Friday, 27 May 2011

Champions League Final preview – Manchester United

Tomorrow night will be Manchester United’s third appearance out of a possible four Champions League finals. It is a remarkable record for a club who this season have become England’s most successful club side. The final will also give the club a chance to win their fourth European Cup.

The overwhelming feeling in the media this season has been that this United side is not as strong as some of its predecessors. There is definitely a case for this argument but the side has also not really been pushed to its limit domestically. In Europe they have been sublime which was highlighted against Schalke in the semi-final when they fielded a second string side. They have conceded four goals in the competition but have only scored 18.

It has been an incredible season for Sir Alex Ferguson who has once again demonstrated why he is regarded so highly. This side is not the most free flowing and attack orientated as some of his former sides but is resolute and efficient. They have struggled to play their best football at points this season but have remained extremely difficult to beat as their home form suggested; they dropped two points at home all year in the Premier League.

The final will be a close encounter and very tricky to predict. There is no doubt in my mind that Ferguson has been preparing for this ever since the final whistle in Rome two years ago, The defeat hurt many of the senior player, coaching staff and in particularly Ferguson. He felt that his players had failed to carry out his on field tactics which lead to a comfortable victory for Barcelona.

I feel they must attack the Spanish side if they are to be successful. Their form has improved as the season has gone on and their attacking threat is more potent now than at any other point. If they sit back too much they will be picked off eventually and it is unlikely the manager will let that happen. The sides that have had the most success against Barca this season are the ones who have attacked them. I would imagine that Ferguson has spoken with Mourinho several times with regards to tactics. The Portuguese manager countered Barca’s passing by hitting them very quickly and effectively on the break. With Hernandez, Park, Rooney and Valencia likely to feature I would imagine this is how United will play.

It should be a great final; they are the two best sides in Europe and Wembley should be a fitting venue for the final.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Champions League Final preview – Barcelona

This Saturday will see Barcelona return to Wembley for the first time since winning their first European Cup triumph in 1992. It seems unbelievable that it took a club of the stature of Barcelona until 1992 to win Europe’s most prestigious prize. Since then they have won two further titles and go into Saturday’s game as favourites for the crown.

I can remember watching the game back in 1992. I watched it with my Dad who was explaining to me that Barcelona had never won the tournament etc. I can picture the moment when Koeman’s free-kick went in and won them the trophy. It began a fascination with the club that has grown since that moment.

The current Barcelona team are the best in the world currently and there is certainly an argument to suggest they maybe the best club side ever. They have the best player in the world and boast the three Ballon d’Or finalists this season in Iniesta, Messi and Xavi.

However, this side is a tired one and one that do look vulnerable. The rest they have enjoyed over the last fortnight could prove crucial in deciding the final. Against Real Madrid in the semi-final they looked jaded and some of their crucial players were a little out of form. They can be got at and I think it is imperative that United attack Barca rather than defending deep as Madrid did.

The side certainly boasts enough experience having reached two of the last three finals. Their manager Pep Guardiola is one of the best up and coming managers in the world and one thing is guaranteed; Barca will not change their playing style. The pitch at Wembley seems to have improved which will certainly suit their preferred method of attack. It is crucial that David Villa regains form as United have look seemingly impenetrable in this seasons competition.

I am sure that the Barcelona coaching staff will have told them to target Rio Ferdinand. For me he is the weak link in the back four; not because of his ability but his lack of mobility is a real problem. After watching him against Blackburn a fortnight ago the man cannot live with pace and against Messi and Villa he will need it.

After the unnecessary furore surrounding their semi-finals with Real I hope we see the football match everyone hopes to see. They are currently the best two sides in Europe, if not the world but Ferguson is sure to have spoken with his friend Mourinho about shutting out the likes of Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Villa and Xavi. The little Argentian wonder kid has already scored 11 goals in 12 games in this season’s tournament and is only one goal away from breaking van Nistelrooy’s record.

It should be a showpiece final for all football fans to enjoy. Let us hope it lives up to it.

Friday, 20 May 2011

United set to spend big this summer

This summer looks set to be one of the most active in recent memory as the top sides look to consolidate and prepare for next season. With Manchester City having finally won a trophy and qualifying for the Champions League they will definitely bring in some expensive stars. Meanwhile, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs will also be spending big.

