Monday, 28 March 2011

Villa and Xavi become record breakers

Spain’s victory over Czech Republic on Saturday marked two remarkable individual achievements by two outstanding players. Firstly David Villa scored twice to overtake Raul’s all-time goal scoring record for Spain and secondly Xavi – general regarded as the best midfielder in the world – reached 100 caps.

It is an incredible achievement by Villa who now leads Raul in the all-time goal scoring records; he now has 46 goals in 72 Internationals whereas Raul scored 44 in 102 games. Whilst he is fortunate to play in such a successful team this achievement should not be undermined. He is currently the best striker in the world and has already scored 21 goals this season after his move to Barcelona.

However, it is not only his goal scoring abilities that make him stand out as the best striker around. He is a great team player and has settled into his new club with aplomb. It is obviously a massive help when you see 6 of the players you started the world cup final with but his attitude has made him stand out from many others. Over the last few years Barca have tried to find a forward who can operate in their system (Bojan, Henry, and Ibrahimovic) and have finally found their man.

His team mate at Barca Xavi Hernandez also reached a personal milestone in the game by reaching his 100th cap. His ability to retain possession and dictate the pace of the game has been instrumental in Barcelona and Spain’s successes in recent years. Leading up to the game on Saturday the Spanish press labelled Xavi as ‘the greatest Spanish player ever’ and it is hard to disagree.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Capello losing his grip on England job

The farcical re-appointment of John Terry as England captain suggests that Fabio Capello has finally lost control of the job. Whilst I believe that he is the right candidate to lead the side the manner of Rio Ferdinand’s demotion leaves a sour taste and one that will surely affect the team.

Initially it appeared that Terry would only be captain for the Wales game but the Italian then revealed that he would take over permanently. Admittedly with Ferdinand and Gerrard out the Chelsea captain was the natural choice, but after being humiliated by Capello when he was stripped of the captaincy why return it now?

Whatever your feelings are about Terry as a human being it should be remembered that he is a very good captain. He has lead Chelsea fantastically for the last few years and his form has returned after a shaky few months. The whole Wayne Bridge incident was blown massively out of proportion and should never have resulted in him being demoted. The appointment of Ferdinand as captain was ludicrous considering his injury history; even Sir Alex Ferguson appointed Nemanja Vidic as Manchester United captain this season.

Surely when you have 11 international players the choice of captain should not be this overplayed. Terry has been re-appointed, Capello is losing the plot, let us just get on with the football.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Chelsea back in the title race

After the emphatic win at Stamford Bridge on Sunday against Manchester City Chelsea are now very much back in the title race. It appeared so unlikely after their horrendous form around Christmas when they found themselves facing the possibility of not finishing in the top 4. Since beating Manchester United at the Bridge at the start of this month their confidence has returned.

The season had started so promisingly and it appeared that nobody would be able to stop the reigning league champions. Defeat at Anfield in November rocked them and their confidence; their form then deteriorated so dramatically that Ancelotti’s job was under scrutiny. It shows what a fickle world football is when you win the domestic double in your first season and then face the sack the following – madness.

The additions of Luiz and Torres look good, although the later has still failed to open his Chelsea account. His movement in recent weeks has been that of old but his desperation to score seems to be making his job that much harder at the current moment.

The London side have been drawn against Manchester United in the Champions League which will be a fascinating tie. The Chelsea manager holds the upper hand over Ferguson with the United boss only beating his Italian counterpart on 3 occasions in the past. Both games will be enthralling and with them set to play at Old Trafford in the Premier League the title could go to the wire.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Arsenal must address things quickly

In the space of two weeks Arsenal have found themselves on the verge of a sixth successive season without a trophy. They are still in with a chance of the Premier League title but after dropping points against relegation threatened West Brom yesterday it now appears unlikely.

