Monday, 25 October 2010

Liverpool start on the long road to recovery, but the corner they’re turning will take some time.

Yesterday, Roy Hodgson steered his misfiring Liverpool team to their second League win of the season. It seems that the immediate pressure on the former Fulham man has eased ever so slightly, and rightly so. What Liverpool have been needed, as much as anything, is a change in fortune. Less experienced men than Hodgson are aware that these tend not to come through miraculous turnarounds but through hard work and on a steady gradient. Hodgson will hope that the result at Anfield yesterday was the first small step taken by his side on the road to recovery.

Against Blackburn, the first thing Liverpool remedied was the movement of Fernando Torres. When he is not performing up to his own high standards, people correctly identify the lack of goals in the team as a major problem and there is no denying that this is the case. However, probably as significant as the goals he scores are the opportunities he opens up for those playing behind him. Most notably, Steven Gerrard, who remains Liverpool’s driving force, really struggles when Torres fails to stretch defences. It is particularly telling that this season Liverpool have played no better with him than with his deputy, David Ngog. Until the Blackburn game, he had failed to regularly pull defenders out of position and create any space for those behind him to move into. Sunday was reported as the crucial piece of luck, a goal that could finally boost Torres’ confidence. However, getting on the score sheet was more like the reward for a slightly-overdue hardworking performance, in which he contributed far more than one finish in the second-half.

Secondly, Lucas’ performance yesterday marked a clear departure from the side who had so toothlessly capitulated against Everton, Blackpool and others. The young Brazilian is regularly derided both for giving the ball away cheaply in the middle of the park and for lacking creative ambition. More often than not, these criticisms are richly deserved. However, against Blackburn, 40 of his 41 passes were successful and, furthermore, many were made into the final third. Hodgson, who has sent out some very defensive sides so far, needs to ensure that Lucas continues to operate in this manner and develops into a creative, disciplined midfielder who contributes to his own side’s attacks as well as disrupting the opposition’s. This is something he is clearly more than capable of doing.

Yesterday, Liverpool were unrecognisable from their previous eight games. However, they only beat a rather average (the inspirational Paul Robinson apart) Blackburn side at Anfield, a result which should have always been par for the course. If Hodgson is to avoid running out of time he still has a huge amount of work to do, and two painful facts will no doubt be keeping him awake at night. Firstly, many Liverpool fans would still like to see him replaced and for the club to turn to Kenny Dalglish. More importantly, Liverpool still sit in the bottom three.

To start to resolve these, the first thing the manager must address is the way his teams approach in the first-half of games. So far in the League they have scored only one first-half goal and that was the rather farcical affair in the opening stages of the game against Sunderland. This statistic is troubling in itself, but the deeper underlying cause that displeases Liverpool fans so much is the attitude that Hodgson has equipped his team with. Rafael Benitez, although at times criticised as overly cautious, knew how to fire up his side and see them come out of the Anfield dressing room at 100 miles-per-hour. This approach was responsible for some of the finest performances under the Spaniard, it was how Liverpool overcame Juventus and Chelsea en route to the 2005 Champions League final, and Hodgson could benefit from revisiting those famous nights to see how Liverpool fans would like to see their side walk onto the pitch.

Hodgson also needs to recreate the organisational discipline he conjured at Craven Cottage. Fulham were such a hard team to break down, especially at home, because of the shape they maintained whilst without the ball. Some of the best teams in the world struggled to pick holes in his well-drilled side, but when Hodgson’s Liverpool are forced to defend, organisation is bizarrely lacking. It is one thing for an under-fire manager to send out a defensively-minded team, but to do so and then to watch them fail to defend is simply unacceptable. The Liverpool players are clearly not responding well to the new manager’s training methods, and it is down to him to sort this out.

Finally, one problem that the Blackburn result did nothing to address is the team’s away form. Hodgson himself has not won an away game in the Premier League since August 2009, when Fulham went to Fratton Park and overcame a very poor Portsmouth side. He has not yet cracked a winning formula away from home, and with a tricky trip to Bolton next weekend he must think fast. Does he revert back to type, set up a side that should be hard to break down but risk inviting on pressure or settling for a 0-0. Conversely, does he attack the game as he would be expected to do is Liverpool were at home? Coyle’s Bolton play a good brand of football, and might pick holes in Liverpool if Hodgson adopts too cavalier an attitude.

It is hard to predict where this Liverpool side will go from here. As we all know, it is easier for players to say that one result will turn their form around than it is for them to convince themselves of the same assertions. One thing is for certain, that on the long road to recovery, the corner Liverpool are trying to turn is a slow one. They must keep their eyes on the rocky path ahead, where the next stop is the Reebok Stadium.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Manchester City vs Liverpool - The battle to get back to basics

Tomorrow night, Liverpool visit the City of Manchester Stadium for both the visitors’ and the hosts’ second “season-defining” fixture in as many games. On paper the tie looks enticing, but those of us now familiar with Mancini’s 1990’s Italian style tactics may argue that we should prepare for a spectacle more akin to last seasons bore draw.

An undeniable fact, that will likely have football purists up in arms, is that this game will not, and perhaps could not, be won with a cavalier attacking attitude. However,  the spoils will not necessarily go the team who siply embraces most cautious approach. Tomorrow night, expect the victor to exemplify one quality over all others - organisation.

Last season, Hodgson’s Fulham side comprised a host of players who seemed to be playing above their natural level. The Cottager’s much praised defence contained the likes of Paul Konchesky, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and John Paintsil - players who have failed to perform at a range of clubs, yet looked like world beaters in black and white.. As Danny Murphy observed,

“The manager doesn't sprinkle magic dust on us… The manager and his staff work damn hard to make sure the lads know their jobs… He is a manager who organises his team well."

At Liverpool, Hodgson is working with, in majority, the same players that were available to his predecessor. However, as was hinted at against Arsenal, he will be attempting to mould them into an unrecognisable unit, first and foremost by instilling in each and every player the paramount importance of their own role in the team. Roy tends to promote organisation to the fore, and to create a uniform consolidated side who, as every visitor to Craven Cottage last year will testify, will be hard to break down. Hodgson‘s natural empahisis on neatness and rigidity is why his appointment at a side under such extreme financial pressure now seems so shrewd. He will not be heard to complain about his transfer kitty, any organisational failures must be ironed out on the training pitch, no matter the player’s apparent market value.

Both sides tomorrow night have potential match-winners in their squads, as teams like Liverpool and this nouveau riche City side always will. But, whereas a visiting Liverpool side last season tended to go out with only one thing in their mind - clean sheet - and regularly failed to achieve that goal, this season we should expect Hodgson to opt for a more balanced approach. Organisation will not come at the expense of all attacking guile. Under Benitez, Liverpool at times looked so cautious that they inadvertently increased the pressure on their own goal. Hodgson will be careful not to fall into that same trap, starting with Monday’s tricky opposition.

City, however, lined up for their first game of the season at White Hart Lane with the least ambitious starting XI one could imagine. Three defensive midfielders left them looking devoid of options, and happy with a point from the offset. This reflects the Italian Mancini, a man used to Serie A where an impeccable home record combined with consistent draws when playing away can be enough to win a title or two. What Roberto needs to work out, and quickly, is that this doesn’t cut it in the Premier League. Here, the required points total to be crowned champions is consistently higher than the Italian equivalent. Hopefully we will see a more adventurous team from Mancini on Monday night, although his pragmatic nature will prevent him from removing the reins on his new superstars completely.

