Friday, 29 June 2012

Germany 1 Italy 2

So, we have a Spain versus Italy final in Euro 2012, in Kiev on Sunday, after Italy gave a consummate display of tournament football last night, to overcome the much-fancied German team.

Many people I think expected Italy to employ "spoiling" tactics, to make the game fragmented and bitty, in an attempt to stifle Germany's creative resources.  We under-estimated the self-confidence, patience and quality of Cesare Prandelli's men.  This was a victory for planning and cool heads, as well as talent.

Andrea Pirlo's influence was perhaps not quite as all-pervasive as it had been in the quarter-final, with Germany doing a marginally better job than England of negating him, but he was still involved enough to help steer Italy to a victory.  Some of Pirlo's "minders" in the Italy midfield also raised their game, and this was one of the decisive factors.  For all the inevitable hype about Mario Balotelli's goals, this was a true team performance, dripping with unity, purpose and cohesion.  The versatility and flexibility of Italy's players, positionally and tactically, was key.

Other teams may have been intimidated or daunted by Germany's attacking options, but Italy backed their own tactics and ability, and the goals in the first-half were real "surgical" strikes.

Although Italy's own approach doubtless contributed to this, Germany just lacked a certain something. The final ball was lacking throughout the match, and they relied excessively on optimistic attempts from distance.  It is a moot point whether the Germany coach's recent "rotation" of his attacking players disrupted them, but the malaise I think went deeper than that.

Germany raised their level of intensity at the beginning of the second half, with the hitherto quiet Schweinsteiger taking up more prominent positions, but once this spurt had been repelled, they seemed gradually to run out of ideas.  Indeed, as the second-half progressed, Italy increasingly looked like the sharper outfit, and numerous counter-attacks should really have yielded additional goals.

Pre-match, there had been much debate about the supposed advantage conferred on Germany by the greater rest period which they enjoyed following their quarter-final.  However, Italy scarcely looked affected by fatigue, their economical style, ability to retain possession, and Prandelli's adroit marshalling of his men, all playing a part in this.

Where does this all leave this German team?  They were possibly not as surprised by the outcome of the semi-final as the outside world.  Still, they were out-witted and out-thought.  It was less a case of experience than one of "know-how".   Germany will learn lessons, and this side is clearly still a work in progress.  A case here of growing pains, maybe?  Eventually, though, excuses will not wash or suffice. There is still work to be done between now and the 2014 World Cup.

So, on to the final.  Italy, once again, will have less "recovery" time than the opposition, but strangely yesterday's game did not seem to take that much out of them, either physically or mentally.  Spain, on the other hand, were involved in a attritional struggle with Portugal.  There is a temptation to feel that come the final, Spain will be the "flatter" team, with Italy remaining ebullient and buoyant, still on an upward curve.

Much will depend on which Spain turns out on Sunday evening.  It has the potential to be a cagey affair, but Italy's alleged "caution" has actually been quite entertaining and enlightening to behold.

It should be an intriguing conclusion to the tournament.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Scott of the Antarctic

Like many British children of my generation, I was brought up on the exploits of those men who we were informed were our national heroes.

One individual who fascinated me during my childhood was Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and I remember reading much about his ultimately tragic expedition to the South Pole in 1910-12.  Of course, when we are young we are not fully capable of critical analysis of such things, and tend to accept the "official" version, or the myths and legends expounded by our elders and betters.

Only recently, after studying more material about the ill-fated expedition, did I grasp the sheer dimensions of what those pioneer explorers attempted and achieved, and the human qualities which they exhibited whilst doing so.

What has really been brought home to me is the geographical magnitude of these endeavours, which were of course undertaken with what by 21st century standards was negligible and primitive technology and equipment.  The sacrifices made, and fortitude shown, by the men on Scott's expedition, and other adventures of the same period, are quite humbling to me, and have helped to place some of my mundane everyday concerns into greater perspective.....

Of course, there has been criticism of Scott from some quarters, with accusations of incompetent planning and decision-making.  Be that as it may, for me it does not really detract from the old-fashioned nobility and honour which was displayed, especially in adversity.

Some of the literature which I was exposed to as a child seemed in retrospect to direct mild "hostility" towards Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who "beat" Scott's team in the race to the Pole.  I can see now that this was an absurd stance to adopt. Although Scott and his men will have been disappointed to "lose" the race, it does not unduly affect my appraisal of events. Amundsen seems to have achieved his triumph via a combination of sound judgement, audacity and also some good fortune.

These days, the nationalities of the protagonists is pretty much immaterial to me, anyway, and the achievements, and attributes, of the people involved is an often inspiring example of the capabilities and potential of the human race in general.  A study of man's curiosity, endurance, courage and wanderlust.