It has become a common part of English football in recent years; superlatives are offered left, right and centre about Arsenal until February/March time when everything slips through their grasp. Their performance against Barcelona in the first leg at the Emirates was outstanding, a bench mark if you will that needs to be aspired to every time they set foot on the pitch. However, since then they have lost to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final, limped out against Barcelona in the Camp Nou and have drawn with Sunderland and West Brom in the league. It is not good enough!

Every season we are offered the same excuses and problems by their manager Arsene Wenger and their fans; injuries, bad refereeing and individual errors. There is certainly an argument occasionally for any of these excuses but to hear it continually for 6 years is poor. As an Arsenal fan said to me after defeat at Barcelona ‘We cannot be this unlucky every year, there has to be more to it.’

There is no doubt that the squad is good enough in areas but there is simply a lack of depth in key areas. The injury sustained by Vermaelen was immensely unfortunate but I believe that’s where the sympathy should stop. His deputy this year has been Koscielny who at times has been impressive but makes big mistakes in every game; his record of 10 yellows and 2 reds in 36 games this season is appalling. There is then the issue of their 2 best players – Fabregas and Van Persie.

For me the want away Arsenal captain has not been fully fit all season; every time he is injured Wenger re-introduces him immediately and he struggles. Although he is a young man he has played 3 years of consistent football and looks like a man desperately in need of a break. The Dutch striker boasts a fantastic record in 2011 but has still on played 24 games this season.

If Arsenal are to win things they must purchase players who are more resilient and mentally tougher. There is an inevitability about Manchester United when they play that you feel Arsenal just do not have. They did very well to fight back from two goals down yesterday but still dropped two points in a game they should be winning. The goalkeeping and defensive positions remain in doubt but these issues have been around for years and have not been remedied.

With other Premier League sides likely to spend big this summer the time has come for Wenger to give up on his ideology. The performance against Barcelona indicates that Arsenal can compete with the best but not a consistent basis.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Champions League draw throws up mouth watering ties

This morning’s Champions League draw has thrown up some incredible ties including an all English quarter final and the potential to have a Barcelona vs Real Madrid semi-final. The draw in full is:

Real Madrid / Tottenham vs Barcelona / Shakhtar Donetsk

Inter Milan / Schalke vs Chelsea / Manchester United

The Champions league debutants Tottenham face a very daunting trip to the Bernebeu which will really test Harry Redknapp’s team. Their main threat in this season’s tournament has been Gareth Bale but I would expect Jose Mourinho to deal with him. However, with the 2nd leg being played at White Hart Lane anything is possible and with them likely to be underdogs Spurs certainly have a chance.

The current favourites Barcelona host Shakhtar in the first leg where they will be expected to win comfortably. The away leg at the Donbass Arena in the Ukraine will however be a very tricky game as they are very strong at home. It will also see Dmytro Chygrynskiy return to the Camp Nou for the first time since he returned to his former side. The Ukrainian centre back failed to establish himself during his time at Barcelona and will be eager to prove a point to Guardiola. If Barcelona and Madrid progress we will then see four classicos in 19 days!

Reigning champions Inter Milan face Schalke in what looks like the least interesting tie of the round. The Italian champions have played much better football under new manager Leanardo and after beating Bayern Munich in the previous round should be favourites to advance.

The tie of the round however sees Chelsea face Manchester United for a place in the semi-finals. It will be an incredibly tight game between the English sides and with United still to face them for the 2nd time in the league this season it will be so hard to pick a winner. Chelsea are out of contention for the league so will focus heavily on this game. With United still fighting on three fronts player fitness will be crucial; doubts remain about Rio Ferdinand’s fitness and key midfielders will need to return in time.

It is the strongest Champions League Quarter final draw for many years and all four ties will be fascinating games. Barcelona remain the team to beat but there remain a couple of sides who would fancy their chances.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Mourinho faces crucial test

Tonight will be the biggest test of Jose Mourinho’s capabilities as Real Madrid’s manager. Having drawn against Lyon in France three weeks ago his side must progress in the Santiago Bernabeu this evening to ensure that his future remains in Madrid.

