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.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Who will win the Ballon d'Or?

Six of the very best in 2010 - but who will claim the top prize?

The Christmas period is a time to enjoy rare pleasures. Generously-proportioned men everywhere don bright red outfits and impossibly-pure white beards in order to reward other peoples' children, it becomes socially acceptable to eat mince pies, and I am once again reminded why I will never have to buy deodorant and underpants. But this year, another treat can be added to this illustrious list: the small matter of the world's best footballer remains to be decided - and for once, its not a formality.

One problem which has undermined the award as a talking point in recent years is that it has become so very predictable. Brazilian playmaker Kaka was always going to romp to success in 2007, having almost single-handedly dragged an aging AC Milan side to the seventh European Cup triumph in the club's history, scoring 10 goals along the way. Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly the outstanding candidate in 2008, notching 42 goals in all competitions and picking up Premier League and Champions League winners' medals with Manchester United. And Lionel Messi was destined for top individual recognition in 2009 - the season in which he provided the inspiration for an exceptional treble-winning Barcelona side.  

The race for the inaugural FIFA Ballon d'Or, however, promises to be far more of a close-run race. Why? Well, to put it simply, the World Cup has thrown a spanner into the works. In most years, club form is king - the individual who excels not only domestically but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the Champions League is ultimately rewarded. It is no coincidence that Ronaldinho, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi all triumphed in the years that their respective sides were victorious in Europe's premier club competition. The logic of the awards panel appears to be that the biggest players shine on the biggest occasions - and looking at the illustrious list of past winners, it is hard to argue with this rationale.

But it is this same philosophy which blows the race wide open in World Cup years. For the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is undoubtedly the biggest stage of all, and consequently a strong World Cup can transform a Ballon d'Or also-ran into an overwhelming favourite. In 2002, legendary Brazilian striker Ronaldo had missed the entirety of the domestic season with Inter Milan as a result of chronic knee problems. It mattered not, as Il Fenomeno's fairytale comeback to lead his country to World Cup glory in Japan and South Korea ensured that he was the only choice for that year's awards.

In 2006, despite winning a second consecutive Serie A title with Juventus (subsequently rescinded in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal), Fabio Cannavaro was not an obvious candidate for supreme individual recognition, given that defenders are rarely considered in the average 'Best player in the world' debate. But the centre-back's inspirational form in marshalling a watertight Italian defence, which conceded only 2 goals en route to their country's fourth World Cup triumph, convinced the FIFA and Ballon d'Or award panels to make an exception to this unwritten rule.

If eye-catching performances in South Africa do indeed prove decisive, then we can expect several of Spain's World Cup heroes to be near the top of the list. Seven of the squad are nominated, but it is likely that Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa will be leading the charge. Xavi's case rests on the argument that although this year's World Cup triumph constitutes the crowning achievement of an already glittering career that will, one day, see him go down in the annals of history as one of Catalonia's greatest sons, ultimate individual recognition has thus far eluded him. Iniesta capped another season of imperious club form at Barcelona with the goal which secured Spain's first ever success on the world stage. And David Villa rose admirably to the challenge of shouldering the goalscoring burden thrust upon him by Fernando Torres' lack of form and fitness, finishing joint top scorer in the tournament, and cementing his reputation as a world-class striker. Among the rest of the Spanish contingent, Carles Puyol may also stand a chance, but only if the panel decide once again to go down the 'Cannavaro route'.

But Spain's finest are not the only ones to have had their Ballon d'Or credentials considerably boosted by a successful World Cup. Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder appears the most heavily favoured non-Spanish contender, with the Dutch playmaker instrumental both in his club's exceptional treble win and in his country's surprise run to the final in South Africa. Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben can boast of similar achievements, with losing appearances in the Champions League and World Cup finals serving to illuminate rather than undermine what has surely been the flying winger's best season to date.

And what about Germany's stars? 21 year old Thomas Muller has had a phenomenal first season in professional football. The young forward's impressive form ensured he was ever-present both in Bayern Munich's League and Cup double winning exploits and in the German giants' run to the Champions League final. He also shone on the big stage in South Africa, finishing joint-top scorer in his first World Cup, and winning the coveted Golden Boot by virtue of his 5 goals and 3 assists in the tournament. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been the driving force behind all that Bayern Munich and Germany have achieved in the last 12 months, and a succession of majestic displays in South Africa earned him plaudits the world over. The World Cup also confirmed Turkish-born German playmaker Mesut Ozil as one of the brightest young talents in world football, and his dazzling displays rightly brought him to the attention of Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

It should, at this point, be brought to the attention of anyone in need of further persuasion as to the competitive nature of this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or, that this article has grown to be eight paragraphs long without yet touching on the current form of the two greatest players of our generation. Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo have shared the most prestigious individual honours between them over the last two seasons and, if their performances in 2010 are anything to go by, both superstars remain hungry for more.

From Barcelona's perspective, last term certainly did not deliver the same fairytale ending as the historic treble-winning campaign before it. But on a more personal level, the 2009/10 season was the best of Lionel Messi's career: his 34 league goals equalled the all-time club record set by the Brazilian Ronaldo in 1996/97, and fell only four goals short of the all-time Spanish league record, set by legendary Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra way back in the 1950s.

His combined scoring total of 47 goals in all competitions was even more astounding, and his four goal demolition of Arsenal in the Champions League quarter final at the Nou Camp prompted favourable comparisons with the likes of Pele and Maradona in the global footballing community. It is widely agreed that Messi is the most talented footballer on the planet, but it remains to be seen how much a relatively disappointing World Cup with Argentina will damage his chances of claiming this year's trophy.

The last twelve months have not gone precisely to plan for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Portuguese superstar has still shown more than enough on the pitch to prove that he deserves his place alongside Messi at the top of the world game. Having secured his 'dream' move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, Ronaldo has poured scorn on the idea that he would take time to adapt to life in La Liga with a string of match-winning displays, both domestically and in Europe. His 33 goals in 35 appearances were, however, insufficient to prevent Real coming off second best to an exceptional Barcelona in La Liga, and suffering an early Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon.