One of the fascinating aspects of the expeditions in the early 20th century is that they represented the last embers of an entire age, before the relentless march of mechanisation and technology.  This is in no way to demean the achievements of those who followed, by the way, and the phrases "romantic age" and "heroic era" are a touch trite.  More than their successors, though, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton et al, were operating without a net.

The most heart-rending parts of the Scott story are of course the events which occurred on the return journey from the Pole. The stoicism of the party, the self-sacrifice of Lawrence Oates and the apparent dignity with which the remaining men confronted their fate. Revisiting these elements of the story certainly brought a tear to my eye.....

Monday, 25 June 2012

2012 European Grand Prix Review

An incident-packed race in the end, although for much of its duration it looked like being a relatively comfortable victory for Sebastian Vettel, even allowing for a safety car period.  I think that some of the appraisals of the race as a spectacle have been a little over the top.  There were a few fallow periods, particularly before the pivotal safety car interlude.

Fernando Alonso may have profited from Vettel's breakdown, but this race did not just fall into his lap;he went searching for it, ekeing out every possible advantage at pit-stops, and via a series of overtaking manoeuvres, some crisp, some decisive, and some audacious.

In the title chase, the two big losers in Valencia were Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.  The reaction of Adrian Newey after the German's retirement was very telling.  Vettel appeared to have the measure of the field, even allowing for the safety car, and this could have been a straightforward race win, something which is likely to be a rarity in 2012....

Hamilton will be particularly frustrated, not just by the manner of his exit from the race, but also because it occurred in a race where Vettel had been affected by a rare mechanical failure. The penalty handed out to Pastor Maldonado seemed fair, on balance.

The quantity of incident and general mayhem was not unexpected, because of the nature of the circuit, and the closeness of this season's racing.  The track puts me in mind a little bit of the Detroit venue of the 1980s, although with more generous run-off areas!

Another man denied a good result was Romain Grosjean, who continues to impress with his sheer confidence, and a refusal to be intimidated by reputations and the giddy heights of the front of an F1 field.

Lotus were fancied by many to fight for a win in Valencia, but they just seem tantalisingly short of what is required. It is difficult to know whether the shortfall is purely strategic or performance-related, or whether it is merely a case of waiting for the cards to fall their way.  Kimi Raikkonen's podium finish was no doubt much welcomed, even if it was not the top step.  Incidentally, I think that insinuations that Grosjean has "out-psyched" or massively eclipsed the Finn are a little wide of the mark. Kimi should have it within himself to cope or respond.

Another forgettable outing for Jenson Button, although the vibes emanating from the Englishman seemed slightly more optimistic at this race.  The comments from Martin Whitmarsh on BBC TV before the race offered sympathy and support, if not totally unconditional. It seems that it remains a case of working hard, plugging away, and seeking a breakthrough.

It was good to see Michael Schumacher back on the podium.  If his third-place owed a little to good fortune, it is difficult to begrudge the German this success, in view of his misfortunes and dramas thus far in 2012.

Just a quick mention of Sergio Perez.  The TV coverage contained plenty of onboard shots from his Sauber, and it was a privilege to watch the technique and skill of an emerging talent.  Most impressive....

Euro 2012 - England v Italy

This morning, the English nation is afflicted by an all too familiar feeling, having been eliminated from a major football tournament on penalties.  This time, however, there is no discernible feeling of injustice, or even anger.  There is a sense that the quarter-finals represented the limit of the abilities of this squad of players, and deep down many people realise that Italy were the superior team over the preceding 120 minutes of football.

The statistics on possession and pass completion tell their own story. Andrea Pirlo delivered a magisterial performance in the Italian midfield, and England proved incapable of stemming the flow of his passes.

As well as lacking in some technical areas, England also looked fatigued from quite early in the proceedings, as if the exertions and effort, both physical and mental, of negotiating the group matches had drained most of their energy. For the most part the effort was there, but it looked like a match too far, even if Italy were prevented from scoring.  If the Azzuri's forwards had been less profligate in front of goal, the scoreline would have been more representative of the balance of play.

I discussed the match with a friend late last week, and he suggested that Wayne Rooney should have been omitted from the starting line-up, because he would disrupt and disturb the balance of the England team.  As it happened, Rooney was ineffectual against Italy, but I don't feel that his presence unsettled England as such.  Formations and tactics played no major role last night, as opposed to technique and fatigue. Rooney endeavoured to make things happen, popping up all over the pitch, but he was simply lacking sharpness.

