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, 30 November 2010

History beckons for Barca

The sky is the limit for this Barcelona side after last night's Madrid mauling

Greatness is a quality which is far too readily attributed these days, but last night's astonishing dismantling of  Real Madrid proves that Pep Guardiola's Barcelona are more than worthy.

Prior to Monday's match, there was speculation in many quarters - this blog included - that a Real Madrid which boasted the world's best tactician in Jose Mourinho and an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo might represent the biggest challenge to Barcelona's desire for domestic and European domination. 

As a result, it was thought, this particular El Clasico could be one of the most evenly-matched in recent memory.

How wrong we were. 

Instead of a contest for the ages, the 98,000 fans who packed out the Nou Camp witnessed a euphoric exhibition of the beautiful game as Pep Guardiola's men embarrassed their bitterest rivals and staked their claim to be considered one of the greatest club sides in history.

It is admittedly risky to bestow such lofty praise on any team on the basis of one performance - even one as majestic as this. But let's be clear: this assessment is not based on Monday night's showing alone. 

Barcelona have dominated European football for the last two years with this team, winning two La Liga titles and a Champions League. Were it not for Mourinho's 'beautiful defeat' with Inter last season, the Catalans would have been heavy favourites to defend their European title against Bayern Munich in the final.

Moreover, Pep Guardiola's side have done it all with a flair and style which has thrilled the neutral and established them as the entertainers of world football. But amid all of their victories and stunning play, it is the quality of this particular vanquished opposition which makes this performance so indicative of greatness.

Mourinho's Real came into El Clasico having swept all before them both domestically and in Europe. 

Unbeaten in all competitions, they led Barcelona by a point in La Liga and had breezed through to the knockout stages of the Champions League as group winners, with Cristiano Ronaldo enjoying the sort of form which re-ignited the 'Ronaldo or Messi?' debate.

But it was obvious from the first whistle that this expensively-assembled Madrid side had not faced anything like the blistering speed, unerring accuracy and creative movement which characterised Barca's play.

The collective genius of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi ensured that the majority of the game was played deep in the Real half, whilst the home side's suffocating high pressure made it impossible for the much-vaunted quartet of Ronaldo, Di Maria, Ozil and Benzema to have any impact.

In the second half, the visitors were reduced to chasing shadows. Mourinho, for all his tactical acumen, could do nothing to turn the tide, and Ronaldo, looking to upstage Messi in their own personal duel, could only watch on helplessly as the diminutive Argentine settled matters in his own inimitable way.

Ronaldo dejected as Messi confirms status as world's best player

Of course, the youthful nature of this Madrid side must be taken into account, coupled with the fact that Monday's clash comes very early in Mourinho's reign. 

But prior to the match, Real were rightly considered - along with Barcelona - the form team of world football, and it was eleven world-class names who were embarrassed at the Nou Camp.

Having so comprehensively dismantled their main rivals, it seems that the only team which can prevent Barcelona continuing their domination of the European game is Barcelona. 

The level of quality which Messi and co. have reached means that they are no longer simply playing for trophies - they are playing for a place in history.

We thought they were good. They're better than we thought.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The biggest match in the world - Part 1

When Barcelona and Real Madrid meet, it's always special. Two of the European game's historic giants, Barca and Real have dominated Spanish football for well over half a century. 

In Spain, the rivalry has social and political foundations as well, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, Franco's dictatorship, and their opposing status as symbols of Catalan and Spanish identity.

To the wider international footballing community, the enduring appeal of El Clasico comes down to the footballing pedigree of Barcelona and Real Madrid and, in particular, their continuing association with the world's best footballers.

Most of the all-time greats have, at some point, taken part in this fixture: Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo and Ronaldinho to name just a few. El Clasico's status as the fiercest rivalry in world football is open to debate, but it is without doubt the most glamorous.

And this year it's even bigger.

Thanks to the triumph of Spain's exceptional side in South Africa, there is likely to be at least ten world champions on the field at the Nou Camp this evening. Oh, and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

These two superstars are the greatest players of their generation: exceptionally gifted; able to change games almost on a whim; similar, and yet different, in so many ways. 

Messi is the scampering little wizard, shy and unassuming off the pitch, and yet able to ruthlessly dismantle even the best defences on it. Ronaldo is the prancing matador, blessed with extraordinary technical and physical qualities and an ego to match.

Both have been more than outshining the wealth of world-class names who take the field with them each week; they have been re-defining the boundaries of modern football with the sheer consistency of their excellence.

Messi has 70 goals in his last 71 games; Ronaldo, hampered by injury, has 52 goals from 54 games over the same period. Each motivated by the desire to win global acclaim, these two greats appear to be driving each other on to legendary status.

Tonight's titanic clash will see these two face off at the peak of their powers, and both will have a point to prove. Ronaldo hasn't scored against Barcelona in five attempts, and Messi has never scored or got an assist in seven games against a Jose Mourinho team.

Which brings us on to the other reason why this El Clasico is one of the most anticipated in history: Jose Mourinho. 

The 47-year-old has come a long way in the 14 years since joining Barcelona as Bobby Robson's assistant. Winning two European Cups and six league titles in three different countries, 'the Special One' has established himself as the greatest tactical coach in world football.

Mourinho has also been the curse of Barcelona several times, but never more so than in last year's Champions League semi-final with Inter Milan. The 'beautiful defeat' which he masterminded at the Nou Camp was the defining moment of the Italian giants' march to the trophy, and Mourinho will never be forgiven in Catalonia for depriving Barca of the chance to become Kings of Europe at the Bernebeu.

