Serie A - Roma join the title race

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

As with all of the major leagues around Europe this season title races are going right down to the wire. Perhaps the most fascinating one is taking place in Italy where Inter Milan are vying to win their fifth Scudetto in a row, but coming up in the rear view mirror is Claudio Ranieri’s Roma.

The Giallorossi’s journey is of phoenix like quality, two straight defeats at the start of the season saw Luciano Spalletti resign. After musings the Sensi family who own the club weren’t willing to back the club with more money to bring in new players fans were left frustrated.

Claudio Ranieri soon took over and spoke about “pragmatism” when he took charge in September, however not even he would have thought that Roma would be challenging for the Scudetto come the business end of the season.

This weekend saw the two contenders come head to head – Roma vs. Inter and Ranieri vs. Mourinho.

There is no love lost between these two who drew their battle lines a couple of years ago when Mourinho questioned Ranieri’s age – “He’s old and he hasn’t won anything.” He has won a Supercup and another small trophy and he is too old to change his mentality.”

Going into the game the Giallorossi were four points behind Inter after a 2-0 win mid-week over Bologna, which was helped by the fact Milan, Roma’s nearest rivals Milan, fell to a 1-0 defeat away to Parma.

The Stadio Olympico was the venue for the two sides to showcase their title credentials and it was the home side that got off to the better start. Daniele De Rossi poked the ball home after 17 minutes - a shocking error from Julio Cesar who let the ball slip from his grasp.

Inter were unlucky not to draw level before half-time Samuel and Milito both hitting the crossbar. The Nerazurri did manage to find an equaliser which came in the 66th minute, but it was marred with controversy – Goran Pandev was clearly offside in the build-up to the goal, which both the ref and his linesman failed to spot, Diego Milito knocked the ball in from close distance.

Roma managed to find a winner just six minutes later, Luca Toni sending the Stadio Olympico into raptures as, which prompted Ranieri to say the title race is back on.

Speaking after the game he said: “We have reopened the title race, now it will be a test of nerves. For five months we have chased and sacrificed ourselves to the cause; now we have beaten a stratospheric team who deserve our compliments”

Despite the fact Inter are still top of Serie A by a point at the moment, the advantage lies with Roma who would win the league on the head to head count if it comes down to that. They are now unbeaten in 21 game which is three short of the club record held in 2001-02 season under Fabio Capello.

Inter paid the price for high tensions during the game – seven yellow cards were dispatched and the Nerazzurri will be without Maicon, Zanetti, Lucio and Eto’o who will miss Inter’s next game to Bologna.

Roma have made up 13 points on Inter since the sides last met in November, they are now the form team of the Serie A and could well over take Mourinho’s side.

The title however, is still Inter’s to lose.


Mowbray axed - Former players top of the recruitment list

Friday, 26 March 2010

Lately there seems to be a perception that former players who have been considered “club legends” in the past can come in as a manager and transform a team with their reputation.

While this may not be the case for Tony Mowbray - he was a former player of Celtic who lost his wife to cancer during his first term at the club, therefore there was always going to be that emotional connection by returning to Parkhead.

His fate as Celtic manager was sealed on Wednesday night after the Hoops suffered a shocking 4-0 defeat to St. Mirren, their first defeat in the town of Paisley in 21 years; it was also the Saints first win in 12 games. Even at 4-0 the St. Mirren faithful looked for more as they chanted “we want five”.

Yesterdays Irish Daily Star’s back page led with the witty headline of “Hell in Mirren” probably the best headline since “Super Cally Go Ballistic, Celtic are atrocious” which followed after shocking defeat for the Hoops a couple of years ago.

There is a certain pressure that goes with being Celtic manager and that comes when you are not keeping in check with Old Firm rivals – Rangers. The SPL has been a two horse race for years but this term it is now Rangers’ to lose, the Gers are currently 10 points clear at the summit, albeit they have played two more games than Celtic.

Speaking after the game Mowbray said that "I just said to the team in the dressing room that I take responsibility,” And that is exactly what he did as the former West Brom manager was relieved of his duties yesterday afternoon.

Of his 45 matches Mowbray’s record looks like this - his team won 23 games, drew 9 and lost a staggering 13 times, with defeats to Dinamo Moscow, Arsenal, Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Rangers, Hamburg, Hearts, Dundee United, Hibs, Kilmarnock and, finally, St Mirren.

Neil Lennon now takes over as interim manager – another former player and current first team coach. The Northern Ireland man is the bookies favourite to take the job permanently; also on the list Ipswich manager Roy Keane, Paul Lambert and Henrik Larsson all ex-Celtic players.