There are some key re-enforcement’s needed at United next season due to retirement. The goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar is set to hang up his boots which will leave a huge hole in the United defence. Since his move from Fulham in 2005 he has been phenomenal; having already played at Ajax and Juventus his career was considered over when he went to Fulham but he has now become one of the stand out keepers in world football.

There has been much speculation surrounding David de Gea, the Athletico Madrid keeper. Although only 20 he has been identified as the successor and few would be surprised to see him turn up at Old Trafford this summer. He maybe young but has impressed Sir Alex Ferguson’s scouts on many occasions. After making some errors in replacing Peter Schmeichel he will not make the same mistake again.

Elsewhere midfield is certainly an area they are lacking in. There is no secret in Ferguson’s admiration for Wesley Sneijder of Inter Milan who the press certainly feel will be brought in this summer. The creativity from central midfield is not what it was at United and this is probably the biggest signing. Whoever it is will have to replace Paul Scholes which will certainly not be an easy task.

One player who I feel maybe a United player next season however is Andre Ayew who plays for Marseille. He was one of the few players Ferguson spoke of very highly this season and has had a good season domestically and in Europe.

Having won the Premier League and possibly the Champions League United are in an incredibly strong position this summer. Whilst they have won trophies this year there remains a feeling that this side need something more. With Ferguson still in charge there is no doubt that the squad will be strengthened. It looks set to be an intriguing summer.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Arsenal must strengthen this summer

Here we are again, the end of another season where Arsenal have promised so much and failed yet again to deliver. Last night’s victory for Manchester City means that Arsenal are now looking at 4th place and having to qualify for the Champions League; Arsenal’s quest for silverware continues.

It is now six years since Arsenal lifted any silverware and Wenger appears to me no closer to finding a winning formula. Their performance against Barcelona at the Emirates was magnificent but they have come nowhere near replicating that since. Yes they play pretty football, yes they have some decent players but the attitude and hunger is simply not there. Most football fans are slightly deluded but the majority of their fans are now as oblivious as Wenger to their flaws.

The goalkeeping position is still highly suspect; the new hope Wojciech Szczesny is three or four years away from being a decent keeper. The attitude and confidence is all well and good but the countless errors he has already made suggest they have another dud on their hands. There were reports recently that Wenger did make bids for Pepe Reina of Liverpool last summer but this problem has been there for years and he still has not dealt with it. At Manchester United Ferguson realised the error of his ways relatively quickly and strengthened after Schmeichel’s departure – why hasn’t Wenger?

The defence remains a key issue. They have missed Vermaelen for the majority of the season and welcoming him back will be a huge relief. However, he is not a proven player at the highest level and looked very suspect at the end of last season after initially impressing. Again, simply look at the record Ferdinand and Vidic have at United; this season they have conceded 0.67 goals a game when they have played together against 1.4 when not.

The emergence of Jack Wilshire and the re-introduction of Aaron Ramsey will be a huge boost next season. Whether Cesc Fabregas stays or not they should have enough going forward but they still need a top class defensive midfielder. The stand in at the moment is Alex Song who spends most of his time walking around the pitch rather than breaking up the opposition attacks. He is a decent player and is liked by the fans but this is the problem; if Arsenal are to improve and win things they need good/excellent players rather than mediocre/decent players which they have at the moment.

Yet again van Persie has missed the majority of the season but has still scored enough in the second half of the season to ensure he remains the number one striker. On his day he is an excellent player but they have to add more depth in this position. Their new addition Chamakh simply isn’t good enough; he is Emile Heskey but a little more skilful. He gives them options against a Blackburn or Stoke but lacks the quality to hurt good teams. Although Theo Walcott has improved this season he still has very little to offer besides pace. His final ball is either ok or awful however his link up play with van Persie recently has been much better.

It is getting tedious and tiresome commenting on Arsenal. It must be incredibly frustrating for everyone associated with the club but the only one who can really change things is Wenger. From what I can gather many of the fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his stubbornness and willingness to change his ideology. They have demonstrated in patches that they can compete with the very best but they are too inconsistent. If they can bring in four or five players with experience and quality they will do well next season. If they don’t I imagine I will be writing something very similar next season. Over to you Mr Wenger.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Fascinating summer ahead for Manchester City

It has been a long wait but Manchester City have finally won a trophy and have qualified for next seasons Champions League. This is where their owner Sheikh Mansour intends them to remain after injecting a fortune into the club. However, as Tottenham have found, it is one thing qualifying for the tournament, it is another thing staying in it for many years.