After an early flurry from England, it was Italy who dictated the course and tempo of the match.  The aforementioned Pirlo was a joy to watch, running the show consummately.  In fairness to England, they rarely lost their shape in defence, and I thought that John Terry and Glen Johnson in particular gave impressive performances.

So, not quite the sinking feeling of previous England "failures", as there is less thought of "what might have been".  England did not disgrace themselves overall, even if they were ultimately found wanting. There is now time and space for Roy Hodgson to remould and reshape the team in accordance with his own vision and ideas, and some of the personnel might be different once the World Cup qualifiers get under way.

As for Euro 2012 itself, one has to favour Germany to reach the final now, not only because of their own potency and abilities, but because of the toll which last night's game will have taken on Italy.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Germany 4 Greece 2

First of all, please note that I will refrain from drawing political parallels between tonight's events at Euro 2012 and topical matters in the Eurozone.  In my mind, this was a football match - nothing more, and nothing less!

In the end, the scoreline flattered the Greek team, although I did not feel that their performance was quite as dismal as some others are making out.

The decision by Germany to leave some of their main forward players on the bench may have occurred to some as foolhardy, dismissive even, but it was surely based on a realistic and honest appraisal of the respective merits of the two squads, and with an eye on more stringent challenges to follow (Italy/England, and then probably Spain).  I had been slightly sceptical about the strength in depth of this current German set-up, but many of those fears were allayed this evening.  The youngsters looked a touch raw, but brimming with potential.

Even with a "weakened" starting line-up, Germany still looked to have bounteous options available to them as the opening minutes unfolded, and their main dangers appeared to be over-elaboration in build-up play, and general complacency, sloppiness and resultant frustration. Watching the match on television, I kept urging them to try shots on goal, rather than attempt yet more passes.  Eventually, Philipp Lahm tried one from distance, and it opened the scoring. On the question of Lahm, it is always gratifying, in this age of muscle-bound "identikit" football athletes, to see a player of diminutive stature prosper at the highest level.

Many expressed astonishment when Greece levelled the scores through Giorgios Samaras. However, from quite early in the first half I felt that Germany looked a little susceptible to a quick break or counter-attack, provided that the Greeks could make such a move stick. This German team may have more flair and fluidity than its predecessors, but there is reason to suspect that they are less resilient and solid in defensive areas.

The first Greek goal, though, did not change most of the fundamentals, and the Germans were quick to re-establish their superiority.  Sami Khedira may not receive the same hoop-la as some of his colleagues, but his goal showed real style and technique.

It looked at one point as though the scoreline could become embarrassing, but Greek showed some steel and resolve, and Germany had to be content with four goals.

So how do we assess Germany as they advance to the semi-finals?  Admittedly, Greece were not brilliant, but equally one has to take account of the personnel deployed by Germany in this match.  They expedited their task with some elan and vigour.  The fringe players and substitutes offered us a glimpse of the future (and current) riches at Joachim Loew's disposal.

This German side is still developing, improving and blossoming, and the untapped potential in this generation of players seems limitless. By contrast Spain, arguably the other likely finalists in Euro 2012, seem to have reached a plateau of sorts, with nowhere else to go but downwards. Both teams have a plethora of gifted and adaptable midfielders.  A message there, surely?

Germany must be counted as potential winners of the tournament, but both of their prospective semi-final opponents, Italy and England, will provide stern opposition.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

England 1 Ukraine 0

Well, ultimately not as nerve-racking as some might have expected, thanks to the breathing space which Wayne Rooney's slightly fortuitous goal afforded England.  It may have been stodgy and frustrating at times, but England are through to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, and a date with a decidedly vincible Italy team.

Prior to the match, I made a note to the effect that Cole, Terry and Gerrard would have to perform well in order for England to secure a result tonight.  By and large, this trio produced the goods, with Gerrard being behind most of England's most fruitful moves, and the Chelsea pair capably marshalling defensive efforts

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine began the match energetically and purposefully, and England struggled to establish a foothold. Gradually, inroads were made, with the flanks being employed, and Steven Gerrard seeking to create space with some imaginative passing. Ukraine did not convert their possession into goals, and much of their finishing and shooting was inaccurate. When under pressure, England compounded matters by too often surrendering possession cheaply;an old failing.

England's goal may have come courtesy of a defensive and goalkeeping mix-up, but significantly it was Gerrard who once again created the danger, by producing something over and above the mundane. Indeed, I thought that one of the plus points of England's performance was the quality of their delivery, and not just from the captain.  The Roy Hodgson influence, possibly?

With regard to the John Terry "clearance" off the line, I'm not going to join in the debate about "technology".  The replay of the incident makes the case quite cogently.....

