Tuesday, 27 December 2011

United just keep rolling on

At this time of year the one thing we all seem used to and need is familiarity and the feeling of expectation being met. Whether it is that pair of socks from a relative or a sibling rolling in drunk after Christmas celebrations, we are all accustomed to it and expect it somewhat. In terms of football it has become almost guaranteed that we find Manchester United approaching their peak at the midway point of the Premier League season.

Since United began to dominate domestic football almost two decades ago it is now commonly accepted that the side get better as the season continues. After a sluggish autumn period for the reigning champions they sit joint top of the English Premier League with their new title challenges Manchester City. Although we are still yet to reach the halfway stage it appears that the title battle will be between the two teams from Manchester.

Although United dominate rich lists and are not exactly short on funds it is clear that the club are not as affluent as they once were. There have been less big money purchases in recent seasons as Ferguson continues to buy promising young players. When compared with their City rivals United almost appear to be frugal in comparison but yet find themselves level at the summit of the Premier League.

The start of the season had promised much after a scintillating pre-season had prompted comparisons with Barcelona. Some of the one touch football between the attacking players was extremely good and it appeared that Ferguson had once again constructed a side that would compete for all major honours. However, the club then failed to qualify for the knock out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2005 and suffered the humiliation of losing 6-1 to Manchester City at Old Trafford. It appeared the early season praise had been very premature.

There appear to be several holes in the current Manchester United squad that needed to be addressed. The lack of a quality central midfield is the main element missing; Michael Carrick has not been good enough for a long time and despite some sporadic displays of promise his consistency at United has not been good enough for many years. The fact that after a handful of games United fans were missing Tom Cleverly showed how ineffective their engine room has been for the last few seasons. There has also been no real improvement from Anderson who has stagnated at the club since his early promise. The Champions League final last season demonstrated that United need to find someone to protect the back four and then someone to begin their attacks; playing Rooney in there a few weeks ago highlighted their shortage in that position.

Another huge problem is the injury to Nemanja Vidic who will now miss the remainder of the season. His partner Rio Ferdinand lacks the authority and composure he used to have and his body simply doesn’t look capable of surviving until May. There have however been huge positives in the emergence of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling who will surely be the future pairing once the current set move on.

These facts allied with City’s dominant displays appeared to suggest that United may have lost their status as the country’s leading club. However, if you doubt Ferguson he has a habit of coming back and proving you wrong again. Their recent run now sees them level on points with City and approaching their historically best part of the season. I for one thought it was City’s to lose a month or so ago but with United now level few would back against them. The experience and know how to win the league simply cannot be bought and Ferguson has that in abundance. It is still December and there are far more twists and turns to come but it is beginning to look a little ominous for Roberto Mancini and his side and I am sure they are thinking that too.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Blackburn Rovers RIP

Although the cold light of day has brought some brief respite the grim reality of relegation has weighed heavily on my shoulders since last night’s crushing defeat at home to Bolton Wanderers. Despite some positive words from mates the truth is that Blackburn are not currently good enough to compete in the top tier of English football.

Unfortunately for me, being a fan, it is a horrible realisation to accept. A club I have followed for almost two decades could be in free fall and I honestly have no idea what to expect now. A few years ago I lived with a mate who is a massive Leeds fan and I was with him when the club was relegated from the Premier League; he was distraught and I found it very difficult to empathise with him. He is a huge fan of the club and has family has connections within the club that made it even harder for him; only a few years later I now understand exactly how he felt.

Quite often people just don’t understand exactly what a football club can mean to those that follow them. I am a poor fan in many senses; I have not been to a home game in a decade and fail to make many of the games in London. That being said Blackburn Rovers are the team I support and always will do. I explained to my girlfriend at the weekend that I could be quite upset in May if we get relegated and she turned round and said ‘but you said that last year and it was ok, at least you’re prepared for it this year.’ As sensible and correct as she was it was not what I wanted to hear.

The day you decide, or inherit a specific club is a monumental day in any supporters’ life as it is a relationship that binds you for life. You stick with it through thick and thin; it is similar to all other interactions we have in our lives in many senses; we have good days/seasons and we have appalling days/seasons. It is generally the tough times that bring you closer and makes the good times even more enjoyable.

Blackburn have of course been relegated from the Premier League once before during my time as a fan. I remember the day we went down and remember feeling unhappy and very uncertain about the clubs future. However, at least it was being run the right way and had some semblance of normality. Since the new owners came in last year the club has been surrounded by uncertainty and this season has almost come as no surprise.

I genuinely felt some level of loss last night whilst sat watching that diabolical performance from my team. I will never change my allegiance to the club I have followed for so many years but the realisation that we may never play Premiership football again is not lost on me. For a small club in the middle of industrial Lancashire the club have done remarkably well over the last few years and I think it is why we have witnessed such a backlash from the fans. It is a family club and one that is a focal point of the community. Observers are criticising the supporters who are protesting but I feel they have every right to do so. The owners should have been at the club last night to back their manager and demonstrate there is some solidarity within.

Hopefully it is not all doom and gloom and the club will recover once the Venky’s have departed. However, the reputation of the club has been tarnished beyond any level I ever considered possible. I was excited about the foreign ownership when it happened but hopefully this will serve as a valuable lesson for any clubs considering such moves in the future. Football clubs are vitally important to many millions of people worldwide and it is not a plaything for the super wealthy.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Lampard delivers final blow

Manchester City’s unbeaten domestic run has finally come to an end this evening at Stamford Bridge. On a wet and breezy night in South West London the Premier League has once again come to life.

The game had started so positively for the visitors when Mario Balotelli rounded Petr Cech to give the league leaders the advantage in the second minute. After comfortable wins against Manchester United and Tottenham already this season it appeared that Chelsea were to be next on City’s title march. The most criticised defence in recent weeks was shaking and seemingly dropping deeper and deeper as the opening stages continued.

It almost appeared too easy for City as their midfield dictated the pace of the game and kept the ball from Chelsea with consummate ease. Against the run of play Daniel Sturridge dummied Clichy and got to the by-line, his right footed cross was turned in by Raul Meireles and suddenly the game was all square. With one side being so dominant it seemed almost inconceivable that the game should be level again, but it was.

The equaliser instantly injected the home side with more drive and purpose; the manager Andre Villas-Boas also instructed the team to play deeper which stopped City’s dominance of possession. Their early pressing had enabled the opposition to manoeuvre the ball around at will and once the manager had adjusted his tactics which suddenly brought his side into the game.

One major difference for Chelsea was the impact of Oriol Romeu who was fantastic in front of his defence. Not only is he technically gifted, he also the ability to compete physically with the likes of Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli which made the Chelsea centre backs job far easier.

The home side began brightly in the second half with Juan Mata looking particularly impressive. The Spaniard appears to be far more effective when he moves into central positions and one such run against Vincent Kompany left the Manchester City captain on his backside. In the 58th minute the game changed on its head with Clichy’s sending off; suddenly it was Chelsea who had to take the game to City and the remaining half hour would see the visitors sit deeper and deeper.

