Sunday, 23 January 2011

Robinson is England's number one

Almost every English football fan wants to sit down with Fabio Capello and discuss his views on the national team. I would want him to answer one question ‘How on earth can Paul Robinson not be in your squad?’ It is madness; I am not saying that Joe Hart is not good enough but Robinson is currently the best and most consistent performer in the Premier League.

Since signing for Blackburn Rovers in 2008 Robinson has been masterful and kept an impressive 13 clean sheets in the league last season. Having had an exciting start to his career at Leeds he moved onto Tottenham Hotspur where he played for 4 years with varying degrees of success. An error whilst playing for England against Croatia in 2008 epitomised his mixed fortunes over this period. It was Paul Ince who brought him to Rovers at a time when everyone felt he was finished at the top level.

He endured a tricky start to his Blackburn career but when Sam Allardyce came in as manager he seemed to instil the confidence he had been so short of. He has always been a wonderful shot stopper and has become far stronger at coming for crosses in the last 18 months. In 2010 he announced his retirement from International football having been overlooked by Capello for the England squad.

At a time when Joe Hart is having concentration issues and seems more interested in drinking with Gareth Barry it is unbelievable that Capello has not asked for a change of heart from Robinson. He is in my opinion the best English keeper around, Hart certainly has the ability and his time will come but for now Robbo is England’s number 1!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

United starting to tick

Manchester United’s easy victory over Birmingham suggests that the title favourites will kick on and take their 4th title in 5 years. Dimitar Berbatov took his tally for the season to 19, Giggs rolled back the years to give a master class and Rooney did everything but score the goal he deserved. They have been far from their best at times this season but their form over the last few weeks is ominous for their rivals. United now find themselves 2 points clear of Arsenal with a game in hand.

Much of the credit for United’s success this season must go to Alex Ferguson. His current team do not possess some of the class of previous teams and he has gone back to basic management theory; do not concede goals and try to hit the opposition on the counter attack. His central defensive partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic is the best in the league and they have been immense all season; they have conceded only 19 goals in the league all season.

Whilst making United hard to beat Ferguson has also been aided by the continually improving Berbatov. The often languid Bulgarian has certainly answered his critics this season and once Rooney starts to score again they will possess a lethal front line. One criticism would be the lack of a creative central midfielder but this will surely be addressed this summer.

We are yet to see United really dominate this season as they usually do but the manner of the performance today gives added substance to their title credentials. They do still have 2 games with Chelsea, a visit to the Emirates to face Arsenal and the visit of Manchester City to come but it appears to be United’s title to lose at the moment.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Spurs fail to take the initiative

Although yesterday’s draw with Manchester United will suit both sides I feel that Spurs really missed a trick at home against Ferguson’s team. As soon as I saw the team sheet yesterday I expected a United win or a draw. The build-up had been going on for most of the week and the general feeling amongst the pundits and press was that it would be a victory for an up and coming Tottenham side. They started brightly and took the game to United but for me it was the manor of the performance and their reluctance to really test Ferdinand and Vidic.

Starting with Crouch means the team know they have a get out ball and can always play more direct during the game if they are pressured. We have seen before that for all Vidic’s great defensive attributes he is vulnerable to pace and I was surprised to see no Defoe or Pavlyuchenko. Luka Modric was outstanding in central midfield and deserved more support from Bale and Lennon on the wings who had the odd moment of brilliance but were on the periphery of the game for long periods. Redknapp is usually a very attacking manager but he seemed too worried about losing to really have a go at United.

One would assume that Crouch started because of his good relationship with Van der Vaart who has been their best player this season. The big problem is that against the top sides Crouch does not possess the ability to out muscle or out think top defenders. Vidic was brilliant but in all honesty had a very easy afternoon against him; spurs had clearly identified the lack of height of the United full backs so aimed many diagonal passes at Crouch in the hope that he would get it to the Dutchman. This proved to be fruitless as Ferdinand and Vidic read it every time and cleared the danger.

If Spurs are to become a regular top 4 side they have to get a proven world class striker to come in and get the goals against the big teams. They have a great goalkeeper, very good centre backs, a quality and creative midfield but are really missing the final ingredient. I think Spurs will struggle to get a Champions League place on the evidence of yesterday’s game which could mean losing one or two of their top players which will hinder them in the long term. It was very refreshing to see them finish in the top 4 last year but Van der Vaart has been their only addition as yet; more big names need to arrive to cement their place, not the likes of Beckham and Phil Neville!

How low can you go?

The situation at Liverpool is one which is worrying players, fans and owners alike. This once great club has been on a downward spiral for the last 18 months and the question most supporters are asking is, how bad can things will get? Rafa Benitez is still remembered very fondly by most fans but his increasingly strained relationships with Hicks, Gillet and other board members made his position untenable. In addition to this his poor use of transfer funds and (in the last 12 months) bizarre behaviour led to his downfall. In fact you could look back as far as January 2009 when it all started to go wrong when he gave his now infamous press conference rant aimed at Alex Ferguson and the apparently lenient approach officials take towards United. Liverpool were top of the table and genuine title contenders for the first time in 17 years. It was mind-games from Rafa and it back-fired dreadfully and ultimately led to his sacking. The clubs financial situation then became front-page news and the appointment of the affable but ultimately low-budget, low maintenance Roy Hodgson reflected that. In fairness to Roy he joined a club in turmoil, and whilst he never managed to get his team to hit the heights the fans expected, he was always living on borrowed time.

What they should have done next is to get a manager with the direction, ambition and conviction to take Liverpool back to where they belong. There is an outstanding list of top managers currently not in employment: Rafa Benitez, Frank Rijkaard, Sam Allardyce and Martin O’Neill. Martin O’Neill would, for me, be the stand out candidate. It would surely present him with the opportunity that he has always wanted – to manage one of the countries top teams, and Liverpool get a proven top manager for free! Everyone’s happy! But what did they do instead? The worst kept secret in football was that Kenny Dalglish was hovering above Roy Hodgson’s head like the blade of a guillotine waiting for his opportunity to get back in charge. It was predictable and full of romance, but how can you expect someone who has not worked at the sharp-end of football for the best part of 10 years to know about potential targets and training systems as one of the above mentioned managers would? After all the club and football world have moved on immeasurably since 1991. The cynic in me believes Kenny’s return will be destined for mediocrity and is little more than a public relations stunt by owners who don’t know football and don’t really know what they’re doing. Bring a legend back to the club and it will keep them happy! The situation is strikingly similar to another “Kings” return home a couple of years ago when Kevin Keegan returned to Newcastle. Actually there are many similarities: “the fans choice”, unpopular former manager, owners who don’t understand football, a disgruntled home support, and well-documented financial problems. What happened to Newcastle that season? They were relegated. If it wasn’t for the astute management of Chris Houghton during their season in the Championship their stay outside the top-flight could have been far longer, a la Leeds.

I’m not suggesting that Liverpool will get relegated this season; any team with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in it shouldn’t ever be embroiled in a relegation battle. However what happens in the summer? Can a player of Torres’s class and ability really be expected to spend a second consecutive season in the (at best!) Europa League? Will Gerrard - 33 next season - think his chances of silverware greater elsewhere than at his beloved Liverpool? Realistically you wouldn’t expect Liverpool to be back competing at the top for another 2 or 3 years – especially with the emergence of Spurs and Man City as credible top 4 sides - which will prove too long for both Torres and Gerrard to wait around. If they are sold, who would they be replaced by? Similar quality players would be nigh on impossible to attract for a club outside the Champions League.

Most people can see the warning signs of a club in decline and the only way to prevent it is by making the right decisions for the clubs long-term future, the problem with foreign owners or people who don’t understand our game is that they think “Doing a Leeds” is some kind of neat counter-attacking move. Someone would do well to educate John Henry of once mighty clubs who have fallen, otherwise he could well be the owner of the next one!

