Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Barcelona are simply the best

Last nights game at the Camp Nou was simply breathtaking. The standard of football shown by Barcelona in particular was magnificent and at the final whistle Real Madrid would have been hoping to get out of Catalonia as quickly as possible. Even Jose Mourinho was powerless to stop Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Villa tearing his new team apart.

The game started at an incredible pace and Barcelona just oozed quality. This team has been compared to some of the great club sides in the past but as far as I am concerned this is the greatest side the world has ever seen. Last night there were 10 Ballon d’Or nominees and 15 World Cup winners on the pitch which is astonishing. The way Barcelona moved the ball and retained possession was an example to anyone who has ever played the game; one or two touches in almost every instance and all impeccable. Last night Xavi completed 110 successful passes which is a Spanish League record; Barca also completed 684 passes to Madrid’s 331.

This defeat was incredibly significant for Mourinho; it was the first time in his managerial career that his team have conceded more than 4 goals. The Madrid side is still relatively inexperienced and will recover from this but the gulf in class was easy to see last night and remedying this could be Jose’s biggest challenge.

The night belonged to Barcelona though and the way they destroyed their biggest rivals will be etched on many memories for a long time. The poise, balance and expertise demonstrated last night was at a higher level than any other club side can come close to and they will now be even more feared across Europe.

Monday, 29 November 2010

United hit 7 and top the table

At Old Trafford on Saturday Manchester United finally demonstrated their title credentials with a 7 goal demolition of Blackburn Rovers. United remain undefeated this season but this was their first really outstanding performance of the 2010/11 season.

The much maligned Dimitar Berbatov helped himself to 5 goals but it was his link up play with Nani and Rooney that really caught the eye. The worrying thing for the remainder of the league is that United are now top of the league having stuttered through the opening couple of months. It is unusual for the Red Devils to come out firing in August but there are usually a few more hiccups on the way than this season.

Considering the fact that they have been missing most of their first choice back four, a couple of first choice midfielders and of course the Rooney gate saga it is yet another remarkable feat from Ferguson. If they can maintain their usual run through Christmas and the New Year it could be United’s 4th title in 5 years.

There is certainly still room for improvement and the need for a natural replacement for Paul Scholes will be top of Ferguson’s priority list in the transfer window. There are already rumours about bringing in Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich or Steven Defour of Standard Liege. However, for now Ferguson will be quite content knowing his side are 2 points clear before the start of December; things are looking extremely ominous for the rest of the league.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Barcelona vs Real Madrid Preview

This coming Monday will see the first El Clasico of the season at the Camp Nou; more importantly it will be Jose Mourinho’s first visit as the Real Madrid manager. Last seasons corresponding fixtures resulted in wins for Barcelona which proved pivotal in deciding the title; the Catalan giants ending up lifting the league trophy for the 22 time by 3 points. This season both sides are already dominating and these games will have a crucial role in deciding the eventual winners.

The season is only 12 games old and Real Madrid are setting the early pace having dropped 4 points. Mourinho has already instilled his confidence and belief on a squad who have struggled domestically and in European competition over the last few years. Add to that players such as Carvalho, Di Maria, Khedira and Ozil and you have a very strong and technically gifted side. It is not a typical Mourinho side though; they are far more attacking and possess more flair players than he has had at previous clubs.

Madrid however are yet to face a real test domestically whilst a win and an away draw against Milan suggest that Los Blancos are ready to compete again in Europe. This game will come as a real test of the squad and will provide an insight into how their season may develop.

Barcelona meanwhile lie 1 point behind but have won the last 5 Clasicos which should certainly give them a mental edge; although Mourinho wasn’t present for any of these. The Catalan giants have had a steady start to the season but have become a little too reliant on Messi’s goals. The wonderful Argentine is currently the best player in the World and an integral part of Barcelona’s hopes for the remainder of the season.

The real problem Guardiola is facing this season is maintaining Xavi. Most of the top Spanish players have not had a significant period of time off for 3 years; European Championships, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. Barcelona currently have 7 players who started in the World Cup final last summer and this is starting to take its toll. Xavi Hernandez pulls the strings and makes Barcelona tick, his incredible range of passing separates his from any other midfielder in the world and his pass success rate is astonishing.