It took until the 73rd minute for Villas-Boas to call on Frank Lampard and it seemed almost inevitable that he would be instrumental in a Chelsea win, if there was to be one. The moment duly came in the 82nd minute when a penalty was awarded after Lescott handled in the penalty area. The much maligned Lampard smashed the resulting penalty straight down the middle of the goal.

This victory for Chelsea could prove to be pivotal in this season’s race for the Premier League title. It has shown that the home side are still very much in the title race and more importantly it shows that City are vulnerable and not quite undefeatable….just yet.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The curious case of Didier Drogba

Last night we saw everything that is great about Didier Drogba; the power, the pace and the finishing ability that once made him the most feared striker in the Premier League. However, mixed in with this is a brooding figure who has been the figurehead of this Chelsea side since Jose Mourinho brought him to the club in 2004.

During his time at Chelsea he has played under five managers and two caretakers and has been instrumental in the recent success of the club. The introduction of Portuguese manager Andre Vilas-Boas was expected to signal the end of Drogba’s reign at Chelsea but the Ivorian has muscled his way back into contention, at the expense of Fernando Torres. His display at the weekend and again last night must surely now reaffirm his position as Chelsea’s number one striker.

It has been a puzzling few months in the saga that is Chelsea Football Club. The new manager clearly wants to instil a new style of play that has been fundamentally the same since Mourinho’s tenure. Every manager that has attempted to change this style has failed and has eventually paid the ultimate price by being sacked.

However, with Torres seemingly still struggling for form and confidence Villas-Boas has turned to Drogba and the clubs tried and trusted style to revive their fortunes. The high defensive line that we witnessed being ripped to shreds by Arsenal a matter of weeks ago was certainly not on evidence last night and the manager’s post match comments indicated that he is feeling the pressure. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a temporary solution to the problem but it also highlights the manager’s problems in changing the club.

There are too many players at Chelsea who feel they are bigger than the club and more important than any new acquisitions. It is clear already that until Villas-Boas can get rid of these players the transition into a more expansive and progressive side will have to wait. Getting rid of John Terry would prove too tricky in the short term but Drogba would represent a start. He carries far too much sway amongst team mates, fans and club associates and has hindered previous managers at the club.

There is no doubting that Drogba can still have a positive influence over Chelsea’s future but for me the negatives outweigh the positives and a move in January would benefit all parties; Sturridge, Torres and more importantly Villas-Boas. The club must always come first and the debacle that Abramovich has created must be resolved if they are to challenge for major honours again.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

City should remain positive

After last nights defeat in Naples Manchester City appear likely to be playing Europa League football in early 2012. It is not what Sheikh Mansour and company expected and wanted but could prove to be crucial for their development as a force in World football.

The club’s expectations have been realistic considering the huge sums of money invested in the club. They have accepted steady progress and playing in Europe’s lesser tournament will stand them in good stead for another assault on the continents most sought after competition next season. The club are making a mockery of the Premier League at this current moment but have not managed to replicate this in Europe, this time.

In time it could prove to be a blessing in disguise as it will give them the platform to learn how to approach big European ties next time around. Last season’s FA Cup triumph appears to have given the squad and the manager more belief in the project and a possible Premier League title will only further this. To go straight into the Champions League only to be drawn against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal was unlucky but will have taught them much.

It seems unlikely to me that any of the other British sides would have emerged from this group and for a neutral it has actually made the tedium of the group stages watchable. Whilst glancing at the group leaders last week it was immensely predictable and also rather dull. This group has been fascinating and could yet still change in a fortnight with the final round of games.

The manner in which City are dominating the English Premier League this season is quite staggering and alarming for the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. However, they have struggled away from home in Europe; the caveat however being that I don’t think many sides will travel to the Allianz Arena or the Stadio San Paulo and come away with anything. We have seen in previous seasons when expectations were sky high that the club have dealt remarkably well with short-term setbacks and I cannot see any difference with this scenario.

If Manchester City win the Premier League this season and have a successful run in the Europa Cup they will be able to attract almost anyone to the club. The defence is still the weak part for me and will prove to be so once the stakes are raised next year. However, every season the club have strengthened suitably during the summer months to be in a position to tackle the next hurdle the following year.

Although everyone associated with Manchester City may be feeling a little despondent this morning there is still so much reason for joy. The club have progressed at an incredible rate and they will be back stronger, hungrier and more determined next season, which is worrying for everyone.

Monday, 14 November 2011

England win highlights importance of Messi and Ronaldo

England’s surprise victory over European and World Champions Spain certainly came as a shock, even to the most loyal fan. It had been billed as a question of how many Spain could score against the hapless and much maligned English side. Although England managed to hang on for a well deserved victory the game could easily have been won by the visitors if they have not been so profligate in front of goal.

The opening few minutes set the scene for the remainder of the game. The home side were effectively stuck in their own half with only a long thump enough to give them much needed respite. The superior Spaniards were playing tika-taka almost at will; but, were not really threatening the keeper Joe Hart. The way England played was very reminiscent of how Switzerland played against Spain at Euro 2008; they stuck men behind the ball and smothered the central midfield.

For all the sublime control and technique on display it resulted in very little end product. Although the ball was moving around crisply there was little incisive play from the Spaniards. Occasionally an opening would appear but either the pass would be misdirected or an English defender would eventually fill the gap. What Spain needed was the dynamism and acceleration of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Having watched Barcelona on numerous occasions in recent years it became evident that it was going to be one of those nights for Spain. David Villa is not quite on top form, Fernando Torres is still trying to get back to where he was and even David Silva did not look like the player who has destroyed the Premier League thus far this season. The ball was not being passed at enough pace, there was not enough off the ball running and the incisive passing we see so often was not finding the player often enough.

What separates Messi and Ronaldo in modern football is their initial acceleration away from the first defender. Once Messi has received a pass he is looking to beat the nearest opponent and run into space where he is at his most dangerous. The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger spoke of Messi after his side had been hammered in the Camp Nou two years ago and said he had never seen a player who could change direction at such speed and remain in complete control of the ball. It is this unique ability that makes these two players stand out from everyone else in the world and is exactly what Spain were lacking.

The slump in form and morale of Fernando Torres could actually hurt Spain more than Chelsea in some senses. David Villa is still the best finisher around in my humble opinion but since his move to Barcelona he has become more of a player than the ruthless striker of old. The side missed someone who could run on and break the line, rather than looking for another pass. What Torres did give them, once he came on, was that option and it was no coincidence that suddenly they improved - although with time running down it was likely they would step it up too.

It is often slightly ridiculous to criticise sides that have been as successful as Spain have in recent years but they must retain their ruthless streak if they are to remain on top. The same criticism can be levelled at Barcelona and it is why Real Madrid now find themselves in pole position in Spain. They will increasingly come up against sides that have set up to defend deep for 90 minutes and the key is getting beyond that. There is no doubting the fact that Spain will be one of the serious contenders for the European Championships next summer but they have to forget they don’t have a Messi or Ronaldo in the side.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

United need a central midfielder

Although I am loath to criticise Sir Alex Ferguson, especially after celebrating 25 years at Manchester United, I am going to do so. The current United side seriously lack a decent central midfielder and they need to find one if they are to win major titles in the next couple of years.

