Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Title contenders' failings hint at close finish

It all appeared to be getting so predictable in the Premier League title race. The ruthless and clinical nature of Chelsea's beginning of the defence of their domestic crown was in stark contrast to the early season inconsistency of their rivals, and left even Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini feeling confident enough to predict that the Blues would 'easily' reassert their supremacy this term. Several days and a defeat at Eastlands later, talk of the West Londoners' aura of invincibility has been ripped from the back pages, to be replaced with speculation regarding the ability of Manchester's 'other club' to become the dominant force in English football. But if there is one thing that last weekend's Premier League results have made clear, it is this: Mancini's claim is almost certainly a fallacy. All of the major title contenders exhibited significant weaknesses in their respective matches, and all are certainly beatable. This year's title race will not be won at a canter.

Manchester City

The new kings of English football? Not quite yet, but they do now at least feature in the discussion. Having put a halt to the Chelsea juggernaut on Saturday, Manchester City will undoubtedly be the happiest of the Premier League contenders. City fans will quite rightly consider their team's excellent recent record against the champions as proof that, thanks to some hefty investment, they now boast a side which can compete and win at the highest level. The nature of the win, however, prompted as many long-term questions as it provided short-term answers. First and foremost, whilst the safety-first setup of Mancini's side got the job done against the champions, there are already some indications, notably in the Citizens' home draw with Blackburn and away defeat to Sunderland, that the Italian's pragmatism may be misguided against the less well-resourced and ambitious sides of the Premier League. His favoured 4-2-3-1 places great reliance on new City captain Carlos Tevez, and whilst the diminutive Argentine has a phenomenal recent scoring record of 24 goals in his last 29 games, it is difficult to see where the goals are coming from on a rare occasion that he doesn't deliver. Of course, if his side do need a goal, Mancini does have reserves of formidable quality in Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli and Roque Santa Cruz. But these big names and bigger reputations are not likely to be content with a role as impact substitutes, and an unhappy dressing room is rarely conducive to success on the pitch.


Prior to their defeat at Eastlands, Chelsea's spectacular start to the season had been the subject of a torrent of hyperbole from the media, with a few overly-eager souls even suggesting that the Blues might emulate Arsenal's 'Invincibles' of the 2003/4 season and go the entire league season unbeaten. In such an atmosphere, it would be easy for even a top side to become caught up in the hype. Consequently, a week consisting of a shock exit from the Carling Cup and a defeat at the hands of the 'new power' in English football may prove to be just the antidote for dangerous notions such as a quadruple trophy haul. And thanks to the failings of the chasing pack, the reality check has only cost a point. Chelsea will justifiably be disappointed with defeat in Manchester, but they still boast a points tally and goal difference that is the envy of the Premier League, and will rightly be confident in their own ability to maintain their position at the top of the pile. But the recent setbacks have also exposed a worrying lack of depth in the Chelsea squad. The creativity of the injured Frank Lampard was badly missed against Manchester City, and the introduction of Daniel Sturridge for Didier Drogba at Eastlands didn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of the home defenders. The Blues bench appears to consist of youthful promise rather than trusted experience, and consequently there are doubts over Carlo Ancelotti's ability to change a game if it isn't going the way of his side. Such limitations could prove particularly costly against top level opposition, and the next big test is Arsenal on Sunday.

Manchester United

Last weekend's Premier League action has left Sir Alex Ferguson with much to ponder. Six games into the new season and his are the only side in the division still unbeaten, but are three points behind leaders Chelsea after their third consecutive draw away from home. Conceding soft goals has become a recurring motif in the story of United's travels this term, with the Red Devils' defence undoubtedly suffering as a result of Rio Ferdinand's persistent injury problems. This new-found defensive frailty has resulted in extremely uncharacteristic collapses from winning positions against Fulham and Everton, as well as a laboured draw against Bolton last Sunday, and correcting these errors will surely be at the forefront of Sir Alex's thoughts. But as several below-par performances this season have already shown, United's problems are not limited merely to their defence. Much has been made of the early season form of the seemingly evergreen Paul Scholes, but at 36, he will not be able to maintain such good form over the course of an entire campaign, and will have to be used sparingly for maximum effect. In his absence, United look worryingly short of creativity and vision in the centre of midfield - something which could prove particularly costly against defensive minded teams. In attack, it appears - in one of the most surprising turn of events this season - that United are currently over-reliant on the brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov. Wayne Rooney's post World Cup/post injury hangover has been enhanced by tabloid revelations concerning his private life, and it is likely to be some time before he is back to his all-conquering best. In the meantime, Ferguson will hope that these problems do not cost him any more points in his pursuit of Chelsea and a 19th Premier League title.


