Who will win the title? And who will snatch fourth place?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The most dramatic title race in the Premier League for years took yet another turn this weekend as current holders Manchester United lost for the sixth time this season after they were comfortably beaten by Everton 3-1 at Goodison Park, but last night they made up for this by beating West Ham 3-0 at Old Trafford.

The Toffees have had a huge impact on the title race having first beaten Chelsea and now Manchester United in the space of ten days. But, the big boys’ slipping up has been the story of the season. The top three of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal collectively have been defeated 16 times so far, compared to the 11 in the whole of last season.

Each team craves the Premier League title yet nobody seems to want to take a hold of it. There have been fleeting moments when one of the three has broken away only to be dragged right back after a crushing defeat.

If the teams overall form was to be described in one word then it would be: mediocre. There has been no consistency at all, Manchester United have never lost six games in a season since the inception of the Premier League, Chelsea have dropped 18 points on the road, while Arsenal have crumbled when they came face to face with Chelsea and United and fell to crushing defeats.

Despite that, the Gunners are far from out of the title race, they are after all only two points behind United in 3rd place, and have possibly the easier run-in, albeit every game needs to be won and hope both Chelsea and Man United slip-up.

Personally, the defining moment of this season will be when Chelsea come to Old Trafford on April 3rd. Currently the Blues have a one point advantage at the summit of the league, although, Manchester United have played a game more, yet the Blues are by no means a safe bet to win the title. Any slip-ups and the chasing pack will be right on them. Having said that, I will stick my neck on the line and say Chelsea will win the title.

The other race that is hotting up is the one for fourth place and that coveted qualification into next seasons Champions League. At the moment it is advantage Tottenham who after a 3-0 win over Wigan managed to leapfrog Liverpool and Manchester City.

City have dropped down to 5th after that dismal 0-0 draw with Liverpool at the City of Manchester Stadium in what many people billed as the worst game of football they have ever seen, despite a plethora of talent being on show. The Reds stay 6th in the table, compared to this time last year when they were top of the table.

Hot on their tails are Carling Cup finalists Aston Villa in 7th on 45 points. Only one point separates them from Tottenham in 4th. Like the top three, these four teams will probably not change as seven points is the gap between Villa and the next team, Everton who are on 38 points.

I fully expect Aston Villa to secure fourth place. They came agonisingly close last year only to go on a run of losing games and were pipped at the post by Arsenal. This time round Martin O’Neill has not only has players fit, but players who are capable to getting results when they are needed. Also, their airtight back four will stand to them when it comes down to goal differences, out of the teams only Spurs have better.

So, what are your thoughts? With 11 games remaining we know that the top three will probably be Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United but it what order? And who will win the race for fourth place? Leave your comments below.


Wolves fined for fielding a "weakened team"

Thursday, 18 February 2010

“Taking the Mick or expecting the inevitable?” That was the name of the piece I wrote after Mick McCarthy fielded a weakened team against Manchester United at Old Trafford on December 15th. Today, Wolves have been fined £25,000 for fielding that weakened team, but the question is what really constitutes a weakened team?

In the run up to the game the former Ireland manager made 10 changes from the side which had won 1-0 at Tottenham three days before, Wolves went on to lose to Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford. Subsequently nine of the players who had been in action at that victory White Hart Lane and were rested at Old Trafford were recalled as Wolves faced fellow strugglers Burnley a game in which they went on to win 2-0.

In my original piece I argued that McCarthy was right to put out an under strength team, why, because they had this important game coming up at Burnley the following Sunday which was a must win game. However, I also said that was a cop out by Mick McCarthy, almost similar to holding up a white flag and waving it in the air.

Speaking after today’s announcement he said: "I accept the Premier League’s decision. It was never my intention to break any of the Premier League's rules, only to pick a team that was in the best position to get a result. I'm pleased the matter is now closed."

The club has been found guilty of breaching two rules, Rule E20 which states “In every League match each participating club shall field a full strength team.” And also Rule B.13 – “In all matters and transactions relating to the League each club shall behave towards each other club and the League with the utmost good faith.”