An extremely exciting prospect is the first Premier League glimpse of the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. It is likely that in a game set to rely on nerve and concentration, one moment of magic will provide the difference. “Super Mario”, along with several others in this City side, is certainly a player capable of providing that. This is another example of the coach’s Italian influence, the classic theory of setting up not to concede and allowing your unplayable front man to grab the single goal that makes the difference. At Inter, Mancini tended to rely on Ibrahimovic, and with unquestionable success. It remains to be seen whether Tevez, Adebayor or indeed Balotelli will be able to provide this service with the consistency that the City faithful crave. The man who without doubt could have completed Mancini’s will feature tomorrow night, but will, to the delight of millions and the frustration of millions more, be wearing Liverpool’s number nine.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The wisdom of Wenger and the homegrown rule.

“The new rules on squads are a disaster for this country. It’s ridiculous.

“The homegrown rule is all artificial. From 1966 to 1996 this country won absolutely nothing. England won nothing and they had not one foreign player. How has it changed?

"You cannot just close your eyes and say: ‘Let's kick the good players out’ and produce the same quality. I've been educating players since I was 25 and I know one rule. The first thing you do to develop a player is to put him with another good player.

"In my opinion if you are a great player, you want to play with great players. If you are a great musician, you want to play with an orchestra where you have the best musicians. If you offer the guy the chance to play in an orchestra with poor musicians, he will not be happy.

The words of ‘Man On!’, I hear you cry? Well, sadly not. 

The insights of Arsène Wenger, a true innovator of English Football, are all too astute. There is a tendency to blame the ills of the English game, from simulation to predictably uninspiring international performances, on foreign imports and the cosmopolitan nature of the league. This is all too easy, and furthermore, it is startlingly inaccurate.

Wenger himself has oft been criticised for his reluctance to spend his transfer kitty on young English players. Sirs Trevor Brooking and Alex Ferguson have at times played the role of Wenger‘s judge and jury on this matter, and Alan Pardew, a man noticeably less credible than Wenger, remarkably claimed Arsenal were “losing the soul of British football”.

On this matter, “The Professor” feels no need to list the young English players he has gambled on, with varying levels of success*. Instead, the defence Arsène tends to offer is simple, English players offer poor value. Furthermore, it has been suggested that, in tandem with their inflated prices and pay slips, they bring inflated egos into the dressing room.

The latest instance of this, clear for all to see, is the welcome end to the longest-running transfer saga of the summer. Yesterday, James Milner, aged 24, moved from Aston Villa to Manchester City for a remarkable £26m. Mesut Özil, 21, moved but two days earlier for a fee believed to be around £12.4m. Of course, factors including contracts and the inevitable inflated prices paid by City play their part, but this is by no means an isolated example. Arsenal signed Thomas Vermaelen in the summer of 2009 for under £10m, at the time 23 years old and captain of his team, Ajax. Fast-forward 6 months, and Manchester United are shelling out a similar fee for Chris Smalling, admittedly four years younger than Vermaelen, but a player with 3 senior club appearances to his name.

Overpriced English players are a serious problem, and Milner and Smalling are merely the latest members of what is hardly an exclusive club. Joleon Lescott (£22m), Glen Johnson (£17.5m), David Bentley (£15m), Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21m) and Darren Bent (an astonishing, Thierry Henry-equalling, £16.5m) are but a few choice examples.

However, the story does not end there. What Wenger fails to observe in the aforementioned interview (perhaps as it is so obvious) is that the new squad rules are only raising the desirability of English players. The invisible hand of the market will rear its ugly fingers, and prices will inevitably rise. The ability of the likes of Manchester City to artificially inflate the prices of players such as Milner will also play its part, and the premium on young English talent will only accelerate. And, inevitably, always, Arsène Wenger will be proved right.

*Pennant, Bentley, Upson, Walcott, Wilshere, Simpson, Randall, Hoyte, Gibbs, Campbell, Jeffers, Wright, Cole,  - the list goes on.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Shift in Power?

As Benji kicks off the Man On season with a thoughtful and diligent precis on the weekend's action, I am left to write inspired only by an air of disillusionment and anger. News has broken today that Craig Bellamy will be playing his football in The Championship next season, presumably leaving many premier league fans as exasperated with the news as I am. Bellamy returns home to Wales, effectively ending his top flight career. However, as we all know, the 31 year old Welshman's move across the border is nothing to do with football and marks a significant moment in the development of the premier league. Manchester City's growing monopoly on the transfer market has taken a sour turn as they attempt to ruin the career of one of Britain's most talented forwards.

Many will point to Bellamy's affiliation with Cardiff as the reason for the move; however, make no mistake lads, Roberto Mancini has achieved exactly what he set out to do. Clearly, if what we read in the press is to be believed, Bellamy and Mancini's personal relationship has deteriorated. 'He hasn't spoken to me since February', Bellamy reported as he gave an insight into Mancini's somewhat flawed man management.

Mancini is not the first manager to sell a player on the basis of personal differences; nor is he the first to show Bellamy the door. The issue is about respect and professionalism; and never in all my time of observing football have I seen a player hung out to dry in this manner. Manchester City's quite vulgar financial prowess has left them in a position of ultimate power and has illustrated further a potential shift from the much maligned 'player power' to 'club power'.

Having decided that Bellamy was surplus to requirements, Roberto Mancini made him available for transfer. Naturally Bellamy had aquired a number of suitors and claimed he had 'never had so many top flight offers'. As Tottenham Manager Harry Redknapp swooped for Bellamy's signiture, the news broke that Bellamy would not be permitted to sign for any team considered, by Mancini, to be a rival. With the Italian running scared, this was deemed to rule out any of the interested premiership parties, a policy Redknapp himself described as 'ridiculous'.

Bellamy's performances and workrate last season won him countless plaudits, winning Player of the Month twice during Mancini's first 6 months at the helm. Having performed so well in any company, such abrasive treatment would leave anyone filing for unfair dismissal. But football's different; and City know it. Not even the £10 million Bellamy could attract would sway City. Therefore, Bellamy signed for his hometown club Cardiff on loan, wandering into the abyss in terms of top flight football. A club he has turned down his country for on numerous occasion has rewarded him with the sort of loyalty you expect when wandering into an oppostion trench. With the Welshman popular at Eastlands, and with a combative, but not creative, midfielder earning nearly £1 million per month, Mancini has little time to prove his methods.

Though the main question here is this: has 'player power' plateaued? With Bellamy left snookered, Fabregas still at Arsenal, Scott Parker going nowhere and even Mascherano turning out at Anfield on Sunday, it's food for thought.

As if we've never been away...

Man On, your number one source for football comment, debate and probably some conjecture, is back. Inspired by the glorious football on display at the World Cup (Ha!), the opening weekend of the Football Leagues and at long last the Premier League, it has been deemed time to resume hostilities, and re-focus efforts back on to all that is holy with a bumper season-opening edition. Football - its like you’ve never been away…

Today will be dedicated to England’s number one league, and what better place to start than the contrasting fortunes of the gang’s newest members. Blackpool surprised everyone with a 4-0 thrashing of an extremely lacklustre Wigan, who, it is fair to say, surprised no-one. Last season the Latics were far from good enough, and were perhaps saved by the virtue of the unusually low quality of the teams at the bottom of the league. The same could be said of West Ham, Wolves and Bolton, all of whom stayed up despite failing to reach the supposedly ‘magic’ 40 points mark. The Hammers struggled on Saturday, away at ’crisis club’ Aston Villa, but should stay up with the managerial prowess of Avram Grant and importantly the retention of midfield dynamo Scott Parker. Wolves, in contrast, started impressively, with a 2-1 home win over Stoke, a team admittedly prone to homesickness. Bolton managed to shut out Fulham on Mark Hughes’ debut, and, similarly to the Hammers, seem to have made a shrewd enough managerial appointment last term to guarantee safety in this.