The 25 year old also under-performed at the World Cup, finding his opportunities to shine limited both by a tough draw and by the negative tactics of his coach, which left him starved of service in the opposition half. But the latter half of 2010 promises much for Ronaldo. He has continued his prolific scoring form at club level into the new season, and Madrid's chances of winning trophies have been drastically improved by the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager. All of this means, though, that the 2010 Ballon d'Or award may be coming at the wrong time for him to genuinely challenge.

After carefully weighing up the credentials of each of the main contenders for this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or award, it is this blogger's humble opinion that Wesley Sneijder is the most deserving, simply because of his amazing year of almost unparalleled brilliance for both club and country. However, if this post has accomplished nothing else, I hope it has convinced you that there are no shortage of worthy candidates for this year's prize, and that, unlike previous years, the speculation over who will ultimately hold the 'Golden Ball' aloft on January 11th is going to run and run.

Who do you think will win the Ballon d'Or? Comments are provided for in the space below.        

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 3

It was another eventful round of fixtures in the Champions League this week, with mistakes, brilliance, controversy, and of course, goals aplenty. Here's my take on the action.

Group A

Inter Milan 4-3 Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Redknapp's side continue to be compulsive viewing on their debut season in Europe's premier club competition. Despite the North Londoners' vows to attack from the off, it was Inter who seized the initiative in a big way, starting the match like a team possessed. The holders' fluid passing and movement was too much for a surprisingly passive Spurs side in the first half, with Zanetti, Stankovic and Eto'o providing the clinical finishes to some excellent prolonged periods of possession. 4-0 down at half time, and with keeper Heurelho Gomes correctly sent off for taking out speed merchant Jonathan Biabiany, it looked like a little damage limitation could be in order. But Gareth Bale's astonishing second-half hat-trick went a long way towards compensating for the humiliation felt by traveling Spurs fans in the first half, and ensured that they will welcome the Italian giants to White Hart Lane in two weeks time with genuine hope of a result. The flying Welshman exhibited pace, power and unerring accuracy as he ripped Rafa Benitez's side to shreds, and it was to his credit that the European champions were the ones relieved to hear the final whistle.

FC Twente 1-1 Werder Bremen

An even game yielded a result which will go down much better in North London than it will in Enschede or Bremen, as neither of these sides were able to capitalise on Tottenham's defeat in Milan. Twente midfielder Theo Janssen made the most of errors by two Sebastiens - centre back Prodl and substitute keeper Meilitz - to give the home side the lead with 15 minutes left, with former fans favourite Marko Arnautovic, now at Bremen after last season's unsuccessful stint at Inter, bagging a scrappy equaliser 5 minutes later. Claudio Pizarro almost stole it for the visitors at the death, but his glancing header was just about correctly ruled out for offside. Both sides can still hope of qualifying for the knockout stage, but will have to show more in their final three fixtures than they did here in order to usurp Spurs.

Group B

Lyon 2-0 Benfica

The French giants have thus far made a potentially awkward group look easy, and extended their 100% record in Group B with a solid win over ten-man Benfica. Star man Michel Bastos took a back seat this time around, with strikers Jimmy Briand and Lisandro Lopez instead doing the damage either side of Nicolas Gaitan's foolish dismissal for persistent fouling. Lyon had the game sown up before the hour mark, and now look nailed on as group winners. Benfica look a decidedly weaker outfit this term without tricky winger Angel Di Maria and midfield engine Ramires, and now face a real battle with a resurgent Schalke for second spot. With the Germans scheduled to go to Lisbon on matchday six, it is one that will likely go down to the wire.

Schalke 3-1 Hapoel Tel Aviv

The league form of Felix Magath's side may be cause for concern, with only 1 win in their first 8 games, but Schalke are getting the job done in Europe. Raul, in particular, has taken his time to settle in to life in the Bundesliga, but there is something about the Champions League which brings out the best in the Real Madrid legend. Two clinical finishes on Wednesday have taken his career tally in UEFA competitions to 86, one ahead of fellow poacher Pippo Inzaghi at the top of the all-time scoring lists. Fellow Spaniard and summer arrival Jurado also got in on the act, curling a superb shot past a helpless Vincent Enyeama to put the result beyond doubt. Etey Shechter bundled in a consolation in injury time for the Israeli champions, but it seems now that their efforts will be in vain. For Schalke, the recovery is far from complete, but they hold a potentially decisive lead over Benfica in the race for Group B's second spot, provided they can avoid defeat in Portugal.

Group C

Manchester United 1-0 Bursaspor

After all the pre-match talk of Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson will have considered a convincing victory over Group C minnows Bursaspor to be an important first step in highlighting that, even without last season's talisman, the future at Old Trafford remains as bright as ever. Whilst they failed to build on Nani's brilliant opener on the scoresheet, United were comfortable and always in control. And with assured performances from the likes of Smalling, Rafael and Macheda, Ferguson will believe he has more than enough ammunition to pour scorn on Rooney's doubts over United's ambition going forward.

