With Real Madrid playing at the Club World Cup, all eyes in La Liga turn to Atletico Madrid's trip to Athletic Bilbao this weekend. It could be brutal...
Plus Cristiano Ronaldo, who looks 'heart-breakingly well-suited to a Real Madrid shirt' according to one United fan. Plus, words from the good doctor and plenty more...
With a nod to Paddy's Day (ah, sure tis a great day for the Irish!) I felt it timely to write something with more than a hint of green. So, in classic pub conversation style (and we Irish love a pub don't we - even if loads of them seem to be shutting down over here, suggesting we love off licences more in these straitened times) imagine you are manager of the Irish side heading into Euro 2012, and you can select a side consisting of any Irish player since 1977.
Why 1977? Well, as the proposer of this game, I have identified it as the year in which I first became fully aware of football. The FA Cup final of 1977 between Manchester United and Liverpool is the first game I can clearly remember. So, I'm picking my team based on Irish players I have actually seen playing. For that reason, certain Irish greats - John Giles chief amongst them - cannot be selected (Giles was winding down at this stage and I never saw him play). All formation options are open to you - but the idea is that this must be a team, rather than just a list of the best players to wear the green jersey. Here's my side - feel free to agree or disagree:
Classic 4-4-2. It's what we play now - it's what we played way back when - and its best suited to the personnel I want to select.
Really only two choices here - Pat Bonner or Shay Given. Bonner a stalwart of the Charlton years has a strong claim - but for me for simple consistency, it has to be Shay Given. Despite the penalty shootout against Romania, the heroics in Euro 1988, I just can't get Bonner's mishandling of Donadoni's effort in 1990 and the calamity of Orlando out of my head. Given, playing behind comparatively weaker defences, has the edge.
Despite all the great defenders we've had over the years, I've found this to be a simple enough decision. Centre halves - Mark Lawrenson and Paul McGrath. A complimentary, world class pairing - no explanation surely is required?
Full backs? Denis Irwin on the right and Steve Staunton on the left. The Corkman was comfortable on either flank and was considered by Sir Alex Ferguson to be one of his best signings. Dependable defensively, dangerous in attack, expert with a dead ball. Staunton offers similar qualities on the opposite flank - although Jim Beglin and Chris Hughton would push hard for a start.
Here's where it gets most difficult. So many players to choose from in every position. Two stand out in the middle though - as two of our greatest ever players. In fact, two of the best the game has ever seen - Roy Keane and Liam Brady. For me, their status in the game just edges out Ronnie Whelan in a 4-4-2 formation. Keane has the presence and the power to dominate the middle of park, while Brady has the nous and the creativity to make it all happen.
Wide right, I'm going with Ray Houghton. Big game mentality, hard worker, clever user of the ball, scorer of critical goals. On the left, I'm torn. On quality alone, I'd pick Kevin Sheedy and his wand of a left foot. But if I were to have any concern about my side, it would be the lack of pace in attack. So, for that reason, I'm going for Liverpool winger and flying machine, Steve Heighway.
Robbie Keane has to play. His international record just cannot be argued with. But who to pair him with? To get the best from Robbie, it seems you need to pair him with a target man, someone adept at holding up the play or getting all important flick ons. Keane worked particularly well with Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino for Ireland. But for all the qualities those two big men bring to the game, neither could hold a candle to the great Frank Stapleton. Not a big man perhaps, but one of the best hold up players in the game - and the best header of a football I've ever seen. Clever with the ball at his feet as well - the perfect foil for Ireland's record scorer.
O'Leary, Beglin, Duff, Aldridge, Sheedy, Whelan - all close to a first team call up, but for the moment, they'll have to kick their heels in the dugout.
Can you better that side? If so, who and what am I missing? A touch of Gary Doherty perhaps? See what you think.