It seems strange criticising United after the world and his wife waxed lyrical over the side at the start of the season; ‘Fergie does it again’ read most of the headlines. However, it could be a false dawn if they don’t improve in this area. Yesterday, United ended up having to deploy their most potent striker, Wayne Rooney, in midfield because the other squad members are not hitting the heights required.

Currently Sir Alex has the following first team players to select in central midfield: Anderson, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverly, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs. Those options are not good enough when compared to Barcelona who possess: Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Seydou Keita and Thiago. The comparative midfields of last seasons Champions League finalists could not be more of a contrast; one is blessed with some of the best players in the world and the other is distinctly average.

The time has come to make Anderson a squad player and leave him out of big games. Two years ago he looked like he would be dominating the United midfield for the foreseeable future but he is simply too inconsistent. In an ideal midfield you need a player who is going to be consistently rated at seven out of ten. Whilst the Brazilian is capable of producing eight/nine of ten performances he then follows it up with a three in the following game which is simply not good enough.

I am not even going to comment on Michael Carrick as everyone has seen him play recently and must surely have no future at the club! There is no doubt that Tom Cleverly will be a good central midfielder but he is two to three years away from being able to go toe to toe with a Bastian Schweinsteiger or Xavi Hernandez. Darren Fletcher is the closest United have to a consistent central midfielder but does he really have the ability to take United forward? I don’t think so.

One player I feel United should be seriously considering is Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao, although he would not come cheap. The Basque midfielder captained the Spanish Under 21s to glory this summer in Denmark, and looked quite simply outstanding. Although he is still only 23 years old he has been a first team regular for five years at Bilbao. He is blessed with an incredible technique, like many of his countryman, and has very good positional sense. It would be beneficial to United to have a good ball playing defensive midfielder to begin their attacks and to sure up their defence.

There have been some quite staggering stats about the number of shots United have conceded so far this season and a fair amount of this must be down to their lack of a holding player to screen the back four. There is no doubt that United will be competing for the major honours this season but with their rivals improving by the year they need to strengthen their midfield. However, who am I to criticise Sir Alex and his methods, he hasn’t done too badly.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Song must be more disciplined

Last night Arsenal celebrated a famous victory in the Stade Velodrome over Marseille but both sides will go away feeling there is considerable room for improvement. The game was lethargic to say the least and it took the introduction of Aaron Ramsay to change it.

The one glaring improvement that must be made on Arsenal’s behalf is the performance of Alex Song. The Cameroonian international is a good player but lacks the discipline to play as a defensive midfielder against the very best sides. In the second half I lost count of the times he was out of position which resulted in Arteta covering as defensive midfielder too many times.

It is a position that has now become an integral part of modern day football. The finest exponent of it in recent times was Claude Makelele and it is now often referred to as the Makelele role. The idea is to be the last line of midfield before you get to the centre backs; they are there as a screen/shield to bolster the defence. It is a role that requires very good positional discipline and concentration as one error can result in serious ramifications. This is the problem with Alex Song.

He is a very good player and I do not want to be over critical but as someone who admires the position and the attributes required it is frustrating so watch. On numerous occasions when Arsenal went forward Song was the furthest player forward besides Van Persie. Whilst the energy and commitment shown is admirable he is forgetting his sole purpose; to protect his defence. The game was very scrappy and attacks were broken up frequently with Marseille counter attacking almost at will. If the French side had more about them this space could have been exploited more efficiently but Arsenal escaped.

It also resulted in Arteta (Arsenal’s most creative player on display last night) having to fill in for his team-mate. This in turn then meant that Arsenal lacked the penetration in the final third to really hurt their opponents. I have continually stated to Arsenal fans for a long time that Song is not good enough to play that role at the highest level and it appears they are finally beginning to take note.

The best example in world football at the moment is Sergio Busquets of Barcelona who is an incredible defensive midfielder. In my opinion the DM should never stray too far from the centre backs and at all times the three of them should form a neat triangle. When Song plays there are triangles but some of them stretch 50 yards which is simply not good enough.

At a time when Arsenal are not at their fluid best they need to ensure they are disciplined and hard to beat. The result last night should increase their confidence but they will not face many easier games this season. If they are too improve Arsene Wenger must ensure Song remains disciplined, he is a good player but must focus on his own job rather than getting involved all over the pitch.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Vidic proves to be irreplaceable

There are very few players who have proved to be irreplaceable at Manchester United over the years but Nemanja Vidic is certainly one. Since getting injured in his club’s opening Premier League game of the season his presence has been sorely missed and it was again highlighted at Anfield this weekend.

The colossal Serbian defender has established himself as the best defender in the country and has been instrumental in United’s recent success. His no nonsense style of defending has earned plaudits from every corner of the football world over the last few years. Although United certainly have strength in depth at centre back it is their captain who gives them the assuredness at the back that is required of a side competing for major honours.

With the increasingly unreliable Rio Ferdinand seemingly destined for a premature retirement due to continual injury the manager Sir Alex Ferguson has added Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to bolster his options. With these two England internationals learning from Ferdinand and Vidic the belief is that they will develop into top class centre backs. However, both are still someway short of being able to look after United’s defensive duties against some of the best sides in Europe. The return to form of Jonny Evans has certainly helped but the absence of Vidic is very noticeable.

Although we are still at an early stage in the season it has been alarming to see the amount of pressure United have had to endure against inferior opposition. The doubts surrounding their new goalkeeper David de Gea have certainly added to the surprising stat that they have conceded the most shots in the entire league thus far this season. However, it is the lack of pressure being applied by the centre backs that have contributed hugely to this. Rio Ferdinand is no longer able to move effectively round the pitch on a consistent basis. Jonny Evans, the mainstay so far, needs continuity in a partner to help him develop into a commanding presence. Jones and Smalling have both impressed in some games but need more time to hone their defensive qualities.

During the Champions League final last May Barcelona exposed the fact that United desperately need a solid defensive midfielder to shield their back four and this has still not been properly addressed. It is an essential position in the modern game and when playing against sides who can retain possession in the final third it is essential. On Saturday Liverpool were able to keep the ball in dangerous places far too easily and it should have cost them the game. A run from Charlie Adam took him straight through the middle of the United midfield and then straight at Ferdinand. The England defender brought him down for the free kick which lead to the goal; the reigning champions had not learnt from the first half when Adam had done exactly the same before Suarez was denied by De Gea.

Most centre backs are not fantastically quick and rely on good positioning rather than speed. Vidic is a prime example of this; it is his blocking and physical attributes that make him such a good defender. Similar to many of the top defenders over the last few decades, Cannavaro, Nesta, Puyol, Thuram etc he does live on the edge of the law. Most top defenders always skirt on the line of foul play; tugging shirts, holding shirts and sometimes even out right fouling to stop their opponent; the black arts of defending basically.

There have been rumblings for a couple of years now that Mrs Vidic is not happy in Manchester and would like to relocate. Whilst Ferguson has strengthened his defensive options it is something he can ill afford to do on current evidence. The Serb was integral in United’s success last season and has been sorely missed already this season. It seems foolhardy to use the term irreplaceable for a side as successful as United but Vidic is as close as they come.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Welbeck can benefit from Rooney’s ill-discipline

The fact that England have qualified for the European Championship 2012 has been completely overshadowed by Wayne Rooney’s ill-discipline. The 25 year old got himself sent off against Montenegro on Friday and now faces a ban which will impact massively on England’s chances.