Wolves were not the first team to field an under strength side in a Premier League tie, Manchester United have done it on occasions, so have Liverpool, albeit they have usually been in dead rubber end of season games.

But, had Manchester United had fielded a second string side against Wolves would anyone have batted any eye? Possibly not, but now that Wolves have been fined it will lead to wider discussions about squad rotations.

Just because Wolves’ and indeed other team’s reserve players are not as well know as others does not mean that they are not good enough to go out and play in the first team.

Wolves chief executive Jez Moxey said: 'We are obviously disappointed but we respect the Premier League's ruling especially as they have now used our case as a clear warning to all other clubs, some of whom have made similar changes to their teams in Premier League matches in the past, that this is not acceptable in the future.

Football is a cruel game and I am afraid in the Premier League there is no parity between clubs that is really the main issue this. Wolves have been unfairly charged in my opinion, rules or no rules. All these proposed changes in the league mean nothing because it is one rule for the top clubs and another for all the rest.

What are your thoughts? Who will be the next club to field a weakened team? Will it be Chelsea at the aforementioned Wolves on Saturday?


Premier League play-offs for the final Champions League spot?

I was originally writing this post a couple of days ago under the title “Should more emphasis be placed on the FA Cup?” but, obviously this was before I heard about the proposals to introduce a play-off system to determine the fourth club to qualify for the following season’s Champions League. Therefore I have now decided to incorporate my thoughts into one post.

From what I understand this play-off would be very similar to the play-offs in the Football League whereby fourth plays seventh and fifth plays sixth. The idea has already been supported enthusiastically by all clubs, all clubs, except the so-called big four that is, but I believe that is only a natural instinct for them to react in that way because they rely on Champions League qualification year after year and if that was to be broken up they would no longer continue to prosper.

Obviously there will be many teething problems with trying to implement something as high calibre as this because the season calendar is already very crowded. So, in regards to practicality it does not work right away, also under the terms of the Premier League’s current TV deal the idea would not be introduced for at least three years.

This sort of plan has been tried and tested in the Dutch league. They did a similar play-off system for the second Champions League qualification place but abandoned it after the 2007-08 season, when FC Twente beat Ajax 2-1. The problems which occurred in Holland were a risk of crowd trouble at such high-stakes matches and a perception that the play-offs were one-sided. In regards to the Premier League there would not be a stumbling block like this; in fact it would make things more competitive.

Instead of fourth place the balance would again be readdressed and more emphasis would be on reaching the safety of third instead to be guaranteed a spot in the following seasons Champions League. It also gives rise to clubs like Fulham and Aston Villa, who last season finished 6th and 7th respectively a chance at playing against some of Europe’s elite. On flip side, in having teams as low as seventh been given a chance to qualify is diluting the idea of the “Champions” League. A competition which began with first placed teams, then second, third, fourth and now seventh.

To be implemented the Premier League would need a necessary 14-6 majority vote, which I think they would have no problem in achieving. The stumbling blocks will obviously be the big four, other than that I can’t see many clubs rejecting it.

The second part of my post focuses on the FA Cup, but it also ties in with the Champions League. Many questions have been raised time and time again this year about how the romance of the cup is dead, this is coupled with ailing attendances – in particular ties involving Premier League clubs. For example, the third round tie between Wigan and Hull at DW Stadium saw paltry 5,335 turn out.

The FA Cup is a prestigious competition but in recent years clubs have been more focused on the league or on Europe which is why the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool field weakened teams for the cup.

My suggestion for the cup is that instead of the winners qualifying for the Europa League, which really is second fiddle to the main competition, they would qualify for the Champions League. Ideally, this will not happen now that these play-off proposals have been made but I think something will have to be done in order to protect the world’s oldest club competition.

An interesting view that I read over on TFT, which came from VillaTalk.com is that all the problems of the Europa League, League Cup and FA Cup can be solved in one fowl swoop; the idea is that you have an end-of season play-off which would feature the fourth- and fifth-placed teams of the Premier League and the winners of the League Cup and FA Cup. The eventual winner goes on to play in the Champions League. Simple? No. As Chris on TFT said the complications would be when one or both of those competitions are won by a top three club, which nine times out of ten would be correct.