At around this time, the action became almost end-to-end for a spell, as Ukraine pressed more vigorously, and there was additional space for England.  In this context, the Walcott-for-Milner substitution made considerable sense.  In the event, the Arsenal man did not have the opportunity to make much impact, but the intent was correct.

And so on to the quarter-final on Sunday.  In terms of team selection and tactics, I think that we can expect more of the same.  England do not have the fluency in possession and build-up of some of the other teams in the tournament.  Their style is dictated by the fact that the personnel needed to accomplish this, particularly in midfield areas, are just not there.  One cannot turn water into wine.  The question remains whether this approach will work against the superior teams, and also whether England will be exposed defensively by the movement and speed of thought of those outfits.

I thought that Italy played some reasonable football, in patches, against the Republic of Ireland, and they have possibly been under-estimated by many observers.  It will be a stern examination for England, but still one which they are capable of overcoming....

Monday, 18 June 2012

US Open Golf

At the cost of sleep-deprivation, I stayed up until the early hours of this morning, following the conclusion to the US Open golf, at Olympic Club.

In the end, I was quite satisfied with the outcome.  I don't have any particular axe to grind with regard to individual players, but the constant cheerleading and partiality towards European golfers exhibited by some members of the British media is really starting to irritate me. I can't help feeling that some of the praise which they have accorded to Webb Simpson was said through gritted teeth. Needless to say, there have been the usual mutterings about the nature of US Open courses, and the "quality" of winners which they tend to produce.  I dare say that these misgivings would have been less vocal had a European (or any non-American) golfer lifted the trophy.

I must admit that I know relatively little about Webb Simpson, but his pedigree is good, and he was a worthy winner, producing the goods when the other leading contenders found various ways of floundering.  People say that this type of golf is attritional, and lends itself to a lack of spectacle, but on the other hand it does closely examine all sorts of qualities and attributes required of a golfer.

I wonder how the media will react should an unknown (particularly one from across the pond) win the upcoming Open Championship?


In keeping with a recent drive, consciously and subconsciously, to vary and augment my range of interests, I have rekindled and revived my interest in the game of chess.

I played quite a bit of chess in my youth, both at school and with family friends.  However, as my teens progressed the game and I drifted apart, as new delights and interests took precedence. Now, I find myself wishing that I had found a way to maintain my participation in the game, as I can see what benefits it can provide, from both an intellectual and a social perspective.

This time around, it is not just the playing of the game which I am appreciating, but also the rich and turbulent history of chess.  The game's current practitioners appear to have some respect and reverence for the game's pioneers and legends, something which is not prevalent in all games and pastimes.

When I first became interested in the game, in the late 1970s, it was the era of Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi, and I recall the media coverage of the major chess encounters of those times.  I was too young to appreciate and absorb the hysteria and hype surrounding the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match of 1972, and the inevitable Cold War sub-texts.

I can understand why some people sneer at chess, seeing a pretentiousness and over-intellectualization amongst some of its devotees, but equally the game can mean different things to different people, on differing levels.  It doesn't have to involve a profound existential journey, but can merely be an enjoyable and refreshing means of stimulating the grey matter.

Chess is also one of those pastimes which can be played, and excelled at, by people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds.  Often, people aged eight and eighty can play against each other on relatively equal terms, as each can bring different, and complementary, attributes to the table.

When I was young, the playing of chess seemed to be encouraged in schools, but I suspect that times have "moved on", and that this is no longer the case, in Britain at least.  Like many youthful endeavours, it has probably been swamped by the relentless advance of video games and other technological fads. It seems to me, though, that there is a place for chess in our education system.  It can be argued with some truth that it teaches skills and techniques which stand young people in good stead, and accomplishes this task more effectively than some things which are taken for granted as fixtures in "formal" education.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play chess - against my computer....

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Group B

An enjoyable and fascinating evening of football to conclude matters in Group B.Although the possible permutations for qualification for the quarter-finals seemed almost endless, in the final analysis Germany and Portugal fully warranted their progression, but there were some adventures and alarms along the way.

Not surprisingly, Germany topped the group, building on the favourable impression which they created during and since the 2010 World Cup finals.  It is noticeable when watching them that there is always an option available, by way of someone to make a run or receive possession.  This team has more flair than many German elevens of the past, although defensively they may be less solid and secure.  My other reservation is whether they have the same quality in depth as, for the sake of argument, Spain.  The substitutes who Germany brought on tonight, with all due respect, would not strike fear into opponents' hearts in the same way as their counterparts in some other squads.

I am by no means his greatest fan, but Cristiano Ronaldo certainly answered a few questions this evening, scoring two fine goals, and being unlucky not to score more.   The question might be whether he is able to "carry" the team further in the tournament, as the supporting cast has not been entirely convincing.

