Sunday, 31 October 2010

How strong is the Premier League?

With a late goal at the Emirates and a debatable 2nd goal for United at Old Trafford one really has to ask how strong the current Premier League is? United have been roundly criticised at every turn this season but remain undefeated in all competitions this season. Arsenal meanwhile have been hailed yet again as a great footballing example but are still level on points with United.

There is no doubt that Chelsea are the strongest and best team in the league this year and should retain their title before the end of the season. What is becoming rather concerning is those in the chasing pack appear to becoming weaker rather than stronger. City lost to Wolves, Spurs just seem incapable of getting a result against any of the top clubs and Liverpool are in a serious decline.

A commonly used parameter is how successful the EPL sides are in Europe; last year none of the English sides progressed past the Quarter Finals (albeit for the first time in a number of seasons). Football usually works in cycles like anything else and having dominated for so long the English game is now riddled with debt, falling attendances and risks losing it's top players to European Leagues. If the likes of Fabregas, Rooney and Torres were to leave for Spain in the summer it could spell the end of the league's dominance.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A big week ahead for Spurs

Although we are only 3 months into the season this next week will provide us with the clearest indication of how good Spurs actually are. There has been a lot of noises from Redknapp already this year about whether they are serious title contenders and there is no better opportunity to prove this than to play United at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon. Following this they play Inter Milan at White Hart Lane on Tuesday which could prove pivitol in their hopes to progress in the Champions League.

The addition of Van der Vaart seems to have given Spurs a new lease of life; they are scoring goals and playing some really good attacking football. They are still without 3 top class defernders in Dawson, King and Woodgate and have been missing Defoe for a while now; once back there is a good chance that Spurs can retain their Champions League place.

There have been a number of positives to take from their European adventure already but they will face their toughest test yet at home to Inter on Tuesday. Although Bale's late goals made the scoreline look respectable they must improve on every aspect of their first half performance. Spurs must learn to retain possession for sustained periods of time against the top sides; they do not have the ability as yet to do this but the experience they are gaining will only aid their development.

I do not feel Spurs are quite at the level to be considered title challengers as yet but are getting closer, they need to add some real quality in a couple of areas to be able to compete with Chelsea. However, in order to achieve this they must guarantee Champions League football and a result away at Old Trafford would be a great start.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Hernandez starting to look the real deal

With all the trials and tribulations at Manchester United over the last fortnight it was nice for yesterday evenings cup tie to be settled by their next future star. Javier Hernandez was brought in by United this summer before he starred for Mexico in the World Cup. Although he is rather slight he has great pace as well as a lethal finish which could prove vital for his side in Rooney’s absence.

Chicharito or Little Pea as he is known affectionately by his fans has scored 6 goals in 11 appearances this season which is a great return in your first season in a foreign league. He has scored goals throughout his young career thus far and looks set to continue. For someone so young he already possesses an incredible understanding of the game. The great strikers have always said they had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time; it is not something you can teach, you either have it or you don’t.

He has had a tremendous start to his United career and early indications suggest he is going to be a folk hero among those in the Stretford End for a long time.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Inter show class but Bale fights back

Last night was what the Champions League is all about. The standard of football played by Inter Milan in the Giuseppe Meazza in the first half was outstanding; although aided by some woeful play from Spurs. The reigning Champions of Europe set the tone for the night in the first minute when after 14 passes the ball broke to Javier Zanetti who dinked the ball over Gomez for a 1 nil lead.

The sending off effectively ended the game as a contest (or so we thought) but it was the correct decision and Inter were then running riot. Many of the Spurs players were found wanting and were desperate for the full time whistle, let alone the half-time break. However, they had not banked on Gareth Bale who lit up the stadium in the 2nd half with a virtuoso performance. His hat-trick of goals were taken brilliantly but Inter could and maybe should have done more to close him down on every occasion.

The comeback has taken the gloss off Inter’s display but Bale has certainly announced himself on the European stage. Spurs should not be complacent though, they have been a little fortunate so far in the competition not to be taught a lesson and last night they were. However, they are still well in the hunt for a place in the next round and should take a lot on board from yesterday. The defending simply cannot be that bad again and they desperately need a top striker as Crouch yet again proved his inadequacies against the best sides.

Inter proved that losing Mourinho will not effect them deeply at this stage, although one wonders whether Bale would have had as much joy against his organisation. The class of Eto’o, Sneijder and Coutinho was there for everyone to see and the later looks unbelievably good! I for one am really looking forward to the return game at White Hart Lane in 2 weeks.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Ozil just gets better and better

With all the dull ties in the first stage of the Champions League it was refreshing last night to watch 2 European greats clash at the Santiago Bernabeu. The 2 sides between them have won the trophy 16 times and the pedigree of players on display last night was sublime; World Cup Winners, multiple Champions League winners, Ballon d’Or winners, I could go on.