This piece has been written by Eddy Lascelles specifically for HuntersWorldOfFootball

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Vidic Outstanding

Nemanja Vidic was simply outstanding this afternoon; it was not far away from a perfect defensive performance. He won everything in the air, made crucial interceptions and aided his full-backs tremendously. Alongside Ferdinand, United certainly have the strongest centre back pairing in the league and by avoiding defeat at White Hart Lane today take another step towards the title.

They were severely tested after Rafael’s sending off 15 minutes from time but Spurs offered little cutting edge. Modric had a great game and dictated the home sides play throughout. The problem the home side had was starting with Crouch; he offers very little against the top defenders and he also ensures that Spurs have to play a certain way. Often the ball would be drilled diagonally to Crouch in the hope that a flick down would fall for Van der Vaart. Whilst this pays off dividends against the weaker sides it is too predictable against the top teams; if Redknapp had started with Pavlyuchenko or Defoe they would have offered more varied methods of attack. If Spurs are to become a regular top 4 club they must continue to improve their results against their rivals.

Although the game ended nil nil there were noticeable performances from Bale, Ferdinand, Modric, Rafael and Vidic. The Serbian centre half was a colossus and showed exactly why he has been made the United captain.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Arsenal struggle again

For the 2nd time in 5 days Arsene Wenger’s side struggled to break down a Championship side. The victory over Chelsea after Christmas was supposed to usher in a new dawn for Arsenal, a more confident, determined side; although they have only been cup games it is difficult to believe this on recent form. Despite fielding a stronger line-up than that against Leeds they had the same problems; laboured build up play, no cutting edge up front and in some cases a poor attitude (namely Eboue).

Having said that I still expect Arsenal to win convincingly at home, these performances can occur after a busy Christmas schedule as Wenger intimated after the game. Even the best sides struggle to maintain the intensity all of the time and they will find their form again. They do however have a couple of issues that need to be addressed quickly; Arshavin and Fabregas.

Arshavin arrived in January 2009 and looked fantastic; the highlight surely being his 4 goals at Anfield. This season he has looked like a man bereft of confidence and last night he kept looking around and hoping the ground would open up and swallow him whole. He has great feet but is far too predictable at the moment; playing on the left every defender should know he will cut inside onto his right around the box. He is not a one trick pony but his lack of confidence is affecting every aspect of his game.

Fabregas looked a frustrated figure. Wenger gave him the afternoon off on Saturday but he had to come on and salvage a draw against Leeds and last night he just didn’t look fully fit. This writer believes that he has been rushed back too frequently over the last couple of years and desperately needs to get 100% fit in order to get back to the form he is capable of. An 80% fit Cesc is still better than most about but he needs some recuperation time after the busy schedule he has had over the last few years.

The real positive last night for me was seeing Conner Wickham. He looks a real talent and it is surely only a matter of time before one the big clubs come in for him.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Leeds revel in the big time

Leeds United and their 9000 following descended on the Emirates on Saturday afternoon and went home the happier after a 1-1 draw with Arsenal. Indeed for the last half hour of the game it looked like Leeds would take the spoils from a compelling cup tie. The travelling fans were superb and the noise reverberated around North London long after the game had finished.

Arsenal it must be said were not at their best but after Denilson’s clumsy challenge on Gradel 10 minutes into the 2nd half Robert Snodgrass dispatched the resulting penalty. The Leeds fans were delirious and as the crowd cheered the players began to believe. Snodgrass was outstanding and the defence held firm against everything Arsenal threw against them. It was only the introduction of Fabregas that lifted the home side; he began to open up the Leed’s defence with some delightful passes. One of these passes ended up with Walcott being brought down in the area for a penalty that Fabregas calmly stroked passed Schmeichel. It was a shame to see the Arsenal theatrics being displayed again although Walcott did apologise after the game for his horrible dive 5 minutes from time.

It was a cracking advertisement for the FA Cup and also for Leeds United. It has been a horrible few years for the fans and it was incredible to see the numbers turning up for the 3rd round tie. They have made good progress under Grayson and it is surely only a matter of time before they return to the top tier of English football where they belong. The replay is Tuesday week and I for one am hoping Leeds can finish off the job!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Everton need a striker

When Louis Saha smashed the ball into the bottom left corner last night against Spurs David Moyes must have wondered why his strikers cannot deliver that kind of finishing every game. The toffees currently positioned 11th in the league have only scored 23 goals this season with their strikers contributing 4 of those; indeed without the prolific Tim Cahill they could find themselves in real trouble.