The other newly promoted sides, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, suffered more predictable fates. Both faced extremely tough away trips, and both, unsurprisingly, capitulated, 6-0 to Chelsea and 3-0 to Manchester United respectively. The first weekend of the season is the worst time to make predictions, and I wouldn’t dream of writing anyone’s (even chronic relegation fodder WBA‘s) chances off yet, but both of these sides look like they will at least be in and around the relegation dogfight come the end of May, and don‘t be surprised if any number of West Ham, Wolves, Wigan, Bolton and Blackpool are down there with them. Looks like a good relegation battle at least!

Other results this weekend included Allardyce’s Blackburn continuing their impressive form at Ewood Park with a 1-0 win over perennial slow starters Everton and Birmingham’s comeback from 2-0 down away at Sunderland. Steve Bruce got the traditional managerial criticism of officials off to an impressively early start, with some misguided and misinformed comments about rookie referee Anthony Taylor:

“The referee put himself under pressure. We’re a team from a tough working class area, the fans want a team which mirrors that but I believe Lee is victimised… the referee was totally inadequate, absolutely awful, and its cost us.”

Cattermole is a persistent offender, albeit a very gifted player, and his manager will be asked to explain his comments, a good thing as Bruce’s excuses ring a hollow tone. Furthermore, his suggestion that Taylor was taking charge of his first top flight game are simply incorrect, and he spectacularly failed to acknowledge the ridiculous penalty decision that put his side 1-0 up in the first place.

Finally, a quick mention of the final two games this weekend. Spurs versus City was a wonderful opening tie, a truly fascinating 0-0. Tottenham’s failure to capitalise on their periods of dominance might have cost them on another day, but City were disastrously blunt. Three holding players is not a tactic that can win the title, and Mancini needs to learn this, presuming the money men at the Middle-Eastlands are as ambitious as their chequebook suggests. Tottenham, for their part, looked exciting, dynamic and altogether reminiscent of last season (unsurprisingly!). Last, but by no means least, Roy Hodgson’s first league outing as Liverpool supremo. Reina’s last minute howler aside, the Reds looked organised, dedicated and as a result tough to break down. Exactly what the Anfield faithful will want and expect from a Hodgson side. Arsenal, so often cited as the archetype of free-flowing, attacking football, saw a glimpse of what life would be without Fabregas. The conclusion? No Cesc and Arsenal appeared impotent.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The English Media

John Terry, the now former England captain, was yesterday granted leave in order to tend to personal issues recently reported in the press. What a complete debacle. As Terry no doubt continues to digest the ignominy of losing his captaincy he must be left wondering where it all went so wrong. Terry committed a totally personal act and has paid the ultimate price professionally. However, as he takes time away from the game to recover, let`s assess the impact the media have played in his downfall.

John Terry is merely another unfortunate victim of the vulture-like invasion of privacy that the English media offer. Even former England captian David Beckham, popular amongst most, suffered at the hands of the press as revelations about his private life were blown out of proportion in a World Cup year. (Not to mention the tabloid hatred after France `98). Beckham survived the episode relatively unscathed, a reflection maybe on the leniency associated with coach at the time, Sven Goran Erikkson.

Erikkson himself was not shy of tabloid revelations. Our media tore into the England coach at the time over totally personal love interests and shamelessly set him up with the infamous `fake sheikh` that left his position untenable. Sven was obviously naive and at fault for such exposure. However, as the FA were forced to part company with Erikkson just weeks before the World Cup, England`s subsequent failure can definately be linked to the disarray it caused.

The ensuing McClaren era provided darkness. The media were essentially, at least in part, responsible for his appointment as they drove the campaign for an English coach. They were also the first to sack him with their headlines after a set of disappointing results. They are not idiots. They are just paid to be. And they are good at what they do.

Fabio Capello, a squeaky clean disiplinarian, cannot be got at. The shrewd Italian is business-like and evidently cut throat, as John Terry will vouch for. Unable to expose Capello, the media therefore took the option of destroying John Terry`s world (cup). Terry was stupid in what he did. But did anyone really think he was intelligent before such events? Capello did not relieve Terry of his duties due to an aversion to his personal behaviour. He simply knew the force of the media, along with the potential prolonged repercussions, and seeked to protect both his and the England team`s professional interests.

Love him or loath him, the media have played a crucial role in dislodging the best captain we have. He joins the long list of England`s best to be sniped at, including Gazza, Lineker, Rooney, Campbell and Beckham to name but a few. Terry, however, ran into the wrong man in Capello.

The press will no doubt have another pop before the tournamnet in an attempt to unsettle our challenge. Simultaneously they will build the belief that we can win, before taking great pleasure in shooting us down when we inevitably don`t. The `Golden Generation`failed. But who coined the term `Golden Generation`? I doubt it was Hoddle, Keegan or Erikkson. Or whoever was in charge when we possessed this so called generation. The tabloids did. If anyone can handle our trying media it seems to be Capello. However, I think the press can be added to the list, along with penalties, `bad luck` and a distinct lack of truly world class players, as to why England do not win World Cups.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A tale of three debutants

    As the ref blew the final whistle in what was admittedly a rather mundane affair at Eastlands last night, it was suggested to me that despite the pedestrian nature of the match we had watched, we had witnessed what could be a pivotal moment in the next generation of English footballers. The match itself was uninspiring, and could be described most accurately as a tale of 3 debutants - the good, the bad and the distinctly promising - or Adam Johnson, Patrick Vieira and Jack Wilshere. Although Manchester City were on the whole relatively uninspiring, Johnson looked electric when he advanced down the right wing. For Bolton, Wilshere appeared as an advanced playmaker well beyond his tender years.

    Johnson’s debut showed all the promise that £10m demands. It looked like the boy we remember from the Premier League strugglers last season has benefited exponentially from his half-season in the Championship. Those with longer memories will remember his exciting performances on loan at Watford, and it seems that the second time around experience in the competitive lower league has truly ripened the young winger for future glory. His runs with the ball had a continental tinge, reminiscent of the sort of wide-man our national team has been missing for so long. His deliveries were consistently probing and on the half hour his foray into the box baffled the experienced and generally competent Paul Robinson. All in all, Johnson showed that Macini’s faith might be justified, and looks likely to be a star of the future, not only for Manchester City but with some luck, for the Three Lions.

    Vieira’s debut was an altogether more unconvincing affair. He provided the assist for Emmanuel Adebayor’s emphatic finish on the seventy-third minute, but apart from that he flattered to decieve. He was inches away from the perfect start when he narrowly missed connecting with Wayne Bridge’s tempting delivery but after that his performance was littered with stray passes and tackles as limp as a wet lettuce. Mancini will be looking for a significantly greater return from the Frenchman, reportedly on a wage well clear of £100,000 a week. The signing represented a risk from the offset, the Italian putting his faith in the 33 year old who proved a faithful stalwart at Inter, but it betrays Mancini’s naivety of the pace and aggression of the Premier League. The ex-Inter boss is smart enough to learn lessons if Vieira does prove to be below the required level, and of course there is still room for the former Gunner to prove me wrong, but if Mancini was hoping that this signing would aid the push for the coveted Champions League spot he may be disappointed.

    Finally, the on-loan Jack Wilshere, who has already shown his potential at Arsenal. The 18 year old midfielder looked calm in possession and orchestrated every attacking move that the Trotters could produce, and until City doubled their lead through Adebayor, the young Englishman looked increasingly likely to provide the spark that could have pegged back the Citizens. Generally considered to be one step behind in his development compared to other members of Wenger’s school of football such as Aaron Ramsey or Kieron Gibbs, he stepped into the Bolton side and looked considerably more comfortable on the ball than Arsene’s former prodigy Vieira. This game, although something of a damp squib for competition and excitement, was a wonderful chance to witness a significant early step in the blossoming career of two Englishmen, and perhaps the first indications of the beginning of the end for a Premier League legend.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

John Terry: England Captain?

