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Monday, 10 December, 2018

Fizzing football finale promises to make up for soporific season

Champions League final caps a cracking Saturday night

Real Madrid and Liverpool meet in the Champions League final
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The 2017-18 football season is set for a gripping climax, out of character with its overall dullness, on Saturday with a double-header that should ensure few fans will be far from a TV from 5pm to 10pm.

It has not been a thrilling ride for the armchair lover of the game this season. We knew before Halloween that Manchester City were going to win the Premier League title; the top four spots were sewn up before the last day, and the relegation battle fizzled out before neutrals could maliciously enjoy the sight of fans going through the harrowing experience of watching their team play their final match needing points to stay up.

Further down the leagues and across Europe titles were decided disappointingly early and, worst of all, the FA Cup was horrifically unexciting from start to finish.

If you had set out to create the most magic-free tournament of all time you could barely have concocted a less exciting set of results.

In an outcome that would have had mathematicians enthralled, if nobody else, not a single non-league side made it through to the third round, which was itself devoid of glamour ties, shocks and unlikely heroes.

Round four offered a glimmer of excitement with Newport drawing against Tottenham but even the best match of the whole competition, West Brom’s 3-2 win at Liverpool, was totally overshadowed by the chronic shortcomings of the VAR.

It was only in round five, which saw Wigan derail City’s quadruple hopes and Rochdale snatch a draw against Spurs, that we were treated to anything resembling captivating knockout football.

From then on the competition meandered to its tedious conclusion which saw Chelsea edge out Manchester United in a game that could not have been more dismal.

Jose Mourinho, completing his transformation from brash, effervescent disruptor of the old world order to crashing bore, set up his Manchester United team with the same lack of ambition that has made them so hard to watch since the swashbuckling Fergie days, and Chelsea played an extra functional midfielder in Tiemoue Bakayoko rather than a skill merchant such as Willian.

Thus, the only viewers who derived any pleasure from the match – other than Chelsea supporters – were those who had bet on a dull outcome.

I have watched every minute of every FA Cup final since 1972 but Saturday’s woeful contest tested my desire to maintain that record until I have taken my last breath.

By uplifting contrast, Saturday evening can be approached with a justifiable sense of anticipation.

At 5pm Fulham and Aston Villa clash at Wembley for a place in the Premier League and the atmosphere will be intense, with the vast majority of tickets going straight to the participating clubs.

A straw poll I conducted last week showed there was significantly more enthusiasm for this game than for the cup final, and it is easy to see why, with a Fulham side infused with exciting young talent taking on a Villa team combining wise old heads with the dazzling ability of the likes of Jack Grealish.

As a Palace fan I love visiting Villa Park and the Cottage so have no preference which of these fine clubs goes up, but hopefully it will be a tremendous appetiser for what follows at 7.45pm.

While it didn’t take a genius to suspect that Chelsea v United would be a shocker, it is hard to fathom how Liverpool and Real Madrid can fail to put on a spectacular show in Kiev.

The knockout stages of the Champions League have been superbly entertaining with the semi-finals featuring 20 goals in 360 minutes of football that vividly demonstrated the extent to which Europe’s elite clubs are investing in attacking talent rather than buying high-quality defenders.


More by Bruce Millington

Difficult to see Southgate's squad sweeping majestically to World Cup glory

Rapid response required from racecourses after sickening Goodwood fracas

Magical marathon provides everyone with a fantastic run for their money

Weight of opinion finally shifting against VAR

No egos but plenty to admire about underrated Premier League 11


Liverpool have got to the final playing bold, high-risk football for which Jurgen Klopp should be warmly applauded, and the way they overran City in the quarter-finals gives them hope of doing a similar job on Real.

However, this could come down to some good old-fashioned big-game knowhow from Real’s long-serving stars, who have the battle scars to prove they can get the job done.

It’s a game in which any outcome bar 0-0 would be no surprise but my suspicion is that a cunningly awarded penalty or the dastardly stimulation of an act that sees the ref pull out a red card could be decisive.

