Champions League Final: Preview

Friday, 21 May 2010

This seasons Champions League Final is the case of the pupil taking on the master - Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan take on Louis Van Gaal Bayern Munich, the man whom he was an assistant to at Barcelona from 1997-2000. Tonight, represents a very important night for both coaches, as they have the chance to create their very own piece of history.

Currently, Ernst Happel (Feyenoord 1970 & Hamburg 1983) and Ottmar Hitzfeld (Borussia Dortmund 1997 & Bayern Munich 2001) are part of a very elite club having both won the European Cup on two occasions with different teams. However, either Mourinho who won the Champions League with Porto in 2004 or Van Gaal who was victorious with Ajax in 1995 will become the third member of that club.

Three is the magic number for both coaches as they both have the chance to complete an unprecedented treble of League, Cup and European Cup. Neither Inter nor Bayern have ever won the treble before in their history. This could be the second year in a row that the treble can be won after Barcelona completing it last term.

This year’s final will be the first where neither of the finalists qualified from their respective groups as winners.

On the way to the final Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan side have had to overcome all the adversities and rivalries of his past - his very own road to redemption, if you will. The route certainly wasn’t all plain sailing for the Nerazzurri as they looked to be on their way out after opening the group stages with three draws.

Who would have thought Inter would go on to beat, Chelsea, CSKA Moscow and Barcelona (over two legs) to reach their first European final in 38 years, although it is 45 years since they last won the competition 1965 – which is an astonishing wait for a side who have been so dominant in their home country, wrapping up their 5th Serie A title in a row last Sunday.

Mourinho has already stated that beating Barcelona was “greatest moment of my career” although; if Inter manages to beat Bayern then it will certainly be his greatest ever triumph.

Having shown that he can beat Barcelona, Real Madrid are on high alert, so, will this be his final audition for the manager’s job on their own stage and winning the Champions League and completing the treble be his last hurrah for Inter?

The resurgent Bayern Munich are currently riding the crest of a wave after a memorable domestic season. Having already had the Bundesliga title in the bag, Munich crushed rivals Werder Bremen on Saturday last 4-0 to complete to thirds of their treble winning the German Cup (DFB Pokal Final).

This has all been down to the fantastic stewardship of Louis Van Gaal. In his first season in charge of the Bavarians’ he has managed to lead them to their first Champions League final in 9 years.

One could argue that they had a far easier route to Madrid, but they did rely on the away goals rule against Fiorentina and Manchester United, both of whom they drew with 4-4 on aggregate before running Lyon ragged which saw them beat them 4-0 over two legs.

The two sides do have previous having met four times before on the European stage – the most recent being 2006 in the Champions League group stages where Munich beat Inter 2-0 in Milan, before drawing 0-0 in Munich.

Neither sides will be making many changes to their respective line-ups, but, Inter will be without the suspended Thiago Motta who was sent off in the semi-final against Barcelona, while Bayern Munich will be without Frank Ribery who is also banned.

If you wish to check out a full tactical preview of the final then check out either The Equaliser or Zonal Marking. Both of which come highly recommended.

With no English teams in the final this time round the chance for an English official to officiate this year’s showpiece has come to pass. Howard Webb becomes the first English referee in the Champions League final since Phillip Don took charge of AC Milan's 4-0 victory over Barcelona in Athens in 1994.

Now the time has come for me to look stupid by predicting the outcome of the final tonight and boy, oh, boy it is a tough one. Obviously, and well, for the sake of everyone watching, both teams will play a highly competitive final and no errors will be made by the officials involved.

Both sides have had great seasons and this is their chance to end it on a high and win the treble. My head and my heart say Inter and at the end of the day that is who I will be supporting - another Special victory for the “Special One”.

Touchline Views Prediction: Inter 2-1 Bayern Munich


Arsenal's goalkeeping conundrum

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Certainly over the years Arsene Wenger has been praised for his management skills, turning virtually unknown players into potential world beaters. However when it comes to the goalkeeping slot at Arsenal that Midas touch seems to have deserted him as he struggles to find a world class number one.

When Wenger took over from George Graham he inherited the trio of David Seaman, John Lukic and Vince Bartram. The undisputed king of the group by a country mile was Seaman who was also England’s number one at the time, but he was purchased by Graham and not Wenger.

Since 1996 the Frenchman has bought no less than 13 goalkeepers – Alex Manninger, Stuart Taylor, Graham Stack, Richard Wright, Rami Shaaban, Guillaume Warmuz (who?), Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia, Mart Poom, Vito Mannone, Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny and James Shea.

It could be argued that the shining star among those was Jens Lehmann, but since his departure his predecessor Manuel Almunia has faltered on too many occasions and is without doubt a keeper far too prone to error.