Whatever the outcome of this game the title cannot be won in November, but it can be lost. Neither side can afford to lose the game but I do not expect a negative game; Barca only know one way to play at home and Madrid are a new beast under Mourinho. Let us hope the game lives up to the hype.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Its a funny old game

Does anyone actually want to win the 2010/11 Premiership title? It may sound like a rather foolish question but at the moment the top sides are all in disarray to varying degrees. Chelsea lost again amidst reports about Ancelotti’s unrest, Arsenal lost at home for the 3rd time in 5 attempts and United, who were considered outsiders after Rooney gate regained top spot (although 2nd on goal difference to Chelsea).

The problems going on at Chelsea appear to be Abramovich driven again. Ancelotti appears to be unhappy about the departure of Ray Wilkins last week and according to sources had no input in the selection of his new assistant. This is not the way to run a football club and the Russian should have learnt after Mourinho left that the manager needs full control. The players are certainly good enough, although with Lampard missing it has exposed their lack of goal scorers from midfield.

Last months Rooney saga had the press yet again convinced that Ferguson was losing his grip on management and that the end was nigh; after 24 years at the club and 30 odd trophies you would assume people would stop writing him off! United are certainly not as good as they were a few seasons ago but this is another side in transition. The fact that United are joint top and have had an average season so far should be worrying for the other contenders.

They will be the top 2 in May but it is the chasing pack that will be interesting. Arsenal proved that they are not strong enough to compete for the highest honours at the weekend with an appalling 2nd half display. There are too many average players in their team and the fault must lie at Wenger’s door for not strengthening the defence and buying a new keeper. Spurs were very good in the 2nd half but are far too inconsistent at the moment to maintain a challenge for the league. This season they must ensure they finish in the top or they may lose some of their top players. Manchester City had a fine win at the weekend but remain incredibly unpredictable; there are also too many problem players and I would expect to see some more on field brawls before the end of the season.

It is good for the league that this season has been so inconsistent; however, I do feel that the standard is worse than in previous seasons. But, it certainly makes it exciting for the fans.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A game of two halves

Spurs triumphed in the North London derby this afternoon in an incredible game that may well be the start of a shift in power between Spurs and Arsenal. This was Arsenal’s third defeat at home in 5 games and that just simply is not good enough if you are to be title contenders.

Arsenal were far more positive than Spurs in the opening stages and they scored after 10mins when the impressive Nasri bundled the ball over the line after a mistake from Gomes. The game then seemed over when Arshavin played in Chamakh for a 2nd. Tottenham were slow to the ball and positionally poor in the 1st half although Arsenal’s dominance was not entirely reflected in the score line.

At half-time Redknapp brought on Defoe and told Jenas to sit in front of the back 4 and protect the defence. They pulled one back through Bale and suddenly the game had been turned on its head; Arsenal looked shell shocked and their defence could not stand up to the onslaught.

At the back William Gallas who was booed throughout was fantastic at the back. They were playing as a team finally and the 2nd came shortly afterwards when Fabregas foolishly put his arm up at a free kick. Van der Vaart casually stroked the ball into the net from the resulting penalty and there was only one team that was going to win from there.

With 5 minutes to go Van der Vaart turned provider and Kaboul glanced in a header at the far post. This win is massive for Spurs; they must now go and build on this and cement their place in the top 4.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Nasri shines

Last nights International at Wembley produced very few positives for England but Samir Nasri’s performance was further evidence of a player at the peak of his powers. Since arriving at Arsenal 2 years ago his form has certainly fluctuated but his prodigious talent is now beginning to flourish on a consistent basis. His ability to manoeuvre the ball past opponents at ease demonstrates his sublime technical ability.

I first saw Nasri playing for Marseille in 2005 and was struck by his composure; that ability is not something you can teach, look at Theo Walcott for example. Last seasons injury to Cesc Fabregas saw Wenger move Nasri in field where he has more scope to really hurt the opposition. He thrived in the central position although he remained somewhat inconsistent.

In his early career he was likened to Zinedine Zidane; both of Algerian descent and both at their best when played as a playmaker behind the strikers. This comparison had some detrimental effect at the time but he now seems to be becoming that type of player; everything looks so easy and he moves the ball from left to right with consummate ease.

Wenger faces a tough decision in the summer when Barcelona will surely come calling for Fabregas. However, in Nasri and his young protégé Wilshire he has more than able replacements. The questions for Samir, as with the whole Arsenal squad is can the club achieve the success the player’s desire. The jury remains out but if he were to become available most of Europe will be lining up for his signature.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Benitez struggling in mission impossible

Last night was yet another example of Rafa Benitez’s struggle to maintain Inter Milan’s domination of the Italian league. A 1-0 loss at the San Siro (in their home fixture) will do little to raise confidence and unfortunately for Benitez the result seemed inevitable after Ibrahimovic’s penalty.

