering that this is the position Gerrard started in, played the better half of his career in, and quite frankly would have saved the England team a lot of stress had he continued in alongside Lampard, as he did during Euro 2004, arguably England's best tournament performance in decades. Sometimes the media gives one a headache, that's why you need non-bullshit analyses like this block, but we digress...
Overachievers: Southampton - Hugely impressive work has been done to turn Southampton into as good a side as they are, and it's to the club's credit that so much of it has come from developing young players and the club's academy. Even more impressive is how consistently good they are across the squad, from starting the season with one of the league's very best defences, including Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne, Artur Boruc and Luke Shaw to the exciting attacking talent of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana.
Underachievers: Manchester United - One of the worst, if not the worst, title defence since the Premier League's inception. Manchester United finished a poor 7th place, failing to qualify for any European competition for the first time in decades. It was always going to be a tough ask to follow in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson, probably the greatest manager of all time, but no one would have expected new man David Moyes to take the former champions so far downhill so quickly. Even if, as the club itself admits, Mourinho was not an option having already agreed a deal with Chelsea, surely there were other options available?
Best signing of the season: Nemanja Matić (Chelsea) - Many eyebrows were raised when Chelsea spent £20 million on a player they had given away only three years previous as a makeweight as part of the deal for David Luiz. No one is questioning the move now; Matić, who was developed within the Chelsea youth team before being shipped off to Benfica with only a handful of first team appearances, has shown himself to be an absolutely world class purchase, and arguably the finest player in the league in his deep lying midfield position. Skillful, hard tackling, full of stamina and a surprising turn of pace make Matić one of the most feared names on Chelsea's teamsheet these days.
Worst signing of the season: Mesut Özil (Arsenal) - While no one is questioning the talent of Mesut Özil, a return of just 9 assists and 5 goals is looking like a fairly meager outlay for someone who cost a record £45 million and has been placed right at the core of his team. True judgement will wait until next season, but Arsenal fans will desperately be wanting to see some return from their expenditure, lest this transfer becomes a Fernando Torres-esque debacle.
The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2014:
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Chelsea) - It's hard to argue otherwise, the man at the heart of the league's best defence, who kept the most clean sheets. Petr Cech has had an excellent season and accordingly won our award for best goalkeeper.
Right Back: Seamus Coleman (Everton) - Everton has always been a defensively solid team throughout the Moyes era, and with Coleman's impressive 15 clean sheets this season, it looks like this will continue. But what has stood out from Martínez's new regime is the potent attacking drive from the back, led by two marauding fullbacks in Coleman and Baines. Coleman himself has an impressive 7 goals to his name, and has been a key element in Everton's resurgence.
Centrebacks: John Terry (Chelsea) & Gary Cahill (Chelsea) - There's no argument here, Chelsea have had the best defence in the league this season, and a large part of that is down to the partnership these two players have formed. Gary Cahill has established himself as one of the game's top centrebacks, full of the passion and bravery of a classic English centre half, but with an exceptional technical ability and positioning. Meanwhile John Terry is back to his best, without doubt ranking among the top three players in the Premier League this season. The imperiousness of this defensive pairing only raises further questions on the mismanaging of the England national team which has forced itself into a position where it is unable to make use of arguably one of the best defensive pairings in the world.
Left Back: Luke Shaw (Southampton) - A big debut season for the hotly tipped youngster, Luke Shaw has been electric down the flank for Southampton, as potent in attack as he is in defence. His Southampton defence was nearly impenetrable for the first half of the season, not bad for a teenager. A move to a bigger club surely beckons this summer.
Right Mid: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) – Our young player of the year and a key part of Liverpool's exceptional attacking trifecta this season. Sterling has started to hit his potential at a very high level, and if he can carry this form to the World Cup and Champions League next season there's no telling what heights he can reach.
Centre Mids: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) & Yaya Touré (Manchester City) - As we've said, something of a comeback from a player who has seemed well past his sell-by-date for quite some time, Gerrard has been on top form this season, leading his team's title challenge by example. Meanwhile Yaya Touré showed everyone why he's considered one of the world's best midfielders, superb all over the pitch in attack and defence, and arguably the champions' best player.
Left Mid: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – A good season of progress for the Chelsea talisman. Hazard is fast approaching the level of the very best players in the world, and this season has clearly established himself as the primary weapon for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Hazard is not just the best attacking talent on Chelsea, but the type of player who can singlehandedly turn a result for them, and frequently does in his own magical way. It has been an absolute joy to watch the young man's football this season as he takes a close runner up position for player of the season. If he continues to progress in this fashion it is only inevitable until we start to talk about Hazard as a potential World Player of the Year.
Forwards: Luis Suárez (Liverpool) & Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool) – There is certainly no doubt that our key man up front will be Luis Suárez, top scorer and easily the most influential player this season. His partner will be Liverpool team mate Daniel Sturridge, who came runner up for the Golden Boot with another very impressive season. Some of us have been saying for years that Sturridge is among the best goalscorers in the league, and now that he is finally being given the prominent role he deserves he's gone ahead and proved it.
So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next week for our preview of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil!