Sunday, 2 February 2020

Lampard pays for over-reliance on Abraham against Leicester City

By Alistair Hendrie

No, Frank Lampard said, Tammy Abraham had not recovered from a knock to his ankle but on the other hand, he added, the Chelsea forward was fit enough to start against Leicester City on Saturday. Lampard grinned with admiration for Abraham, just about stopping short of donning pigtails, pom-poms and a skirt. In the end he had to thank his German centre-back Antonio Rudiger who scored a brace of bullish headers to help Chelsea to a 2-2 draw which both sides could have gained more from.

You might ask what Lampard would have thought from the touchline watching Abraham huff, puff and just come up short until he was substituted for Ross Barkley on 82 minutes. The England man is far from the finished article and although he didn’t seem compromised by any injury on Saturday, he rarely looked like improving on his latest record of two goals in his last nine Premier League matches. His promise is also negated by the fact that only one of his 13 goals in the league this season have occurred against a current top six side. That was in August against Sheffield United when Chris Wilder’s side were adjusting to their new surroundings.

Leicester, of course, were far more formidable opponents. As Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes Abraham misfired on a cross from Mason Mount and also appealed in vain for a penalty when he tumbled over, attempting a cutback while under pressure from Caglar Soyoncu. As Rudiger opened the scoring, later equalising after Harvey Barnes and Ben Chilwell put the home side in the driving seat during a frantic second half, Abraham turned in a disappointing shift and couldn’t tune his radar to any of Pedro or Callum Hudson-Odoi’s deliveries behind the hosts’ backline.

Lampard will defend his striker to the end though. From day one he has championed academy talent and you feel that the former Derby County boss is attacking his first big assignment as a manager with a sense of wide-eyed wonder. He sometimes appears out of his depth but he’s enthusiastic enough to make the bold decisions.

He did exactly that by putting his faith in Abraham, leaving Michy Batshuayi on the bench. Olivier Giroud didn’t even make the list of substitutes. Lampard’s selection reinforced his absence of confidence in Batshuayi, who has only been on the pitch for 139 minutes this season in the league and is yet to start in the competition. The Belgian striker, tall and powerful in the air, would have surely fed off Mount’s set-plays better than Abraham did against Leicester. It was telling that at 2-2, when Chelsea were chasing the game, Lampard would rather bring on Barkley, Mateo Kovacic – two players who rarely gel – and Willian instead of opting for more of a target man.

Lampard’s decisions could also speak to his disillusionment with Chelsea’s January transfer window business. They missed out on Dries Meterns from Napoli. They also let Edison Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, slip through their fingers. Neither could they shift Batshuayi or Giroud. As such, Lampard sent a message to the board telling them to act in a more clinical manner in future windows.

It’s clear that Lampard would have also kept an eye on Abraham while managing Derby in the Championship last season, as the spidery forward netted 26 times on loan at Aston Villa in the same division. He is a Lampard player. Batshuayi and Giroud aren’t. The former seems particularly unsettled and Maurizio Sarri, Lampard’s predecessor, was also unconvinced by him.

Saturday’s setback was emblematic of Lampard’s lack of choice of a traditional striker. Although Mount, Pedro and Hudson-Odoi created havoc on the left none of them could fashion a clinical moment. The manager even gambled on playing the lightweight Willian as a false nine as the match dwindled out. Abraham was ineffective and Batshuayi, the substitute, was pictured hunched forward with anxiety, covering his face with his bib. Lampard will hope to put less emphasis on Abraham in the future.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Liverpool's young pups earn a dose of reality against Shrewsbury Town

By Alistair Hendrie

Liverpool’s Yasser Larouci learned a lesson as his side blew a two-goal lead against Shrewsbury Town on Sunday, leaving them with an FA Cup Fourth Round replay against Town on Tuesday which further bloats the Premier League leaders’ fixture list. After the French 19-year-old poked a toe across Joshua Laurent, hauling the Shrewsbury midfielder down for a penalty kick, Larouci discovered that mistakes cost games, outcomes turn in an instance, and moments like these shape careers. Jason Cummings scored the penalty and later equalised for Shewsbury. Knowing he was at fault, Larouci couldn’t protest when the referee pointed to the spot a moment earlier.