Rangers 1-1 Valencia

A creditable point for Rangers, but it could have been so much more. The star of the show was undoubtedly Gers' American midfielder Maurice Edu, who gave the home side the lead with a brave header, taking a mean right hook from Valencia keeper Cesar Sanchez in the process. But immediately after the interval, Edu then undid all of his good work with an even better header at the wrong end to give the Spanish visitors a way back into the match. Valencia predictably dominated possession, but found it difficult to break down Rangers'  stubborn five man defence, and it was Walter Smith's side who had the better opportunities. Edu hit the post, and Miller, Naismith, Foster and Davis all missed extremely presentable chances to give the home side all of the points. Rangers may yet live to regret their profligacy in front of goal, but for now, they lie second in Group C with a real chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

Group D

Barcelona 2-0 Copenhagen

The self-styled entertainers of world football once again turned on the style at the Nou Camp, with Leo Messi predictably the star of the show. Even without pass-master Xavi, Barca had few difficulties in navigating a way through and around the deep-lying Copenhagen defence, and their superiority was underlined when Messi smashed the ball into the top corner on 19 minutes. Despite numerous chances, however, the Spanish champions failed to put the game to bed. The visitors carried little threat, but Dame N'Doye's thundering half-volley against the bar and Cesar Santin's pathetic rebound attempt, combined with his inexplicable failure to play to the whistle when played clean through on goal, were infrequent reminders of the frailty of the lead. The knockout blow wasn't delivered until injury time, when Messi slotted home to take his overall goal tally in this season's tournament to 4. Barcelona are cruising into the knockout stages, and both of Spain's 'Big two' will be among the front-runners for this year's trophy.

Panathinaikos 0-0 Rubin

A dull encounter in Athens between two teams lacking in ideas ended, almost inevitably, in a stalemate. Only towards the end did either side show the kind of urgency befitting their situations in Group D, and Djibril Cisse thought he'd won it for the hosts with 13 minutes left, but the officials correctly ruled that the Frenchman was offside when he 'backed' the ball over Rubin keeper Sergei Ryzhikov. The result leaves Copenhagen in with a great chance of continuing their surprise run into the knockout stage.

Group E

Bayern Munich 3-2 Cluj

The Romanian champions will be wondering what might have been had their clinical finishing been limited to the opposition net. Minutes after Cluj captain Cadu had given the visitors a surprise lead in Germany, the Romanian centre-back then deflected Toni Kroos' tame effort past his own keeper to restore parity. Bayern were swiftly gifted the lead when Holger Badstuber's curling corner deflected in off Christian Panin, and even when the hosts finally got on the scoresheet as a result of their own efforts, a large slice of luck was involved. For Felice Piccolo can certainly claim an assist for Mario Gomez' opportunistic strike, after his attempted clearance ricocheted off the boot of the German frontman and into the Cluj net. Juan Culio netted four minutes from time to set up a tense finish, but Bayern held on to a lead which they never really had to work too hard for, and have now more or less qualified from Group E.

Roma 1-3 Basel

The shock of the round undoubtedly came in Rome, where Swiss champions Basel stunned Claudio Ranieri's Roma to blow the race for second spot in Group E wide open. The predatory instincts of Alexander Frei gave the visitors the lead, the frontman supplying an excellent finish to a flowing team move. Marco Borriello levelled things up, latching onto a superb pass from Francesco Totti before deftly chipping the ball over the on-rushing Costanzo. Totti himself then went close, but Basel were not to be denied. Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom did a remarkable impression of a Brazilian full-back, using his pace to latch onto a clever pass from Xherdan Shaqiri before smashing the ball into the bottom corner. And after weathering the Roma storm which followed, substitute Cabral danced through the opposition backline to seal the victory.

Group F

Spartak Moscow 0-2 Chelsea

The Chelsea juggernaut rolls on. The Blues produced another professional performance to see off a lively Spartak side, and have now established themselves at the top of Group F. Not visibly affected by playing on a plastic pitch, nor by the absence of Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard, Carlo Ancelotti's side limited Spartak's chances in an otherwise encouraging opening for the home side, and Yury Zhirkov's thunderbolt from 25 yards provided the most emphatic sucker-punch imaginable. The hosts remained unperturbed and continued to pour forward in search of an equaliser, but as they did, left plenty of spaces for the pacey Chelsea attack to exploit. The killer goal arrived just before half time: Michael Essien's driving run and pass found Nicolas Anelka, who atoned for an earlier miss by slotting past keeper Andriy Dykan. Spartak will know that the fate of their campaign will not be dependent on their results against the English champions, and will hope to welcome back captain Alex for the crunch clash with Marseille in a month's time.

Marseille 1-0 MSK Zilina

A hardly vintage performance from the French champions, but nevertheless a crucial victory which keeps Marseille in the hunt for the knockout stages. Souleymane Diawara got the eventual winner for the hosts with a good header from Lucho Gonzalez's corner, but the fact that Zilina forced Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda into making several excellent saves in order to preserve the lead suggests that much improvement is necessary if the hosts are to pass the sterner tests which lie ahead. The trip to Russia will be crucial for Didier Deschamps' side, and they will also hope to get something from Stamford Bridge on matchday six, when they are likely to face a weakened side who are already qualified.

Group G

Real Madrid 2-0 AC Milan

Tuesday's encounter at the Santiago Bernebeu was billed as a mouthwatering clash between two of European football's giants, but the mismatch on show illustrated the vastly different circumstances in which the two are currently operating. Despite the eye-catching signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho in the summer, AC Milan remain a tired old side, desperately lacking in pace and urgency in attacking areas. There was also a sad sense of irony about the particularly ineffectual display of Ronaldinho at the Bernebeu - the place where the former best player in the world was afforded a standing ovation five years ago for a thoroughly majestic performance. Mourinho's Real, however, looked ominously good. They scored 2, but it could quite easily have been 7 or 8. The attacking talents of Ronaldo, Higuain, Di Maria and Ozil have now been allied with a mean defence, and such a combination will be extremely difficult for anyone to beat.

Ajax 2-1 Auxerre

Martin Jol's men did their bit to keep themselves in Group G's qualification mix, whilst at the same time putting Auxerre very much out of it. Demy De Zeeuw's cracking strike after 7 minutes gave the hosts the perfect start, and Luis Suarez provided further evidence of his talent to potential suitors by slotting past Olivier Sorin after a flowing move. A clumsy foul from Blackburn's finest, Andre Ooijer, on Dennis Oliech as the Auxerre man ran clear, resulted in the defender's dismissal and put the hosts' lead into question. The uncertainty increased moments later, as Slovenia's World Cup talisman Valter Birsa curled in from the resulting free-kick. Auxerre piled on the pressure, but grew desperate as the clock ticked down, and Oliech himself was sent off late on for punching the ball into the net. Its between Milan and Ajax for second spot now, but with the Dutch side still to face a trip to Italy, the Rossoneri must remain the favourites.

