Monday, 28 February 2011

Arsenal Deep In Their Cups After Final Loss

Despite the overwhelming temptation to sit and write thousands of words about the fact that Ashley Cole shot a fellow human being it would be remiss and indeed unprofessional not to discuss the Carling Cup Final. And professionalism and consistency is the backbone of this blog as much as rumour, distain and gossip.

Sitting at home and watching the eruption of joy and elation from the Birmingham fans and players, along with the scenes of crushed and broken Arsenal players will stay with me for a long time and showed just how much this final meant to both sides. Birmingham deserved their victory as they should have had a penalty and man advantage within the first two minutes when Szczesny brought down Lee Bowyer. The Blues played superbly and their passing at times bettered that of Arsenal. Both sides had glorious chances to score a second. Overall it was one of the most pulsating and enthralling domestic finals in a long time. Coupled with the brilliance of the Manchester derby semi-final last year, the Carling Cup is staking a serious claim to offer better entertainment than the FA Cup.

The fallout from the defeat for Arsenal will be interesting though. They are still in the FA Cup, have a lead to take to the Camp Nou and, despite being four points behind in the title race, have a much easier run-in than Manchester United. One defeat should not colour what is still potentially a very good season for Wenger’s side. The Carling Cup was never going to be the trophy that persuaded Fabregas and others to stay in London, assuming he could be persuaded at all. If Arsenal win the Premier League then the failure yesterday will be forgotten in an instant.

Nevertheless, the argument goes that success breeds success and winning that first trophy would have lifted that six-year-old monkey off the teams back. As Jacob Steinburg pointed out yesterday in the Guardian’s minute-by-minute commentary, it was the Carling Cup win in 2006 which kicked off three league titles and a Champions League for Manchester United. Winning against Birmingham yesterday might not have given Arsenal the confidence to go on and win the league, but losing certainly will have niggled away at the self-doubt in all of them. Like the draw against Newcastle after being 4-0 up, the questions will hang over the team for the next few weeks.

Solid wins at home to Leyton Orient and Sunderland will do no harm but after losing to Birmingham the match in Spain takes on a whole new significance. An entire season can sometimes spin on a single result and it is hard to see one more crucial to Wenger’s boys than the second leg in Barcelona. Should they lose 1-0 and go out on away goals, then damage will be minimal. The fear must be that Barcelona will put on the same sort of show that they did last year. Likely to be without Theo Walcott, Fabregas and Vermaelen this game is taking on a sickening significance for Gunners fans.

The timing of the Carling Cup final was perfect for Arsenal, just before the season enters the final stretch where games come thick and fast. They are up against a Manchester United side that has bags of experience about winning titles and can grind out results. But it is not a vintage Ferguson team by any means. Arsenal are easily good enough to win this title. They may be four points behind but it is as much theirs to lose as it is United’s. But the smart money knows who is more likely to break under the pressure.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Conundrum Of Champions League Retention

Udinese were fantastic. Even before Di Natale stepped up and whipped the free-kick low into the net past the despairing hands of Julio Cesar to give them the lead, the Zebrette were dominant. They out-passed, out-fought and out-ran their opponents. The victory brought a brutal end to Leonardo’s perfect start as Inter boss. Except that, for all that it was a remarkable performance it was Inter’s defeat rather than a victory for Guidolin’s side. Not through a lack of will or effort but because Inter desperately needed a break. The European champions struggled manfully but had the thousand yard stare of the terminally jaded. The verve, the spark, the drive; all were missing. Mourinho’s Grande Inter had morphed into Leonardo’s walking dead in the space of eight months.

The Udinese game was nearly a month ago and the tiredness has only become more evident in the build-up to the Bayern game. This might be the squad which won the treble but the energy that was put into that achievement is now showing. While everyone focused on the tactical genius of Mourinho and how he managed to out-think Barcelona in that semi-final, the under-appreciated aspect is the physical hell that the players endured for him. How playing every game in the domestic league, Champions League, Coppa Italia, Super Cup and Club World Championship takes its toll. Leonardo has provided a fillip to the squad and there is a new energy that was noticeably absent under Rafa Benitez but no new coach can do the work of a prolonged break. Remember that these Inter player went straight from winning the treble to the World Cup (how Zanetti and Cambiasso did not make that squad remains inexplicable) and sacrificed their winter break to go to the Club World Championship.