John Terry `England Captain`. Never did like the sound of it. He portrays ignorance and instills a lack of pride- but that`s just my opinion. So when news broke on Terry`s recent personal life, alleging an affair with England and former Chelsea team mate Wayne Bridge`s girlfriend, the potential repercussions elated me. John Terry stripped of England captaincy? Isn`t that what I wanted for christmas? However, as I identified the potential replacements, I realised such events could only prove to serve in England`s detriment.

Despite off the field issues, Terry is in consistent form on the pitch. He will be the first to tell you he`s played better; however, Chelsea sit top of the premier league under his guidance as he remains injury free. Rumours continue to circulate that Mr Capello will relieve Terry of his captaincy and live up to his reputation as a staunch disiplinarian. However, lets consider the successor.

The current England vice-captain is Rio Ferdinand. Undoubtedly, when fit, one of the best defenders on the planet; an England captain he is not, especially under current circumstances. Ferdinand has struggled with fitness for the past 12 months and he must concentrate on arriving at the World Cup match fit. Often a linchpin at big tournaments, he`ll be crucial to any England success. However, recent ill discipline will leave him sidelined for 4 games, giving substance to the argument he cannot be trusted.

Steven Gerrard, vice captain during the ill-fated Steve McClaren era, is another stand out choice. For many years captain marvel at Liverpool, as he often leads with his performances. However, Gerrard is currently enduring a difficult season. Just turned 30, he has struggled with injuries all season as Liverpool`s over-reliance on him has left him fatigued and out of form. I cannot see the added pressure of captaining England to the World Cup as plausable.

Wayne Rooney, in sensatonal form at the moment, is in my mind a future England captain. Yes, he has shown himself to have a fragile temperament in the past, but I believe he now depicts a maturity far in beyond of his years. Comparisons can be made to the way Carlos Bilardo thrusted 24 year old Diego Mardona the armband in 1986. We all know what happened next. Interestingly, Maradona was sent off in his previous World Cup match for a wild lunge as Argentina exited at the second round stage in 82, as was Rooney against Portugal last time out. However, football has changed since then and this World Cup is certainly too early for Rooney. We pile enough pressure on our stars, and young Wayne must concentrate on his own fearless game going into the big matches.

I`d be very suprised if Terry is relinquished of his duties and believe, despite inward discontent, Capello will depict a calm and unfazed approach, while dealing with it in house. He cannot see the idea of changing captain 4 months before the start of the tournament as viable. Not one to make comparisons between cricket and football, but parallels can be seen between this situation and that involving Kevin Pietersen`s enforced resignation before the last Ashes series. England`s cricket team went on to win that series under Andrew Strauss`astute guidance. However, England`s best player Pietersen underperformed and hasn`t scored a century since. An unsettled Terry means an unsettled back four. He is undeniably a crucial piece of a complacated jigsaw, and we need our best players come June. So, as much as it pains me to say it, it`s John Terry `England Captain`.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Arsenal's Title Challenge - R.I.P?

Did this weekend signify the falling of another “horse” in what has become a “two-horse race”? It has been well documented that Arsenal are facing a crucial period in their season: Villa away last week, United at home last Sunday, and then Chelsea at the Bridge next weekend followed by the visit of Liverpool midweek. 1 point from the first two of these fixtures doesn’t signify a good return, and Arsenal really need 6 points from the next two games to justify their tag as title contenders. However, in a season when the top teams have dropped points at the most unexpected times, more worrying than their points count is the manner of their performances against the big teams this season.

Claims from Wenger that his side are a “different beast” from the team that limped to a 4-1 aggregate defeat in the Champions League semi-final now ring with a distinctly hollow tone. The 3-0 mauling by Chelsea at the Emirates was hard to swallow, but ultimately could be put down to a Drogba master-class. However, it seemed to me (an onlooker in alas, only 2D) that despite excellent performances from Rooney and Nani in particular (and although it pains me to say it, the effective Park Ji Sung), Arsenal’s reaction to their oppositions combination of graft and beauty lacked spine. Nani’s unexpected upturn in fortunes was impressive, but any defence that lets him trick himself through two defenders and then has their goalie turn the ball into his own net is suspect by my books. Arshavin added fuel to arguments that he is enigmatic, his normally lethal finishing suffered from a disastrous crosshair misalignment, and all-in-all United’s excellent attacking performance was significantly helped by some of the defending on show.

United’s second goal undoubtedly belongs in the top draw - it looked like the team we have watched for the last 3 seasons. However, I would argue that there were at least 3 Gunners’ defenders who were more concerned with watching the ball than tracking the run of Rooney, and they were predictably punished. Bacary Sagna was slow and sluggish in closing down Nani, and his team mates didn’t seem particularly bothered with much except being in and around the box. Add to that the third goal from Park, a player noted more for his work ethic than sublime runs, but low and behold, Arsenal managed to allow him to penetrate their entire team

I don’t mean to take away from what was undoubtedly a vintage performance from Ferguson’s team, but reports in the press that Wenger felt “let down” by players he had put so much faith in sound like an accurate account of the Frenchman’s reaction - this was not how he had written the script, and although attacking flair has always typified his Arsenal teams he has never been a manager to suffer defending like this gladly. Wenger’s comparison to a beast surely requires a massive reaction to this performance, and if his metaphor is accurate then Chelsea will suffer the backlash. However, I predict that next Sunday will in fact simply compound the Gunners’ misery, and it might have to wait until the visit of Liverpool for the reaction to surface.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Rooney coming of age..

‘Remember the name, Wayne Rooney’. Any self respecting football fan will recall the words of Clive Tyldesley on the day a star was born. Against an Arsenal side undefeated in thirty fixtures, Wayne Rooney plucked the ball out of the air with consummate ease and delivered a bending shot past David Seaman to win the game for Everton in injury time. The boy from Merseyside was 5 days shy of his 17th birthday; he was on 80 quid a week. Everything changed. Forget putting yourself on the map, he became the map. And with it came the inevitable pressures and expectations of being an exciting English prospect. He’s the one; better than Owen, the best since Gazza. He could be as good as Maradona… he’s the white Pele. England are going to win the World Cup. Just a few of the assumptions Wayne Rooney created as he burst onto the scene with that goal. It’s hard to believe the mercurial talent is still only 24 but, as he enjoys the richest vein of goal scoring form in his career, is he announcing himself as one of the world’s greatest?

Having guided his club to another Wembley final with a last gasp header to defeat rivals Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson last night described Rooney as “truly world class”. A tremendous accolade to a player that appears to be revelling in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, with Rooney’s goals this season proving he thrives on the extra responsibility. Following his meteoric rise at Goodison Park, Rooney found himself on Ferguson’s shopping list at just 18 years old, albeit due to what now seems like a comical bid from Newcastle that forced United’s hand. Rooney had just returned from Euro 2004 whereby personal (if not national) success had persuaded Sir Alex he was worth the £30 million asking price. 4 goals in as many games let the whole football world know who Wayne Rooney was, before injury cruelly ruined his, and undoubtedly, England’s campaign. The man was raw, fearless. His United career began in similar vein; a champions league hat-trick on debut as he finished top scorer, although he had to settle for no silverware. However, in recent seasons, although his form has never dipped enough to warrant any genuine criticism, he has been a victim of expectation. We all wanted to see England have a world beater; he wasn’t quite there yet.

Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, was. While Wayne Rooney suffered the pain of a broken metatarsal for the second time, and a subsequent race against time to be fit for the World Cup, Ronaldo was about to propel himself to the summit of world football. Ronaldo began to stamp his authority on the game at the highest level during Germany 2006; Rooney ended up having an early bath, as England endured an early exit. “Please don’t kill Wayne Rooney, he is the golden boy of English football” were Sven’s parting words as England boss, and here started a transitional few years for the boy wonder Rooney. Now playing in the best Manchester United side in a decade, Rooney was about to achieve great domestic success. He has won 3 league titles, a Champions League and a League Cup in the last 3 years, averaging 15 league goals a season. However despite such success, niggling doubts remained as to whether he could achieve the potential he had shown in his teens. He was beating less men, his long range goals were no longer an every week occurrence. Throughout this period, Ronaldo was the most feared player on the planet; 65 goals in 2 seasons from a winger speaks for itself. Rooney had less responsibility than he had been accustomed to and took on a selfless task for the good of the team, as Ronaldo assumed a free role in any team selected. Rooney displayed a maturity far beyond his tender years throughout frustrating spells, not least when he was played out of position and substituted in both Champions League finals in the previous 2 years.

Now in a World Cup year and with Ronaldo at Madrid, Rooney has reaffirmed everyone’s belief in his abilities. Ronaldo left Old Trafford and the general consensus was that Rooney would take on the added responsibility. He hasn’t disappointed, with 21 goals already this season the only reason Manchester United’s evident problems haven’t been more prevalent. His all-round game is currently as good as it ever has been, and dare I say as good as any other striker in the world. He won’t stop Chelsea winning the league, but lets all pray England have their very own Roonaldo this summer!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Midweek Frenzy!

Is it just me or are we experiencing the most pulsating season ever? Midway through January often you look for an eye-catching transfer to spark interest but, with the market predictably quiet, there’s certainly no shortage of talking points.

For anyone that’s blinked, Manchester United find themselves over £700 million in debt while their rivals across the road appear to have more money than they know what to do with. They’ve also got Carlos Tevez, of course. Burnley’s shock stint in the Premier league will be shirt lived I fear, having last week lost the catalyst for their success when Owen Coyle joined North West rivals Bolton. Portsmouth are still struggling to pay their players, while previous manager Harry Redknapp has been charged for tax evasion during his second spell at Fratton Park. West Ham have been taken over by the former Birmingham City owners, who themselves admit to having little money to fund the club. More money than Liverpool mind, as their ownership troubles wrangle on. Arsenal have signed a centre back. Remember Sol Campbell? And they sit top of the tree… there’s just a few of the issues brewing.

Maybe I’m just overexcited in a World Cup year as football goes into overdrive. However, as I struggle to keep up with off the field developments, let’s look at what has been an incredible mid-week on the pitch- and the Champions League is still yet to return!

The adverse weather conditions have provided many teams with an unexpected winter break and so we were treated to a feast of football during the week, a feast that only served to further wet the appetite for the rest of the season. The Carling Cup semi finals took place and provided intense viewing as two classic cup ties were played out. With the first leg between Aston Villa and Blackburn seeing Villa leave Ewood Park with a 0-1 lead, the tie was nicely poised for the second leg. Blackburn had nothing to lose; they had to attack. For Villa it was a difficult one; in front of their home fans they are expected to attack, and yet must have been focused on protecting their slender lead. In the end, no one expected what was to come and the two teams played out a ten goal thriller which eventually saw Villa through to their first Wembley final for 10 years. Having started the brighter, Blackburn took a deserved two goal lead. However, the lead came too early and Villa’s resurgence culminated in a 6-4 win on the night. The sending off of Chris Samba just before the half did change the game, as I’m sure Big Sam will concur, although no arguments about the decision.

With the Carling Cup’s credibility ever increasing (Chelsea and United have won it 4 out of the last 5 years) Martin O’Neill can now dream of ending Villa’s wait for another major trophy, and continue the credible job he’s done since arriving at Villa Park. Awaiting him and his Villa team will be a team from Manchester. With the first leg of this Manchester derby taking place on Tuesday night, an electric atmosphere was expected and it didn’t disappoint. A typical cup tie and a derby full of spite, resentment and rivalry. Just what you want. Anyone who didn’t see Carlos Tevez’ goals coming doesn’t know football. United took an early lead through the evergreen Giggs but the in form Tevez stole the headlines again with a double that sunk his former employers. Gary Neville, whose career has been over for a while decided to milk it by making obscene gestures (that he has no right to make) from the side line. Tevez today described him as ‘moron’; personally I don’t think that does Neville’s behaviour justice. However, it’s still very much in the balance at half time and we can look forward to further fireworks at Old Trafford on Wednesday night in the return leg.

In the Premier league, Liverpool won a crucial game in the battle for 4th spot with a 2-0 win over contenders Spurs, while Arsenal showed their resilience by coming from 2 down to beat Bolton and move top of the league for the first time since August. All in all, a great mid week for football with goals galore and the usual controversy that comes with it. And just think, in 2 weeks time we’ll have Beckham and Mourihno’s return to England to look forward to on a Wednesday night; now that’s worth waking up for!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Benitez Hangs On

Roughly this time last year Rafael Benitez gave a press conference prior to an away game against Stoke famously stating ‘facts’ about Liverpool and, more prevalently Manchester United’s, season. At the time Liverpool stood proudly 2 points clear of the chasing pack in their best ever start to a Premier league season. Today with another daunting trip to the Brittania Stadium looming Benitez provided a more sombre précis of Liverpool’s increasingly failing season with a heartfelt apology to the Liverpool faithful. Renowned for their patience and loyalty, Benitez’ message conceded, “We are not playing well and we all feel sorry for the fans”. The man is under fire; head up in the trenches and anyone and everyone is firing. Unquestionably his job hangs by a thread. Many believe defeat at Stoke tomorrow will spell the end of his tenure. A win? The same fate, only slightly delayed. But let’s spare a thought for a man whose showing the first sign of emotion after such intense scrutiny and, criticism in some parts, must have left him feeling ostracised.

Benitez is indisputably overseeing an immensely unsuccessful and frustrating period as manager of Liverpool Football Club. Though doesn’t it seem more justifiable given that off the field the club is in the sort of turmoil that only Pompey and QPR can relate to? West Ham maybe; and of course we’ll chuck Notts County in there. My point is this: how long did people expect the team to prosper while the club itself represented uncertainty and unwanted controversy? In no other job would a manager be expected to achieve previously unattainable targets with the organisation crumbling around them. Success brings expectation and the relative success of last season (trophy-less but not without meteoric improvement) has brought its own expectation. However, in a period whereby the club has endured much change and inner squabbling, with American owners George Gillet and Tom Hicks causing more trouble than their worth (literally), Benitez should be commended for the job he’s done. Up till now he has overseen one of the steadiest ships in the league, writing himself into the history books with the Champions League in 2005, while producing a team closer to winning the title every year.

Of course Benitez has made some bad mistakes. His record in the transfer market is dubious with the likes of Morientes, Babel, Lucas, Pennant, Dossena and Voronin all failing to make any sort of impact. The stubbornness he displayed over the signing of Robbie Keane now seems to be to the team’s detriment. Many point to the enforced loss of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid this summer as a turning point in Liverpool’s form, as his creativity has been missed. However, Benitez was practically pushing him out of the door the previous year as he pursued Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry, and therefore can’t site Alonso’s exit as an excuse. The gamble to buy the unfit talent of Alberto Aquilani has not paid off and Liverpool now find themselves ever more reliant on the two superstars, Torres and Gerrard. Benitez will be bitterly frustrated with the fitness woes both have incurred and can count himself unlucky on this front, but sadly for Liverpool fans without them is a team that would finish closer to the middle of the table than the top.