Yet again former players make up the list of potential candidates, all of which have huge reputations in Scotland. Would they be willing to take control at Celtic and take a drop in wages? Or put their reputations on the line?

Celtic’s last hope of silverware this season is the Scottish Cup which will no doubt need to be won or else their whole season has been a failure, that may sound harsh but football is Scotland is hardly setting the world alight at the moment.

Last weekend’s home victory over St. Johnstone was watched by only 30,000 – which shows that even season ticket holders, all 20,000 of them are not bothered anymore.

If the club cannot attract the fans then money, which is already an issue for the Bhoys is going to become even tighter and will affect the calibre of manager they can attract to Parkhead.

It’s over to you – who should become the new Celtic manager? Should it be an ex-player or should it be someone with no connection with the club whatsoever?


Antonio Valencia - The wing wizard

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

When Antonio Valencia was bought by Sir Alex Ferguson in June 2009 there was always going to be a comparison made between him and Cristiano Ronaldo, whether he likes it or not - having been acquired in his immediate departure from Old Trafford.

Valencia moved to Old Trafford after having played 89 games for Wigan, scoring seven Premier League goals in his time with the Latics, while also attracting interest from clubs both at home and abroad.

It might have taken the Ecuadorian international a while to make the step up from playing at almost always half empty DW stadium and adjust to playing at a packed to the rafters Old Trafford.

At first Valencia was considered by many to be a bit part player when he first signed. However, this is not true, yes he did take a while to find his feet but now he is beginning to shine. What qualities does he bring to the table?

He offers United all the S’s – strength, speed, skill and style.

While finding the back of the net might be elusive for Valencia and he will never set the goal scoring charts alight or beat Ronaldo’s record of 42 goals in a season – he does have the knack of setting up goals for others.

His recent man of the match performance in the Carling Cup final against Aston Villa where he set up the winning goal for Wayne Rooney is testament to this. In the 42 games he has played this season he has scored seven goals and made five assists.

As I said before whether Valencia likes it or not he will always be compared to a certain Portuguese winger – Cristiano Ronaldo. And that is exactly what I have done here.

Looking at Valencia vs. Ronaldo in detail I point you towards the Guardian chalkboards which I have recently discovered. Recommended if you are looking to see a players work rate. I took Valencia’s performance against Liverpool on Sunday and compared it with the same fixture against last season which Ronaldo played in.

Both games did have contrasting results with Liverpool beating Manchester United 4-1 last season, but the Red Devils made up for that crushing defeat by winning 2-1 this time round.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

As you can see Valencia’s mainly plied his trade down the right wing was intent on getting into the box. On the other hand Ronaldo was more an all-round player in the game playing on both wings and even tracking back to defend.

Ronaldo had more passes in the game – 42 in total, 30 of which were successful and 12 unsuccessful. Valencia fared better, he did only have 31 passes, but 25 of them were successful with 6 unsuccessful.

When asked about Real Madrid’s star man Valencia modestly replied with “Cristiano is a superstar and I’m Valencia, a footballer learning each day.” “I don’t desire comparisons with him as we are different players.”


Ageing Chelsea in need of rejuvenation

Monday, 22 March 2010

When Carlo Ancelotti took over as Chelsea manager in July he was the man who Roman Abramovich believed would lead Chelsea to glory on all fronts this season. However, the clubs recent form and suggestions of split among the players could mean the Blues end the season empty handed.

They might be still vying for the double of the Barclays Premier League and FA Cup – if they do so then they will become only the sixth team in the 114 years of English football to achieve the league and couple double. Other teams to do the double are Tottenham, Arsenal, Man United, Aston Villa and Preston.

But, it does not disguise the fact that they’ve played very poorly in their last two games, especially against Inter Milan on Tuesday and the draw against Blackburn yesterday. The game against Milan wasn’t the first time that Chelsea have been bossed in a game this season; you just have to look at their 4-2 defeat at the hands of Manchester City to see that.

Recent reports say that there is a clear split in the camp at Chelsea, after the John Terry/Wayne Bridge fiasco with a lot of people supporting the latter. Also revelations of serial cheater and naked snapper Ashley Cole will be taking its toll and affecting team morale. You can’t have controversy like that and not be disturbed by it.

After a fantastic start to the season Chelsea’s form has dipped lately towards the latter part of the season where form really counts. The problem with Chelsea is they have not evolved since Jose Mourinho left two years ago and that was very clear in the game between the two clubs with the Special’s One mark still written all over the team sheet.

Is it facade to suggest Roman Abramovich should not have forced the Special One out?