Oh dear. Things had started so well for Arsenal this season. After beginning their campaign with a solid point at Anfield, and with the imperious Cesc Fabregas and unflappable Jack Wilshere pulling the strings, the Gunners hit a bewildered Blackpool for six, put four past Bolton and even managed an 'ugly' win away at Blackburn, encouraging some to suggest that this might finally be the year that Arsene Wenger's crowd-pleasing side started collecting trophies as well as admirers. But in the past couple of weeks, the old failings have begun to emerge. Away against Sunderland, Arsenal took the lead but, like so many times before, failed to put their determined hosts to the sword, and Darren Bent's injury time penalty ensured that the Gunners were duly punished for their profligacy. Against West Brom last weekend, the arguments against Arsenal's title credentials were there for all to see. A below-par performance was exacerbated by a complete lack of leadership in the face of adversity (although Samir Nasri tried his best) and uncommitted defending, not to mention some truly awful goalkeeping. Arsenal lack a top class shot-stopper, a defensive organiser, a midfield enforcer and a world-class striker. It is no coincidence that the two best teams in the country, Chelsea and Manchester United, can both supply ticks next to all of the positions described above. Arsenal cannot hope to compete with them on a consistent basis without such additions. The clash with Chelsea this Sunday is now crucial. Another defeat would be a significant - if not quite fatal - blow to the Gunner's title hopes.

With a hard-fought victory at Eastlands, Manchester City have given the lie to manager Roberto Mancini's claims that Chelsea will 'easily' retain their Premier League crown. On a weekend of surprises, the performances of each of the title contenders have raised questions about their credentials, and none of them will have much room for error if they are to succeed in their quest for glory. 

NOTE: Liverpool and Tottenham have not been given coverage in this post as I do not consider them to have a realistic chance of winning the title. Especially Liverpool. The four sides listed above must be regarded as the main contenders, although Manchester City's win over Chelsea has done nothing to weaken my initial conviction that the title will ultimately be heading to either Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford. That said, it is likely that City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool will all have a large say in which of the two is eventually crowned champions.        

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 1

After much anticipation, Europe's premier club competition is finally underway - and the first round of group fixtures did not disappoint. With great goals, costly gaffes and officiating controversy, there are already no shortage of talking points. I will be covering the key results and stories that emerge as the tournament develops, starting, rather inevitably, with my take on week one. Have a read and let me know your views. 

Group A

Quite a start to Tottenham's European adventure. Two goals to the good inside 20 minutes, against a resilient German side with a formidable home record, many observers fancied Harry Redknapp's men to close the deal. Indeed, victory in Bremen would have seen Spurs put themselves in with a great chance of reaching the knockout stages at the first attempt, even at this early stage. It says a lot for the North Londoners' first half performance that they were anything less than delighted at the final whistle with an away point on their Champions League debut, but this must be considered an encouraging opening. Tottenham's prospects are good, but regardless of whether or not they get through, if Tuesday's game is anything to go by, they'll be fun to watch.

Elsewhere, in Holland, there was yet more evidence to suggest that Inter Milan are not currently the efficient winning machine they became last season under Jose Mourinho. Rafa Benitez still seems to be getting to know his new players, and this was consequently a patchy and unconvincing display from the European Champions. FC Twente, for their part, must be given credit for showing that there is life after Steve McClaren (who'd have thought it?) by producing a spirited display. Despite the result, I still see the Dutch side as the weakest team in the group, and there is no cause for concern for the Nerazzurri just yet. They still possess quality throughout the side, and I seem to remember them not looking so hot this time last year...

Group B

One of the biggest surprise packages of the Champions League last year, Lyon got their campaign off to a winning start at home, with a lacklustre Schalke side never forcing the French giants to hit top gear. Michel Bastos may have shown good predatory instincts and persistence to steal the only goal of the game, but Schalke right-back Christoph Moritz must have had to face a few stern questions at half time, after his attempted back header played keeper Manuel Neuer into all kinds of trouble. Any hopes of a German comeback were dashed before the break, with centre-back Benedikt Howedes given his marching orders for a clumsy challenge/karate kick on Jimmy Briand. A disappointing start then for Schalke, who must have fancied themselves this term after signing the likes of Raul, Huntelaar and Jurado, but they may yet improve. As for Lyon, a repeat of last year's semi-final remains unlikely, but they have the creativity and pace to threaten the big boys.    