People are more likely to remember your bad points as a goalkeeper and not your good ones which is why the Spaniard has been criticised vehemently on many occasions as has his understudy Lukasz Fabianski while third choice keeper Vito Mannone has also proved to be inconsistent but, that said, he hasn’t had as much first team experience as the others.

The only keeper that seems to be earning all the plaudits currently at Arsenal is 20 year old Wojciech Szczesny who spent most of this season on loan at League One side Brentford.

Wenger is undoubtedly on his side having said back in April: “I believe one day he will be the number one at Arsenal certainly.”

He should get a chance in my opinion, but there is also the opportunity for him to be loaned out once again, this time to Leeds, newly promoted to the Championship.

This would be another step up for the Polish international from League One this season, Championship next season and potential Arsenal Number One the season after?

Obviously that would mean another season of Almunia as the number one keeper. Would this be a gamble worth taking or would Wenger be better off splashing the cash on a top class keeper?

Title winning sides are built on solid defences and therefore goalkeeping blunders cannot be tolerated at this, the highest level of football. Bologna’s Emiliano Viviano, Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus, Hugo Lloris “closet Gooner” Joe Hart, or Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow) have all been named checked as being on the shortlist.

Arguably, Arsenal’s current crop of players are just two or three world class signings away from mounting a serious title challenge. Consequently, a goalkeeper should almost certainly be top of their priority list this summer because the clock is ticking and this conundrum must be solved very soon.


Ollie on the cusp of the Premier League

Monday, 17 May 2010

The unthinkable could be about to happen for Blackpool. They are just one game away from a tilt at the big time following their 6-4 aggregate win over Nottingham Forest in the Championship play-off semi-finals.

Having finished 16th last season who would have thought they could be playing against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal next season?

Not since 1971 have the Seasiders graced the top flight and under manager Ian Holloway it looks like their time has come to play in the Premier League.
Holloway is clearly the comedian of English football with his legendary one-liners:

“Right now, everything is going wrong for me, if I fell in a barrel of boobs I’d come out sucking my thumb.”: is just one of his witty comments made over the past couple of years and it certainly something we will all look forward to if they get promoted.

At the moment everything is going right for Holloway. The 47 year old inherited a team more familiar with the bottom of the table rather than the top but having formed a squad on a shoestring budget his management skills are all that are shining through in his first season in charge at Bloomfield Road.

One of Holloway’s star signings has been that of Charlie Adam from Rangers, he became their record signing at £500,000, which seems like steal when you consider he has been their top scorer in the league this season with 17 goals and has international experience to back it up with.

Other than the splurge on Adam, Blackpool has spent close to nothing on assembling their squad. Loan signings have been instrumental over the season with highly-rated Everton defender Seamus Coleman being the shining light, also Barry Bannan of Aston Villa and DJ Campbell of Leicester have played their part in Blackpool’s promotion push.

Club president Valeri Belokon has pledged funds to improve the squad, so, the future is certainly bright no matter what happens for Holloway and the team. Chairman Karl Oyston has also assured Holloway that his job is safe regardless of results.

In 2006 the Tangerines completed two promotions in three years to reach the Championship and now four years later they are in their third final in ten seasons. They will face Cardiff on Saturday, another side that have not played in the top flight since the Premier League’s inception in 1992.

I for one would love to see Blackpool in the Premier League, purely just for Holloway’s press conferences afterwards and I am sure I would not be alone with those sentiments. As he has said himself even if they were to go out and lose every week it would still be a blast.

Blackpool has nothing to lose by getting promoted but everything to gain. However, Cardiff on the other hand needs promotion due to their current financial troubles.

Whichever side emerges at the victors, it will be nice to see a new face in the Premier League, the question is can they remain on in the league and battle it out with the big boys. That question will be answered around about this time next season.

What better way to finish than another quote from Holloway on Blackpool: "I love Blackpool. We're very similar. We both look better in the dark."

Blackpool vs. Cardiff City - Saturday 22nd May, 2010.


One to watch: Phil Jones (Blackburn)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Premier League debuts are always a nerve wracking occasion for anyone but to come up against one of the biggest and strongest centre forwards in the league could easily be the difference between a good debut and bad debut.

The player in question making his debut was 18 year old Blackburn defender Phil Jones and the striker in question is Chelsea’s Ivorian international Didier Drogba. You can check out analysis of Jones’ debut courtesy of Zonal Marking.

As you can see Jones made a very consistent first start for Rovers and was successful more often than not in making clearances. While him and the defence did concede an early goal from Chelsea they managed to keep them at bay for the next 85 minutes.

That certainly is no mean feat when you consider Chelsea have scored seven goals against teams on three occasions this season and have scored 95 goals overall in the league.