So as we potentially see the end of an era at Anfield, a new one beckons. And that man will be a big name; the current demise of the team is hardly going to be a deterrent for the likes of Hiddink or Mourinho, to name but two of the names being linked with Benitez’ job. Personally, I’d give Benitez at least until the end of the season to turn things around. Harry Redknapp today described Benitez as a “top manager with a fantastic record” and explained that Liverpool are “suffering the sort of blip that every team has”. Replacing the word “blip” with “minor crisis”, I’d agree wholeheartedly and I cannot see the value in sacking him now. The circumstances of the club will not change overnight and any manager coming in will be faced with the same lack order, lack of money, and a squad desperately thin on quality. Based on his record, I believe Liverpool can still finish fourth and save their season. Rafa described Stoke as his ”future” at the end of his press conference; however, after tomorrow, he could well be history.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Carlos' Journey

Carlos Tevez grabbed the back pages of every newspaper yesterday, so why not mention him here? A stunning hat-trick for the in-form Argentine put paid to a poor Blackburn side and propelled Manchester City into the much coveted fourth champions league spot. So after his controversial move across Manchester, is Tevez starting to prove worthy of his £30 million price tag?

The tenacious forward has not endured a particularly normal life; affectionately named ‘Apache’ in Argentina in reference to his upbringing in the trying surroundings of Fuerta Apache, he has come a long way. Fuerta Apache is one of the most dangerous slums in Buenos Aires with high crime rates and a population of over 17,000 in just 4,000 residences. Football was his only way out. A fact emphasised by his infectious work rate. Tevez now finds himself in starkly contrasting circumstances... but what a journey he’s taken!

Tevez began his career at Boca Juniors, the club he supported as a boy. During his three seasons at La Bombanera he won the Copa Libertadores, the Copasudamericana and the Intercontinental Cup. An impressive record for the much revered ‘Apache’ but no league title, something that Tevez himself alludes to. Although quotes attributed to him this season regarding retirement were presumably tongue in cheek, Tevez points to a title with Boca (along with the World Cup with Argentina, of course) as his career goals. If he was to decide on a return to his native Argentina and play out his days at Boca, who could blame him?

Tevez has been one of very few players in the modern game uniquely owned by a company, not the club he’s representing. However, ever since Tevez’ commitment to Media Sports Investment and in particular Anglo-Iranian Kia Joorabchian, he has endured nothing but turbulence and controversy. Having been pushed into a shock move to Brazilian giants Corinthians in 2004, Tevez later refused to play and demanded a move, allowing MSI to cash in once again. Tevez was a commodity, an object used for the benefit of those who owned him. Parallels can be made with the way Tevez’ national team coach Diego Maradona (whom Tevez described as the 21st century prophet) was treated throughout his career. Ill advising and little consideration for his own needs often left Maradona the unfortunate victim of his own controversy. However Tevez, like his hero, has battled to pursue success doing what he loves most.

Next stop for ‘Apache’ was Upton Park. I doubt he’d even heard of West Ham; he certainly didn’t choose them. As news broke on Sky Sports of the move, the football world’s proverbial jaw dropped. The boy from BA suddenly found himself in East London; hablas Espanol? Still, at least he was accompanied by his equally bemused compatriot, Javier Mascherano (also owned by MSI). Following a slow start at Upton Park and with Mascherano left out in the cold, Tevez inspired West Ham’s great escape culminating with the winning goal to beat Manchester United on the final day of the 2007 season. Lifelong veneration at Upton Park secured, but it was Old Trafford on loan Tevez was heading.

Although the ongoing controversy surrounding West Ham’s survival seemed unfair on Tevez (illegalities in Tevez’ move to Upton Park gave Sheffield United reason to appeal), he had a highly successful first season at United. Partnering the mercurial Wayne Rooney, Tevez scored crucial goals to help deliver a league and Champions League double. However, the signing of Dimitar Berbatov left Tevez warming the bench in his second season at Old Trafford and after relations soured between Tevez’ advisors and the club, Tevez waved farewell to his adoring fans with another Premier league medal to his name. Sir Alex Ferguson went on record saying he didn’t believe Carlos Tevez was worth the £30 million required for his signature; cue a shock move across Manchester to bitter rivals City, where Tevez would finally be free of the stranglehold of MSI.

Yet again Tevez has won over the fans with not only a bulldog-like work rate but a goal ratio to boot. 12 goals in 19 games and 10 in his last 7 suggests he was worth the big money. By my book, or more United’s debt ridden books, Ferguson simply couldn’t afford him. And with Owen and Berbatov regularly firing blanks, how they might miss him.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

When snow ruins your sporting schedule - Look to Africa

    The biennial African Cup of Nations kicks off tomorrow in Angola, and has already grabbed the front and back pages with the shocking armed ambush of the Togolese team coach. The Sparrow Hawks may be likely to pull out, but rightly or wrongly the tournament goes ahead and we are sure to enjoy some scintillating football over the next three weeks. Today, I am going to give you a brief analysis of the runners and riders, the favourites and some thoughts on the potential dark horses. I’ll also be having a brief look at some of the more tempting bets to be had. This isn’t exactly a competition that grabs the nations imagination, but any dedicated football fan will tell you that this tournament can be a great place to see some exciting football, spot stars of the future and enjoy those currently strutting their stuff in Europe’s top divisions. In a World Cup year, this becomes all the more relevant, and all the more fascinating.

    Ivory Coast are clear favourites, and looking at their squad it is easy to see why. Drogba, Kalou, Eboue, the Toure brothers and Dindane are some of the more recognisable names, and this impressive list must be daunting enough for the Malawis and Mozambiques of the competition. When you add to that reserve strikers like Abdul-Kader Keita of Galatasary, young Gervinho of Lille (who at just 22 boasts an impressive record of 11 goals in 18 appearances in Ligue 1) or the experienced West Brom defender Abdoulaye Meite, suddenly The Elephants appear to be a side capable dominating this competition. Their cause is only furthered by a potentially reduced group stage work load if Togo pull out of the competition as is widely expected.

    Samuel Eto’o, captain of Cameroon, takes his side into a tournament they have won twice in the last five attempts (consecutive victories in 2000 and 2002 and an appearance in the 2008 final). During a mixed qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup, the appointment of prolific French manager Paul Le Guen seems to have revitalised the Indomitable Lions. Eto’o is obviously the stand out player, but looking further into the squad names like Nicolas N’Koulou and Sebastien Bassong will be making sure that the team are more than a side built around one of the world’s most dangerous strikers. The Lions can rely on a rock steady foundation as well as attacking flair - priced as well as 11/2 in some bookies - Cameroon are surely worth an each-way punt.

    As far as the dark horses in central Africa are concerned, a couple stick out. Backing Angola, especially to reach the final at 10/1 is tempting. In the 20 competitions ince 1970, the hosts have won the tournament 8 times,  lost in the final twice, reached the semi-finals 6 times and only failed to progress to at least that stage on 4 occasions. Sides as small as Burkina Faso have made the penultimate round (1998) so don’t be surprised if Angola turn it on in front of their home fans. The other dark horses to have a look at  also sit in group A - Mali. Priced at a generous 22/1, with stars such as captain Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and La Liga goal machine Frederic Kanoute (a good bet at 14/1 for top goalscorer), and, like Angola, a relatively kind draw regarding both the group stage and the potential route to the final, The Eagles could definitely cause an upset.

     I hope this has been an interesting, if not comprehensive, guide to some of the action we are preparing for until the 31st January. With almost all the games in Britain called off this week (I personally have been robbed of days out to both Arsenal Bolton and Liverpool Spurs), and bar some exciting NFL playoff action tonight, there is very little sport to distract yourself with. I wholeheartedly recommend immersing yourself in the world of African football - you will not be disappointed. Perhaps world-famous Nike salesman and hero to sufferers of erectile dysfunction everywhere Pele was off the mark when he predicted an African World Cup winner before 2000, but some small consolation to the prolific endorser must be that the standard of football is now better than ever.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A slow start to the January sales

We’re almost a week into the transfer window and the January sales are predictably slow. Many managers site the ‘lack of value’ offered in January as the reason for such caution. Inflated prices and cup tied players disinterest managers who have a mere four weeks to negotiate. Given the intensity of the Christmas and New Year fixtures, it’s difficult to believe they even have sufficient time to study the market. Many expected Chelsea to spend big during their solitary transfer window before a hearing regarding their illegal approach for French star Gael Kakuta. However, Carlo Ancelotti has ruled out any activity and, like us all, presumably expects Chelsea’s transfer embargo to be swept under the carpet. Manchester United won’t see the value in entering the market either, despite an eye opening defeat to rivals Leeds at the weekend. Having sold the world’s best player in July this season was always going to be one of transition and Fergie will not be too worried. So, where will the activity come from?