The Netherlands have been a major disappointment, with the odd flash of inspiration failing to compensate for a lack of cohesion, drive and consistency.  Like several teams at this tournament, they are entering a transitional phase, and the newcomers could not step up to the plate.  This, combined with the failure of one or two established stars to perform to their potential, sealed their fate.

A word of credit to Denmark, who gave a thoroughly decent account of themselves, tackling a very tough group with enthusiasm and courage.  Even they would probably admit that their current crop of players is hardly a vintage one, but they gave everything, and can go home with heads held high.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Sweden 2 England 3

Prior to tonight's encounter in Kiev, I had frankly expected a rather turgid, attritional contest.  Sure enough, the first half was on the mediocre side, although not perhaps to the extent described by some pundits.  After the break, however, there was certainly no lack of incident, and although some of this was attributable to poor defending and luck, there were a few moments of genuine quality.

In the early minutes of the game I thought that England looked quite purposeful, busy and eager, if lacking a little in invention. James Milner was proving to be an effective outlet at that early stage. Predictably Zlatan Ibrahimovic constituted the main threat for Sweden, the doubts about his fitness notwithstanding.

Roy Hodgson's decision to play Andy Carroll from the start was vindicated when he rose majestically to meet a trademark Steven Gerrard delivery. As is often the case, however, one of England's main failings was a failure to retain possession sufficiently well, and Sweden continued to pose questions for the remainder of the first period.

I did not find the first forty-five minutes quite as woeful as some other people seem to have done.  Perhaps I find honest mediocrity strangely fascinating!

There was a noticeable upsurge in the vigour and intensity of Sweden's play right from the outset of the second half.  Maybe their coach had emphasised to them the extent of their predicament should they lose this game?  Whatever the case, the new approach soon bore fruit in the form of an equaliser, albeit a fortuitous and flukey one.

After the first Swedish goal went in, I thought to myself that England now faced a real test, and that they may be forced to show more tactical flexibility in order to respond.  Before they had a chance to demonstrate any of this, they were further pinned back by Swedish pressure, and the defence was found wanting as Mellberg rose largely unchallenged to make it 2-1.

The match now acquired a genuine sense of ebb-and-flow as England strove to get back on terms, with Sweden potentially dangerous on the break, even if they do not exactly possess blistering outright pace in their team.

England made a positive substitution, bringing on Theo Walcott for the fading Milner. Roy Hodgson must have sensed that England did not previously have enough in their armoury to get back into the match, but even he could hardly have anticipated the impact that the Arsenal player would make.  He had scarcely touched the ball before thumping in the equalising goal.

Strangely enough, I had been making notes to the effect that I found Danny Welbeck's performance unconvincing, when he and Walcott conjured up a moment of genuine quality to clinch victory for England. Welbeck's improvisation was most impressive.

Late on I became nervous, thinking that England were throwing too many men forward at times, but they held on reasonably comfortably.

So where does this all leave us?  Well, England need a point against Ukraine, and that is eminently achievable.  The coach does face a selection dilemma of sorts, with Wayne Rooney now available for selection after suspension, and both Welbeck and Carroll making their cases quite eloquently this evening.  Roy Hodgson has displayed a methodical, pragmatic streak during their tournament so far, and he may opt for the "horses for courses" approach again.

In the grand scheme of things, England have exuded a sense of unity and quiet determination thus far. These qualities, however laudable, will only take England so far. The fluidity and cohesion exhibited by Spain, Germany and even France in the past couple of days was sobering to see.  England look likely to face Spain, should they reach the quarter-finals.  Before that daunting prospect, however, they will need to rouse themselves once more for what is sure to be a pressurised match against the co-hosts.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

1976 Olympics

The looming prospect of the London 2012 Games has caused me to reminisce about some of my own Olympic memories.

I was not yet three years old when the Munich Olympics occurred in '72, so have no real memories.  However, I have definite recollections of watching the 1976 Montreal Olympics on television.  Possibly because of this, those Games have always held a fascination for me.

The 1976 Games were bedevilled by financial woes and a boycott by some African countries, and seem to have been neglected by many pundits and historians.  However, looking back objectively three and a half decades later, those Olympics stack up very well in terms of ambience and quality of competitions.

The athletics events were full of surprises and variety, with some new stars emerging, in the form of Alberto Juantorena, Edwin Moses and others, whilst the likes of Lasse Viren and Irena Szewinska cemented their claims to be regarded as Olympic legends.  There were some genuinely thrilling races, the men's 5000 metres and steeplechase events instantly springing to mind.