The answer is no. The Russian billionaire has had too many knee jerk reactions over the past couple of years to defeats. Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink have all been and gone since Mourinho left.

By securing the services of Carlo Ancelotti a man with plenty of Champions League pedigree having won it as manager and a player – he was expected to deliver European glory which Blues fans crave.

Ancelotti will now be under a significant amount of pressure having failed in Europe and if Chelsea miss out on the Premier League title then Italian will be in an even more precarious position.

If Ancelotti lasts at least until the end of the season, it will mark the first time that the Londoners have completed a full season under the leadership of one manager since Jose Mourinho in the 2006-07 campaign.

As we saw when he was in charge of AC Milan, Ancelotti is not an advocate of buying new players but rathers working with what he has got. When probed about his squads’ age he replied – “I don’t think this team is old. I won a Champions League with players who were 39 years old.”

He may not have a player as old as 39 at Chelsea but most of his key players are the wrong side of 30 – Ballack (33), Anelka (31), Drogba (32), and Lampard (31).

If Chelsea fail to win the title or/and the FA Cup then Ancelotti could be shown the door along with a couple of players. Win the title and the FA Cup and Ancelotti will have rescued Chelsea from the abyss.

The Blues will need to spend big during to summer if they are even to think about challenging on all fronts next season. Abramovich needs to help and not hinder this process and for that to happen Ancelotti needs to stay in charge.


Champions League Draw: All English Final still on the cards

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Having survived the last-16 curse which has claimed three holders in the last four years tournament favourites Barcelona have managed to make it to the last eight where they will face Arsenal in a repeat of the 2006 final.

There was also a case of déjà vu for Manchester United who will face Bayern Munich in a repeat of that classic 1999 final where United scored two late goals to secure an historic treble at the Camp Nou. Having trashed AC Milan in the previous round Sir Alex Ferguson and co will be confident in overcoming the German side.

If they do overcome Bayern they will face the winners of the all-French clash between Lyon and Bordeaux. This means there will be a French side in the last four for the first time since Monaco in 2004.

Because United and Arsenal have been separated there is still a chance of an all English final but the chances of that could be quite slim given that Barcelona are still favourites to become the first side to retain the trophy in the Champions League era.

Arsenal are at home to the Spanish champions in the first leg, while United will be at home for the second leg against Bayern. Of course, Arsene Wenger will have wanted to avoid Barcelona in the draw but it does set up some mouth-watering match ups.

Cesc Fabregas will relish playing against his former club, with whom he is often linked with a return; also Thierry Henry will face the club where he became a cult hero. Of the men who started in Wenger's line-up that night in Paris only Campbell, Emmanuel Eboué and Cesc Fábregas continue to be on Arsenal's books.

The winner of the clash between Arsenal and Barcelona will face either Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan - who knocked out Chelsea earlier this week - or CSKA Moscow in the semi-finals. No doubt the Italian side will be favourites to progress in that one.

CSKA Moscow are making their first appearance in the last eight but will be no pushovers as Manchester United know when they came to Old Trafford and got a 3-3 draw, they also knocked out Spanish side Sevilla in the last round.

The Quarter-finals is made up of eight teams for six different countries, which is the most varied group to reach this stage since the 1998-99 season. Once again English teams are at the forefront of the latter stages having two teams in the last eight along with France, while Spain, Italy, German and Russia have one team.

If I was to go out and make a bold prediction, then Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Bordeaux should be in the semi-finals. That would make it Barcelona vs. Inter round two and Bayern Munich vs. Bordeaux. Who says that the Champions League is predictable?


Match Report: Chelsea 0-1 Inter – Inter win 3-1 on aggregate

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The self proclaimed Special One returned to Stamford Bridge last night having left the club three years previously. This time he was seated on the opposition bench and was ready and raring to go three minutes before the game kicked-off soaking up the atmosphere of his former home.

Of course the match did not begin on the pitch when the referee blew his whistle at 7.45pm, oh no. The game kicked off much earlier than that, in a place where Jose Mourinho is at his best – the pre-match press conference. This is where the fireworks begin and where journos can fill their notebooks with words of wisdom from the Inter coach.

As usual he didn’t disappoint. Speaking before the game he said “I will be the Special One, win or lose” And luckily for his reputations sake it was the former that came to pass.

Mourinho the tactical mastermind inflicted Chelsea’s first home defeat in the Champions League in 22 games sending them out of a competition that they crave to win. It was also only the second time Chelsea failed to score in 45 outings.

Just one goal separated the sides and that came 12 minutes from time. Inter had been knocking on the door for long periods of the second half but it was going to take a touch of class to break Chelsea down.