In Lisbon, Benfica didn't seem to miss Angel Di Maria or Ramires as they broke down a stubborn Hapoel Tel Aviv side. Not that they found it easy to break down the self-appointed one man wall, Vincent Enyeama, mind. The Nigerian stopper made a hatful of top saves to keep out the home side, but couldn't prevent either a thunderbolt from Luisao or a nonchalant rebound finish from Oscar Cardozo. At the other end, Tel Aviv striker Etey Shechter must be wondering what he had done to offend Russian referee Aleksei Nikolaev and his team. Having been blatantly pulled down with the scores at 0-0 as he raced past Luisao in the Benfica box, the Israeli forward's pleas were ignored by everyone who mattered, provoking indignation in most viewers and causing Michel Platini to shift uncomfortably in his seat at the futility of his new 'additional assistants' - one of whom was so close to the incident that he could have pulled down Shechter himself.

Group C

It was a night of frustration for Sir Alex Ferguson. Having made 10 changes to the side which capitulated against Everton three days previously, the Manchester United boss could only look on as his patchy side huffed and puffed without any real quality, and in the end were pretty comfortably frustrated by a disciplined Rangers side. Walter Smith has been criticised in some quarters for his unashamedly defensive approach to the match, but with his team so obviously out-gunned in every area of the pitch, it was surely the only sensible option. Wayne Rooney was, once again, a pale shadow of the player who set the Premier League and Champions League alight for large parts of last season, and Manchester United will need him to re-find his form if Alex Ferguson is to add to his tally of two Champions League triumphs.

Elsewhere in Group C, it seems that rumours of Valencia's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even having lost the class and guile of David Silva, the clinical finishing of David Villa and the leadership of Carlos Marchena, Los Che still had far too much for Turkish champions Bursaspor. Moreover, they appear to have found a new magician: Alberto Facundo 'Tino' Costa. For his first trick, the Argentine unleashed a swerving screamer into the top corner from a distance which was, quite frankly, insulting to opposition keeper Yavuz Ozkan. Then he thundered a long range free-kick against the post, cleverly committing Ozkan and allowing Aritz Aduriz an easy close-range tap-in on the rebound. One game is clearly not a solid basis for heralding the arrival of a new star, and it is clear that both Costa and Valencia will face tougher tests than a Turkish side making their Champion's League debut. But if the Argentine can replicate this form on a regular basis, then the sale of David Silva may begin to look a good piece of business.

Group D

Most neutrals who tuned in to the Barcelona v Panathinaikos match on Tuesday night did so because they expected the entertainers of European football to put on a show. Their desire to be entertained was more than sated, but not before Sidney Govou threatened to ruin the show with a superbly taken breakaway goal for the visitors. The strike, however, proved no more than the catalyst for this exceptional Barcelona team to run riot, with the greatest of them all, Lionel Messi, once again taking centre stage. Having latched onto a wonderfully incisive Xavi pass to level the match, the diminutive Argentine superstar then followed David Villa's first Champion's League goal for his new team by proceeding to set the Camp Nou alight with his talent. His second goal was a characteristic blend of exceptional speed, technique, precision and composure which left a seemingly-organised Greek defence in tatters. But the best was yet to come. After nearly finding the net from an impossible angle to inadvertently set up Pedro for Barca's fourth, Messi then scampered through the Panathinaikos backline once more and, just when it seemed as though he had run out of options, lifted a superb pass over the last defender for Dani Alves to head home the fifth. With the Catalans and their maestro in this kind of form, it will take a positively Mourinho-esque team to beat them...

Meanwhile, in the less glamorous (or at least warm) surroundings of Denmark, FC Copenhagen caused a significant shock by defeating much-fancied Rubin Kazan, with a towering header from Senegalese striker Dame N'Doye. On this evidence, however, it is unlikely that either of these sides will threaten the knockout stages, so Panathinaikos fans shouldn't give up hope just yet.

Group E

Last year's beaten finalists Bayern Munich signalled their intent to repeat last season's Champion's League feats with an impressive win over a decent but limited Roma side. The result looks even better when it is considered that neither of their star wingers - the talented-but-sulky Frank Ribery and the sulky-but-talented Arjen Robben - were available. Toni Kroos, the young German midfielder highlighted in a certain Rising Stars blog a few weeks ago, looks particularly promising, if a little trigger happy in front of goal. Thomas Muller also continues to establish himself as European football's brightest young talents, scoring an absolute peach with the outside of his right foot to break the deadlock. Bayern boss Louis Van Gaal will also hope that Miroslav Klose's goal will help him to rediscover his scoring touch at club level, for his predatory instincts will be needed at home and in Europe. Roma, for their part, will probably make it out of the group in second place, but that's about it.