The swimming events were also noteworthy, with the USA entering possibly the most powerful men's team in the history of the Games.  The pool also supplied one of my most vivid memories of the '76 Games, in the form of David Wilkie's gold-medal performance, in world-record time, in the 200 metres breaststroke.  The race was made even more memorable by Alan Weeks' iconic BBC TV commentary.

Another arena of pure excellence during those Olympics was that of gymnastics, and particularly the mesmeric performances of the young Nadia Comaneci.  She took gymnastics to a new level of proficiency and perfection. 

In some ways, the 1976 Games were a hinge between the carefree amateur era, and the more cynical, commercialized future.  Of course, politics and doping were very much live issues even then, but there was still a vestige of innocence remaining.

Monday, 11 June 2012

France 1 England 1

So, England have played their first group match of Euro 2012, in Donetsk.

It seemed to me that the French team had the edge in terms of quality and creative options, so a 1-1 draw is not a bad result by any means. France had superior movement and overall fluidity and fluency, but England remained resolute and committed.

If England were probably second best in the technical proficiency stakes, their spirit and application were difficult to fault. Some cohesiveness was evident, and in his short tenure thus far Roy Hodgson seems to have instilled some semblance of togetherness and esprit de corps. The blend of personnel in the first-choice eleven is probably not yet ideal and fully realised, but the lack of time available to Hodgson for experimentation may preclude any major changes.

My impression, for what it is worth, is that England are seeking to base their effort in this tournament on a solid platform of honest endeavour and toil in defence and midfield, and hoping that pace, and occasional flashes of inspiration, up front, will see them through. To make this work, successfully, I feel that the all-round excellence and tenacity of Wayne Rooney is essential.  Improvisation will be necessary before the Manchester United player returns from suspension.

During today's match I was impressed with the attitude and diligence of captain Steven Gerrard, and Ashley Cole delivered his usual accomplished display. England really need these men, along with Rooney, to perform, because of the lack of genuine quality in depth in the squad, which has been exacerbated by injuries.

England were by no means outclassed by France, and this would indicate that neither Sweden nor Ukraine should hold any major fears. There is still everything to play for.

2012 Canadian Grand Prix Review

Not unexpectedly, we now have our seventh different winner in seven F1 races in 2012, following Lewis Hamilton's fine victory in Montreal.  Some observers have asserted that the race was slow to "get going", but I found it very interesting, as there was a constant sense that things would liven up once the tyre strategies unravelled.  Sure enough, we had a dramatic closing phase to proceedings, with some drivers charging on new tyres, others benefitting from efficient tyre conservation, and some going backwards on worn rubber.

One of the things which struck me watching the race was how Hamilton's positive outlook, patience and perserverance paid handsome dividends. His racing instincts are as sharp as ever, but this has been tempered with good sense, and he seems to be coping with the much-documented tyre situation as well as anybody on the grid. He was even diplomatic and magnanimous after the race, not wishing to apportion blame for a mildly botched tyre change.  He must feel that momentum is on his side, and this was no time to rock the boat.  The bigger picture is the priority, and at present it looks distinctly rosy.

There is a temptation to over-analyse these things, and draw facile conclusions, but the "body language" of Hamilton's car was very exuberant yesterday, indicative of a man truly enjoying his work, and relishing the task. He was even mature enough to let the car do the work at times in the closing laps, rather than force the issue unnecessarily; the race was coming to him, and he did not need to take risks.

Apart from Hamilton's victory, much of the attention will have been commanded by Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez, two of Formula 1's "comingmen".  They both made a one-stop strategy work effectively, and neither man will have done his reputation any harm.

Elsewhere, there were no massive surprises in the results, save for the continuing tribulations of Jenson Button, who was anonymous again,and afterwards made more comments to the effect that he remains confused by his lack of performance. His predicament will be made all the more acute as his team-mate's ascendancy gathers pace.

Although in the end Ferrari did not score as many points as expected in Canada, they will be in good heart, as the car continues to improve. Even allowing for the car's progression, Fernando Alonso drove another classy race.  Felipe Massa is looking more comfortable and assertive, although his race was marred slightly by a spin. 

There were others in yesterday's race, notably Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, who appeared to do little wrong, and raced capably and tenaciously, but who did not feature at the very sharp end.  As we are becoming used to saying, the margins are very slender in F1 this year!

So who will be the eight different winner of 2012?  Well, the Lotus team continue to knock on the door, and Valencia promises to be wide-open and unpredictable, surely giving them an opportunity. Sauber's straightline speed is a real asset, although this may make its presence felt at the faster circuits later in the season.