It is hard to believe that Real have not advanced past the 2nd round since 2005. The trophy that they almost regard as their own has been unattainable since 2002 which makes the competition a priority for Mourinho. After the 5-0 humiliation at the hands of bitter rivals Barcelona at the end of November the focus has moved towards this trophy (it is also the one the Portuguese manager covets more than any other), but they have failed to beat Lyon in 7 previous meetings.

There have been severe problems behind the scenes at Real this season; the manager believes promises have been broken by the board and there have been issues between him and the general manager Jorge Valdano. The President Florentino Perez has backed the Portuguese manager in recent weeks but there remain rumours of a return to the Premier League for Mourinho. It is tough for him at the moment though, Barcelona are the best team in the world and closing the gap will take longer than a year. The question is will he get the time or not? I feel that if there is any pressure or negativity from the board he will walk in the summer and return to his beloved England.

There is little doubt in Mourinho’s ability as a manager as his record speaks for itself; 5 league titles in 8 years in 3 different leagues, 2 Champions League wins and several domestic cups. His star man and fellow countryman Ronaldo is missing tonight which will be a huge loss as he has already scored 37 goals this season but Karim Benzema will lead the line tonight after some impressive recent displays. Recent history suggests it will be a tough encounter for Madrid tonight but with Mourinho in their corner few would back against them.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Barcelona vs Arsenal - a review

The second leg of this encounter failed to live up to expectations as controversy took centre stage at the Camp Nou last night. The home side advanced to the quarter final after winning the game 3-1 which gave them a 4-3 aggregate victory over the north London side. However, it was the sending off of Robin van Persie that has got everyone talking after the game.

Arsenal’s approach to the game was clearly to defend for as long as possible and score against the run of play in the 2nd half. It was a strange move from Wenger who always advocates that his side play attractive, attacking football; there was very little evidence of that last night. They set up to play very narrow and to encourage Barcelona to play down the wings rather than play through them.

The home side were far from their best last night; much of the build-up play was too slow and laboured. It was only when a player skipped passed a tackle or two that you thought they would actually carve through the defence. The technical ability shown by Iniesta for the first goal (after Fabregas’ atrocious back pass) was outstanding; his first three touches took him passed Wilshire and Fabregas before he played a perfect pass to Messi. The Argentine’s finish was exquisite and was a bitter blow to Arsenal who had almost made it to half-time without conceding.

Early in the 2nd half Nasri managed to win a corner for Arsenal after some impressive work to retain possession from Mascherano. The resulting corner was headed into his own net by Busquets which levelled the game and put Arsenal ahead again in the tie. Three minutes after scoring we saw the controversial sending off; Fabregas had played his best pass of the night to van Persie who controlled the ball instantly but hit his right footed shot wide of the right hand post. Suddenly the referee ran over and branded a yellow card, given that it was his 2nd of the night a red followed quickly afterwards.

It was a shocking decision. There is no other way to describe it; there was one second between the whistle blowing and van Persie shooting. The game as a spectacle was over, it was now a matter of when Barcelona scored and how many they would get. It must be said that Xavi’s goal (Barcelona’s 2nd) was fantastic, an example of the Catalans at their best. The penalty taken by Messi ensured that Barcelona would advance at Arsenal’s expense.

Although the sending off changed the game it was difficult to see how Arsenal would have changed their style effectively without leaving more gaps in the defence. Their side is simply not good enough to go to the Camp Nou and defend for 90 minutes. They should also not have played Fabregas; he was far from fit and had his worst game in an Arsenal shirt.

The trophy should now be there for Barcelona to record their 4th European Cup win this season. They were not at their best last night but it was still enough to see off Arsenal. It is no shame to lose to a side like Barcelona; they are the best team in the world, have the best players in the world and play the best football I have ever seen and probably will ever see. Credit should go to Arsenal for the way they played at the Emirates but they have come up short again.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Barcelona vs Arsenal - a preview

Tomorrow night’s 2nd leg in the Camp Nou should be one to savour. The game is finely balanced with Arsenal holding a one goal advantage over Barcelona after the 1st leg at the Emirates three weeks ago. Both sides are struggling with injuries but this should be a game that every football fan is looking forward to.