However you wish to put it England now face an uphill struggle without easily their most talented player. The national manager Fabio Capello has already confirmed that he will not feature in the coming friendly against Spain as he now has to find a suitable replacement, and fast. This however, is the real dilemma – who is good enough to lead the line successfully? Darren Bent, Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck or Bobby Zamora, none of whom would strike fear into a top side in Europe at present.

In all fairness Crouch and Defoe have had enough chances at this level and have failed almost every time. And yes, although Crouch boasts an impressive scoring rate at International level (22 goals in 42 appearances) he has scored almost all of them against second rate opposition. Meanwhile Defoe has 15 goals in 46 appearances but lacks the ability to test the best defences. He has been a good Premier League player but has always seemed out of his depth at the highest level.

The other important factor is that Rooney contributes so much more to the side than simply holding the line and scoring goals. His work rate and teamwork is fantastic when he is on form and in modern day football it is essential to defend from the front. With Manchester United re-affirming their status as the best club side in the country his confidence and experience will also be missed.

This surely then leaves a straight shootout between Bent, Carroll, Sturridge, Welbeck and Zamora. It is thought that Capello is a big fan of Zamora but he would need to be integrated quickly and although he has definitely improved in recent years he remains a decent player, but nothing special. Darren Bent would certainly fit some of the requirements; he is probably the best natural finisher of all the options available and has the pace to worry International defenders. However, he has only scored four times in 11 appearances in a career that began five years ago. He appears to be one of those players that struggles to make the step up, although if he got more minutes his confidence may increase.

It comes down now to the remaining three, all of whom are relatively inexperienced at this level; although this can be beneficial in major tournaments on occasions. All would need to have impressive seasons to force their way into the team and in Carroll’s case he would need to improve his overall game for Capello to trust him. I certainly feel that Sturridge looked impressive in the Under 21s and if he can get more games for Chelsea he could certainly do a job. However, in the recent trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United he looked a little out of his depth, but more exposure would help to eradicate that.

It certainly seems at the moment that Capello’s best option could be Danny Welbeck. Although I am not entirely convinced by the United forward he certainly seems to have the self-belief and confidence to fill Rooney’s shoes. He has been spoken about very highly by Sir Alex Ferguson for years and there aren’t many players he has been wrong about over the years. He is good in the air and has good technique; but the most important thing is that he is playing at Manchester United. Here he will have been exposed to big games, difficult atmospheres and will have a winning mentality which are pre-requisites in my opinion to succeed at the highest level.

Much will depend on how this season pans out for Welbeck but at the moment he would be my tip for the Euros. A good, and successful season for United maybe exactly what England need.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Chelsea evolving under Villas-Boas

It looks like being the start of an exciting new era at Chelsea this season under new manager Andre Villas-Boas. Although the team has by no means been unsuccessful they finally appear to be breaking away from the Mourinho mould that has remained, four years after he departed.

The spine of the side still remains from Mourinho’s days; Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba are all still there and remain part of the club’s furniture. However, the new Portuguese manager has come in with the intention of changing their style of play and making them a more progressive side. He has moved well thus far in the transfer window by adding good, technically gifted players such as Juan Mata who has been one of the buys of the season so far.

It is not as if Chelsea were failing with the old style but previous managers had certainly failed to move away from Mourinho’s tried and trusted methods. The previous manager Carlo Ancelotti attempted to do so last season and it was not a successful move. One issue that remains is that there are still several members of the squad who carry far too much sway within the dressing room and within the media. It is no coincidence that these players were the ‘Special Ones’ most trusted lieutenants.

By adding Mata, Meireles and Romeu, Villas-Boas has made his intentions relatively clear; he wants Chelsea to become a more possession based side rather than the direct style that has suited them over recent years. It is also a move necessary to get the best out of Fernando Torres who is already looking like a £50 million striker since Mata has been added to the side. Finally, there is a player who has the vision to find him on a regular basis and aid the Spaniard in his rehabilitation. The Chelsea performance in the second half at Old Trafford against Manchester United confirmed that it is a three way battle for the Premier League title this season.

Speculation has been rife recently regarding Frank Lampard’s Chelsea future and he has responded in emphatic style by scoring four goals in a week. It is not that Lampard is surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge; it is simply that he cannot play every game at his age and also the side are more efficient and pacey without him. A midfield three that boasts Malouda, Meireles and Ramires is a dynamic and athletic trio which allows AVB to play the style he desires more frequently. Once Romeu is adjusted to the league he will play in front of the back four and will begin play faster than the current options; he is a good and tidy player who has come through the infamous La Masia training academy.

With Torres looking almost back to his best this Chelsea side will push both Manchester clubs close this season. With Ferguson blooding a lot of youngsters and with Mancini looking incapable of having a Plan B it is Chelsea who could emerge as winners this season. Villas-Boas has already shown he is capable of changing the system and looks to have good plans in place for certain opposition. He is an incredibly impressive young manager and considering his recent success it would be foolish to back against him.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

David Silva – best player in the Premiership?

The Premier League has only just begun but already the leading candidate for player of the season has emerged at Manchester City, David Silva. The Spaniard, who is only starting his second season in England, is emerging as one of the best players not just in the league but in the whole of Europe.

The diminutive midfielder has been the most outstanding player thus far in my mind. Although his team-mate Sergio Aguero has stolen many of the headlines it is Silva, whose guile and technical ability is really something to behold. He is not a new player to have suddenly been unearthed though; his talent and ability has been honed and encouraged at Valencia where he played since he was 14. He became a first team regular in 2007 and it is almost unbelievable that Barcelona or Real Madrid did not sign him.

Thankfully for fans of Manchester City and the Premier League we will get to see him and his phenomenal left foot for the foreseeable future. He has the remarkable ability that many of the current Spanish players appear to have innately – the ability to find space. The way he glides around opponent’s penalty areas must give opposition managers heart failure as he drifts into yet another opening. He struggled initially with the physical demands of the league but is now fully acclimatised.

It is staggering that he is still not a regular starter for Spain but when you consider his rivals in those positions it suddenly becomes more apparent. However, a couple of years ago there was a case for suggesting that he was inferior to Fabregas, Iniesta and Xavi but now the gap is nowhere near as big. He would walk into any team in the world on current form and that includes the current Barcelona squad; he is simply too good not to pick.

Last season he became too isolated with Mancini opting to play too many defensive midfielders. He and Carlos Tevez had to create most of the chances and finish them; however, this season, with the new signings the side are playing with far more freedom. Indeed, last season Silva created 75% more chances for City than any other player at the club. The relationship between City’s front players is something to admire already and will only continue to improve. The likes of Aguero, Dzeko, Johnson, Nasri and Tevez just make the side so dangerous and with class like that they don’t need many chances.