Dutch international Wesley Sneijder was the one who found the key to unlock the door, he released Samuel Eto’o who beat the offside trap on the right side of Ivanovic before running on and shooting emphatically into the bottom left of Ross Turnbull’s net.

Carlo Ancelotti who seemed to be forgotten about by all of the press was the man brought in by Roman Abramovich to end Chelsea’s drought of European glory yet it has ended in disaster by being knocked out in the last 16 stage.

It was always going to be a bittersweet occasion for all involved but will billionaire Russian owner be regretting falling out with the man they like to call the Special One?

As is always the case with Chelsea controversy marred the end of the game and somewhat typically Didier Drogba was involved. A pure lack of discipline from the Ivorian international letting his frustrations get the better of himself by stamping on Thiago Motta. He was shown a straight red card for the third successive European campaign.

When you put it into perspective you can see why Drogba lost the run of himself at the final hurdle. Over the two legs he was kept under the cosh by the Inter back four, however, he was also unlucky not to get a penalty having been dragged to the ground by Walter Samuel. At that stage Drogba had been on the ground many times so it was no surprise when Wolfgang Stark waved play on.

Overall Inter deserved to go through. They were the better team over both legs and were a mirror image of the Chelsea Jose Mourinho created all those years ago.

For the neutrals out there it was a classic Champions League tie - now the Italian side go into Friday’s draw with heavyweights Manchester United, Arsenal, Lyon, Bayern Munich and CKSA Moscow waiting.

For now, the Special One lives on – “I keep winning important things, he said. “They keep winning something. They won an FA Cup” The big question is can Mourinho win the important thing - the Champions League? Chelsea’s only hope now is another FA Cup and a Premier League title; even then they are not guaranteed to win either.


Beckham's World Cup dream in tatters

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

David Beckham’s dream of playing in a fourth World Cup look to be over after he was pulled up with an Achilles tendon injury in Milan on Sunday night, there are also fears that his 18 year career could be over.

Reports suggest it could take anything up to five months before Beckham is up on his feet and kicking a ball again. As were the case in 2002 when Beckham broke his metatarsal a nation once again holds its breath in the off chance he could make the World Cup in June.

However, this media frenzy surrounding the former England captain is somewhat creepy from my point of view. He has got injured, by some newspapers yesterday you would think he had died and they were already writing the obituaries.

Of course it is hard not to feel sorry for Beckham but I would like to echo the view of Guardian columnist Rob Smyth who wrote a piece titled “Can we have some perspective?” And I believe that it what is needed here.

While Beckham is a key figure in the dressing room and would almost certainly be assured of a place on the place to South Africa, albeit he would not have featured in Fabio Capello’s starting XI in each game but would have most likely been a morale boosting substitute.

Therefore his injury does not affect the shape of the team in any way. Had the injury been to Wayne Rooney then it is safe to say we would all be imposing a newspaper lockdown upon ourselves because it would be impossible to escape.Let’s hope that does not happen, certainly for England’s World Cup dream to stay alive.

As a Manchester United fan I’ve always had admiration for David Beckham even though he has long since departed Old Trafford for Real Madrid and LA Galaxy. He has always shown that he is a true professional who is committed to his football and is always looking to better himself.

This is exemplified when his England place was under threat while playing in the MLS in America – he has moved to Milan for the past two winters in a bid to keep himself in Fabio Capello’s plans.

The World Cup would have given him the chance to close in on goalkeeper Peter Shilton’s international appearance record of 125 caps, currently Beckham has 115. He is also the only man to score for England in three World Cup tournaments, an amazing achievement in its own right.

Beckham’s motivation over the past few months would have been this summer’s tournament and would possibly have been his swansong. Now it looks like the midfielder will have a long and winding road to recovery, a lonesome road at that, not something anyone likes to see a player go through.

It remains to be seen whether this is the end of Beckham’s career but it is and injury he would have liked to avoid especially with his 35th birthday coming up in May. I’m sure Capello will take Beckham to the World Cup regardless of his injury not as part of the playing squad but the backroom team.

This begs the question - is this the injury that spurs England on to World Cup glory?


Is it time for Benitez to go?

Monday, 15 March 2010

The minimum requirement for any Liverpool manager should be a top four finish and domestic or European trophy but currently Rafa Benitez is failing to deliver on a promise he made a couple of months ago. Now the big question on everyone’s lips is – Will Rafa Benitez still be in charge of the club next season?

And the answer to that question is yes, albeit he should not be considering how his team have gone out and performed this season. We all know from his press conferences, his tactics and his interaction with other managers that Benitez is highly negative and stubborn.