Group H

Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Arsenal destroyed their biggest opponents in Group H as captain Cesc Fabregas made a triumphant return to first-team action. Arsene Wenger had fielded an attacking line-up, with Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere and Rosicky all starting, and the visitors were unable to cope with the Gunners' fluid movement and pinpoint passing. Despite all the attacking talent on offer, however, it was the unlikely figure of Alex Song who gave the hosts the lead, capitalising on an awful mistake by Shakhtar keeper Andriy Pyatov with a cheeky flick. Samir Nasri continued his excellent recent scoring form to double the advantage, before Luiz Adriano's rugby tackle on Johan Djourou allowed Cesc Fabregas to have his moment from the penalty spot. Jack Wilshere rounded off an excellent passing move with a lovely dinked finish to underline his promise, but only after the youngster had once again highlighted the darker side of his game with a rash challenge earlier on. Marouane Chamakh added a fifth, but only just, taking a long hard look at the linesman before slotting home. Gunners old boy Eduardo seized his moment with a tidy finish late on and, true to his word, didn't celebrate. The Emirates faithful, however, did, awarding their former player a standing ovation. Everyone's a winner then. Well, except Shakhtar. Who were soundly thrashed.

Braga 2-0 Partizan Belgrade

The Portuguese side finally did manager Owen Hargreaves proud, notching their first ever win in the Champions League, and just about keeping themselves in the frame for second spot. Brazilian Lima got the ball rolling, curling home a fantastic free-kick from a distance that was, quite frankly, cheeky. The home side's failure to make the game safe, however, meant that they had to weather a series of determined Partizan attacks, before Matheus finally secured the points with a tap-in in the last minute. Progression to the knockout stage remains unlikely for Braga, but if they beat Partizan and Shakhtar, Hargreaves might have to further delay his return to the United first team.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Rooney revolt plunges United into crisis

As one soap opera ends, another promptly begins. New England Sports Ventures' protracted takeover of beleaguered giants Liverpool was finally completed on Friday. It remains to be seen whether John W. Henry and co. will indeed preside over a resurgence in the red half of Merseyside, and comprehensive defeat to bitter rivals Everton has illustrated that much work lies ahead, but the buyout has at least averted the immediate threat of administration and ignominy of a 9 point penalty. Just as Liverpool's legal battles have disappeared from the back pages, however, the tabloids have now been presented with a new muse: for Wayne Rooney, the jewel in the crown of Manchester United, has effectively stated his intention to leave the Red Devils by announcing that he will not be seeking a new contract at Old Trafford. And earlier today, in an astonishingly candid press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that, despite his best efforts, the 24 year old has made up his mind to move on. Set against the backdrop of United's stuttering start to the season, it is a revelation with the potential to sound the death knell for their immediate hopes of challenging for major honours.

It's been a strange start to the season for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. They remain the only unbeaten side in the Premier League, but 5 draws from their opening 8 games have allowed a 5 point gap to open up between this blog's title tip and defending champions Chelsea. A slow start to the season, in itself, will not be cause for too much concern around Old Trafford - it is a well-known fact that United teams rarely hit their stride until after Christmas.

However, it is the nature of the performances which has surprised many seasoned observers of Manchester United this season. In particular, there has emerged a worrying propensity for allowing leads to slip away in matches - as illustrated against Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and West Brom. The fact that the draw last Saturday against West Brom was the first time in 10 years that United had been held at home after enjoying a two goal lead emphasises how out of sorts they have looked at the back.

The midfield area is another headache for Sir Alex Ferguson. The current side are certainly not lacking in energy, work rate and technical ability in the middle of the pitch, but there is an unhealthy dependence on the excellent but aging Paul Scholes to provide much needed guile and creativity. Darren Gibson and Michael Carrick are solid options, and Darren Fletcher is one of the Premier League's most improved players, but none of the above are equipped with the gifts to consistently unlock top level defences. Brazilian playmaker Anderson arrived at Old Trafford amid much fanfare in 2007, but a combination of injuries and inconsistency has meant that he has not been able to establish himself as the long-term solution.   

If the issues listed above pose significant problems for the United manager, Rooney's refusal to negotiate a new contract surely consitutes a crisis. There is no denying the fact that many of the difficulties which the 24 year old now faces in his career are of his own making. All players suffer through periods of bad form, particularly when recovering from injury, but United's talisman has been a shadow of the player who set European football alight last season. Distracted by the fallout from his own off-the-field indiscretions, Rooney appears unable to cope with the media glare which goes hand in hand with the celebrity status which he has actively courted. A nightmare World Cup has been followed with an almost unbroken sequence of tepid displays for club and country, and with the United striker's focus clearly not on his football, Sir Alex Ferguson has seen fit to step in.

The United manager has never felt duty bound to justify his management methods to the media, instead allowing his team's results to do the talking on the pitch. This attitude cannot be faulted for its effectiveness, but it does mean that it is almost impossible for outsiders to know exactly what is going on within the Manchester United squad - a fact which makes the sheer openness and honesty of today's press conference all the more surprising. However, it does appear clear in this case that Ferguson has limited his Rooney's first team appearances recently in order to allow him to get his life in order. After all, a return to last season's prolific scoring form would benefit United just as much as it would their star striker.

However, Rooney, it seems, sees things differently. He shares his manager's desire for a return to form, but the two are completely at odds on how to affect the change. The United striker believes that the best remedy for his frustration lies on the pitch, and that he can play his way back to his best. Consequently, he feels frozen out by Ferguson's refusal to consider him for the starting line-up, and by his manager's assertions to the media that he is carrying an ankle injury. By contradicting Ferguson's comments on his fitness whilst on England duty, Rooney was giving public notice of his opposition to his manager's methods. With his latest announcement, the United striker has completely alienated himself from a future with Manchester United.