On the one hand it is great that the so called top four has been broken up, but on the other it highlights the fact that success can simply be bought. The monopoly that Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have enjoyed has ensured that their wealth far outweighs any of their counterparts. However, with City and their bottomless pit of cash anything is now possible.

They have struggled to attract the top level players as they have lacked a Champions League place. With this now assured the spending could be astronomical this summer. In 2009 they had a £100 million offer accepted by Milan for Kaka only to be rejected by the player as he felt City was a step down. Following the outcome of this season anything is possible.

There have already been links to several of the World’s top players although some seem very far-fetched; Iniesta and Xavi for instance. But, one article I did read suggested that some of these players might want one last pay day and they can pretty much name their fee at City. Football has been a business for a long time now but even with UEFA’s new rules coming in the clubs will still act as they please.

City have made massive strides this season but the true test will come next year. It will be fascinating to see what they do over the summer; one assumes it’s going to be busy.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Blackburn’s fate to be decided at Molineux

Blackburn’s Premier League future will be decided one way or the other against Wolves at Molineux next Sunday. After taking an early lead through Brett Emerton they couldn’t quite hold out to take what would have been a crucial three points. With both Blackpool and Wolves winning the pressure will now be immense going into next week’s final game.

The line-up and formation employed by Steve Kean today was spot on. Using Brett Emerton and Martin Olsson as secondary full-backs paid off as Blackburn stopped Nani and Antonio Valencia causing any real damage.

Although Emerton was voted man of the match the stand out players for Blackburn were Jermaine and Phil Jones. The former arrived in January on loan from Schalke and has been an excellent addition to the squad. His energy and work rate have been so important for Rovers in recent weeks, although some of his distribution could certainly improve.

The later, Phil Jones is still only 19 but is fast becoming one of the most exciting English prospects around. After missing much of the season through injury he has slotted straight back into the side effortlessly. Whether Rovers go down or not I think he will be playing for one of the top clubs next season.

Next Sunday is going to be awful, there are no two ways about it! If the work rate and effort remains the same next week Blackburn should survive. However, in a season as weird and unpredictable as this one nothing can be taken for granted.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

SFA must act quickly

The shocking scenes surrounding Neil Lennon’s assault last night at Tynecastle must be dealt with quickly and effectively to ensure it can never happen again. The whole situation surrounding Lennon and Celtic is getting out of hand and something has to happen before anything really serious transpires.

Whatever is going on up in Scotland must be sorted out and the SFA have to get the clubs together and work out a plan of action. This season has been largely dominated by the goings on around Lennon after bullets and suspect packages were found in his mail. The deep rooted hatred and anger towards the man is simply unfathomable and it is beginning to tarnish Scottish football as a whole.

There is no doubting that the standard in Scottish football is not what it was, even five years ago the level on display was significantly higher. There is no money in the game which means it is simply dying out. The bad publicity these incidents are bringing to the game makes it even harder for people to get behind and support. A recent podcast I listened to summed up the issues by stating that there is no humour or banter allowed in the old firm games anymore – it is simply too dangerous.

It has never been a fixture for the faint hearted but it has now gone beyond that. In one of the games this season Lennon cupped his ears to the Rangers fans at Ibrox which provoked a nasty reaction. The Celtic manager should have more sense considering recent occurrences but the supporters need to get a grip. Over the last decade the fans from the Old firm sides have travelled all over Europe without many disturbances so they are capable of behaving.

If something is not done soon I feel the only way to ensure the safety of players, managers and fans is to play the big games behind closed doors. Nobody wants this as it is one of the best derbies in world football. However, the safety of an individual must come first so this has to stop now! The SFA, the SPL and the clubs have to find a resolution and fast!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tottenham face must win game

There are no two ways about it; Spurs must beat Manchester City tonight if they are to have any hope of securing a top four finish. They currently lie in 6th position in the Premier League with three games remaining and are six points behind City. The vultures are already hovering over some of their key players and Spurs will find it difficult to retain the services of some of their key players if they fail to secure Champions League football.