Whatever happens, it looks like being enjoyable viewing!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Mount Everest

Whilst idly browsing on the internet yesterday, I came across much material about Mount Everest, and particularly man's repeated attempts to conquer it, particularly in the pioneering and momentous days during the first eight decades or so of the twentieth century.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, expeditions to Everest were still regarded as a big deal, and had sufficient novelty value to command prominent media coverage.  I remember as a child being captivated by the sense of adventure and danger.  These days, even though modern technology, communications and expertise are employed, and the summit is reached more frequently, the great perils and challenge remain.

I had not previously grasped the true extent to which climbers are affected by the effects of altitude and cold, and acquiring this knowledge has only increased my awe and respect for their courage and resolve.

Reading about the exploits of those who have climbed, or attempted to climb, Everest has made some other sporting pursuits seem mundane by comparison.  At least part of Ernest Hemingway's famous quotation about sports may hold some truth, after all....

Friday, 8 June 2012

Euro 2012 Preview

I must admit that it has taken some time for me to summon up much enthusiasm for the upcoming tournament in Poland and Ukraine.  However, now that Euro 2012 is upon us, here are some thoughts on the prospective contenders.

My favourites, if only marginally, are Germany.  After impressing so much with their youthful vigour and cohesion in the World Cup two years ago, they will have matured and become steelier and more resilient in the intervening period.  The potential threats come from many areas of their line-up, and they have the tactical flexibility which many other teams lack.  The Germans do have what looks on paper to be a tough opening group, but they should progress to the quarter-finals with some comfort.

If Germany have progressed since 2010, it is tempting to think that Spain peaked in South Africa, or even before, and that their powers might have waned slightly.  However, they remain a formidable proposition, and possess daunting strength in depth and big-match experience.  It might be time for some of their younger players, or those on the fringe of the first-choice eleven, to assume a greater burden of responsibility.

The Netherlands are another country which should be viewed as potential champions.  The experience of their squad is vast, and their creative options in midfield and forward positions are impressive to say the least.  The likes of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie will pose problems for any opponents.  The flair is solidly backed up by a bewildering array of talented and solid midfielders.  The Dutch will first have to navigate their way through a difficult group, though.

So what about England?  Well, for once, the pundits, and the nation at large, are being realistic and level-headed about the team's prospects.  Perhaps too many disappointments and cruel reverses over the years have finally had their effect, and instilled a sense of perspective.  That said, Roy Hodgson's understated stewardship and all-round expertise should stand England in good stead.  Some new players, and those overlooked under previous managers, will be keen to make their mark.  However, it is also imperative that the likes of Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney perform to a good level, to form the bedrock of the effort.

Other teams to look out for?  To be honest, scanning over the sixteen teams, none of them looks especially weak, and this makes predicting form and results very tough, with margins being wafer-thin.  France are difficult to gauge, but a squad containing so many talented and experienced individuals must be respected.  Also, the two host nations will have fervent support, and this will give them a boost.

Let us hope most of all that the next few weeks are remembered for entertaining and memorable football action, rather than unsavoury off-pitch incidents.  I hope that the latter, if they occur, are fully and sensibly covered by the media, and that the powers-that-be do not seek to downplay them, or sweep them under the carpet.  Issues of that gravity must be confronted, addressed and overcome.

My own less-than-scientific analysis of the groups and fixtures suggests that the semi-finalists will be the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and France.  But what do I know?

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

James May

I watch very little television these days, but one person who occasionally makes it worthwhile is the British broadcaster James May. Just recently I have been studying his work closely.

Best known as part of the Top Gear presentation team, he has also made numerous educational and science-orientated programmes for the BBC. Cultured, and with an infectious enthusiasm about technology and science, and a keen appreciation of history, he manages to combine the erudite and eloquent with a common touch, a rare achievement indeed.

True, he occasionally exaggerates one facet or other of his on-screen persona, to suit the demands of particular circumstances, but he is never less than entertaining and endearing.  He has probably enthused more young people about science and related subjects than any number of officially-sanctioned "experts". He has certainly had that effect on me....

Monday, 4 June 2012

Beneath The Wheel - Hermann Hesse

Over many months, I have blogged my thoughts on some of the novels of Hermann Hesse. My latest read, Beneath The Wheel, was in many respects the least complex and meandering of them all, but at the same time the one whose plot reflected some of my feelings on the course taken by my own life.

The central thrust of Beneath The Wheel is a critique of rigid formal education, and its insidious effect on the development of individuals. It tells the tale of  Hans Giebenrath, a small-town boy who leaves home to attend an academy. In time, he strikes up a friendship with a fellow student, Hermann Heilner, who has much less regard for the strictures of his tutors and teachers.  Eventually Hans assigns greater priority to his relationship with Hermann than to his studies.