There was however, a 22 year old playing last night who cannot compete with some player’s individual or club honours but can certainly compete in terms of technical ability. Mesut Ozil was one of the great discoveries of the World Cup for me; I had heard him mentioned but had never seen him until then. I am now an avid fan of his and he is one of the most enjoyable players to watch; he doesn’t play act, plays the game simply and seems to really enjoy it which is rare to see these days.

The goal he scored last night was rather fortunate but was deserved for some of his magnificent interplay on the edge of the Milan area. He was almost playing one-twos for fun last night with Ronaldo, with whom he has already struck up a great understanding. He has never had an outstanding goal record but he does exactly what Mourinho asks him to do; link the midfield and attack, which he does effortlessly. Whatever happens at Madrid this season ‘los Blancos’ can be extremely happy that Ozil will be around for many years to come.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Ferguson puts end to speculation

This afternoons press conference was truly remarkable. Alex Ferguson appeared in front of the media to discuss his club's forthcoming Champions League fixture but nobody was concerned; everyone was there to hear what he had to say about Wayne Rooney. The rumours have been flying around since it broke on Sunday evening and it was nice to finally hear some truth.

Rooney will not sign a new contract and wants out of United.

Ferguson clearly feels let down by Rooney but stated he has had not fallen out with him. This whole situation is exactly why football agents are loathed by managers and fans alike. It certainly seems to me that someone has been whispering in Rooney's ear saying 'lets get one more big deal in before you retire'. Now as much as it seems crazy to be talking about his retirement his agent will already have calculated how much the pair could earn from such a lucrative move.

Football as a whole has been dominated by financial issues for the last few weeks with Liverpool's issues and United's debt levels. Now it has arisen again simply because of greed. Rooney is a superb player but he is not bigger or better than any club; if he goes to Manchester City he will deserve everything he gets!

Jones impresses again

Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers is going to be a top player. Having watched him at the end of last season against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United there was certainly much promise; he is starting to prove his quality this season. Last night he was easily Man of the Match in a dire game at Ewood Park where his quality shone through the torrential rain.

He has started the season playing as defensive midfield which is not his specialist position; he has however kept last season’s player of the season Steven Nzonzi out of the side. Stuart Pearce has been playing him alongside Chris Smalling for the England Under 21s and his performances have been outstanding. It will not be long before a top club comes a calling.

It is always difficult to assess how good promising young players will become. Occasionally though you see a player who just stands out from the rest and Jones is certainly one of these. At only 18 he has the physical stature to cope with the likes of Drogba and Tevez and also seems very competent on the ball. He dribbled the ball out of defence a couple of times last night with assurance. Jones also appeared on Football Focus a month or so and came across as a very level headed young man; hopefully he will not be corrupted in the same way other promising young players have over the years.

It will be an interesting season for Jones if he continues to develop at this rate. A full international call up is unlikely this year but Capello would be foolish not to take a closer look at him in the coming months.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Real Madrid must capitalise

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid team are top of La Liga and pose a real threat to Barcelona’s recent dominance. His team are still taking shape but are beginning to offer the threat Mourinho had predicted a few weeks ago. Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo spent the first few weeks shooting on sight and missing he remained patient and finally the goals have started to come.

The summer was spent adding to the midfield (bringing in Di Maria, Khedira and Ozil) and strengthening the defence by bringing in Carvalho. This has given Madrid the base for their lethal attacking players Higuain and Ronaldo who scored a brace each in Saturday’s victory over Malaga. Last season both Barcelona and Madrid broke records for their total points score at the end of the season and this season will be as close. The weekend also saw Xavi pick up another injury which may keep him sidelined for a while; he is instrumental in everything Barca do well and Guardiola is only too well aware of how crucial he will be in the coming months.

Whether Mourinho can replicate this form in the Champions League remains to be seen; the double header against Milan should give us an indication. They have not reached the quarter finals for the last 6 years and this will be one of Mourinho’s key objectives this season. Few however would doubt his ability to put Real Madrid back among Europe’s elite where they belong.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Cesc calls for a winning mentality

The latest rumbling from the Arsenal camp has been revealed today with their captain Cesc Fabregas insisting they have the quality but lack the winning mentality. Few could argue that they possess the style to compete with the best but there is still a significant gulf in class between themselves and the top clubs. The recent defeat to Chelsea demonstrated this again; they are several players short of being a top side.

