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.