It has not been a disappointing season for the White Hart Lane faithful who enjoyed a wonderful run in the Champions League. It was very refreshing to see a side enjoying their football as much as Spurs at points in this seasons competition. They eventually lost out to Real Madrid when the gap in class became too great for them to close. However, the experience playing in Europe’s elite competition has wet the appetite for more.

Their league form has been incredibly inconsistent with too many points dropped against some of the weaker sides. The form and fitness of their strikers has been a real problem and one that Harry Redknapp is clearly keen to remedy this summer; Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch have only mustered eight league goals between them all season which is simply not good enough.

However, the fans and players need to have some element of realism if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. The club did not spend stupid amounts of money after qualifying last year which was sensible. The Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy has bought wisely and was instrumental in bringing van der Vaart and Sandro to the club; both of whom will be key players for them next season. When you consider how much money City have spent without Champions League football it puts it into perspective.

Whatever the outcome this evening Spurs fans should have a comfortable summer. I think the core of the team – Dawson, Modric and Sandro will all stay, the likes of Bale and van der Vaart may leave for pastures new but Spurs will make a tidy profit on them both. The key will be the purchases; a top class striker or two, a right back and another left sided player should all be added. Minor disappointment maybe endured at the end of the season but things are looking positive for Spurs at the moment.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Liverpool continue to progress under Dalglish

The first few months of 2011 have been fantastic for Liverpool Football Club and their supporters. After enduring a horrible end to 2010 their side have gone on an impressive run since the return of Kenny Dalglish. He has won 30 points in 15 games in the Premier League that has lifted them to 6th in the table and within touching distance of a European place.

It was a very strange start to the season with Liverpool’s new manager Roy Hodgson. He just never looked settled at the club and it was inevitable that he would go before the end of the season. The presence of ‘King Kenny’ would have been unsettling as well although the board should have appointed him over Hodgson initially.

The sale of Fernando Torres in January had to happen and it has made the club stronger. He looked unhappy and disinterested in the opening months of the season; it was rumoured that he asked to leave last year and was promised the chance last summer. However, with the £50 million they were able to buy Andy Carroll and Luiz Suarez who already look like forming a formidable partnership next season.

There has also been the emergence of several of the academy graduates who have settled into life in the Premier league effortlessly. There have been a number of impressive youngsters making an impact; John Flanagan, Martin Kelly, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing amongst others. There is almost a feeling of Liverpool returning to the way they used to be managed; bringing through young players and adding some genuine quality alongside.

It appears likely that Dalglish will be appointed full-time manager by John W. Henry at some stage in the next few months. He has instilled a work ethic and pride back into the Liverpool players that was missing earlier in the season.

I believe it has also helped not having Steven Gerrard available. He is the Liverpool talisman but is not the player he was and forces the side to play in a particular way. His positional discipline is appalling and always has been; it lead to rows with Benitez when he was the manager as Gerrard would often do things his way rather than how he was instructed. It has given Raul Meireles more freedom which has brought the best out of the Portuguese International.

All in all things are looking good for the red half of Liverpool. With some good purchases this summer they should be back in contention for a place in the top four next season which is where a club of Liverpool’s stature should be.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Manchester United vs Chelsea for the title

This Sundays encounter at Old Trafford will decide who lifts the Premier League title this season. With three points separating the two sides and goal difference level a win for either side should be enough to win the trophy. After meeting in the Champions League quarter-final, this will be their 4th encounter of the season.

After starting the season so strongly Chelsea broke down in November and dropped as low as 5th in the table at one point. The shock sacking of Ray Wilkins appeared to have some effect as Ancelotti also began to change the formation and personnel of the side with disastrous results. The introductions of Fernando Torres and David Luiz have highlighted the need for some new blood; many of the senior players are the wrong side of 30 and need to be replaced in the not too distant future.

However, in the last nine games Chelsea have only dropped two points and indeed beat United at Stamford Bridge in March. They have gone back to the tried and tested formula of having Drogba up front with Anelka and Malouda either side of him.

Meanwhile, United have qualified for their third Champions League final in four years and looked odds on for the Premier League title. However, after losing to Arsenal at the Emirates and drawing to Newcastle the title is going to the wire. It has been far from a vintage United side this season but they have ground out results when struggling and have started to look better in recent weeks. This lack of quality could certainly be attributed to their injury hit squad that has had several key players out at similar times.