The squad is still blessed with talent, although the loss of Walter Samuel for the season will have been a big blow to Benitez. The body language is different to last season though; yesterday’s game reminded me of watching Inter before the Calciopoli scandal that saw them become the top side in Italy – good players but lacking direction and motivation. That maybe incredibly harsh on one performance but they looked lethargic against Spurs a couple of weeks ago.

It was always going to be an impossible task for Benitez and it looks like he will need to rebuild sooner rather than later. Too many of those players responded brilliantly to Mourinho and unfortunately do not look quite the same under the Spaniard. He does need time and support if he is to achieve anything close to last season but it seems unlikely.

On a positive note he has revitalised Samuel Eto’o by playing him through the middle rather than on the wing as Mourinho did. Although he had a quite game last night he has been fantastic when I have seen him earlier in the season. He is surely the most in form striker in Europe at the moment?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Modric master class

For the first time in a few months it will not be Rafael Van der Vaart’s or Gareth Bale’s names echoing around White Hart lane at the full time whistle; it will be Luka Modric’s. He delivered an absolute master class this afternoon against a woeful Blackburn side. Modric has been deployed in a slightly deeper position this season where he has been able to pull the strings for Spurs.

It is his 3rd season in north London and he is starting to look every inch the player he was expected to be when he was signed from Dinamo Zagreb. He took some time to get used to the physical side of the English game which took slightly longer than anticipated. However, now sitting behind Van der Vaart he is able to pull the strings and dictate the pace with which Spurs attack. This afternoon he was everywhere, he broke up attacks and then distributed with immaculate accuracy and precision.

In this deeper role he is more protected (by either Huddlestone or Jenas) and is able to break forward with more freedom. In previous seasons he has played further forward which meant he was always confronted by the defensive midfielder or centre back almost immediately. Now that they have outlets on both wings he has more options and is even capable of advancing with the ball and threatening the goal himself.

At a time when Manchester United are desperately seeking a replacement for Paul Scholes it maybe dangerous for Spurs if Modric continues to excel in this position but they will be more than happy if he does.

Lampard’s presence is sorely missed

The news that Frank Lampard has suffered another injury will not have been welcome news for Carlo Ancelotti. He has already missed the last 2 months and looks set to miss a further 3 weeks. It is not only his goals that Chelsea are missing; it is his extra presence in attack that is really noticeable. His late forays into the box are a vital part of Chelsea’s offensive tactics and none of his replacements have been able to do this.

Last weeks second half display at Anfield demonstrated exactly why he is so missed by Chelsea. The number of times the ball fell to the edge of the box and was met by red shirts first was a worrying feature for Ancelotti. Whilst Essien has been contributing with goals it seems the burden on Anelka, Drogba and Malouda has become too great. Any side would miss a player who has contributed over 20 goals a season from midfield for 5 seasons but it is Lampard’s overall game they are really missing.

It must be said however that Chelsea remain top of the league and have a superior goal difference to every other team but with the busy Christmas schedule only round the corner they will need Lampard fully fit if they are to retain their Premiership crown.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Carroll for England?

Fabio Capello will shortly announce his England squad for the upcoming friendly with France on November 17th. Having watched Andy Carroll’s display against Arsenal on Sunday I think it would be incredibly difficult for him to be left out. With so many of England’s strikers not available it is surely an opportune moment to see how he handles international football.

Currently Bent, Defoe and Rooney are all out injured and Peter Crouch is not good enough to play at this level. Although his record is good for England the highest ranking team he has ever scored against is Croatia; whilst the others have been the minnows of international football. Carroll offers pace, strength and an eye for goal which should guarantee his place in the squad; he is also in a rich vein of form.

When Capello took the job he insisted he would only pick players who were in form; whilst this has not been the case during his reign he has little choice for this game. It is a great opportunity to play a few of the Under 21s and get them used to playing for the senior team. Wilshire will almost certainly figure whilst I also feel Phil Jones at Blackburn should be in the squad. Having been ever present for Rovers this season he has shown more than enough quality to step up to the next level.