The idea of footballers suffering from fatigue is often ridiculed. As though, over a certain monetary threshold simple factors such as tiredness shouldn’t exist. In the past few months, Chamakh has publically revealed how jaded he is and requested that Wenger pull him out of the firing line. Now the stresses of moving country and playing a full season should not be underestimated. But Chamakh has not had to cope with the sheer intensity of performing at such a peak level for a prolonged period of time in the way that Wesley Sneijder has had to. If the Moroccan striker is feeling burnt out, it is no wonder Inter are struggling to replicate their form of last season, regardless of who the manager is.

Obviously from the point of view of Nerazzurri fans this lethargy is a big negative. The prize of being the first team to retain the Champions League in the new format would be a historic honour and it has been said that the mark of a good side is winning titles, the mark of a great side is retaining them. But from the point of view of the competition as a whole, the opposite is true. Domination is never healthy and retention means that the prize it gets less meaningful every time.

At some point, a team will manage to retain the Champions League. Manchester United, Juventus and Ajax all fell at the final (excuse the pun) hurdle and Barcelona were only denied a place at the Santiago Bernabeu because of an erroneous refereeing decision on the Bojan goal. However, the past month has offered a compelling reason to believe that Inter won’t be the ones to set the precedent. The squad is tired, players like Sneijder and Milito gave every last drop of energy for Mourinho then went straight to the World Cup and the miniscule summer break has not been enough. Even those who didn’t go to South Africa look run down (Zanetti and Cambiasso for example) so the strain on those that did cannot be discounted. Nothing makes winning the Champions League harder than being the holders.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Despite Inter's Triumph, Italian Football Still Lags Behind

North London did itself proud this week with two monumental victories. But while Arsenal and Barcelona was by far the more entertaining match, the truly significant result was Milan losing on their own soil. Nothing can or should be taken away from Arsenal beating Barcelona and Djourou, Wilshire and Koscielny in particular were outstanding against the Golden Boys. The fact remains that Guardiola’s side are still freakishly good at the moment. Arsenal were superb but a 2-1 lead is precarious at best and going to the Nou Camp is daunting regardless of the lead. The deeper significance of this round of Champions League games was showing just how far Serie A still lags behind after Calciopoli. Inter pulling off the treble may have lulled fans into a false sense of security about the resurgent power of the Italian league.

This time round, Milan were beaten and deservedly so by a team fifth in their domestic league and unable to start two of their most vital players .Bale wasn’t in the squad and Modric only got half an hour on the pitch. Moreover, without giving in to the hysteria surrounding Gareth Bale this season, the obvious weakness in Allegri’s side was the frailty of the full-backs. Had Bale been available to terrorise Abate rather than the rather ineffective Pienaar, the damage inflicted on Milan would have been even worse.

Even as it stands, Spurs will welcome Ibrahimovic et al to White Hart Lane knowing that not only did they beat the current league leaders but very much deserved to do so as well. Milan may well be able to return Pirlo to the side who would have made a difference but will be without Gattuso after his headless chicken routine got out of hand. That is to say nothing of the utterly horrific challenge Flamini lunged into on Corluka, leaving him on crutches. Milan’s midfield was depleted but so was Spurs. Only one side let it show.

It is always important not to read too much into a single game, but Spurs victory was definitely no accident. Watching the match gave the impression that if this were replayed ten times, Spurs would certainly win more than Milan. Furthermore, Napoli, who are currently second in Serie A were beaten earlier this season by a Liverpool side that was in the relegation zone, shorn of confidence and in utter turmoil. Moving away from just English vs. Italian contests, Shakhtar went to Rome and after going one-nil down, came surging back to win 3-2. Add in the fact that not one Italian team managed to win their group and a picture of a country still recovering from scandal emerges.

Last season the UEFA coefficient was up for grabs as Germany nearly usurped the fourth spot from the Italian league. In the end it came down to the final. Each side was fighting for their country in addition to their own glory. The next midweek article will be the second part of this series, looking at the rematch and why Bayern look ready to exact revenge. Sufficed to say that Mourinho’s Inter offered false shoots of recovery for Italian football, a nation with serious domestic issues which are manifesting themselves on the European stage.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Relegation Race: Who'll Drop And Who'll Not?