It would be great to see Liverpool return with the trophy but it might just be that the Spanish side, aiming for an incredible fourth triumph in five years, will have too much nous for the Scouse.

FOBT restrictions will not open the floodgates for sports punters

Please, please can people stop believing and perpetuating the myth. It is getting ridiculous. There is no logic to it and no chance of it becoming reality either.

Since the decision was made last week to limit the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 there have been multiple expressions of hope that the government’s decision will have the beneficial effect of encouraging bookmakers to relax the stringent restrictions they have placed on punters who choose to bet on games of skill, such as racing and other sports, rather than chance.

The theory, it seems, is that in order to plug the gaping holes that will appear in the layers’ balance sheets now the cash cows have had their udders tied in knots, companies will have to start laying decent bets again.

How lovely it would be if this was true. Never again would the chorus of disapproval at the firms’ ruthless restrictions be heard.

But this is a case of putting two and two together and not even getting as close as five. The idea that senior managers have been instructing traders to stop laying chunky bets because it was better to sit back and watch the FOBT money flow into the coffers is hopelessly flawed and does not stand up to even the lightest scrutiny.

For a start, because Matt Hancock’s decision affects only physical machines rather than the versions available on digital products (something I believe could actually create a new form of social harm by encouraging those who used to play with hard cash in shops to start getting stuck into mobile roulette, uninhibited by the sense that actual money is changing hands and potentially under the influence of alcohol) the number of firms affected is small.

Bet365, Sky Bet and numerous other major bookmakers have never owned a FOBT so there is no reason whatsoever why their trading strategies should change.

And there is no discernible difference between how the likes of Hills, Ladbrokes Coral, Betfred and Paddy Power, who must now face up to life without FOBTs, and those companies that do not have that headache go about cutting back stakes.

Moreover, restricting, for all that it infuriates so many punters and increasingly appears to affect genuine recreational players as well as arbers and professionals, is designed to increase profitability.

Sadly, while those who know the time of day have their desired stakes significantly reduced, anyone who does not operate in a way that suggests they are going to be a winning customer is allowed to get whatever they like on.

And that is not going to change one iota with any bookmaker as a consequence of the taming of the FOBTs. They are entirely unrelated.

NFL bosses living in land of the not-so free

It is hard to think of a more imbecilic, weird idea than the one apparently being floated at the headquarters of the National Football League to penalise players who kneel during the national anthem by making their team concede 15 yards from the kick-off.

Yardage penalties are for football-related misconduct or infractions such as encroachment, an illegal formation and intentional grounding, not for players exercising their right to protest at what they see as racial injustice in America.

It’s all down to money rather than principle, of course. Since Colin Kaepernick started this form of protest in 2016 as a way of highlighting police brutality towards black civilians, TV ratings for American football have dropped significantly, not least because Donald Trump’s blunt criticism of the protests has caused his supporters to switch off in droves.

So, if this plan is implemented, some games will presumably start with the absurd sight of the referee touching his earpiece to ensure it is working and saying something like: “Number 54 offense. Kneeling to protest at the disproportionate mistreatment of black citizens by the police compared to white citizens. Fifteen-yard penalty.”

Or, even more preposterous, having to offset the penalty because players from both sides have knelt, thus having no material effect other than to give the protest the publicity the league is trying so hard to suppress.

The NFL could have attempted to solve the situation by relaxing the requirement that players had to be on the field before the Star Spangled Banner is played, a stipulation that came into force only in 2009, but instead they have tried to put some kind of bizarre tariff on an action that every American is well within their rights to perform.

If I owned an NFL team I would not hesitate to assure all my players that if they wanted to continue to protest by taking a knee they would have my full support. Hopefully this is exactly what will happen if the league really is stupid enough to go down this route. 


World Cup quizzes 

Groups A & B

Groups C & D

Which World Cup legend are you?


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Titles were decided disappointingly early and, worst of all, the FA Cup was horrifically unexciting from start to finish
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