Of course all eyes will be on millionaires Manchester City and their new manager, with the tabloids having a field day. Reports today suggest former Manchester United and Chelsea midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron has rejected the opportunity to link up with former Lazio teammate Mancini, with his decision to reject the advances “instantaneous”. Unsurprising given his age and popularity at the club his father represented, Estudiantes. Personally I think Mancini’s had a lucky escape. As I look out of my window with snow showing no sign of relent, I question Veron’s worth with a Monday night game against physical Blackburn.

However, central midfield is clearly a position of priority for Mancini, with Patrick Vieria poised to complete a loan move to Eastlands. Vieria has seen his career stall under Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan and has constantly been linked with a return to North London with both Arsenal and rivals Spurs in recent transfer windows. The move represents a risk for Mancini in my opinion. Whilst Vieria offers invaluable Premiership experience at the highest level, since leaving Arsenal the pace of the Premiership has soared while his own has dwindled. Arsene Wenger mulled over a move for former skipper and refrained; it’s often difficult to question the judgement of such a shrewd dealer as Wenger. Time will tell on that one.

Regarding Wenger’s potential activity, I personally don’t expect Arsenal to dip into the January sales. The Frenchman has mixed experiences signing after Christmas: he had his fingers burnt with the signing of Spanish flop Jose Antonio Reyes in 2004, but last year he completed what was arguably the coup of the window by bringing in Andrei Arshavin. However, Wenger points to Arsenal’s 51 goals this season as a reason to abstain. His stubbornness over the much sort-after Marouane Chamakh’s price tag will leave him resisting a move, while the imminent fitness of Danish striker Nicholas Bendtner fills him with more assurance than many Arsenal fans.

Liverpool FC are clearly a club that need emergency surgery both on and off the pitch, especially if Rafael Benitez is to uphold his “guarantee” of a top four finish. Given their dire financial constraints it is presumed that players must leave before they can come in, giving substance to the rumours circulating regarding Ryan Babel’s proposed move Birmingham City. Benitez will want to recoup most of the £11.5 million he paid for the Dutch winger, while Andrea Dossena is on the verge of a move to Napoli. With Argentine winger Maxi Rodriguez widely expected to be Babel’s replacement I fear a dose of déjà vu for Liverpool fans. Maxi has unquestionable talent; however, too many wingers have come and gone at Liverpool, failing to make the necessary impact (Kewell, Nunez, and Pennant to name but three). I don’t envisage Maxi being any different and believe a loan move would be a more a prudent approach. Another man linked with a return to the Premiership is Ruud van Nistelrooy and in light of Liverpool’s over-reliance on Fernando Torres I view this as a superb option. Nistelrooy would provide a genuine goal threat and a perfect foil for Torres. A goal every other game is what his record offers and although a former Manchester United player, the nature of his abrupt exit from Old Trafford leaves the door open for Liverpool.

For the other clubs business should be relatively quiet. Birmingham City are a likely big-spender, and expect fire sales at both West Ham and Portsmouth. Clubs will fight tooth and nail to seek bargain buys in order to improve their squads as prices drop and loan moves appear more accessible and no doubt the likes of Harry and Big Sam will be seen wheeling and dealing when the time comes.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Owen Columba Coyle

    The appointment of Gary Megson at Bolton never really sat comfortably with the Reebok faithful. He was seen by many as a poor man’s Sam Allardyce and was always going to face the sack eventually, it was simply a question of when. Sammy Lee was almost the polar opposite in terms of response and reputation - Little Sam was exactly the man that the Trotter’s fans wanted to steer the ship after Big Sam jumped overboard and swam to Tyneside (to a doomed and sinking vessel). It was just unfortunate that he lacked the tactical nous to ever last beyond that honeymoon period.

    Now that Megson has gone, Phil Gartside is left to make another huge decision. It seems to me that he is set to make the best one since tempting Allardyce from Meadow Lane in 1999, and possibly even one that usurps that. Allardyce took Bolton to the dizzy heights of the Premiership, followed by a League Cup final, a sixth placed league position equal on points with the soon-to-be Champions League winners Liverpool and the knockout rounds of the UEFA cup. However, if, as is looking increasingly likely, Gartside gets his man and Owen Columba Coyle does come to Bolton Wanderers, this will be a massive coup.

    Coyle rejected Celtic in the summer, citing that the Burnley “adventure” was still his to build. However, recent comments about the size of his budget lead us to believe that he is perhaps ready for a challenge which has the potential to reap greater rewards than survival, one that he believes Bolton can offer. And, if Bolton is his home by next week, he will be a wonderful acquisition for the club, the chairman, the fans and the town. Owen Coyle knows how to run a club like Bolton - a tight budget but with some room for manoeuvre. He will be popular with the fans as he tends to play expansive football, knows the importance of creating a fortress and most importantly, he was an incredibly popular player with the Trotters in the early 90s - he even scored the first goal in Bolton‘s famous 1995 First Division play-off Final comeback. Finally, as Burnley, a north-west town not dissimilar in size or stature to Bolton, can testify, he is a likeable man who’s footballing philosophy is capable of  bringing a community together.

    Phil McNulty has written a great blog on this subject, but for my money he has concentrated too much on what a strange decision this would be from Coyle. I disagree- the Burnley boss can be confident enough in his future as he has the potential to be one of the League’s top managers, to take a small step to Bolton rather than waiting for a giant leap to a “big club”. He is widely respected and can rest assured that many chairmen will wish that he had been available to them later in the year, when the inevitable managerial merry-go-round continues.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Where has the magic gone?

The first week of any year often brings similar traits. Ambitious resolutions, an annual detox after a boozy Christmas and the 3rd round of the oldest competition in the world, the FA cup. Historically this is one of the biggest dates in the football calendar and provides fans with drama and expectation, as lower league and even non league clubs have their opportunity to hit the back pages with a giant killing act. Ronnie Radford, the 1988 crazy gang- it’s the magic of the FA cup. Any football fan is familiar with the cliché. However, as I rose this morning never have I been more uninspired by a Saturday afternoon line up. Filled with a feeling of emptiness, it reminded me of the frustration felt when an international friendly breaks the mould of a pulsating premier league season. When 17.45 came I was even less inspired.

Credible home draws for Nottingham Forest and Reading against Birmingham and Liverpool respectively will leave both clubs happy, while cash strapped Coventry will be delighted to take Pompey back to the Ricoh Arena. Nevertheless, such results do not represent the archetypal upset we’re accustomed to at this time of year. Mr Mancini avoided a potential banana skin in his first taste of the FA cup away at struggling Middlesbrough, while every other premier league team progressed with relative ease on home soil. Hull and Blackburn crashed out in the all premier league clashes, not that they’ll care one iota. So as I look forward to the return of the premiership I’m left wondering, where has the magic of the FA cup gone?

Firstly, I do believe the draw undoubtedly played a key role in the insipid events of this afternoon. As the big boys entered the competition many of them were given attractive home draws against lower league opposition, while the top flight affairs of Wigan vs. Hull and Villa vs. Blackburn didn’t exactly leave the mouth watering. Unfortunately, it’s more than that and I fear the FA cup is in danger of losing its importance.