It appeared that the Premier League was in a little trouble when it lost two of its World Class players to La Liga in recent years – Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabregas – but with Silva around the quality remains. Everyone is waiting for City to slip up and implode but with Silva in this form anything is possible this season. They begin their Champions League journey tomorrow night and it will be fascinating to see how they get on.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Casillas to break all records

By the time Spain have completed their qualification for the European Championships goalkeeper Iker Casillas will have equalled Andoni Zubizarreta’s record for Spanish caps – an astonishing 126. What is even more incredible is that Casillas is still only 30 and could reach 200 International appearances before he retires.

It seems almost inconceivable that Real Madrid or Spain could not have Casillas in goal; he became the number one for Madrid in 1999/2000 aged just 19 years old. After the recent domination by Spain he has now won every major honour in the game but his hunger and desire remains. He is the captain of both club and country and remains one of the elite keepers in world football.

This remarkable career began in 1999 when he made his La Liga debut in a 2-2 draw with Athletic Bilbao; he had replaced the German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner. By the following season he had established himself as Madrid’s number one keeper and helped his side win the Champions League title that season. However, within two years he had been dropped after a run of poor performances but like true greats he responded in emphatic style.

He was named amongst the substitutes in the 2001/2 Champions League final at Hampden Park against Bayer Leverkusen with Cesar starting in goal. After 68 minutes his chance arrived after Cesar picked up an injury, the young Madridista grabbed his opportunity and produced a fabulous display in the remaining minutes of the game to win his second Champions League title. Since that day he has remained ever present as Madrid’s number one.

It is not simply his shot stopping that separates him from his rivals; it is his powers on concentration that put him above his nearest rivals. Playing for Madrid and Spain the goalkeeper is never going to have lots of work to do as both sides dominate possession for long periods. It is his ability to pull off a crucial save in the dying minutes of games that really distinguish him. Although not the most elegant keeper he has a remarkable knack of getting a body part in the way at the right time; his reflexes are extraordinary. He is also incredibly good at one on ones; in fact if I was to select a goalkeeper for that role there would be no competition.

Competition for the Spanish national side is growing ever fiercer; David de Gea, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdez are all waiting in the wings but the Spanish captain will not be relinquishing his role any time soon. When you consider he has 124 caps in 10 years so far he should easily complete another 76 in the next seven/eight years. The current record for most caps is held jointly by Mohamed Al-Deayea of Saudi Arabia and Claudio Suarez of Mexico who have played 178 times for their country. It will not be long until Iker Casillas becomes the most capped player in the history of the game and few deserve the accolade as much as he does.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Young’s confidence ensures promising start

The transfer of Ashley Young to Manchester United this summer is one that I found particularly strange. Sure, he had looked promising since his move to Aston Villa from Watford in 2007 but to me he lacked the drive to kick on at England’s most successful club. How wrong I was. He has begun his career at United brilliantly and he has managed to replicate his form at International level.

Clearly a very talented youngster it was Martin O’Neill who took the initial gamble when he signed him from Watford for £8 million plus ad-ons. He certainly seemed like a promising talent who had everything required to go on and become a very good player. However, after the Villa saga begun brightly his career had begun to slide in the midlands last year where he struggled to find consistent form.

I had raised eyebrows when United finally completed a deal for him this summer as I had never seen him look dominant in a game against better opposition. To use a cricketing phrase he seemed ‘like a flat track bully’ who would murder the poor sides but then struggled against better opponents. His performance against United in a two all draw could have persuaded Ferguson that he would be an ideal addition to his front line this season.

He tends to operate on the left hand side where he can drift in on his right foot and hurt the opposing defenders (and goalkeepers, as we saw against Arsenal last weekend). It appeared to be particularly harsh on Nani who had his best season for United and was indeed left out of the Champions League final. It remains to be seen whether these two will develop a good understanding and enable United to play with a flexible front three as they did when they had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez.

The understanding he has developed with Wayne Rooney is probably what has aided his transition into the England and United side seamlessly. Good players are always able to play with others effortlessly and the understanding is already clear to see. These days Rooney tends to play a little deeper for United and with both having a good range of passing they are able to tease and worry defenders almost at ease. In his three games in the Premier League he already has two goals and four assists which will have delighted his new manager.

Although we are only at the beginning of September Young is already establishing himself as a key player at United and is starting to show his class on the International stage. At 26 years old he should be approaching the prime of his career and Ferguson could well have pulled off another transfer coup in securing his services. The United squad is well set up to dominate for many years to come and Young looks like he will be central to that success.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Guardiola doesn’t rest on his laurels

It appears that a week cannot pass at the moment without more praise of Barcelona FC; their style, technique and work rate is admired globally at the moment, and quite rightly so. They are the stand out team in European football at this moment in time and the side that every manager aspires to catch and supersede. The team is blessed with the best three players in world football; Iniesta, Messi and Xavi and have recently added Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

However, it is all very well having the best players but you have to have a coach who can orchestrate the players. In the summer of 2008 it emerged that Barcelona were to part company with the then manager Frank Rijkaard and that former Barca fans favourite Josep Guardiola would be succeeding him. It certainly raised a few eyebrows as his only previous experience had been coaching the Barcelona B team.

The first thing he did was to get rid of some of the side’s star players which again looked slightly controversial. Out went Deco, Edmilson, Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta and in came Daniel Alves, Seydou Keita and Gerard Pique. He also promoted Busquets, Jeffren and Pedro to the first team after coaching them for a year in the B team. He ended the season winning the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and La Liga in his first season. Surely it was the players everyone said….how little they knew.

Success appears to have come naturally to the Catalan coach who has now guided his beloved Barca to 12 titles in just over three years. However, it is the ethos and style of football that has endeared them to many and made them so successful. He has made them the best pressing side I have ever seen; every player from right back to striker hounds, harries and tackles under possession is retained. Pep has also clearly told the players that their best form of defence is also to retain possession. It sounds like common sense to say but actually is very hard to do in practice, most of their games end with Barca having had 60%+ in terms of possession.

The side also benefits hugely from their youth training facility – La Masia. After the purchases this summer they are now capable of putting out a starting eleven that features only home grown players. This education they have received teaches them how to look after the ball, how to use it effectively and most importantly gives them the awareness to know what their teammates are doing too.

He is also responsible for deploying Messi in the new position ‘the deep lying’ striker. From here he is able to drop deep and pick up the ball and then really hurt the opposition. Barca appear to have developed an incredible knack of playing defence splitting passes from just inside their own half. The two wide players on either side are then able to make inside out runs which then put them through on goal – as shown against Madrid in the Super Cup.

Last weekend’s game at home to Villarreal was fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, they brushed aside the side that finished fourth 5-0 which just shows how far ahead they are of the competition. Secondly, Pep began the game with a 3-4-3 formation with Busquets and Mascherano playing as part of the three defenders alongside Abidal. Next there was Keita who was the defensive midfielder and then they deployed Fabregas, Iniesta and Thiago in a three in front.

Whenever one of the back three brought the ball forward Keita would simply drop back into the three as cover. It enabled the side to always have at least two options to pass to every time they got the ball which makes it almost impossible for the opposition to retain possession – especially when up against some of the best football players in the world. It was remarkable to see and is the closest example of total football I can remember seeing in my lifetime.