That is why he remains on as manager, but not just that, because he signed a new contract last March it could cost the club around £16million to sack him according to the Daily Mail. The Spaniard has a clause in the five-year contract that dictates his £4m-a-season deal is paid up in full within 24 hours of him being dismissed.

Despite some abysmal performances and shocking defeats, nine in total, Benitez still won’t walk away from what is a sinking ship.

Having dominated the Premier League last season Liverpool were hotly tipped to continue that form once again this term but their season started out bad and has gone to worse after back to back defeats at Wigan and Lille in the Premier League and Europa League respectively in the last week.

As I said earlier the Kop have been beaten on nine occasions in the Premier League this season, defeats have come at the hands of: Wigan (a), Arsenal (a), Portsmouth (a), Arsenal (h), Chelsea (a), Fulham (a), Sunderland (a), Aston Villa (h) and Spurs (a). It is interesting to note that only two of those defeats have occurred in front of their home crowd and it shows how important fans are to a team.

Crashing out of the Champions League at the group stages, losing 2-1 to Reading in the FA Cup and being knocked out of the Carling Cup by a youthful Arsenal side the only trophy which Liverpool can now win is the Europa League even then that is not realistic they would be better off focusing on finishing fourth.

Defeat to Manchester United next weekend would make it impossible for Benitez to fulfill his promise of Champions League football next season. Failure to reach the Champions League would leave Liverpool seriously lacking the TV money that goes with qualification and could see key players like Fernando Torres leave the club.

I am not a Liverpool fan but all these talks of new investors sound hopeful but that have to be seen to be believed, so I take them with a pinch of salt and I am sure Liverpool fans would agree with that.

According to recent reports Liverpool are in talks with private equity firm the Rhone Group over a proposed £118.5million deal to buy a significant share of the club, apparently their investment would see Liverpool retain both Torres and Gerrard.

Another crucial week for Rafa Benitez and Liverpool begins tonight as they take on Portsmouth, they will also face Lille on Thursday night and Manchester United on Sunday, by this time next week Liverpool’s season could well be totally over.

The fans need to get behind their side and ask questions of the players and
management later because fourth place is currently a dream but could be a reality if they win every game between now and the end of the season.


Administration: Pompey are the first, but won’t be the last

Monday, 1 March 2010

This week the inevitable happened for Portsmouth FC. They became the first ever Premier League club to enter administration. They will now be pared right down to the bone as the administrator Andrew Andronikou takes over the daily running of the club looking to cut all costs in order to get the club back on track.

However, despite all the reports of how Pompey were going to go out of business, administration looks to be the best option for them right now. It means that they will now remain on in the Premier League and will not be served with a winding up order, which was due to be given on the 1st of March.

Having now entered administration Pompey look set to incur a nine point deduction as punishment. Although, it remains to be seen whether the club will actually be deducted these points, Andronikou has said this week that he will ask the Premier League for this to be held off because it is the first time a club has entered administration in the top flight.

Avram Grant really sums up the situation - “Football should be decided on the pitch not in the courts, not in the Premier League offices”

If they were to be deducted nine points then Pompey would effectively be relegated to the Championship because they would be 14 points from safety with 12 games remaining. It is not inconceivable, but they would be depending on teams above them not to win.

While it has been the worst week in their 112 year history, Pompey have at least three positives to take from it.

Firstly, they have entered administration, which I think is a blessing in disguise rather than going out of business. That would have been disastrous for all involved not to mention the Premier League as a whole and results becoming null and void.

Secondly, Avram Grant who I have a newfound admiration for - will be staying on as manager of the South Coast club. I think what Pompey need is stability and that is what Grant has brought to the team.

And finally, the spirit of the players who went to Burnley on Saturday and gained what was possibly their biggest victory of the season beating the Clarets 2-1.
For a team who have gone through not just a rough patch but, a rough season deserve an immense amount of credit. People may say the win was against Burnley, but it was at Turf Moor which has been the Clarets fortress this season.

Honestly, I hope the Premier League hand Pompey a lifeline by not deducting the nine points. Certainly, I did say before that the Premier League should not help Pompey but that was in regards to dishing out money when there was no hope of survival. With the appointment of the administrator I would argue that the club is already more stable.

They also must enter a Company Voluntary Agreement for unsecured creditors or start the next season with another deduction of at least 15 points.

Portsmouth are the first ever Premier League club to enter administration, but the sad thing is that they certainly will not be the last. I wish the club all the best for the future, and really hope that they do manage to stay up if they don’t incur the nine point penalty.


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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