There may, of course, be other motivations behind Rooney's refusal to negotiate a new contract at Old Trafford. One particularly cynical theory is that it is all about money. The latest reports are that United would be willing to offer their star striker £150,000 per week - making him the highest earner at the club. But Rooney knows that he could earn even more by moving to one of Spain's 'Big Two', and that Roman Abramovich would probably be more than willing to loosen Chelsea's purse strings in order to bring him to Stamford Bridge. And if he contemplated the unthinkable - a move to Manchester City - then Sheikh Mansour and his associates would essentially allow him to name his price. It is certain that Ferguson and the entire Old Trafford hierarchy are steadfastly opposed to such a deal, but with as little as 18 months left on his contract, Rooney would hold most of the cards.

Rooney may also be beginning to question the level of United's ambition. The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid was justified on many levels, and it was widely accepted that his Old Trafford career had come to an end. However, one can argue that in Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, United lost two world-class attacking players in the summer of 2009. Their replacements have been acquired on a modest budget, and are therefore somewhat inevitably not of the same quality. Last season, Rooney distinguished himself as the Red Devils' only genuinely world-class attacking player, on some occasions carrying Sir Alex Ferguson's side with 34 goals in all competitions.

New signings such as Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling are showing potential, but Rooney may be worried, and with some justification, about United's growing reliance on him to spearhead their challenge for major honours. He may also share the fans' concerns about the club's estimated £700m debt, and whether financial obligations will hinder the club's aspirations towards major trophies in the years to come. And as much as Rooney knows that Manchester United will never become mere also-rans in Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure, the question of how much longer the 68 year old Scot will go on in the Old Trafford hot seat is as pertinent as ever. Beyond Ferguson, United's future is far from certain.

But to an extent, the United manager will consider the reasons behind Wayne Rooney's decision to leave Manchester United to be no longer important. He has 'left the door open' for the 24 year old to change his mind, but must now plan to deal with the situation as it now is, not as it might become. Ferguson must find a way to prevent Rooney's discontent from impacting any further on the morale of the rest of the squad, whilst still ensuring that United can demand an attractive price for an in-form player come January. Re-introducing him into the first team may not now be an option, owing to the rough reception he will likely receive from the Old Trafford faithful. In any case, the constant speculation which will surround both Rooney and United in the coming months, combined with the absence of a key player from the side, will certainly not create a climate which is conducive to success on the pitch.

By publicly declaring his intention to leave, Wayne Rooney has driven a dagger into the heart of Manchester United's hopes of challenging for major honours this season. Sir Alex Ferguson will now have to use all of his experience and skill in order to stem the bleeding. 

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

'New' England look frustratingly familiar

Four months on from the debacle in South Africa, and disappointment once again reigns supreme in the minds of England fans everywhere. Convincing performances and results against Bulgaria and Switzerland had encouraged some to hint at a revival for the national team, but last night's frustrating draw at home to a gritty Montenegro side has placed such thoughts firmly into context. England were lethargic for large periods, and worryingly short of ideas as to how to break the resistance of stubborn but limited visitors. It was a performance which evoked memories of a summer best forgotten for the thousands of England fans who filled the seats at Wembley, and they duly made their dissatisfaction known at the final whistle. At best, last night's offering is indicative of the fact that Fabio Capello's men still have a long, hard way ahead of them on the road to redemption after the World Cup. At worst, we may now wonder whether they have even started on the journey at all.

First, lets start with the positives. Or rather, positive. There was genuine signs of progress on the wings, with Ashley Young and Adam Johnson catching the eye with their pace, trickery and willingness to commit defenders. The Manchester City wideman was a genuine live wire, providing England's likeliest source of a breakthrough in an otherwise tepid first half. He is the best homegrown player in the country on current form, and it is imperative that he plays every game on the right flank. Villa star Young still has to improve his final ball in an England shirt, but this will come naturally as he grows in confidence and experience. It can also be argued that the threat posed by both men was tempered by repeatedly having to cut inside, but as long as they are supported by overlapping full-backs and have people to link up with in the middle of the pitch, there are no problems.

England's tactical difficulties resulted from the fact that too much of the creative burden was placed on Young and Johnson. Steven Gerrard was the architect of his own poor performance, playing so deep in the midfield that he couldn't influence play in the final third of the field. Instead of moving forward to join up with Rooney and the wingers, the Liverpool captain and his midfield partner Gareth Barry acted as the footballing equivalent of quarterbacks, attempting 30 and 40 yard passes inside the opposition full-backs and into an isolated Peter Crouch.

Everyone knows that England's midfielders have a great passing range, but such a risky pass is unlikely to succeed more than a couple of times in a game. Moreover, by playing so many long passes, Gerrard and co. completely played into the hands of the big Montenegro defence, by eliminating their own technical advantage. It is no coincidence that England's best passages of play occurred in the second half, when Gerrard began charging into the opposition half as the hosts searched for a breakthrough.

Wayne Rooney, as so often recently, was an anonymous and frustrated figure up front. Almost inevitably, given his lack of first-team football with Manchester United of late, England's number 10 looked nowhere near sharp in and around the penalty area. Nor was Rooney's cause helped by Gerrard's deep-lying role in the first half, which forced him to repeatedly come deep in an attempt to influence the game, and led to him attempting a few 'Hollywood' passes himself.

There is no denying that the United frontman is far from his imperious best right now, but this would not be a national crisis were it not for the blunt reality that he is our only top level attacking player. It is impossible to expect Rooney to carry an otherwise unspectacular frontline in every England game, but this is precisely what England's striking situation dictates. When he is below par, our lack of alternatives is highlighted in stark terms.