For all the excitement at the top of the league in the race for the title and European places, the relegation battle is gearing up to be the tightest in a long time. While the idea of relegation battles going down to the final day are not uncommon, this is the first season in a while that has featured no clearly doomed teams a la Portsmouth and so we cast our eye over the fight for top flight football as the season enters the run-in period:


In theory Holloway’s side should have enough of a buffer to prevent getting to sucked into the mix. But seven defeats in their last eight games and a gap of only four points from West Ham suggests that fatigue and euphoria at being promoted might not be enough to carry the Tangerines through. It should be said that on a number of occasions this season they have been desperately unlucky not to come away with at least a share of the spoils, in particular the game against Manchester United where they lead 2-0 with twenty minutes to go. However that game also showcased naivety at the highest level which United punished. With such little time left and a two goal cushion Holloway’s men should have been sitting back and retaining their shape in order to frustrate United. Instead we saw Evett and Eardley bombing forward and opening up the game. For all that Blackpool have never played anything other than attacking and enjoyable football and it would be a real shame if they were to go down.

Birmingham City:

Earlier in the season, Paul Doyle wrote an article arguing that Birmingham would go down and furthermore that they would in no way be missed. Certainly watching them this season it’s hard to remember that Big Eck guided them to 9th last season. They were dominant at St. Andrews and defensively very sound. This time round they have managed to lose fewer games than any of their other rivals but a nasty habit of drawing far too many games which has seen them slump into 16th. The positive is that their run-in is significantly easier than the teams around them. Not only should City fans feel confident of notching up a few more victories but they don’t have to face three of the current top four again. It remains to be seen how much investment is required over the summer. This season might just be a blip with some key players underperforming or whether McLeish needs to enact a more drastic overhaul.

West Brom:

Another side that has been on a wretched run of form since beating Newcastle, West Brom have just installed Hodgson as the successor to Di Matteo, a sacking which stunned quite a few fans. Di Matteo brought them into the Premier League and initially had them flying as high as 5th place after the first few weeks. Most memorably they went and dominated Arsenal at the Emirates walking away 3-2 victors. However after the promising start the slide began and players like Peter Odemwingie have not managed to maintain their form. The curse of the amateur hack strikes again since I confidently predicted that Di Matteo would end the constant promotion/relegation cycle West Brom always endure. New manager Roy Hodgson has already pulled off one great escape with Fulham in the 2007/8 season and will be expected to do so again. While it is sad to see a genuinely likeable as well as talented manager like Di Matteo sacked the potential fillip from bringing in someone who has been there and bought the T-Shirt might just be enough to save the Baggies from going boing boing again.


Under Roberto Martinez Wigan have been the most frustrating side in the top flight. On their day they seem to channel the spirits of the Ajax side of the early 70’s. However more often than not they look like they’ve been drinking spirits instead. Of all the teams in the struggle, none are harder to call than Wigan. Offensively they can be superb but they are most definitely defensively frail. In fact Wigan remind watchers of nothing so much as Arsenal without the budget. Both sides share a philosophy of attractive football which stems from the men in charge, both are notoriously Jekyll and Hyde and both Wenger and Martinez would seriously benefit from having an assistant manager who can coach decent defensive play. Martinez is another likeable manager in the league and it will be a shame but last season the Latics rode their luck. Twice in a row might be too big an ask.

Wolverhampton Wanderers:

Wolves have a curious problem under McCarthy this season. They have been excellent against the bigger sides claiming the scalps of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City at Molineux. But against the sides around them, they have just not been able to cut the mustard. Kevin Doyle has again been a key player but has not had the same impact, scoring only three this season compared with his haul of nine last year. However, like West Ham, they have begun to pick up victories at the crucial stage in the campaign. Five victories in their last eleven games reads much better than two in fourteen prior to that. The morale boost of being the team to end Manchester United’s unbeaten run might just be what keeps Wolves up despite a very poor first few months.

West Ham United:

Still rock bottom after 26 games, there is nevertheless some minor bright spots for West Ham. They have collected more points in their last seven games than in the nineteen games before that including three victories. Despite an utterly miserable start to the season which saw only one victory in fourteen they might yet survive if they can parley this upswing in form into some momentum. However they have only two games against fellow strugglers left (West Brom this weekend and Wigan on May 15th) and will need to rely on picking up points against the likes of Liverpool, Bolton and Spurs if they are to avoid relegation. Furthermore it must be acknowledged that even if they avoid the drop it will merely be masking the deep inadequacies of the squad and a serious rethink in strategy is required regardless of where the Hammers finish.