Change is a coming. And if it can manage to break up the big four then it can’t come quick enough. In the pre-season a lot was talked about this coveted fourth place, but as it stands nothing has really changed it is still Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool with Man City, Tottenham and Aston Villa hanging on to their coattails.

The play-off idea is a smart one, but will it really change anything?

It’s over to you, post your thoughts below. Are you in favour of play-off system being implemented?


Notts County – Living beyond their means.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Many eyebrows were raised when former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was appointed as Director of Football at League Two’s Notts County during the summer yet just seven months later the Swede has departed from the job with four years to run on his contract but this time it is understandable and he hasn’t taken a large pay-off.

The Football League’s oldest has been left in financial ruin after a shocking case of mismanagement on the part of former owners Muntro finance.

Speaking to the Guardian this weekend, Eriksson despite his initial reservations of joining a club four tiers below the Premier League said at the start he was up for the challenge - “I liked the idea of the project, the challenge to do it. It was like a dream to me. And if all their promises had been true we would have done it.”

But as he and the players soon learned that promises of improvements to the stadium and dressing rooms were to remain broken. And when bills began to go unpaid, a winding up order being issued in November, doubts began to creep in.

The real problem was here never was any money to begin with, which is a surprise considering Kasper Schmeichel and Sol Campbell were brought in initially on high wages, subsequently that latter has since left and gone back to Arsenal, but the former Manchester City keeper Schmeichel continues as goal minder for the League Two side.

Clearly there is more to this story than you and I know about but the facts don’t lie about how the club was living well beyond its means. County have had a transfer embargo imposed on them, they have exceeded League Two’s salary cap, which limits wages to 60% of a clubs turnover and currently owe £324,000 to the taxman and £95,000 to former drinks supplier Marston’s.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg with former chairman Peter Trembling admitting that the club is £1.5million in the red after his chairmanship. Eriksson and Trembling will be joined by the club’s chief executive Gary Townsend, who is also leaving the club.

This week the club was taken over by a consortium led by former Lincoln City chairman, Ray Trew who bought the club for just £1. He described Eriksson as a “gentleman” for wavering his £2.4million pay-off which he would have been entitled to because of the time left on his contract, instead the Swede decided to take two months wages as compensation.

Speaking this weekend Trew said “I am absolutely certain I can do something with this club,” “But I might upset a few fans. The problem with this club is that it has been living beyond its means and that cannot go on”

The main aim of this season for Notts County is promotion and despite all the commotion they are still in contention to do so via the play-offs. The Meadow Lane outfit are currently 7th in League Two on 46 points thirteen points behind leaders Rochdale who have played three games more.

In looking back on his time at the club Eriksson said that he has learnt one thing. “Maybe I trust people too much”

I’m sure it is not the last we have heard from the Swede in English football, there have been murmurs about the Liverpool job, but just about everyone is linked to that these days. He was genuine in his role as Direction of Football at County it is just a pity the owners weren’t like him.


Portsmouth: why they should suffer the consequences of their misadventure

Sunday, 14 February 2010

After a tough week for Pompey things finally began to look up as the week from hell came to a dramatic but uplifting conclusion on the south coast. The ‘crisis club’ faced their biggest rivals Southampton in yesterday’s lunchtime kick-off in the FA Cup, where they managed to see them off the Saints in a fantastic display of counterattacking football to claim a place in the Quarter Final of the FA Cup.

Despite their win Pompey’s problems are far from over. They appeared in the high court on Wednesday last fighting against a winding up order brought by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to which they owe £11.5million. Portsmouth have now been given just seven days to prepare a statement on their current financial affairs, but their real date with destiny is March 1st where the club could become no more.

After doing a Leeds and “living the dream” a cool breeze of harsh reality has finally hit Pompey, but the question is should other Premier League clubs bail them out?