David Moyes has been in charge since 2002 and has made continual efforts to strengthen his front line. He has bought James Beattie, Andy Johnson, Louis Saha and Yakubu in an attempt to find someone to score the goals needed to take them onto the next level. He even added Jermaine Beckford in the summer in an attempt to provide this threat. All have failed to varying degrees, although many of these failures have been due to continued injury rather than lack of ability.

Moyes has been terrific at Everton and is rightly considered one of the best up and coming managers in the country. It will be interesting to see how long he remains in Merseyside with many suitors interested in his services. He has managed to build a very strong side with a strong defence, a combative yet creative midfield and has guided Everton to a top 4 finish in 2004/5. If he could add a top class striker we could see Everton becoming the main team on Merseyside.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

City lack ideas

This evening’s bore draw at the Emirates will benefit Manchester City more than Arsenal but the overall winners tonight were United. Arsenal started well and posed City problems in the initial stages but lacked any real cutting edge throughout. The biggest disappointment of the evening was the lack of attacking intent shown by City; they didn’t even manage one shot on goal!

It will however be considered a good point for City after capitulating in Manchester a few months ago. The main problem remains linking the midfield and the attack. Carlos Tevez remains a frustrated lone front man who has to create everything himself. Whilst City employed similar tactics to those used by Chelsea and United they lack the cutting edge when counter attacking; Adam Johnson was introduced late on but they really missed David Silva. If City are to progress to the next level this is something that has to be address in the summer, if not in January.

Whilst Arsenal did not play badly they lacked the cutting edge in the final third (although had the woodwork not figured so heavily in the first half things could have been different). At the start of the game the commentator mentioned that Van Persie needed one more goal to reach 50 in the league for Arsenal; I realise he has suffered more than his fair share of injuries but that is a poor return! Arsenal would have posed City more problems if Chamakh had started tonight, he attacks crosses whereas Van Persie looks to hang around the penalty spot. They appeared to look solid at the back although they weren’t tested, the midfield looked neat and tidy but the final ball just did not materialise.

Overall the game was rather dull, had Arsenal taken advantage of their early dominance it would have been very different. City will head up north the happier; especially with the imminent arrival of Edin Dzeko.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Ronaldinho to Blackburn

This title is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever written; just the idea of it makes me chuckle. Ronaldinho has graced Ewood Park in Pro Evolution and Football manager but seriously in real life??? Not a chance! Football has always been a game of ifs and buts (ask any Arsenal fan) but if this is what the Venky group has in mind for the regeneration of Blackburn Rovers they are deluded.

There is no doubt that Ronaldinho was once the finest player on this planet; his performance in the Santiago Bernebeu to earn a standing ovation from the Madrid fans was one of the finest spectacles ever witnessed. If he had been playing regularly at Milan and playing well I would be incredibly excited about the possibility of him arriving. In reality the once great genius has become a fading force among the footballing elite, the game has evolved and he has been left by the wayside. He will surely return to Gremio where he began his career 12 years ago; he will be the star attraction and will be given free rein to behave how he wants.

It is a statement of intend by the new Blackburn owners but one that is flawed in so many ways. Steve Kean is just starting his managerial career and they want to intrust one of the biggest playboys the game has seen over the last decade, a man who doesn’t train, parties all night and then strolls round the pitch. This is not what Kean needs. If they want to attract big names Rovers need young, hungry and gifted players who can take the club forward. The foreign owners seem to believe that a marque signing makes everything ok when in reality it would turn sour after a couple of weeks.

I am still utterly flabbergasted by what I am seeing at my club. We are sitting in mid table with 25 points so we should survive this season but I am becoming increasingly concerned with the future. Kean seems an impressive man when interviewed, he appears knowledgeable and forthright which is what we need at the moment. However, until we can get a clearer picture of exactly what the Venky’s intentions are I will be a nervous man.