Undoubtedly the most depressing aspect of last night's performance was the crippling lack of urgency and tempo which undermined whatever there was of England's good work, particularly in the first half. Given that every single member of the squad plays in the most high-tempo league in the world week-in, week-out, the source of the problem is difficult to understand. Top players are also naturally adept at finding space even when it is at a premium, and yet it was a lack of movement from England's Premier League stars which allowed Montenegro's defensive gameplan to work.

And work it certainly did. Aside from a couple of good chances for Rooney, and an early headed chance which Peter Crouch should have made more of, Montenegro were reasonably comfortable. No one can accuse their Croatian manager Zlatko Kranjcar of being over-ambitious with his tactical set-up, but his side showed the defensive discipline worthy of a point, and almost stole a victory with Milan Jovanovic's thunderous half-volley late on. That said, England should certainly have had a penalty for Jovanovic's blatant handball a few minutes earlier, but the strength of the protests from every corner of Wembley highlighted the desperation of the home side.

Fundamentally England were poor. But worse, they exhibited many of the same flaws which undermined any hopes of success in South Africa, in spite of claims by Capello and the FA that the results and performances against Bulgaria and Switzerland had illustrated that progress was being made. The result - a draw at home to Montenegro - is certainly not catastrophic for England's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012, although it has made a group which previously seemed straightforward now appear potentially awkward. The performance, however, has given no credence to the belief that the national team can achieve anything significant once they get there. It seems that we are as far as ever from troubling the world's best.    

Friday, 8 October 2010

Anfield boardroom antics cement legacy of failure

Liverpool fans could be forgiven for waking up in ambivalent mood this morning. For ultimately, the ill-fated reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett appears to be entering its final stages. But the civil war which has broken out in Anfield's corridors of power over the past few days, combined with the prospect of prolonged legal wrangling and possibly even administration to come, surely constitutes the lowest ebb of what already makes a strong claim to be the most traumatic period in the club's history.

When chairman Martin Broughton first announced that he and his fellow board members had agreed the sale of Liverpool Football Club to New England Sports Ventures, led by commodities tycoon John W. Henry, many among the Anfield faithful were understandably wary of their club falling victim to another mysterious 'Yank' who would view one of European football's giants as a nice little earner.

Many of these fears have subsequently been allayed, both by Broughton's insistence on the honourable nature of NESV's intentions, and by the American group's record of commercial and sporting success with Major League Baseball giants the Boston Red Sox. Consequently, those who originally greeted the takeover news with optimism have had their resolve strengthened, and many of the cynics are now of the view that any change of ownership would be a welcome one.

But under the leadership of Gillett and Hicks, Liverpool fans have grown accustomed to the fact that nothing is ever straightforward. With the sale apparently agreed, and public opinion firmly in favour of the proposed takeover, the scene was set for the beleaguered Americans to make their last stand. Outnumbered in the board room, they have taken the not-too-subtle approach of attempting to fire anyone who disagrees with them.

The motivation for their opposition is obvious: ever since officially confirming their intention to sell the club in April of this year, Hicks and Gillett have sought a profit on the price of just over £200m that they paid for Liverpool in 2007 - a just reward for what they view as the 'great work' done in that time, along with the considerable investment that they have both made. Originally set at £800m, their asking price has fallen to £600m as the threat of RBS has grown ever larger, but it has still been branded unrealistic by every serious investor who has shown an interest in the Anfield club. NESV's offer weighs in at just over £300m - enough to cover the £280m loan repayments to RBS and US bank Wachovia, but providing none of the return on the Amercian duo's original investment, estimated to be around £140m.

But while the reason for their opposition to the deal is clear, what the Americans hope to achieve through their drastic course of action is less so. Chairman Martin Broughton has claimed that it is a redundant move, since he received written guarantees, both that neither of the owners would hinder the acceptance of a 'reasonable' offer, and that only he could alter the make-up of the board, prior to assuming his post. It is unlikely that he would make such bold claims unless they were true, and that he possessed documentation which backed him unequivocally.

But even if Hicks and Gillett succeed in gaining a court action preventing the sale of Liverpool to NESV, they appear to be short of options. The idea of an Arab sheikh or Russian oligarch turning up at Anfield and agreeing to stump up the desired £600m is as much of a pipe-dream now as it was three months ago. Foolishness is not a quality usually associated with individuals of that level of wealth, and any fool can see that Liverpool football club is not worth £600m.

Despite relatively liberal investment in the playing squad at Anfield over the last three years, not even the most ardent supporter of Rafa Benitez can claim a significant improvement in this area. This argument is borne out by the fact that, the 'miracle of Istanbul' in 2005 aside, the absence of recent major silverware in the Reds trophy cabinet is as noticeable now as at any time in the last 20 years. But perhaps most importantly of all, the fact that a large expanse of land in Stanley Park still lies fallow makes it even more unlikely that any prospective buyer would be prepared to make such a huge initial outlay.  

In the improbable event that such a buyer did present himself, the fact remains that Hicks and Gillett could not be in a worse negotiating position. The deadline for the repayment of the £240m in loans and £40m in fees owed to RBS is set for 15th of October. The bank have already extended it once, and the signs are that they are unlikely to be willing to do so again - especially in the knowledge that the Americans have turned down several offers from suitors who could have guaranteed the repayment of the money.

In fact, RBS have made it clear that if the money is not repaid on time, they will seize control of Liverpool and sell it themselves. Not only would this deprive Hicks and Gillett of any return on their investment, but it would also send parent company Kop Holdings into administration, forcing the Premier League to deduct Liverpool 9 points and making the Reds' worse start to a league season for 57 years a hell of a lot worse.

Of course, Hicks and Gillett will not be losing much sleep over the potential ramifications of their decision for Liverpool, or for what remains of their reputation on Merseyside. No more than when they revealed in 2008 that they had consulted Jurgen Klinsmann about the prospect of replacing Rafa Benitez as manager behind the Spaniard's back, or when Tom Hick's son told a disillusioned fan where exactly he could stick his complaints.