No longer is it about football for the so called giant killers. Reflecting on today’s games, I would have loved to have seen Sunderland travel to non league Barrow and find out if they’ve got a backbone. Likewise Stoke. However, in today’s business it’s about money and the smaller clubs would rather go away, pick up their pay cheque and take a hiding than challenge the opposition on the pitch. This is maybe not true of the players or fans, but certainly is of the management and boardroom. The mentality towards the FA cup has changed; I even doubt Reading wanted to win today’s game against Liverpool. Happy to go to Anfield. Content to go out.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the change in attitude towards the competition; it has been gradually devalued over the last decade. Today attendances were as low as they’ve ever been for the 3rd round. Many people will point to Manchester United’s withdrawal in 2000 as a turning point, although I do not necessarily hold this view. Maybe the belief in the romance has waned? In 15 years only Pompey have broken the mould of a ‘big’ four winner. So after a busy Christmas period whereby every team had heavy league expectations to fulfil, managers view it as a chance to rest players for a game that doesn’t matter.

And there holds the sad truth, the FA cup no longer matters. For the small clubs it’s about money and for the bigger clubs there is too much more at stake. I hope tomorrow provides more twists and turns in the form a big upset at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge but I won’t be holding my breath; for now, the magic has gone.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Managerial Merry-go-Round

The New year is a time to asses your goals - in life and in football. For me, a late promotion chase for the mighty Gills looks increasingly unlikely, and I am therefore reassessing my goals; staving away the threat of relegation is now the realistic aim. However, as we all look to 2010 its time to reflect on those who have not made it this far. Of course, for us any managerial post in professional football is a distant dream, but for those in the game it’s still just their job, and like anyone losing their job over the festive period you have to feel for them. Nevertheless, there’s little time for sentiment… I will be discussing the logic, or lack of, that has seen many men recently receive their P45, thus sparking the inevitable managerial merry-go-round.

Loyalty is an often referred to dying breed in a game that has become more of a business than a sport in the last decade. With so much money at stake throughout all levels of the game, results speak volumes and bad results mean the sack. Of course, loyalty can be a poison chalice, as Middlesbrough fans will no doubt vouch for. They had to witness Steve Gibson’s devotion to his inexperienced appointment, Gareth Southgate, lead them to the championship. As they sit 11th in the second tier of English football only 3 years after a European final appearance, Boro fans and their fiercely loyal chairman must wonder whether wielding the axe this time last year would have left them in better stead. Hindsight… However, although I am not a fan of the proverbial panic button and I believe the success of the likes of Ferguson, Wenger and Moyes warrants such a view, I do believe now is as good a time as any to change the hierarchy in a football club. With the transfer window imminent, clubs have just 4 weeks to wheel and deal in an attempt to improve their chances of achieving their goals. So if the board are not 100 per cent behind the man in charge, there seems little logic in letting him be the man to loosen the purse strings and potentially further stricken the football club.

Gary Megson is the latest man to lose his job, following the Premier League dismissals of Mark Hughes and Paul Hart. In the Championship, Alan Irvine finds himself out of work at Preston, as the latest of a staggering 8 managerial changes in the League. Perhaps the dismissal of the ex-Forest, West brom and Leicester (amongst others) boss leaves the football world far less shocked, and dare I say less interested than the sacking of Mark Hughes. Bolton fans certainly don’t seem sad to see the back of him and although Phil Gartside sited the club’s precarious league position as the reason behind Megson’s sacking, the fact that he had failed to ever gain the backing of the Bolton faithful would have played a major role. It’s difficult to judge this dismissal; Bolton were in an almost identical position when Megson took over and the more prudent football fan would suggest this means he’s done a good job. Would Bolton fans have taken this 2 years ago when Megson took over from Sammy Lee with the club destined for the championship? Yes would be my guess, but inevitably the expectations of the football club have increased despite the sale of Nicolas Anelka. Phil Gartside has gambled with the transfer window in mind and has a big, big appointment to make. Paul Jewell would be an ideal man to bring in given his experience, although I believe stagnation under Megson will lead to relegation under his successor.

Paul Hart recently made way for Avram Grant at Portsmouth and jumped on the merry-go-round to take up the stability of a managerial job at QPR. While every man and his dog at Pompey was busy denying that Grant had been lined up to replace Hart, Harry Redknapp was busy on Sky Sports saying he’d be “very surprised” if Avram didn’t take the job. Good old Harry- he’s been in football too long to believe any of that bullshit. So Hart heads for the circus that is the R’s under Briatore, in serious danger of getting his fingers burnt again, and Grant takes on mission impossible. Still, I bet Paul Hart is happy to see his pay cheque this week.

So, the managerial merry-go-round continues. And who are we to specualte who could be next. Well, lets finish off with what the bookies have to say:

Phil Brown 5/2
Gianfranco Zola 5/1
Rafa Benitez 6/1
David Moyes 10/1
Mick McCarthy 11/1
Harry Redknapp 14/1
Avram Grant 14/1
Sam Allardyce 20/1
Owen Coyle 33/1
Tony Pulis 33/1
Steve Bruce 33/1
Roberto Mancini 33/1
Alex McLeish 33/1
Carlo Ancelotti 50/1
Roy Hodgson 66/1
Arsene Wenger 66/1
Martin O’Neill80/1
Alex Ferguson 100/1

The loss of Song

    Happy new year one and all! I hope this finds you well, and not too hungover, especially as we have to wait until tomorrow for another dose of football. Anyway, let’s get straight to business. This morning I was reading an interview with Arsenal’s Alexandre Song. The Cameroonian midfielder has started to become an imposing presence for the Gunners this season. Wenger has been criticised in the past for failing to sign a ball-winning midfielder to counterweight the creative brilliance of Cesc Fabregas, and for selling Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra. However, it seems that in Song he has found the man ideally suited to protect his expansive back-four, exemplified by the Cameroonians man of the match performance at Fratton Park.

    However, Wenger is now faced with a dilemma. After their potentially tricky away trip to the Boleyn Ground on Sunday, Song will fly to Angola to join the  Cameroon squad for the taxing African Cup of Nations. With the Indomitable Lions one of the bookie’s favourites to reach the final, Song could potentially miss 5 crucial Premier League games, including away trips to the Reebok and Villa Park, and the visit of Manchester United to the Emirates. This, combined with injuries to Fabregas and Denilson, predictably leaves the Gunners somewhat short in the centre of the park. However, as the old cliché goes, as one door closes, so another opens.

    The door I am referring to opens for a young Welsh centre-midfielder. Aaron Ramsey has shown with his 3 League goals this season that he is more than capable of contributing to the Arsenal cause both going forward and in defence, and the 2009 Welsh young player of the year is perhaps the most promising player to wear that particular shirt since Ryan Giggs. Like the Manchester United stalwart, Ramsey is predominantly left-footed, but capable of wonderful control on either side. And where better for him to be learning his trade than at Arsenal? In fact, it is unlikely that he would have been given the chance to impress under any manager other than Wenger, but this policy of the Frenchman’s, to put his faith in youth, has paid dividends time and again. And I would bet that the next 5 games without Song will be just the chance that Ramsey needs, and that we may see him further showing off these sort of talents, as seen at Portsmouth last Wednesday. He is, in fact, somewhat reminiscent of Fabregas when he burst onto the scene in 2003 - slight of frame, but talented on either foot and with an exceptional eye for a pass. Ramsey is slightly older than Cesc was when he arrived, but this will undoubtedly work in his favour, as the Arsenal captain was unique in his ability to adapt to first-team football so early in his life. I predict that Aaron Ramsey will not only emulate Fabregas’ achievements, but has the potential to surpass even his hero, Ryan Giggs.