The France under-19s full-back is a prospect to be reckoned with and as Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, opted to rest his first team marathon men who are on course for the quintuple, Larouci was the next best option. He was one of four teenagers who Klopp selected on Sunday, along with midfielder Curtis Jones, 18, full-back Neco Williams, 18, and forward Harvey Elliott, 16.

All of whom are embedded in the Liverpool DNA, conditioned to Klopp’s philosophy of passing and moving and exploiting gaps down the flanks. That said, what they have in talent is offset by a lack of experience as the Club World Cup champions aim for a second shot at Shrewsbury. 

After streaking to a 2-0 lead with √©lan and professionalism, Larouci’s error was the catalyst for Liverpool’s downfall. As Laurent bore down on goal, twenty yards out with only Adrian between the sticks to beat, Larouci arrived too late on the scene, a passenger in the pivotal act.

He dangled a boot across his opponent and given the speed of the coming-together, plus Laurent’s unobstructed path forward, a penalty was inevitable. Without VAR, replays showed that the collision happened a yard outside the box, but Larouci found out how cruel first team football can be.

And though there is much to like about Williams, who also started the third round success over Everton, he nearly let in Shaun Whalley before Shrewsbury roared back. The Welshman was off the pace, too casual, as he allowed Callum Lang’s cross to bounce across his body for Whalley to shank wide. He should have rippled the net.

Then there’s Elliott, who in 2019 become the youngest man to play in the Premier League when he ran out for Fulham against Wolves at 16 years and 30 days. On Elliott’s day he can dazzle with creativity, fizzing past markers with the fearlessness of Joe Cole in his West Ham pomp.

Against Shrewsbury, though, he looked below par, unable to read any of Pedro Chirivella’s balls over the top. He seemed a little lost to be frank, and looked more than a little disconsolate as he sulked off to be replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Still, for the first hour these youngsters had the beating of Shrewsbury and we saw how they can grind out results when they beat Everton, even though the chips were down and they didn’t create much throughout the 90 minutes.

Williams, for one, is confident on the ball and looks a carbon copy of his first team counterpart, Trent Alexander-Arnold, with his limitless energy and ability to bend crosses invitingly towards the penalty spot. Elliott has already showed his mettle too, helping the England under-17s win the Syrenka Cup in September by scoring in a penalty shoot-out.

Chirivella, who is one of the older reserves emerging at 22, displayed style and nous against Shrewsbury. He looked assured as either a water carrier or a playmaker in midfield, arcing balls towards Elliott which, not through lack of conviction, just evaded the forward. Playing 31 games in 2017-2018, on loan at Willem II in the Dutch Eredivise, will have done him the world of good. He combines the efficacy of N’Golo Kante with the all-action drive of his compatriot, Cesc Fabregas, when he first emerged at Arsenal.

While Liverpool’s cubs will look to make amends against Shrewsbury in the replay – Larouci in particular – they are in safe hands with Klopp. The German is revered for prioritising academy development whether at Mainz or Borussia Dortmund. He studies every age group down to schoolboy level, ensuring all of the club’s prospects are adhering to the same blueprint.

Interestingly, Klopp may not be in the country to see if Larouci and his teammates can mop up their spillages from the weekend. The replay occurs during the Premier League’s winter break and so the manager has hinted that he will take his first team on a training trip abroad, leaving under-23s boss Neil Critchley in charge.

