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Magnificent seven


You probably didn't notice, but my column didn't run two weeks ago. It was Thanksgiving and my boss gave me the day off. Good thing he did, otherwise you would have had to read through my postmortem on England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

But now I'm back and, having been effectively muzzled for a month, I can't decide on one topic. So, here you go, seven columns (a full substitutes' bench) in one:

1. After years of mismanagement, greed, stupidity and, occasionally, corruption, the folks running Italian soccer have decided it's time for a change (for the better). To promote sponsorship, they've launched a new practice (they don't like to call it rule, but that's what it is): After the final whistle, both teams line up, shake hands and congratulate each other.

For those who experienced it, it's a bit like Little League ("Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate? Tigers! Tigers! Yayyyy Tigers!"). It may work with kids, but forcing fully grown men to do it is downright demented. The UEFA suits themselves have questioned it, stating the obvious: If sportsmanship is forced, it loses much of its value.

2. Time to salute Arsène Wenger (again). It's not just that the Gunners are top of the Premiership and undefeated once again. It's not just that Arsenal overcame a potentially poisonous boardroom battle and Jens Lehmann's hissy fits. It's not just that it weathered the departure of the most devastating one-man show in the Premiership this side of Steven Gerrard. It's not just that the club's best striker has been sidelined for the past two months.

It's just that Arsenal plays the game really, really well. The way its supposed to be played. And that's down to the manager.

3. Slaven Bilic didn't quite get enough credit for Croatia winning its qualifying group. Look at his team. The defense effectively featured four natural central defenders (Vedran Corluka can play right back, too, but JosipSimunic, at 6-foot-6, is anything but a left back).

One of the central defenders has started a grand total of zero league games this season (Dario Simic). The main holding midfielder, the guy who chased everything down against England, is 36 years old and plays in the Austrian league (Niko Kovac). The center forward has made just four league starts this year and has yet to score in the Premiership (Eduardo da Silva).

And yet everyone knows what happened at Wembley. This Croatia is less talented than Bilic's side which reached the World Cup semifinals in 1998. But its manager is brilliant tactically and has a unique understanding of how to get the very best out of his crew. Credit him and credit them.

4. Maybe Barcelona is right. Maybe with Bojan Krkic and Giovani dos Santos (not to mention Thierry Henry and Leo Messi), there is no need to hang on to Ronaldinho. But surely there is a right way (read: one which allows the club to cash in) to let him go and a wrong way. And it seems like they're choosing the latter.

5. We all want "bungs" (illegal payments) and corruption out of the game. And it's nice to see that the authorities are doing something about it. But was it really necessary to send a virtual SWAT team to execute a dawn raid at the homes of Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp, agent Willie McKay and three other people? Especially since nobody has been charged with anything.

If one were of the suspicious bent, one might suspect that this whole thing had been engineered to definitively rule Redknapp out of the England job (especially since, curiously, somebody had tipped off the tabloid photographers). Surely that couldn't be the case?

6. It's official. Following its scoreless home draw against Juventus last weekend, AC Milan has yet to win a home game in Serie A this season. The European champions are the only team in Europe's top four leagues to remain winless at home. And the streak will extend at least halfway into January, since Milan won't play at the San Siro in Serie A play until then (the Rossoneri are off to Tokyo for the FIFA Club World Cup). Weird, isn't it?

7. In a world where many see the rich getting ever richer and the poor doomed to a role as eternal sparring partners, stories like Lanús warm the heart. The Buenos Aires suburb, which until now had been best known for gifting Diego Armando Maradona to the world, can now celebrate its first ever Argentine league title.

Feel-good stories abound, like that of José Sand, the former journeyman turned goal machine. The financial gap between Lanús and Boca Juniors is not dissimilar to that between the likes of Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona and the minnows in their respective leagues (if not greater). Evidence that, with a bit of organization and a lot of hard work, miracles can happen.