The goalkeeping situation has been discussed to death and is a glaring error on Wenger’s part. The defence has been bolstered this season but is still miles behind Chelsea’s and United’s (if all fit), they have good left backs but that is unfortunately it. Vermaelen has been injured for weeks now and there is no news on when he will return; he looks a decent prospect but is still making too many errors at the top level.

The defence is of utmost importance for Arsenal as Song just is not good enough at this level. There were indications last season that he maybe able to step up but he has no discipline or positional sense and is generally a liability to the team. Whilst they do have some significant injuries one feels we have been here to many times in the past. They play Birmingham at home this weekend and will win comfortably which will paper over the cracks.

The captain and manager have both called for a winning mentality but how exactly are they supposed to get one? Cesc wanted out this summer and the only reason he remains is because negotiations stalled between the 2 clubs. There are some promising players coming through but until they can achieve some decent results against the top teams a winning mentality is impossible.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Scotland show heart

Yesterdays defeat at Hampden was predictable; the manner of the defeat however was not. After the shambles last Friday where Levein opted to play without a striker in the 1-0 loss in Sparta the Scotland team battled bravely against the best International side in the World. What a contrast when compared to England’s shocking display against the minnows of Montenegro.

Scottish sides have always had to show grit and determination against more able nations and this has been missing for the last couple of campaigns. The run in 2007 that saw them beat France home and away gave the fans real hope that this generation of players may get to a finals tournament for the first time since 1998. Although this is still rather unlikely this time the come back (albeit a very brief one) will give the team much needed confidence.

The financial problems affecting Scottish clubs has created real concern about the future of the game. Celtic and Rangers used to be able to challenge some of the top English teams but the gap is widening by the year. Scottish football needs some positive football results to revive the passion in the game; hopefully this display will lift the fans and players.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Van der Sar's replacement

With Edwin Van der Sar turning 40 later this month Alex Ferguson’s attention must be turning to who can replace the giant Dutchman. Rumours were rife at the start of the week that this would be his final season in Manchester; he has since come out and said he has no intention of retiring at the end of this season.

Having sold Ben Foster in the summer United will need to invest in a top class keeper who can maintain the high standards set by VDS. There are a number of possibilities being mentioned at the moment but the choice should be between 2; Buffon and De Gea.

Buffon has been arguably the best goalkeeper in the world for the last decade. Having made his debut at Parma aged 17 he signed for Juventus for a record £32.6 million in 2001 and has continued to impress throughout the Old Lady’s Calciopoli scandal. Although injuries have sidelined him for much of the last year he is still 32 and would be an ideal replacement when VDS retires.

In 1999 as young keeper came to prominence at Real Madrid; his name was Iker Casillas who has know been number one there for 10 years and is still only 29. Across the city in 2010 Athletico Madrid have unearthed their own goalkeeping gem in David de Gea who at 19 appears to be following in Casillas’ steps. It remains to be seen whether this young keeper continues to develop but early indications suggest he is going to be a world class keeper in the coming years and a move to one of Europe’s elite appears likely.

Whatever the financial situation is at United (they revealed yesterday they made a loss of £83.6 million in the last year), a new goalkeeper is something they can ill afford to not bring in. Ferguson has gone on record before stating it is an incredibly crucial position in the side and one that requires the best if United are to maintain their place among Europe’s elite.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Lineker finds more problems than solutions Part III

Ever since the Premiership was formed it has branded itself as the most exciting league in the world. It is watched by more people than any other league and generates more money than the rest of the top European leagues put together. However, the speed and physicality of the league means that technically gifted players find it harder to succeed than those in Germany and Spain.

When you watch the top Spanish sides play their ability to retain possession is very noticeable, whether they play the ball forward or backwards the key is ball retention. This is generally frowned upon in England and is usually met with
a chorus of boos; even at Arsenal who usually retain the ball better than any other side. Since Capello took the England job he has attempted to make this a vital part of their play; he is finding though that many of the players simply cannot play this style of football.

Klinsmann was interviewed on this programme and he made the point that England need to decide exactly how they are going to play and stick with it. Teams need to be flexible but the players need to know what to expect when they turn up for international games. England's style is fast and direct with plenty of pressure put on the opposition; when they play like this they can beat almost anyone. The key to this is encouraging players and fans to learn more about differing football styles and cultures so that they can vary things quickly and efficiently.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Lineker finds more problems than solutions Part II

The relationship between the FA and the Premier League is one that concerns me and I believe has a major influence on the national team. The fact that the top clubs in this country report to both rather than having one centralised organisation is wrong.