There’s another school of thought that the weekend’s collapse could be exactly what Klopp’s kids need. A reality check. A dose of what professional football is all about. The new breed coming through look skilled enough to live up to the legacies of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Steven Gerrard, but do they have the maturity to get by Shrewsbury at the second time of asking? It will be fascinating to find out.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Manel Kape stuns Kai Asakura, sparking mayhem in Rizin bantamweight division

By Alistair Hendrie

By running through Kai Asakura at Rizin 20 on New Year’s Eve, Manel Kape shook up the 135lbs division, scuppered an all-Japanese rematch between Asakura and Kyoji Horiguchi and also scooped the vacant Rizin bantamweight title. The Angolan celebrated his round two TKO by dashing towards the injured Horiguchi, who was working as a ringside commentator, and planting a kiss on his former vanquisher’s temple. He’d announced himself as a major player and sealed it with a kiss.

Kape, 27, is now slated to defend against Hiromasa Ogikubo, who edged a slugfest against Shintaro Ishiwatari earlier in the event to add further intrigue at 135lbs. At the same weight Patrick Mix, visiting Japan as part of the Bellator roster, looked outstanding in taking out Yuki Motoya inside a round with a vicious guillotine choke from a mounted position. Bearing in mind those victorious fighters – not to mention Asakura and Horiguchi – fans of Rizin can now anticipate a series of thrilling rivalries in the promotion’s marquee division.

Kape walks the walk and talks the talk, after all. He gave himself the moniker “Mr Mother******* Champion” during his post-fight interview and also added that he now feels Japanese, having built a 6-3 record in The Land of the Rising Sun while competing on Rizin cards. Not a bad way to endear yourself to a packed-out Saitama Super Arena.

Read the rest of the article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Weighing up a Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington rematch after UFC 245

By Alistair Hendrie

Moments before Kamaru Usman became the first man to knock out Colby Covington on Saturday in round five of their UFC 245 welterweight title contest, the outcome was well in the balance. Two judges had it 3-1 either way, while the third judge had it a draw. However, with a minute and a half remaining, Usman sent Covington crashing to the mat with a one-two and forced the stoppage with unanswered ground and pound. Now, though, the fine margins of the result plus the rivalry between the pair have led to calls for a rematch.

You have to feel Covington deserves a second chance, whatever you think about his taunting of just about every fighter on the roster, his bragging of weekends away with models and his labelling Brazil “a dump” after dismantling Demian Maia in 2017. The American protested the stoppage on Saturday, claiming referee Marc Goddard “robbed me of a fair fight.” He gave Usman his toughest fight yet, meeting the champion in the middle of the Octagon with a snapping jab and pesky hits to the body. Let’s also commend Covington on how he soldiered on with a broken nose.

Indeed, the two are beautifully matched and this weekend’s bout was so thrilling that a second meeting should be a possibility. The UFC are renowned for hosting title rematches too, such as Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier and Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Rose Namajunas. Plus, rematches create a narrative, help fans become invested and define fighters’ careers.

Read the full article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Cage Warriors 109: Jai Herbert - "I think to myself, I can't wait to quit being a scaffolder"

By Alistair Hendrie

“Grinding away at work is just a nightmare and I can’t wait until I don’t have to do it anymore,” says the Cage Warriors lightweight champion, Jai Herbert, who lets out a sigh as he tells Fighters Only about his job in Wolverhampton as a scaffolder. “It’s mad, the winter is the worst time when everything is frozen outside and you still have to go and put scaffolding up. I’ll be out of the door by about 6 in the morning and it’s just horrendous. I just think to myself, I can’t wait to get rid of this.”

With the way Herbert has taken to professional MMA, though, winning nine and losing only one of his paid outings thus far, Jai’s mornings scaling up and down steel structures may soon be a thing of the past. A tall 155lb’er with a rapid jab, Herbert won his title in June when he pulled the plug on Jack Grant with sustained hooks, crosses and shovel punches that crashed through his rival’s defences.

Next up for Herbert, on Saturday, is the first defence of his crown against Cain Carrizosa in Birmingham at Cage Warriors 109. Then it will be back to work for one of Europe’s hottest talents. “Now that I’ve got the title I’ve had four weeks off work to finish my camp, but obviously I’ll be back in next Monday,” he says.

Read the full article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more