In Transylvania, CFR Cluj marked themselves out as Roma's main competitors for second place in Group E with a hard-fought win over Swiss champions FC Basel. A fast start proved to be the key, with goals from Lanut Rada and Lacina Traore putting the Romanians in charge inside 12 minutes. Despite Basel dominating much of what followed, a stubborn and organised defensive display proved enough to give Cluj what could be a precious three points in their quest to reach the knockout stage for the first time.

Group F

Premier League champions Chelsea quite simply couldn't have had it any easier away against MSK Zilina as they brushed aside the Slovakian champions, with a brace from Nicolas Anelka sandwiched between goals from Michael Essien and Daniel Sturridge. Frenchman Anelka led the line with a discipline too rarely seen in the absence of Didier Drogba, and the Blues attacked with an intensity which their hosts could not match. Michael Essien once again proved why his return to fitness should be considered the most important addition to the Chelsea ranks over the summer, and young striker Daniel Sturridge further underlined his considerable promise with a well-taken second half goal. Petr Cech's decision-making is still a worry at times, with his ill-judged attempt to come for a cross leading to Zilina's only goal. Overall, however, Chelsea are bursting with confidence, quality and goals, and if they are allowed to build up momentum in the knockout stages, it will take a very good team to stop them.

In France, Marseille must still be wondering how they lost their opening game at home to Spartak Moscow. Eastern European teams, and particularly Russian teams, traditionally do not travel well in Europe, and Spartak's performance in the south of France was no exception. But visiting keeper Andriy Dykan was in inspired form as the Russians withstood large spells of Marseille pressure, and his side were awarded a huge slice of good fortune with Cesar Azpilicueta's own goal nine minutes from time. Of course, nothing is settled on matchday one, but Marseille now face an extremely difficult trip to Russia, and may also potentially have to get something from one of their meetings with Chelsea. Advantage Spartak, I think.

Group G

The group which had been awarded the fabled title of 'Group of Death' instead got off to a rather predictable start, with wins for both Real Madrid and AC Milan. Jose Mourinho's men served notice of their European credentials with an impressive performance against Dutch giants Ajax. The score may only have been 2-0, but when you consider that Real had over 30 attempts at goal, then it is clear that Martin Jol's men did well just to keep the score down. Mourinho defended his side's profligacy in front of goal, stating with justification that an eye-catching goal difference in the group stage is not what wins you the Champions League. He will fancy his wealth of top attacking talents to hit top form when it truly matters, and so if Madrid can keep the defence tight, they may well be the team to beat.

In Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his arrival for his new team with a match-winning brace against Auxerre. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of the encounter was that, with the likes of Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Ronaldinho on the pitch, the 'Most Frustrating Decision' award goes to Auxerre midfielder Steeven Langil who, at 0-0, decided to try and break the Milan net from a tight angle rather than trying to find either one of the two teammates who were screaming at him for the ball and perfectly positioned for a tap-in. Had he decided upon a different course of action, Silvio Berlusconi's temperamental gems may not have had such an easy night.

Group H

Braga once again showed that you cannot expect to survive at the Emirates by trying to play football. Unless your name is Barcelona, of course. The Arsenal captain with 'Barcelona DNA' was the star of the show, scoring twice and having a hand in almost everything else the Gunners did well on Wednesday night. As always, the style with which Arsenal ripped Braga apart was just as impressive as the result itself, and the form of Jack Wilshere and Carlos Vela must also be giving Arsene Wenger reason to smile.With performances like this, the North Londoners should cruise through the group, but I'm yet to see anything which suggests that they can produce this kind of display against an elite side.

In the Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk solidified their status as favourites for second place in Group H with a functional, if uninspiring, win over Partizan Belgrade. A powerful free-kick from talismanic captain Darijo Srna gave Shakhtar the lead, but the hosts' inability to kill off their opponents made for a nervy last 10 minutes. The Ukrainian champions usually boast a good home record in Europe, and therefore a few points on their travels should see Shakhtar into the knockout stages. Partizan will surely be setting their sights on the more realistic target of beating Braga to third place and a Europa League spot.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Lessons learned for Houllier as Villa crumble

Gerard Houllier stated last week that it was the 'tremendous challenge' of returning Aston Villa to former glories that ultimately attracted him back to English football at the helm of the Midlands club. After watching from the stands as his new side succumbed to a late Stoke City fightback at the Britannia Stadium on Monday evening, the 63 year old Frenchman will be all the more certain of the testing times which lay ahead.