After returning to his home town following the onset of a nervous breakdown, Hans struggles to adapt, and is plagued by difficulties, some of them stemming from the estrangement previously induced by the pressures of education.  At the end, Hans is found drowned.

Although Beneath The Wheel was originally published in 1906, some of the subjects which it throws up are as relevant now as ever.  The sometimes stultifying effects of academia and "bourgeois" conformism on mind and spirit, and the measures undertaken by the establishment to maintain people on a pre-defined course in life, this manipulation leavened with the promise that one will be "looked after" in return.

The experiences of Hans on his return to his home town are perhaps a reminder that even when one is allowed to find one's own way in life, and we experience peaks and troughs more intensely and vividly, we are prey to the same pitfalls and pressures as everyone else.  Such an existence is not necessarily idyllic.  At the same time, the denial of natural emotional and spiritual development at a crucial stage of life is often irrevocable.

In addition to its philosophical angles, Beneath The Wheel contains some of Hesse's most evocative and compelling descriptions and depictions of nature and places.

This is another Hesse novel which as well as exercising the grey matter, has the power to make one glad to be alive.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Machine Head - Deep Purple - album review

I prefer to avoid the endless and tiresome debates about what constitutes "heavy metal", "heavy rock", and "hard rock", as these pigeon-holes invariably demean the talent and imagination of the artists involved.

What is difficult to dispute, however, is that some individual albums, pointed the way forward, set trends, or simply served as a definitive example of their creators' oeuvre.  One of these is Deep Purple's 1972 release, Machine Head.

Machine Head may or may not have contained as many heady peaks and seminal moments as earlier Purple LPs, but it is their most cohesive and fully-realised statement.  Several factors contributed to this, including the circumstances under which it was recorded.  The consistent quality and variety of the material were also instrumental.

My one misgiving about the album is its sound, which is what could be best described as an acquired taste. To me, the rhythm section, and in particular Ian Paice's drums, is not captured with as much crispness and clarity as on other Deep Purple recordings.  This may have been partly because of the experimentation being undertaken with keyboard and guitar sounds, partly because of the conditions of the recording sessions, and partly intentional.  At times the sound has quite a stifling, claustrophobic feel to it, for my ears at least, but the quality of the songs and the musicianship ultimately prevail.

The album commences with one of the group's signature tunes, "Highway Star".  This was a shrewd choice as the opener, because it amply showcases the talents of Blackmore, Lord and Gillan, and contains some irresistible hooks. A memorable song, despite its enigmatic lyrical content.

After the thrills of "Highway Star", we come back to earth with the "meat and potatoes" heavy rock of "Maybe I'm A Leo", which is partially redeemed by some pleasant vocal harmonies, and effective guitar and keyboard solos.

One of the high points of the whole album, and Purple's catalogue, follows - "Pictures of Home". A relentless rhythm and riff drive the track, which features some of Blackmore's most memorable guitar parts. There is even a Roger Glover bass solo towards the end of proceedings!

"Never Before" was unsuccessful when released as a single, but is something of a hidden gem here. Many twists and turns occur, from the funky introduction, to the quintessentially Purplesque verses, and the more introspective middle section, which is followed by a guitar solo. An enjoyable and well-crafted rock song.

What can be said about "Smoke On the Water" that has not already been said a million times before?  Has familiarity dulled the impact and punch of that legendary riff?  The pedestrian verses in particular do not really live up to the aura created by that riff, and the harmonies in the chorus come as a relief. Strangely, I now find the guitar solo to be the most memorable feature of this song.

The largely instrumental "Lazy" has a more freewheeling, spontaneous spirit about it, with bluesy and jazzy elements in there. This all made it ideally suited for the concert setting, but this studio rendition is a creditable and gritty effort. It could have sounded self-indulgent, but its jaunty vibe, and the clever arrangement, ensure that this is not the case. Harmonica is also featured; unusual for Deep Purple!

The closing track on the original album, "Space Truckin'", possesses the same swagger as "Highway Star", and also bears similarities instrumentally, by virtue of its organ-intensiveness.  The lyrics may represent a departure for Deep Purple, but there is little doubting the overall effect.

The 25th anniversary edition contains the ethereal and reflective "When A Blind Man Cries", which stands out from the flamboyance of the other songs. This song is also a reminder of Ian Gillan's often forgotten vocal versatility. In some respects (the organ and guitar) the number is reminiscent of Pink Floyd.

So there we have it, Machine Head.  Deep Purple's previous work, and some of that which followed, was very influential on the rock music of the ensuing decades, especially in the USA, but Machine Head in many ways defined them, and an era of rock music.