The FA is there to protect, promote and govern the game in this country. How can an entirely separate entity that appears to be predominantly concerned with their bank balance be allowed to have a significant measure of control? The Premier League has revolutionised football in this country, not only on the pitch but off it as well. There is much to be thankful for but one wonders whether more efforts should and could have been made to safe guard the vast sums of money given to English clubs.

The shambles that is Liverpool football club is not the fault of the Premiership; but can it be entirely blameless? What exactly happened at Portsmouth? Money was being spent when it didn’t exist; it was on the assumption they would get these big payouts for the Premier League. Teenagers are no longer responsible for cleaning the 1st team squad’s boots; they are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds when they haven’t even made it yet. How can this be right?

If England’s nation team is to progress it needs to be alongside the FA taking responsibility for football in this country. Money does talk but the Premier League has now been around for the best part of 2 decades whilst the gap between England and its rivals is simply getting bigger and bigger.

Lineker finds more problems than solutions...Part I

As I sat there watching Sunday nights ‘Can England win the next World Cup’ it struck me that the problems are more systematic of England’s psychological make-up than merely their ability to play football. For some reason there seems to be a reluctance to change the methods and adhere to the German or Spanish methods of producing young, technically gifted players; Martin Samuel stated that he feels England are trying to buy success rather than develop it.

The template Spain have used to achieve their recent success appears to be the most coveted; although it really isn’t as simple as it looks. Mourinho added towards the end that English children are encouraged to win first and play well 2nd; this is the polar opposite to how young players are taught across Spain. This cannot be remedied over night and is something that will take time to change. What is so disappointing is that none of the changes we hoped would be implemented appear to be taking place; Kevin Davies selection yesterday proving the point.

A more logical approach is needed from the FA and Premier League to promote a different brand of football than we see on a weekly basis. There are any number of factors that have contributed to England’s lack of success over recent generations; attitude, climate, expectation, the influence of the Premier League, money, national identity and many more. I will look to discuss these at further length over the coming days.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Ramires shines but Champions still miss Lampard

Chelsea brushed Arsenal aside at Stamford Bridge this afternoon and stretched their lead at the summit of the Premiership to 4 points. Whilst Arsenal controlled the majority of the game they could not transmit their pressure into goals; whilst their nemisis Didier Drogba scored his 13th goal in 13 games against Arsenal. The game was played predominantly in the middle third of the pitch where Essien, Mikel and Ramires dominated their opponents.

The newest member of this trio is Ramires, a summer signing from Benfica who had an impressive game. He looked rather lightweight in their defeat to Man City last week but was snapping at Arsenal's midfield all afternoon today and played a major role in Chelsea's attacking threat. Even with these 3 it is becoming increasingly noticeable that they are missing Frank Lampard.

It is not only Lampard's goals that they miss; they miss his overall presence. They have not had anyone arriving late in the box which not only creates scoring opportunites for Lampard himself but also many of his players. Any midfielder who scores over 20 goals a season would be missed by any side but for Chelsea to get back to their impenetrable best they need a fully fit Lampard; although having said that they are not doing a bad job without him.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hodgson must get a response at Anfield

Liverpool football club are a shambles off the pitch and are starting to resemble one on the pitch as well. This is the view held by the majority of the football media. There is no argument whatsoever about their finances, they are in a perilous position thanks to their American owners and one hopes they can resolve this in the near future.

The choice to bring in Roy Hodgson was a wise one; he will not suffer fools and will simply get on with the job in hand. What little transfer funds he has had his disposal he has spent wisely and thoughtfully. The addition of Konchesky is a stop gap but having managed him at Fulham Hodgson will know how to get the best out of him. The 2 Bosman signings of Cole and Jovanovic was shrewd financial business and the addition of Meireles could prove to be one of the buys of the season. The biggest problems confronting the manager is getting the best out of Torres and giving confidence to the other players.

Fernando Torres is an exceptional player and one of the best strikers in world football. Liverpool became too reliant on him last year and Benitez must take the brunt of the blame as he continued to play him when he wasn’t fit. He has played almost 3 years of constant football (including Confederations Cup) and the man simply needs a break. However, Liverpool just do not have the strength in depth up front that they should have.

Their start to the season has not been easy; at home to Arsenal and Sunderland whilst travelling away to Old Trafford and the stadium of Manchester. The pressure on the squad is mounting at the moment and they need a good home win to restore some of the faith in themselves and their loyal fans. This weekend they face Blackpool at home and they must win to ensure the pressure does not continue to mount.