Arsenal travel to Spain without Alex Song, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott who all played in the first leg. Their manager Arsene Wenger confirmed that their captain Cesc Fabregas should be 90% fit for the game which will come as huge relief. He missed Arsenal’s visit to Catalonia last year and he was sorely missed as they were soundly beaten. It will be a tough ask for the Gunners to win the game but as long as they score and remain within one goal they will progress to the next round.

Meanwhile Barcelona have had somewhat of a defensive crisis as their captain Carlos Puyol has not recovered sufficiently to play tomorrow night. His regular partner Gerard Pique is suspended so they will have to call on Eric Abidal and Sergio Busquets to marshal the back line. This should all mean that Javier Mascherano will play alongside Iniesta and Xavi in the midfield with Messi, Pedro and Villa playing up front.

The game three weeks ago was fantastic; it was an example of how the game can and should be played at the highest level. There were chances at both ends and the only certainty tomorrow night is that there will be plenty of goals. We will definitely not see Arsenal go away from home and park the bus; both teams only know how to play one way.

The tie is balanced similarly to last season for me, the English side probably just edged the first game but Barcelona will not be as wasteful again. It is a real shame that both sides are missing such crucial players as the quality may not be quite as high as it could be. I would expect Barcelona to score three or four times so it will be question of how many Arsenal get in reply. They will have to maintain possession much more efficiently than they did three weeks ago or they will be severely punished. The whole world will be watching tomorrow night, I am sure it will live up to expectations.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ferguson gets it wrong twice in a week

It is incredibly difficult to criticise Sir Alex Ferguson, after all, he is probably the best manager there has ever been- but I am going to. In the games against Chelsea and Liverpool this week he has got things wrong which have resulted in them losing their grip on the Premier League title.

This season’s United side is not a vintage team; to be fair it is probably one of the worst Ferguson has managed during his tenure at the club. They are resolute and hard working but lack the creativity and ability of previous teams. One thing he has done brilliantly though is make them resolute and hard to beat. In normal circumstances both domestically and in Europe he lines up 4-5-1 which allows them to strangle the midfield and hit sides on the break.

For some reason against Chelsea and Liverpool he has opted to play 4-4-2 away from home with Paul Scholes as one of the central midfielders. Now Paul Scholes has been one of the best central midfielders for the last decade but no longer has the speed to play as one of a two man partnership. Earlier in the season against Arsenal and Liverpool they employed the 4-5-1 formation which enables Scholes to use all his wizardry while his colleagues Fletcher and Carrick patrol the centre of the pitch. In turn this also frees up Nani and Rooney who are then able to roam in support of Berbatov.

At Anfield this afternoon and at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday we have seen United playing in a game where they have had no foothold in midfield. This has resulted in Rooney becoming more and more subdued and in the end today consigned to the left wing after Nani’s injury. It must have delighted Kenny Dalglish to see Rooney patrolling the touch line; 30 yards from where he needed to be to hurt Liverpool.

The title is by no means lost after this week but they have let the chasing pack catch them. They now face a tough trip to the Emirates in May followed by the return of Chelsea in order to win the Premier League. Whilst this is certainly not beyond Manchester United they must go back to doing what they do best, they certainly haven’t done that this week.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Anfield game could have huge bearing on Premier League title

The game on Sunday between Liverpool and Manchester United should go some way in determining the Premier League title this season. Having lost at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night United have to come back and make a statement of intent. With their captain Nemanja Vidic suspended and Rio Ferdinand still doubtful it will be a very tough game.