That 1-1 draw and in particular the performance of Jones earned plaudits from manager Sam Allardyce – “He made his debut and it was an outstanding performance from the young man, he showed a lot of commitment and a lot of quality and it revved everybody up.”

He was also named man of the match in the game in question and has since gone on to have another star studded performance against Manchester United. Jones seems to make a habit of giving a good account of himself because in his first team debut in the Carling Cup against Nottingham Forest he received plaudits once again.

A product of Blackburn’s youth system - Jones is already being compared to a young John Terry. Even Alan Hansen on MOTD in his analysis has said Jones is “unbelievably good.”

This in my mind is an understatement. It is no surprise to hear in the past couple of weeks that clubs such as Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are in pursuit of the defender.

Strong, solid, mature with good awareness. Those are attributes which we all associate with defenders and the 18 year old possess all of these. Jones has had a superb run of form since breaking into the first team and has showed a lot of grit and determination.

The Blackburn defence have caused many teams problems at Ewood Park this season and this has certainly been the case since the Englishman came to the fore.

It comes as no surprise that he has yesterday signed a five year contract with Rovers which will keep him tied to the club until 2015.

Allardyce has said: "When you have spent so much time and effort developing a player you want to see the club benefit as much as possible by him playing on the field."

I predicted a very bright future for 18 year old Jones a couple of weeks ago on Twitter and I don’t think he is going to let me down. I am almost certainly that he will be an England international one day also.

In the style of Andy Gray – Phil Jones: “take a bow son, take a bow.”


Who will replace Sir Alex Ferguson?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Daily Star recently ran with the story of “Ferguson out, Mourinho in” with Bill Thornton saying Sir Alex Ferguson would retire as manager of Manchester United at the end of next season and be replaced by the enigmatic, self proclaimed “Special One” – Jose Mourinho.

However, Fergie countered that just days afterwards. The Scot was adamant that he was going nowhere: “It is rubbish,” he said. “I have no intention of retiring and if I did the people I would tell are David Gill and the Glazer family.”

He may have said in the past: “When an Italian says it's pasta I check under the sauce to make sure. They are innovators of the smokescreen.”

But for those of us who observe Ferguson closely we know that he is quite clearly the master of smoke and mirrors. There is no point in trying to second guess his next move or indeed when he will walk away from Manchester United. The only person who knows that is the great man himself.

For 24 years he has dominated English football and is undisputedly the best manager of his generation. His achievements are beyond doubt. They roll off the tongue – 11 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cup finals, two Champions League crowns as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

There are a couple of things that Fergie has yet to achieve and well, I suppose that is probably why the hunger and desire is still there after all those years at the top. He has yet to accomplish the number one mission – “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch.”

But as he grows closer to his 69th birthday, his future is once again coming under question. The indication seems to be that he WILL retire in the next two or so years. He has been quoted in the past as saying that he does not expect to be in management past 70.

The big question that is on most Manchester United fans lips, including mine is – Who will replace Sir Alex Ferguson?

Well, at the moment, Jose Mourinho looks to be in poll position to make a dramatic return to English football having led Chelsea to two Premier League titles during his time there. He will now lead Inter Milan into the Champions League final next month and it also on to with the League and cup double in Italy.

Certainly has to be considered as a frontrunner, but there is also a chance he could be going to Real Madrid next season which would be perfect for all involved, stay in Madrid for a year or two, win a trophy or two and then answer United if or when they call.

Another contender is David Moyes of Everton, who in the past eight years has worked on shoestring budget but has managed to lead the Toffees to a place in the top six in four of the last five seasons.

He even managed to break up the so-called Big Four in the 2004-05. United would certainly be a big step up for him but it would also be a chance to work with a bigger budget and build a legacy there or would he prefer to continue on with Everton?

Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, former players Steve Bruce, Roy Keane and Mark Hughes have been mentioned previously as potential successors. Personally, none of those are even close to making a return to Old Trafford as manager.

One ex-player who has enjoyed tremendous success since retiring is defender Laurent Blanc, who we all know Sir Alex Ferguson rates very highly. However, the Frenchman has been touted as a potential successor to national team coach Raymond Domenech after this summer’s World Cup.

Perhaps, reserve team coach and another Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be in with a shout of the job?

Whoever does takeover from Fergie will have some pretty big boots to fill. There will always be that comparison to the predecessor. They will require great strength of character and will almost certainly have to put their own stamp on the club.

Will that person ever compare to Sir Alex? The answer to that is no, there are no two ways about it. Ferguson is the greatest coach ever. I stand by that statement vehemently.

So, who will succeed him as manager I hear you ask? Well, you may be certain that I don’t know, other fans don’t know, Ferguson doesn’t know and the Glazers haven’t got a clue.

And, guess what? The successor doesn’t even know himself.

That’s football for you or as Fergie said himself: “Football, bloody hell.”


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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