It is remarkable, indeed almost admirable, how impervious they have been to the torrent of criticism and ill-will that has been directed towards them. But surely they will have detected that, even if they negotiate the various formidable obstacles which currently block their path to continued supremacy at Liverpool, their position will forever remain untenable with the fans. The negative matchday atmosphere at Anfield has been a huge - albeit not the only - factor in the poor start that Roy Hodgson's side has made to this season, and sporting success is rarely achieved against a backdrop of fan protests and boardroom in-fighting.

From a business and sporting perspective, the reign of Hicks and Gillett has been an unequivocal failure. Whether or not this week's events mark the beginning of a new dawn at Anfield, it seems now that the only guaranteed success resulting from the American duo's latest misguided choice is to ensure that they are even more hated in the red half of Merseyside.  

Monday, 4 October 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 2

Week 2 of the Champions League admittedly delivered little in the way of shocks, with most of the big guns passing the tests put in front of them and putting themselves in control of their respective groups. There was, however, plenty of excitement, individual skill and, most importantly, goals. Here is my take on the action.

Group A

Tottenham Hotspur 4 - 1 FC Twente

Tottenham built on their solid draw in Bremen in Week 1 with a convincing win at home against FC Twente. The game itself had a bit of everything - goals, exciting attacking football, bad defending, physical flash-points and penalties by the bucketload. To their credit, the Dutch champions never tried to 'do a Rangers' (as it's now known) and play for the draw with 11 men behind the ball, and their ambition helped make the first Champions League game at White Hart Lane an enthralling encounter. Moreover, having missed several good chances and given away three penalties, Twente boss Michel Preud'homme can be forgiven for thinking that the 4-1 scoreline was a little harsh on his side. On the pitch, it was quite a night for Spurs new boy Rafael Van der Vaart, who had a virtuoso performance both capped with a superbly taken goal and tainted by a missed penalty and late dismissal for two wayward and needless challenges. Nevertheless, Harry Redknapp will have been delighted with both a performance and a result which puts his team firmly in control of their own destiny in Group A. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane appeared to be electric, and having been treated to a fantastic spectacle, Spurs fans can only hope for more of the same in European nights to come.

Inter Milan 4 - 0 Werder Bremen

Last season, Samuel Eto'o effectively took a year out from being a world-class striker, willingly accepting a position on the right wing as Jose Mourinho's Inter cleaned up at home and abroad - effectively performing the role of a rich man's Dirk Kuyt. But restored to his preferred position against Werder Bremen on Wednesday in the absence of the injured Diego Milito, the Cameroonian once again showed the footballing world exactly what he is all about - pace, power, and clinical finishing. In addition to notching an extremely impressive hat-trick, Eto'o also turned provider for Wesley Sneijder to get on the scoresheet, with the 4-0 scoreline fully justified in light of the Italian side's dominance. As for Bremen,  much emphasis has been placed on the loss of World Cup star Mesut Ozil during the summer, but it is in defence that their current problems lie. Their backline was ruthlessly exposed as completely lacking in pace, and their attempts to play the offside trap were both tactically naive and poorly executed. The Germans now face a fight to make it out of Group A, but the Champions League holders won't have too many problems on this form.

Group B 

Schalke 2 - 0 Benfica

Benfica must have headed to Germany for Wednesday's game with high hopes of a result. After all, their hosts have endured a nightmare start to the Bundesliga season, languishing in the relegation zone after 7 games and failing to record a single home victory. Defeat in Lyon two weeks ago had also put Schalke on the back foot in Europe, but Felix Magath's side may just have kick-started their season with this hard-earned victory, thanks to goals from Jefferson Farfan and new boy Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The result means that qualification from Group B is now very much a three way battle, and it should be interesting to see exactly how it pans out.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 1 - 3 Lyon

Lyon cemented their place at the top of Group B with a solid win in Israel. The French side are still yet to reproduce the sort of form which guided them to the semi-finals of last year's tournament, but the poor quality of their opposition thus far has made it easy for them. Michel Bastos, who appears to be growing in stature at Stade Gerland, notched a well-taken brace to establish himself as one of the more surprising early names at the top of the tournament's scoring charts. Young playmaker Miralem Pjanic once again highlighted his potential with a well-taken third, and whilst tougher tests undoubtedly lie ahead for Lyon, maximum points from their first two games has given Claude Puel's side a great chance of progressing to the knockout stage as group winners.

Group C

Valencia 0 - 1 Manchester United

Javier Hernandez's predatory instincts snatched victory from the jaws of an uneventful stalemate for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Valencia, who have surprised many with an impressive start to life after Davids Villa and Silva, bossed the possession against a wasteful United midfield, but a lack of cutting edge in front of goal meant the hosts were unable to break down a resolute opposition defence which boasted both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for the first time this season. It was a safety-first performance from United, who appeared content to sit back and attempt to steal a goal on the counter-attack. Dimitar Berbatov, employed as a lone striker, exhibited flashes of brilliance but, on the whole, cut a lonely and isolated figure up front. The result, however, is all that matters, and victory at the Mestalla has more than compensated for the frustration felt by United fans against Rangers two weeks ago. Defeat at home is a blow for Valencia, but it is the head-to-head fixtures against the Scottish champions which will determine their fate in Group C.

Rangers 1 - 0 Bursaspor

Walter Smith's side edged a dreadful encounter at Ibrox thanks to a poacher's finish from Steven Naismith, despite Turkish champions Bursaspor having slightly the better of the game. Defeat marks the continuation of a tough initiation to the Champions League for the Turkish debutants, and makes the prospect of a third place finish and place in the Europa League look increasingly unlikely. For Rangers, victory keeps alive their hopes of qualification for the knockout stages, although tough trips to Spain and Turkey await.