Barcelona are a joy to behold for any football fan at the moment due to their style of play. Whilst many fans and pundits are quick to say it’s mainly because they have Messi, much of the credit must lie at Guardiola’s door. He has transformed the club from a very good team into possibly the best club side in the history of the game. Football is cyclical and the gap between them and the rest will narrow as time goes on but it will be fascinating to see how Pep’s career develops from here. He will not remain at the Camp Nou forever and will surely fancy a new challenge in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Transfer deadline day - why the wait?

Almost every football fan worldwide is currently watching SkySports or their nation’s equivalent to find out who their club will sign before midnight tonight. It appears crazy to me that managers actually wait until the last minute to conduct their summer’s business.

I can fully understand that some sides have lost players and may have started the season poorly which could prompt the manager into reinforcing his squad before the International break but still. Targets should have been identified prior to the window opening and acted upon accordingly. The reigning champions in England, Manchester United carried out their business very early in the summer and have therefore had time to adapt and enable the new players to settle. Just look at the performances of Phil Jones and Ashley Young; both have hit the ground running after settling quickly into the United set up.

On the other side of the coin you have the two north London sides – Arsenal and Tottenham. Both sides are running around like madmen trying to tie up deals to ensure they are ready to compete for Champions League football this season. When you look at Arsenal the issue becomes more farcical considering the Cesc Fabregas saga was always likely to end sooner rather than later and was by no means the best kept secret in football. From speaking to several fans they simply cannot understand why replacements have not been identified and approached before the end of the window.

Meanwhile at Spurs the situation seems incredibly reminiscent of when Dimitar Berbatov left White Hart Lane. The situation with Luka Modric has been on-going for months but it has left the club short on options. I even wonder whether Redknapp even had time to buy any players with all the golfing and SkySports advertising he has had to do this summer. The club have several squad players who are clearly surplus to requirements but the clubs asking price has put potential suitors off. Having enjoyed a successful season in the Champions League last year this season looks like being very uninspiring at the moment.

Elsewhere in Europe there doesn’t appear to be the frenzied activity there is in the Premier League today. Many of the Italian and Spanish sides have bought steadily throughout the summer and their seasons start later than in England anyway. I could appreciate this stance if you picked up genuine bargains at the end of August but normally clubs end up spending well over the odds. The selling clubs must relish days like these when they can charge astronomical fees for players simply not worth the fee.

Whilst the transfer deadline day is exciting for fans, journalists and pundits alike it must be a nightmare for the managers and senior clubs officials. My message to all of these would be to simply follow United’s example and conduct your business early, to the benefit of everyone at the club.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

An open letter to the Venky Group

Dear Sir/Madam

I am writing to you to express my deep concern over the future of Blackburn Rovers Football club. The season may only be two weeks old and I don’t want to offer too much of a knee-jerk reaction but I already fear for our Premiership status. The takeover last year seemed incredibly promising but is in serious danger of turning into a complete disaster.

Ever since Jack Walker invested his money into the club it has prospered; for a small industrial town in Lancashire to be one of only four clubs to have won the Premier League is remarkable. It was his life’s ambition to witness the club lift the trophy and every fan of the club will always look back and remember the moment when Walker himself lifted the trophy to rapturous applause. He was a quite remarkable man and will be remembered and adored forever.

This is what the club stood for, the values it represents and in all honesty I believe you just cannot comprehend this. I can understand that as a wealthy and successful company it can be lucrative to purchase an English club in the Premier league to further your brand name but you must have some prior football knowledge. I was immensely happy when the purchase went through as I thought it would guarantee our future…how wrong I was.

Our trusted and respected former Chairman John Williams had searched high and low to find suitable investors and his opinion was one I believe every supported respected. Within two months of taking over he resigned. I believe this was when you began to lose the trust of the supporters and when the serious underlying issues surfaced.

The sacking of Sam Allardyce could well prove to be the catalyst in our decline but in all honesty I don’t believe many supporters were overly sad to see him go….at the time. Under his tenure we secured Premiership status and had some very credible results, although the standard of football was not great. The appointment of Steve Kean certainly raised eyebrows within the football world but I for one wanted to see him given a chance. He speaks very well but lacks the necessary experience of managing at the highest level and again this could cost the club in the long run.

However, there are two things that really worry me about the future of the club; one is the influence of Jerome Anderson, the head of Sport, Entertainment and Media group and the other is how you are portraying us over the world.

I have to start with that abomination of an advert that was released a month or so ago. The club has already lost much of the respect and appeal it had built up and releasing an advert portraying the players eating your chicken was just a complete aberration. How could any advisor you have honestly condone that dreadful endorsement? Why would any player in their right mind want to join a club that could enforce you to be part of this?

My second and probably biggest concern is the influence SEM has over the club. Both the manager and his assistant John Jensen are looked after by the company and they were heavily involved in brokering the deal to buy the club in the first place. I do not want to mention names but my opinion of football agents is that they are vermin. They are parasites that feed off the excess money that floats around the Premier league and have far too much power within the game. How can you do business with these crooks in suits? (I am aware there are actually some very respectable, honest agents whose names are tarnished by the others – to those I apologise)

I would appeal to you to think long and hard about what you intend to get out of the relationship you have with Blackburn Rovers. As one of the founder members of the football league the club is steeped in history and tradition and I am incredibly worried you and your group will ruin all of this.

It may be a toy/plaything for you but for all supporters it is our club and it is becoming increasingly difficult to have any faith in the people running it. You are clearly intelligent people who know how to run successful businesses, please, please do not ruin our club!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Fabregas saga finally over

After almost three years of negotiations, speculation and transfer gossip the biggest transfer saga in history ended today with Cesc Fabregas finally sealing his move to Barcelona. The fee is understood to be £35 million with further add-ons depending upon the clubs success in La Liga and the Champions League.

It seems that the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger reluctantly conceded defeat in attempting to hang onto his captain. The decision was inevitable as the pressure mounted on the French manager to sell. The young Catalan spent eight years at the North London side where he became their best and most influential player. He contributed regularly to the side and was even appointed captain during the 2008/9 season.

Speaking at the press conference this afternoon Fabregas said: “I waited many days, months, years for this moment. I return home after eight years. This will be the challenge of my life.” The joy on his face was clear to see for everyone around and the relief that the saga is finally over was clearly not lost on the player.

Much of the comment appears to focus around how much he will play. Many of the Arsenal fans seem to believe he will not figure much at the Catalan club and will have to settle for warming the bench; this is simply ludicrous. The modern game is built entirely around squad systems and rotating your best players so they are at their optimum for the big games. In the last three seasons at Arsenal he has endured several injuries which has restricted his playing time significantly. Indeed over the last three years the most he has played is 66% in 2009/10.

Over the recent years there have been significant injuries to Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez which has restricted the side. There is serious reason to suggest that if Iniesta had indeed been fit when they faced Inter Milan in the semi-finals of the Champions League in 09/10 they could have overcome the Italians. The emergence this summer of Thiago Alcantara has also added to the confusion but in a side with an abundance of quality there is always scope to add further excellence.