According to reports this weekend the Premier League is said to be considering bringing forward the £11million parachute payment the club would receive if they were relegated at the end of the season, but to do this they need the backing of the 19 other teams in the division.

You have to remember this is a club which in 2008, their FA Cup winning season, earned £70million but still reported a loss of £17millon. Instead of building for the future like improving the facilities around Fratton Park, and upgrading the capacity of the stadium, Pompey were too busy spending money on players they didn’t need and paying them money they didn’t deserve to be earning. The example I always go back to is that of John Utaka who is said to be earning more per week that Cesc Fabregas.

Taking that into account, the problem the Premier League has is that it does not want a club to go into liquidation and cease trading as all their fixtures would become null and void. That would cause all sorts of problems and would have an impact on the league table also with many of the big clubs losing six points.

In my view, the Premier League should not help Pompey. In fact it should let them become the first Premier League club to go into administration. If they bail out one then if other clubs end up in similar circumstances in years to come they will be obliged to help them won’t they?

Instead, an example should be made out of Portsmouth, and that is not me being spiteful. In fact quite the opposite, you can’t condone handing £11million to a club who have run up countless debts, that is not addressing the real issue here. £11million is just save the club, there are still a lot of other people who need to be paid.

The south cost club has had four owners this season, which is equal to the number of wins they’ve had in the league. They owe former owner Sacha Gaydamak £31.5million, who actually still owns the land around Fratton Park.

Their current owner is Balram Chainari who is already looking to sell the club; he is another one of these shady characters who wouldn’t be trusted with running a paper round let alone a football club. I think if anyone is ever wondering how to run a football club you just have to look at Portsmouth and do the opposite to everything they do.

Sadly, Portsmouth and their various owners have been the masterminds of their own downfall and they deserve to suffer the consequences of it. That maybe be harsh but the truth hurts sometimes.


Amy Fearn: History in the making

Friday, 12 February 2010

Another piece of footballing history was made this week when Amy Fearn became the first woman to take charge of a Football League match. Fearn came on in place of referee Tony Bates in the 71st minute, who went off with an injured a calf muscle in the game between Coventry City and Nottingham Forest.

The 31 year-old has been involved in football, and in particular refereeing since she was just 14 and her next ambition is to be refereeing in the Premier League one day.

She said "My next promotion target is running the line in that division [Premier League], but I started out as a ref and that is what I love doing – I want to continue being a referee."

However, her appearances on the line as a League referee’s assistant for the past four seasons are nothing new. Dorset postmistress Wendy Toms famously ran the line in the Football League and the Premier League in the Nineties.

Fearn continues to referee in the Football Conference, only one promotion away from either refereeing on the National list regularly or running the line in the Premier League, which would be another milestone in football.

Of course football is a male dominated sport in regards to the big leagues around the world but who says that women can’t be involved also. We are still awaiting our first female manager of a major team, but if a female was to take charge of a Premier League game then that gap would finally be bridged.

For all those positives there will always be the those controversial moments but nothing can top the male chauvinist jibe she had directed at her from Luton Town manager Mike Newell back in November 2006. Fearn ignored penalty claims from Newell’s side when she was running the line in their 3-2 home defeat to QPR.

‘It is bad enough with incapable referees and linesmen but if you start bringing women into the game you have big problems,’ complained Newell.

‘This is Championship football. This is not park football. So what are women doing here? It is tokenism for politically correct idiots.’

That comment cost Newell a £6,500 fine from the FA, followed by a severe warning from Luton before a swift apology was made.

I love to see history being made and always view change as being a positive. This is another momentous occasion in football and can only lead on to greater things. It is certainly a good thing for encouraging more women into the game.


The Talented Mr. Guti

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Lets just say you don't see that very often. What a little flick back from Guti, that's a training ground goal if ever I saw one. Absolute corker. Mr. Benzema and Mr. Guti, as Andy Gray would say: "Take a bow son, take a bow"


Touchline Views

This is a football blog by Ian Walsh, covering all aspects of the game - from the Premier League and La Liga to the slightly mental football stories we all love.

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