One vital factor in which teams stay in the top flight will be the morale and self-belief in the squad. Despite the very best efforts of Ian Holloway, I would predict Blackpool to join West Ham and Wigan in the Championship next season.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Transfer Window Winners And Losers

Now that we’ve all remembered to breathe after the first ever transfer deadline day to actually live up to the hype that Sky tries to ram down our throats we can try and pick over the pieces and see who won and lost after the January bloodbath:


Aston Villa: Martin O’Neill apparently left due to Lerner being unwilling to spend. If that is the case either the American has changed his mind or the Irishman was demanding some astronomical investment. With the arrivals of Makoun, Bent and Michael Bradley the Villains have managed to strengthen some crucial areas while avoiding the loss of any key players despite strong interest in Ashley Young. At the time Bent was regarded as wildly overpriced but with Torres setting a new standard in British football, followed by Andy Carroll and Suarez who is untested in England, £18m possibly rising to £24m now seems reasonable for a proven goalscorer and a man who can lead the line. Bradley is a smart acquisition, the only surprise being that he hadn’t moved before now. A strong showing at the World Cup added to an already burgeoning reputation and he will hopefully be a big player for the Midland club.

Newcastle: The size of that transfer fee should be prising almost any player away. Carroll is a local boy turned club talisman and it’s very understandable why fans were depressed to see him leave but assuming that Ashley holds to his promise to reinvest all the money into the club and that the Toon avoid relegation then the future looks rather bright. As Moyes showed at Everton with his clever spending of the Rooney money one big transfer can fund some major squad development.

Manchester City: They got their man in the end. Dzeko could be the final piece of the puzzle. The Blues will be in the Champions League next season but after gelling this season and with the additional firepower of the Bosnian being the champions of England in 2012 is no mere pipedream. Mancini needs to shed some of the deadwood, a process already underway with the jettisoning of Roque Santa Cruz, Adebayor and Bridge but he has a very impressive squad at his disposal and Dzeko offers some very interesting tactical options either as the lone front man or with a variety of partners.

AC Milan: Looking forward to the resumption of the Champions League, Milan have done what Spurs couldn’t (see below) and brought in a shiny new striker in Antonio Cassano as well as Urby Emanuelson from Ajax and van Bommel from Bayern. Despite a phenomenal injury crisis facing the leaders in midfield ‘Arry will be ruing the different fortunes of the two clubs prior to their European engagement. Cassano has already made significant contributions and has left Ronaldinho a distant memory in the minds of Rossoneri fans.


Tottenham Hotspur: Just how big an impact will the failure to bring in a new striker have on Spurs? The scatter-gun approach of bidding for Rossi, Forlan, Aguero, Carroll, Nilmar and anyone else with the slightest eye for goal was hardly edifying but it showed how desperate the need is for someone to lead the line ahead of Bale and co. South African arrivals Khumalo and Pienaar add squad depth but fail to address the most crucial issue.

West Ham: Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane will be pulling in a combined wage of £160,000 a week. Gold and Sullivan’s promise to ‘end the mad spending’ echoes hollow after two less than convincing players have been brought in on such phenomenal sums. Regardless of whether West Ham are relegated this season, there needs to be a mass clearout of deadwood and a restructuring of the wages to prevent the insanity of the Icelandic regime from continuing in the future. Bridge and Keane may prove inspired purchases but the smart money wouldn’t bet on it.

Stoke: The loss of Gudjohnsen, Liam Lawrence and Tuncay leaves the Potters with a serious creative gap. Three years after promotion and Pulis has not evolved his style of football on iota. While it is undeniably effective and has maintained their place in the top flight it would not be called entertaining in any language. Depressing.

Ajax: Once again the heart of a promising Ajax team has been ripped out mid-season. The loss of Suarez and Emanuelson looks set to be followed by the departure of Stekelenburg to Manchester United in the summer. For a side with such wonderful and romantic history it is so sad to think that the four times European champions are relegated to the status of a feeder club. Good money has been extracted for both but that cannot disguise the sorrow at knowing that another chance at building a team for Europe has vanished.

Time Will Tell: On the Chelsea and Liverpool transfers. Carroll is a huge gamble given the sums involved and fans will be expecting fireworks from the eighth most expensive player of all time. While he may well dovetail well with Suarez in a classic “big ‘un, little ‘un” partnership replacing Torres is a huge ask. Ancelotti meanwhile now has to figure out how to incorporate both Torres and Drogba and whether his favoured 4-3-3 formation will be sacrificed. That issue has been covered in many other places and so no more on that. Whatever else January achieved it has set up one of the most eagerly anticipated Liverpool vs. Chelsea clashes in a long, long time.