It is likely that Fabregas will indeed be eased in gently by the coach Pep Guardiola but he will certainly play in 40 odd games this season, starting with the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. With Barcelona likely to be competing on every front this season he will certainly be a welcome addition and having played with many of the current squad for the Barcelona youth side and Spain the transition should be straight forward.

The move today will come as huge blow to Arsenal and indeed the whole of the Premier League. Fabregas has been one of the shining lights in the league for several seasons now and his contribution will be missed by all. The question for Arsenal now is how to replace their talisman and with only two weeks remaining in the transfer window Wenger must act quickly.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Premier League Preview – the battle for 4th place

The battle for the elusive final place in the Champions League will be the most intense it has ever been and is likely to be between Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. All three sides are only a couple of signings away from being serious title challengers but at this moment in time do not possess enough quality to worry the top three.

Since the return of Kenny Dalglish Liverpool has once again become a force in the Premier League. Their form at the end of last season was that of Champions and if they can start well they could be a force again. The key addition of Luiz Suarez was made in January and it will be intriguing to see how he develops this season; his partnership with Andrew Carroll will be pivotal to the club. They have strengthened in midfield by adding Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson which will certainly provide ammunition for the forwards. The key to Liverpool’s success at the end of last season in my humble opinion was the absence of Steven Gerrard. There is no doubting his importance to the club but the side appeared more balanced in his absence. The addition today of Jose Enrique will also give much needed support to the defence which will be important if they are to qualify for the Champions League again.

The goings on at Arsenal this summer have been rather strange and with the impending departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri it will be difficult for the club to remain amongst the elite. They have strengthened by signing Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but it is surely not enough. There is no doubt that Arsenal still have enough quality to match anyone on their day but losing their two best players is too much at once. If manager Arsene Wenger can bolster the squad before the end of August it could be different but the signs are not good. Last season they set their bench mark against Barcelona but then got nowhere near it as they capitulated yet again at the business end of the season. If they can keep Robin van Persie fit and go some way to replacing Fabregas they could be surprise package but with their start of the season looking so tough it could be a long season for Arsenal fans.

Meanwhile at Spurs the summer has been spent trying to offload players unsuccessfully and retain key players. There are a number of fringe players that they have tried to sell but they have demanded too much money which has effectively ended all interest. Their wage bill has to be lowered due to not being in the Champions League which means they cannot buy until these players go. Although they have been linked with almost every player in Europe there still appears to be no imminent new signings. With Spurs tending to conduct most of their business at the end of the window it could be a busy end to August.

It is almost unprecedented for the competition at the top of the league to be so close and it will be an incredibly interesting season for the clubs mentioned above. It will be very tough to separate Arsenal and Liverpool for 4th and it is likely to be dependent upon who Arsenal sign in the coming weeks. The whole club needs a lift at the moment and Wenger has to deliver.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Premier League Preview – the contenders

The long summer is almost at an end which means only one thing, the start of the football season is upon us. Every football fan worldwide has been getting more excited by the day about the return of the Premier League. It has been a long three months but at 3pm on Saturday the wait is finally over.

It has been an interesting summer in terms of transfers for the leading sides in the Premier League. With 20 days to go in this transfer window there is still a way to go and the expectation is that several high level deals are still remaining. Whilst the three Northern sides, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City have acquired several new additions the London teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham have stuttered. Indeed the London clubs have spent most of the summer either trying to keep their best players or adjusting to a new manager.

Manchester United began the spending early this summer by signing David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. All three additions are young and should form the core of the United team for the foreseeable future. This writer’s pick of signings would have to be Jones. At 19 he is already at ease in the Premier League and playing in the Champions League will only improve him as player. Whilst de Gea endured some misplaced criticism after the Community Shield he is still the second most expensive goalkeeper in history and will be between the posts at United for the next 15 years. Whilst there is some doubt over Young’s arrival from Aston Villa he has certainly gone to the best place if he is to hone his natural ability and fulfil his potential.

Manchester City have bought well and will be serious title challengers against their city rivals. The addition of Sergio Aguero from Athletico Madrid is excellent and it will be fascinating to see how he progresses in England. Only two years ago he was being likened to Lionel Messi and the general consensus is that he is ideally suited to the demands of this league. They also picked up Gael Clichy from Arsenal who will offer more pace than Aleksandar Kolorov and should prove a decent buy. Almost all summer the side have been linked with signing Samir Nasri from Arsenal but in David Silva they have one of the players I believe could be player of the year. After having an initial year to adapt he should be ready to show his class this season.

The manager’s position at Chelsea has changed yet again and they begin this season with Portuguese sensation Andre Villas-Boas. It is not the first time Chelsea have hired a successful coach from Porto and the fans will be hoping they have unearthed another football genius. The only real business Chelsea have done thus far is adding Oriol Romeu from Barcelona. It looks like being a positive signing as most La Masia graduates are remarkably good technically and physically. It is understood that they remain in the market to sign a creative midfielder and Luka Modric has been consistently linked.

I have written about these clubs in the order I believe they will finish this season. The signings United have made will enable them to easily manoeuvre the new players into the existing set up which will make them formidable. The recent speculation surrounding the possible signing of Wesley Sneijder from Inter would only make the league more of a formality if he signs.

The closest challengers I believe will be Manchester City. Now they are competing in the Champions League they are able to attract the next level of player which has made them significantly stronger than last season. The addition of Aguero should hopefully make them open up a little and we may finally see an attaching City side, although it is still relatively unlikely under Roberto Mancini. One feels that he has to deliver this season after another hefty outlay this summer.

Unlike many other pundits I generally feel Chelsea do have a chance in this title race but it is all depends on getting the best out of Fernando Torres. There are several key players at the wrong end of their careers at Stamford Bridge and if Villas-Boas can get el nino firing again they could be the surprise package in the top three. Defensively you would expect them to be sound but they have to buy another creative central midfielder if they are to get the best out of Torres.

This season promises much already and I will review the contenders for that elusive fourth place tomorrow. It is a position that will be the most sought after ever this season with Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs are fighting to qualify for the Champions League.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Nani up to the challenge

Sometimes in life you have to ask yourself what more can I do? Manchester United’s attacking midfielder Nani must have been asking this question on a daily basis since last seasons Champions League final. Having enjoyed his most productive season ever at Old Trafford he was benched for the showpiece final against Barcelona and then had to watch on as United added Ashley Young to their ranks this summer.

However, what all champions do is rise up and make sure that they cannot be forgotten next time. Although the Community Shield is still in theory a pre-season friendly the Portuguese player has laid down a marker for the coming season. His two goals were taken wonderfully well and showed the character and confidence of this young man.

It has not always been plain sailing for the former Sporting CP player who begins his fifth season at United this year. He struggled in his first few seasons when his fellow countryman Cristiano Ronaldo was stealing the headlines. His consistency has been the biggest criticism; a player who can look a world beater one minute and distinctly average the next will always concern a man such as Sir Alex Ferguson. Last season however he begun to shake that tag and started to deliver on a consistent basis.

He ended the season with 10 goals and 14 assists and in this writers opinion should have been Player of the Season. After making it to the Champions League final everybody assumed he would start against Barcelona; however, Antonio Valencia was selected and ended up having an incredibly disappointing game. Nothing was said over his disappointment but being left out must have hurt the 24 year old.