Whilst many of these friendlies are ultimately pointless Capello has a real chance to blood some of the youngsters. Hopefully we will see a few new faces in the squad who maybe hungrier for success than some of their counterparts.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Torres returns with a brace

What a great sight it was at Anfield yesterday to see Fernando Torres almost back to his best. Liverpool have taken a bashing from critics this season and Torres has wrongly been blamed for some below par performances. The true test of great players is to perform in the big games and Torres did exactly that yesterday. The first goal was typical of him and the 2nd was simply outstanding.

It has been a difficult year for El Nino, he has been plagued by injuries and was overplayed by Rafa Benitez last year. His form in the World Cup was way off what he is capable of doing but because he is such a good player Spain persisted with him. Torres, like many of his Spanish team mates are really struggling for fitness after 3 summers without a break. It is even more relevant because someone like Torres is explosive and if the muscles are not at their optimum ruptures, sprains and tears become more likely.

It has been a very peculiar start to the season and with their 3 points yesterday Liverpool now find themselves 5 points off a Champions League spot. They looked far more convincing than they have done and Hodgson’s tactics finally seem to be paying dividends; although it is still too early to get carried away. Wherever Liverpool do end up much will be down to Torres; he is a world class player who can win games on his own and those players are few and far between in the Premiership.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Arsenal come up short again

In the afternoon's early kick off Newcastle stunned Arsenal by beating them comfortably at the Emirates to make it a dreadful week for Arsene Wenger's side. They just never got going and offered nothing offensively; although a lot of credit must go to Hughton's men who were well organised and worked very hard.

The game was settled just before half-time when Andy Carroll rose above Fabianski to head the ball into an empty net. The Arsenal keeper had been experiencing a decent run of form but this error again highlights the fact that until they sign a top class goalkeeper the trophy cabinet at the Emirates will continue to gather dust for a while longer. There was no creativity from the side who offered nothing in the final third apart from the odd moment where Newcastle switched off.

Newcastle were oustanding and fully deserved the 3 points. Joey Barton had an outstanding game in the centre of midfield where he dealt with everything thrown at him. This was Newcastle's 3rd win on the trot and they now find themselves sitting in 4th place in the table which is a remarkable effort.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Bale strikes again

It seems like longer than a fortnight ago that Gareth Bale announced himself to the rest of Europe with a virtuoso performance; tonight he has done it again at White Hart Lane. Spurs started the game adventurously and took the game to Inter. On 18 minutes Modric teased and probed the Italian defence before sliding the ball through to Van der Vaart who finished with ease.

As the half wore on Inter began to gain a foothold in the game but failed to really test Cudicini in the Spurs goal. The 2nd half began rather poorly but sprung to life when Bale went on one of his marauding runs and provided a sublime cross that even Crouch could not miss. The game seemed over but suddenly Eto'o created some space in the box and found the bottom corner with a fine curling shot.

Spurs then showed their composure and Bale yet again proved his class with a dynamic run from midfield before providing Pavlyuchenko with another tap in. It was a fantastic game that was decided by Bale and the outstanding work ethic from Spurs as a team. A win in the next round at home to Werder will ensure qualification to the last 16 which surely now looks likely. Where the team goes from there nobody can predict but much will depend on the form of the outstanding Gareth Bale.

Holloway for manager of the year

Even though we are only just into November I would like to start the ball rolling for the Premier League Manager of the Year to be Ian Holloway. Whatever happens over the coming months he has been incredible value already and has demonstrated that he can manage at the highest level. Blackpool currently occupy 9th in the table which is a remarkable achievement.

It is not only humour he offers in press conferences, he provides an insight into how to run clubs efficiently and without the resources the top clubs take for granted which is unbelievably refreshing. His response when questioned about the Rooney saga was exemplary, he not only took issue with Rooney’s behaviour but also spoke up about the state of the game; "I've got big problems with the people running football. They are so wrong it's frightening," Holloway said.

His tirade continued against the entire situation and although some of his points veered away from his main issues he expressed his concerns about how the game is being run. Having managed in League football for the last 13 years he is getting his chance against the big teams and appears to be relishing it. Blackpool were written off by every pundit, fan and blogger before the season started and he has clearly used this to his advantage.

Holloway has set his team up to attack these supposed top teams in the league and has already made some of them look distinctly average. There is a very long way to go this season but for the sake of the game it would be an incredible achievement if he keeps Blackpool in the Premier League this year.

I want to leave this with my favourite quote from Holloway – absolute genius!

"If you're a burglar, it's no good poncing about outside somebody's house, looking good with your swag bag ready. Just get in there, burgle them and come out. I don't advocate that obviously, it's just an analogy."