Group D

Rubin Kazan 1 - 1 Barcelona

It was a tale of two penalties in Russia on Wednesday, as Rubin Kazan continued their excellent recent form against Barcelona in Europe's premier cup competition. Despite predictably dominating possession, the Spaniards failed to create enough chances against stubborn and disciplined opposition, and were made to pay when slack defending from Gerard Pique and a clumsy challenge by Dani Alves allowed Christian Noboa to beat Victor Valdes from the penalty spot. The pressure exerted by Pep Guardiola's side eventually afforded an opportunity for David Villa to equalise from 12 yards, but Barcelona had to be content with the point which their lacklustre display had merited. A decent result, then, for Rubin Kazan, but having lost to Copenhagen in Week 1, the Russian champions face a an uphill battle to make it through to the knockout stages.

Panathinaikos 0 - 2 Copenhagen

The Danish champions have perhaps been the surprise package of the Champions' League group stage thus far, and victory in Greece is perhaps an even more impressive result than the opening day win over Rubin Kazan. Dame N' Doye had scored the winner for Copenhagen in that game, and he gave his side the lead after breaking the Panathinaikos offside trap and avoiding a desperate charge from keeper Alexandros Tzorvas. Martin Vimgaard doubled the visitors' advantage with a powerful free-kick, leaving Copenhagen top of Group D with maximum points from their first two games. However, with home and away fixtures against Barcelona still to come, Stale Solbakken's side's passage into the knockout stages is far from assured.

Group E

Basel 1 - 2 Bayern Munich

Last year's Champions' League finalists kept up their solid start to this season's campaign with a comeback victory in Switzerland. It fell to Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the stars of the World Cup in South Africa and possibly the most German-looking German in history, to inspire the second-half show after Alex Frei had given the hosts the lead with a clinical finish. Bayern's defence is still a cause for concern, with Wednesday's stand-in centre-back Holger Badstuber failing to convince, and regular incumbents Van Buyten and Demichelis looking vulnerable to pace. But these flaws should not hinder the progression of Louis Van Gaal's side to the knockout stages in a relatively weak group. As for Basel, well, after two defeats in as many games, the Swiss champions have little more than pride to play for.

Roma 2 - 1 Cluj

Claudio Ranieri has been under enormous pressure so far this season, with his side suffering a poor start to the Serie A season and defeat to Bayern in Week 1 of the group stage. But recent results have gone a long way towards turning the situation around, with a last gasp victory over Rafa Benitez's Inter Milan followed by a crucial triumph over Cluj on Tuesday night. It took time for the hosts to break down the Romanian champions, but Philippe Mexes' strike, closely followed by a David Platt-esque volley by Marco Borriello, put the hosts in an unassailable position. The Italians still looked far too vulnerable for a side which harbours serious aspirations of both domestic and European success, but the confidence gained through this run of positive results could herald a turnaround in fortunes.

Group F

Chelsea 2 - 0 Marseille

The Blues barely had to break sweat as they eased aside French champions Marseille. A near post flick from John Terry and a nonchalant penalty from Nicolas Anelka sowed up the points inside half an hour, and despite the fact that the Blues' inclination to sit back on their lead allowed the visitors considerable possession after the interval, their lead never looked in serious danger. Towards the end Carlo Ancelotti's men pressed the action once more, with Michael Essien and Alex both testing the woodwork, but the game was already won. Chelsea look nailed on as winners of Group F, but Marseille could be in serious trouble, with no points on the board and with two trips to Eastern Europe to come.

Spartak Moscow 3 - 0 MSK Zilina

The Russians followed up their smash-and-grab win in the south of France by outclassing Slovakian champions MSK Zilina on Tuesday night. The victory had a strong Brazilian flavour to it, with Ari and Ibson scoring the goals which made sure of the points. Spartak now find themselves in an extremely strong position to progress from Group F, and will fancy their chances against both Chelsea and Marseille on their plastic pitch. As for Zilina, one can only hope that they're enjoying the experience.

Group G

Auxerre 0 - 1 Real Madrid

Europe be warned: Jose Mourinho's new team has already perfected the art of 'winning ugly'. Real were far from inspired against a mediocre Auxerre side, but a disciplined defensive display meant that substitute Angel Di Maria's well-executed volley was enough to secure the points. Obtaining maximum points from their first two games has also completely taken the pressure off the group clashes with AC Milan as far as Madrid are concerned, and once they find a way to ally finesse to their fighting spirit, the Spaniards will take some beating.

Ajax 1 - 1 Milan

A clash between two of European football's historical giants somewhat predictably ended in a respectable draw. A fantastic piece of skill from Mario Suarez, which left defensive legend Alessandro Nesta doing a passable impression of a startled deer, set up El Hamdoui's opener, but the script wouldn't have been complete without a Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal against the club where he made his name, and the gangly Swede duly obliged. Ajax will now look towards their clashes with Auxerre in order to secure a Europa League spot, whilst Milan's aging stars can begin to get ready for their glamour matches against Real Madrid.

Group H

Partizan Belgrade 1 - 3 Arsenal

Arsenal claimed an impressive victory in the intimidating surroundings of the Stadion FK Partizan on Tuesday night. Fears were initially raised as to whether the match would go ahead after a floodlight failure, and Partizan may well have been wishing it hadn't when Jack Wilshere brilliantly danced through the hosts' defence to set up Andriy Arshavin for the Gunners' opener. Hopes of an upset were raised when Cleo levelled from the penalty spot, but Arsenal's relatively unheralded aerial threat made sure of the points, with both Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci heading home. Lukasz Fabianski also had quite a good game, which means that talk of Arsenal needing a new goalkeeper will stop for about a week.

Braga 0 - 3 Shakhtar Donetsk

It was the Ukrainian champions' clinical streak which earned them the points in a deceptively even clash with Braga. Once again with an Eastern European side, it was the Brazilians who made the difference, with Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa bagging the goals. The result flies in the face of the perception that Shakhtar don't travel well in Europe, and they must now be the favourites to join Arsenal in the knockout stages. I don't have much to say about Braga's chances, but don't you think that their manager looks a little bit like Owen Hargreaves?