Monday night's clash epitomised everything that arguably makes the Premier League the most exciting in the world - a fiercely competitive encounter, played at a frenetic pace, with clear chances for both sides, and drama at the death. Stewart Downing's excellent headed opener stunned the Potters faithful, who had no doubt been encouraged by the hosts' lively start. But Villa failed to make the most of the spell of dominance which the lead afforded them prior to half time, despite both Ashley Young and Downing coming close to doubling their advantage.

In the second half, Stoke's relentless aerial bombardment and seemingly boundless energy drove the tiring visitors back. The charge was led by the strength of Kenwyne Jones & guile of substitute Ricardo Fuller, and with the typically industrious Matthew Etherington supplying the ammunition from the left, it was no surprise when Jones finally headed in the equaliser with 10 minutes remaining. And just when the match appeared to be petering out into a draw, Robert Huth popped up in the midst of a penalty area scramble to prod home an injury time winner, and ensure that Gerard Houllier's first viewing of his new team was not a pleasant experience.

The former Liverpool man may have been restricted from actually taking charge of Villa in time for Monday night's game as a result of complications in the negotiations to free him of his commitments to the French FA, but what will have been as clear to him as to any other spectator in the Britannia stadium are the problems that he will have to rectify on the pitch. Aside from a 10 minute spell of pressure which followed Downing's header, the Villains rarely posed a serious threat to Thomas Sorensen's goal. Gabi Agbonlahor, blazing a lone trail up front, may boast an impressive assist for the opener, but in general got very little change out of Stoke's physically imposing backline. And it is more than a little worrying that someone with the abysmal goalscoring record of Emile Heskey was considered the best choice for the role of 'impact substitute' as Villa searched for a change in fortune late in the game. If such attacking problems were evident against Stoke - formidable, but hardly illustrious, Premier League opposition - then it is hard to view Villa's long-term ambitions with optimism.

The nature of the defeat also raises familiar nagging questions in the minds of Villa fans as to the resilience and fitness of their side. Last year, Martin O'Neill's men never appeared to have truly mastered the art of survival when things weren't going their way - a flaw which led to embarassing defeats against Portsmouth and Chelsea, as well as numerous other dropped points throughout the course of the season. Moreover, in the wake of their clash at Stamford Bridge, Blues captain John Terry stated that he and his teammates had been encouraged to up the tempo in the latter stages of the game, spurred on by their knowledge of the inferior physical conditioning of the Aston Villa players. Defeat at the Britannia stadium, combined with a trouncing at the hands of Newcastle Utd, suggest that things have been following a similar course under caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald. It is a course which Houllier must find a way to navigate away from if he is to succeed at Villa Park.

Non-footballing circumstances could also pose problems for the experienced Frenchman. There have been numerous newspaper rumours that Steven Warnock and Brad Friedel - never highly valued at Liverpool under Houllier's reign - were less than keen to work under him again. If there is any substance to the stories, then these sentiments have the potential to be a significant negative influence on the dressing room. Should any problems occur, it is difficult to see funds which were denied Martin O'Neill being afforded his successor to make his mark on the team. This may well be music to the ears of some Villa fans, who remember Houllier as the man who spent over £30m on less than inspired targets such as Salif Diao, El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Djibril Cisse, but it is worth remembering that any coach is at his best when managing a side he feels shares his footballing philosophy. If Houllier is denied finance to achieve this, then a 'new dawn' may well be slow in arriving.

There are, however, grounds for optimism, both on the part of Houllier himself and Villa fans. The experienced Frenchman boasts considerable success in cup competitions, particularly in his 2000/2001 season at Liverpool, and the FA and Carling Cups remain the Villains' best hope for some long-awaited silverware. Houllier's role in developing the famous Clairfontaine youth academy in France also bodes well when it comes to the talent currently emerging from Villa's youth ranks. Players like Nathan Delfouneso, Marc Albrighton and Ciaran Clark have already been tipped for big things, and it is reasonable to assume from his past achievements that the Frenchman possesses the necessary knowledge to help them fulfil their considerable potential. Finally, whilst Houllier's Liverpool were never considered the entertainers of the Premier League, they were a tactically well-organised and well-drilled side. If he can help Villa shed the defensive naivety which has occasionally been exposed, they may well stem the tide of goals conceded late on in matches.

With a tough act to follow and without any considerable war-chest, Gerard Houllier has set himself the unenviable task of rebuilding Aston Villa as a major force in English football. If the former Liverpool man didn't already know, Monday night's defeat to Stoke has made it abundantly clear that there is much work to be done if he is to succeed in his aims.