Much of the credit must go to Sir Alex Ferguson who has proved what a phenomenal manager he really is. I genuinely believe that if he wins the Premiership and Champions League this season it will be his finest achievement; and that’s saying something!

There is not much of a difference between the sides. Both have players who are capable of winning the game in an instance. However, these games have a habit of being very cagey affairs so I cannot see much free flowing football being on display. The winner of the game should go onto lift the title, but in this season of uncertainties nothing can be taken for granted. Let us just hope Super Sunday lives up to its billing, just once.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Iniesta shines as Barcelona triumph

It must be tough playing in this Barcelona side when everything revolves around Lionel Messi. No matter how good you are there is always the little Argentian wonder kid stealing the headlines. However, in this Barcelona side there appears to be very few, if any real egos. They enjoy their football, enjoy playing together and it’s very evident which makes them such a joy to watch.

Last night it was Iniesta who stood out for me. Having missed the first leg last week he returned to the midfield alongside Xavi where he is at his best. My father watches very little football these days but sent an e-mail last week in which he described Iniesta as the ‘best European player since Platini’. Praise indeed considering some of his rivals, not forgetting his club and international team-mate Xavi who takes many of the accolades.

It is not a coincidence that when Barca lost to Inter Milan last season Iniesta was missing. He is such an integral part of the side but is hardly noticed which I find very strange. He is an amalgamation of Messi and Xavi; he can beat people so easily, can finish astutely and is also capable of providing the killer pass – as we saw last night. His understanding with Xavi appears at times to go beyond telepathic; the ball just glides effortlessly between them as they advance up the pitch without sharing a glance.

The game itself did not really come close to what people had hoped for. It was more open than the other three games but it had to be; Madrid had to go to the Camp Nou and score goals. At times the game was incredibly stretched and some of the football on display was phenomenal – from both sides. The referee dealt with the histrionics and baiting very well and should emerge with tremendous credit after his work last night.

The Madrid players were by and large a disgrace to the club, the fans and the spectators. Excluding Casillas, Higuain, Kaka, and Ozil the rest spent the entire game kicking lumps out of Barcelona players and whinging to the referee. I don’t often agree with Arsenal fans but Adebayor really is a nasty piece of work and was lucky to remain on the pitch. Although to be fair so were Alonso, Arbeloa, Carvalho, Lass, Marcelo, and Ronaldo….I could go on!

So, Barcelona have booked their place at Wembley which will be an historic return to London; the scene of their first European Cup triumph in 1992. It will be an incredible occasion and one that would not be the same if the Catalans were not there.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Barcelona vs Real Madrid: Part IV

Tonight is the final instalment of El Clasico for this season. Barcelona hold a two goal advantage returning to the Camp Nou where they are expected to finish off the job and advance to the Champions League final. Many will be hoping that we get to see some real football tonight after the rather fractious affair at the Bernabeu last week.

I am fascinated to see how Jose Mourinho approaches tonight’s game. There is surely no point in playing conservatively as they are already losing so will he set out his team to attack Barca with speed and precision? If I were to pick a Madrid side tonight I would start with the majority of their attacking midfielders. I would like to see only Alonso in front of the back four with Kaka, Ozil, Ronaldo and one of their strikers all starting.

It would give them incredible speed on the break which is all they are likely to achieve. With the game being played at the Camp Nou the possession stats are going to favour Barcelona by a ratio of 3:1 at least. When Madrid have the ball they need to move it quickly, and accurately to their creative players. For all Barcelona’s brilliant passing and pressing they are vulnerable and must be exploited if Real are to avoid defeat. However, going all-out attack too early could end the tie very quickly if it doesn’t go to plan.

Both clubs lost in La Liga at the weekend, but rested players so not too much notice should be taken of that. The Catalan’s welcome back Andres Iniesta to the squad after missing the first leg through injury. Also back in the squad is Eric Abidal who had surgery a mere 6 weeks ago to remove a tumour from his liver.

It should be another enthralling game, featuring some of the world’s best players. Hopefully it will not become all about bad tempered players and refereeing decisions as the last game did.