The summer started and United went out and did their business very early. One of the players they brought in was Ashley Young, who has been bought to contest Nani’s starting role this year. The first time he has been asked to stand up was this afternoon at Wembley and he answered any doubters in emphatic style by scoring two goals.

Although the season starts next weekend the one lesson that must be taken from today’s game is that Nani means business again. He has overcome several obstacles in the last few months which will only make his desire to succeed even stronger. I am no Nostradamus but it looks like Nani is going to have another fantastic season.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Barcelona continue to evolve

Modern day football is very much based around having large squads where young players have to prove themselves in order to get regular football. In England we have become accustomed to players being sent on loan from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United to lower league clubs but this summer Barcelona appear to have improved this method.

The deals struck with Chelsea and Roma for Oriol Romeu and Bojan Krkic respectively have caught the eye. Both deals have on the surface appeared to be regular transfers; however, when looking closely they appear to be loan deals based upon performance. In England we have seen a similar deal proposed for Scott Parker where West Ham are happy to loan the player for a one off fee whilst in the Championship but then want him to return if they win promotion to the Premier League.

The similarity in all of these deals is that Barcelona can buy the player back either at the end of this season or next for a fee slightly higher than the original fee paid. Both players have graduated the much lauded La Masia academy but seem to be surplus to requirement. However, it seems that Barcelona are trying to avoid a repeat of the biggest transfer saga of the modern age – Cesc Fabregas. Most of the players that emerge from Barcelona’s academy have incredible technical ability and seem to reach their peak in their mid-20s.

Although Fabregas’ case is slightly different it certainly appears that they are trying to prevent having to pay over the odds for a former player again. The deal for Romeu to Chelsea stipulates that Barca can buy the player back at the end of this season for €10 million and for €15 million at the end of the following season. It certainly makes sense to include clauses for young players when they leave, especially at such an influential academy. The only similarity in this country is at Arsenal where they often include sell on clauses for young player that they lose.

Similar to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution the football transfer system is learning and adapting as it progresses and this new method is one that will be replicated much more in the future. Whilst many of the current first team have come through the ranks players like Gerard Pique (and potentially Cesc Fabregas) have had to leave to gain the required experience to develop their education. The chance to represent this side will become even tougher in the coming years so they have taken measures to ensure they don’t lose out on players they have taught.

Whilst the plaudits continue for their on-field performances they are also adapting and adjusting to the demands of the modern game. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs sport is about innovation rather than imitation and the Catalans have devised a new model for honing their players, even if they have to go elsewhere for a period of time.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

City to be serious title challengers

It has taken a little longer than Sheikh Mansour may have envisaged but Manchester City will begin this season as one of the clear favourites for the Premier League. Having won the FA Cup last season everyone associated with the club will be determined to lift more silverware this season.

The club has assembled an incredible squad due to their limitless financial resources but have begun to purchase more wisely than they did initially. The addition of Sergio Aguero should take them onto the next level; no matter whether Carlos Tevez remains a City player or not. He is exactly the type of player they needed to attract to cement their status as one of the biggest teams in Europe. Although it has come about through a lack of financial restraints the manager Roberto Mancini deserves a lot of credit.

However, this season will prove to be pivotal for the Italian manager. For too long last season his side were far too defensive and were over reliant on Tevez for most of their goals. The purchase of David Silva only really began to bear fruit towards the end of the season; he ended up producing nearly every attacking opportunity City created. He needs to be utilised in a far more effective way this season in a midfield that should boast such talents as Yaya Toure, James Milner, Adam Johnson, Nigel de Jong amongst others.

Last season the side was set up too often with two defensive holding players which meant the side lacked any real attacking cohesion. The new addition Yaya Toure was often played as the creative midfielder which is not really his strongest attribute. If City can adapt to playing with one player in that position it will free up their more creative players to ply Aguero, Balotelli and Dzeko with the service they flourish on. One player I have intentionally not mentioned is Gareth Barry. There is a good reason for this as he stifles their play too frequently to remain a part of the regular first team. He is not a bad player but offers little, apart from five yard passes. I can appreciate the need to have a player you can depend on sitting in front of the defence but with their array of talent there has to be someone more capable than him.

There is still another four weeks remaining in this transfer window and much will hinge upon Tevez’s future. It certainly appears that he will be on the move and City could do with adding another couple of players on order to consolidate their position as title challengers. It seems highly likely that whoever they will buy will already be a well-known player in world football. They could do with another commanding centre back to play alongside Vincent Kompany, who was outstanding last season.

Manchester City have not been domestic champions since 1967-68 but this season could be the one they regain their place at the summit of English football. The Beatles once sung that money can’t buy you love, it can however buy you a winning football team, I’m sure the Manchester City fans are not complaining.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Modric to stay, but for how long

The news reports today stating that Luka Modric will remain at Tottenham just do not seem convincing. Whilst speculation has been rife for the last couple of years that he could be Paul Scholes’ long-term replacement his statement last month suggests he has set his heart on a move to Chelsea.

The stance taken by Spurs is correct; the player is under contract and is a vital part of the squad. Having failed to qualify for the Champions League this season they can ill afford to lose one of their best players, and certainly to one of their main rivals. However, the situation seems incredibly similar to that if Dmitar Berbatov’s a few years ago. One feels that as soon as a valuation is met the transfer will go through.

It has already been quite a lively summer for Spurs who have been linked with almost every player in Europe once again. It is understood that Redknapp cannot buy until he sells some of the fringe players. They have a very large squad, and some may argue a very talented one at that. The likes of Bassong, Bentley, Defoe, Hutton and Palacios may all move on which would surely generate £30-40 million. However, this is why the Modric deal is so crucial, and it is why Daniel Levy has become so involved.

If Spurs were to sell Gareth Bale it really would not affect the team that much. He is a promising player but has done nothing consistently to suggest he is anything other than a good prospect. If a club comes in with a bid of anything over £20 million Spurs should bite their hand off. The Welshman clearly has serious back problems and sooner or later the cortisone will stop working and so will he. However, selling Modric would be an admission that Spurs are not capable of holding onto their best players, as they have demonstrated over the last 10 years.

The situation at White Hart Lane is beginning to mirror the scenario across London at Arsenal. Once the senior and best players start to leave the club it becomes very dangerous. Whilst many gooners are convinced they will bounce back one really has to worry for their future next season if Fabregas and Nasri were to leave. Who would want to go there? Spurs face exactly the same issue with Modric. If he leaves why would one of the best strikers in the world go to Tottenham?

The player himself has been very quiet since giving that interview the other month and it is always difficult to believe everything you read at this time of the year. However, with other sides competing for that lucrative top four finish it will be even harder for Spurs to gain qualification next season. It could well be that Modric has a verbal agreement in place that he can leave next year if they fail to qualify.

Daniel Levy has worked very hard to get Spurs to where they are today (even if his manager believes it was entirely his tactical genius that got them there) and he does not want to lose one of his stars. He has dealt with the matter incredibly well thus far but I just do not see this matter coming to an end in the near future; it could well be the Cesc part II saga. The statements and comments look good for Spurs today but this matter is far from over.