It has by no means been a vintage United team this season; they have struggled at points and have looked short of their usual high standards. The game at Anfield could also see Andy Carroll make his debut which would make Ferdinand’s return imperative. Since the return of Kenny Dalglish Liverpool have improved significantly and are still very strong when they play at home. Their other new striker Luis Suarez is still acclimatising to life in England but has looked very sharp in his appearances thus far and will surely be fired up for his first game against United.

The title is still in United’s hands but another set back could begin to sow seeds of doubt within the squad. They still have to play Arsenal and Chelsea amongst other games so need to ensure they pick up points at the weekend. With Arsenal having the easiest run in another slip could prove costly and Ferguson will be conscious that United do not want to travel to the Emirates needing a victory.

These games are usually very fiery and the visitors are sure to receive a hostile reception. With both clubs sitting on 18 league titles Liverpool will be determined to put a dent in United’s quest for the record this season. It should be a cracker.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Giggs - a true Legend

It is truly remarkable that today marks the start of Ryan Giggs’ third decade at Manchester United. He made his debut against Everton in 1991 and has gone on to break almost every record at United; last night he equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 606 league appearances.

It is highly unlikely that we will ever see anything like this again; a player remaining at one of the biggest clubs in the world for 20 years and still being an integral part of the squad. He has won almost everything there is to win in the game and is still hungrier than many of the younger players around. In an interview I saw with him a few months ago he stated that he does not really remember the highlights, it is the disappointments that linger.

He is a lesson to any young player starting out in every way; the way he approaches the game, the way he plays it and the dedication to remain at the top for so long. When he initially burst into the spotlight he was an incredibly quick winger who could go passed you before you noticed he was there. The goal he scored against Arsenal in 1999 when he ran through their entire side is the perfect example of Giggs at his best.

As he has matured and lost that extra yard of pace he has adapted his game and become a far better footballer. He is capable of controlling games more than in his youth but he still has a change of pace; in the Manchester derby he raced passed Micah Richards at one point and left him trailing behind him.

He has signed another one year contract extension so we get to see him for one more season which is fantastic for all football fans. The Welshman has won 32 senior club honours as well as countless individual honours – the man is a Legend and will remain etched in United’s history forever.

Luiz shines as Torres stutters

Last night’s victory at Stamford Bridge could be a turning point in the future of Chelsea football club. The club were under serious pressure to perform and after a rather subdued first half kicked into gear in the second. Although it remains incredibly unlikely that they will challenge for the title it sent a message to those around them that they are still more than capable of beating the best.

The performance from their new Brazilian centre back David Luiz was fantastic and he looks a real talent. It was even noticed by Cesc Fabregas on twitter who commented “David Luiz is looking to be a very good player and still only 23. He’s got class. Defenders playing with the ball are always my favourites.” However, it must be mentioned that he was very lucky to remain on the pitch after a rather cynical foul on Wayne Rooney in the second half. His goal was taken expertly and you could see it visibly lift him as he went on a marauding run after an interception minutes after scoring. The new centre back looks physically strong and very capable with the ball which is something Chelsea have lacked since Carvalho’s departure in the summer.

In contrast Fernando Torres looked well short of what he is capable of, but there were signs that he is developing an understanding with his team mates. It has been a difficult season for the Spaniard who finally managed to leave Liverpool in January after failing to depart over the summer. Some of his movement last night was excellent but his confidence in front of goal has still not returned. With Ancelotti starting with a 4-4-2 formation it suits him more as he is able to roam up front but the supply line needs to be better.

Both sides looked short of creativity and I am convinced both will address this in the summer. They possess wingers who can hurt sides when on form but there has to be more impetuous coming from central positions. This is not a vintage United side we have seen this season but they remain the most efficient at closing sides down when they play through the middle. However, with 36 year old Paul Scholes as their most creative central midfielder this is a problem that must be remedied.

It was one of the better top 4 clashes last night with some exciting football played by both sides. It was nice to see both managers employing 4-4-2 and I cannot remember the last big game when central midfield was so open. United now must get something at Anfield on Sunday while Chelsea just have to keep winning.