Mourinho's exceptional track record, combined with the fact that he revels in his reputation as Barcelona's bogeyman, made the brash Portuguese the automatic choice to oversee the second Galactico era at Real Madrid.

The fact that Mourinho is now in charge of Real is crucial to the credibility of El Clasico

Pep Guardiola's Barcelona are the most talented team in the world, and have beaten their Madrid rivals home and away in the last two seasons. Now they face the most talented coach in the world, and he has more than enough weapons at his disposal to end their dominance.

But just how good are Mourinho's Real? They lead La Liga by a point from Barcelona, having scored 33 goals and conceded just three, and have breezed through their Champions League group. 

However, their stiffest tests to date have been an aged Milan side and domestic also-rans Atletico Madrid and Espanyol. El Clasico will be the first real indicator of how close Madrid are to becoming a true Mourinho side.

One thing is for sure: this is more than just a game. Last season, Barcelona won La Liga by a point from Real, having won both of their head-to-head encounters. If Ronaldo and co. had but drawn one of those games, they would have been champions.

It's the importance, the uncertainty and, above all, the sheer quality which makes this fixture the event it is. 

So just sit back and enjoy the show.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 5

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: Spurs comfortable, Inter not

Tottenham are growing into the Champions League with every passing win, and offered up perhaps their most mature performance to date against Werder Bremen. 

If the triumph over Inter Milan three weeks ago was impressive for exhibiting the kind of sheer daring characteristic of underdogs, the controlled nature of victory over Bremen impressed in equal measure as proof that Spurs are just as comfortable shouldering the weight of expectation.

Incisive wingplay has been the recurring theme of Tottenham's European campaign thus far, and both Bale and Lennon were excellent again.  

From the moment Younes Kaboul steered home the latter's inviting comeback with only six minutes on the clock, the hosts never looked in danger. And in spite of a rare moment of generosity from Gareth Bale twelve yards from goal, their superiority was underlined by Luka Modric and Peter Crouch either side of the interval.

Harry Redknapp's side cannot, however, claim all the credit for the ease of their victory; their visitors were truly awful. 

Ever since suffering a thrashing at the hands of Inter on matchday two, Bremen have been a massive disappointment. A series of lacklustre displays from the Germans have ensured that what should have been a close group has been decided with a round to spare. They will not be missed.

But Spurs will not complain. They have secured qualification, and are now in pole position to secure a favourable draw in the knockout stages by topping Group A. Bale and co. have thus far been fantastic ambassadors for English football, and deserve all the credit likely to come their way.

Things are not quite so rosy for the 'Kings of Europe', however. Currently sixth in Serie A, Rafa Benitez is struggling to hang on to his job. Qualification from the Champions League group stage was surely a minimum requirement in the Spaniard's job spec and it has been achieved, albeit thanks to a laboured win over FC Twente at the San Siro. 

As ever, it was Wesley Sneijder who carried the main threat going forward, and it was the Dutchman's free kick which deflected into the path of a grateful Esteban Cambiasso to sweep home. 

But an otherwise unconvincing performance, coupled with Denny Landzaat's late strike against the bar for the visitors, meant that the overriding emotion at the final whistle was relief rather than euphoria. It shouldn't be this difficult for the European champions.

Nevertheless, Inter will feature in the knockout stages of this year's tournament, even if it must be as runners up in Group A. Whether Benitez will is another matter.

Group B: Schalke take control, Benfica implode

Opening day defeat in Lyon meant that Schalke had been playing catch-up until now, but an emphatic victory over the French giants in the return game has enabled Felix Magath's side to take control of Group B and book their place in the next round.

The Germans pressed their opponents high up the pitch from the start, and were quickly rewarded when Jefferson Farfan slotted home inside the first 15 minutes. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar doubled the advantage soon after, providing a clinical finish to a neat counter attack, and added a deflected third late on. 

The Dutchman has now scored 19 goals in 22 games for club and country this season, and a continuation of this form will surely be crucial in correcting Schalke's poor start to the Bundesliga season. They have, however, been the epitome of German efficiency in Europe and, with their place in the next round assured, can now focus their attentions on domestic affairs.

Lyon, for their part, were poor, and manager Claude Puel will rightly be angered that successive European defeats have all but consigned his team to Group B's runner-up slot after a faultless start. Perhaps the most stark evidence of Lyon's decline can be found in the fact that their qualification was ultimately assured not through their own efforts, but thanks to a Portuguese capitulation in Israel.

Benfica needed victory over whipping-boys Hapoel Tel Aviv in order to keep their knockout hopes alive. They failed spectacularly.

The Portuguese champions can rightly highlight their domination of both possession and chances as proof that they were unfortunate. They can also point to a bizarre episode in which Hapeol defender Bevan Fransman was booked for a foul in the box and yet no penalty was awarded and claim that the footballing fates just didn't favour them.

But to concede three goals to the group minnows is unforgivable in any circumstances, and Benfica deserve their Europa League fate.

Group C: Rooney returns and Bursaspor do something

Another much-hyped 'Battle of Britain' rather predictably turned out to be a damp squib, contested by a game but chronically-limited Rangers side and a Manchester United whose attacking instincts were somewhat tempered by the knowledge that they only needed a point to qualify.

The Ibrox atmosphere, tipped to be a significant factor before kick-off, was muted by the pragmatic approach of the home side in the face of vastly superior opposition. Rangers got the crowd going with a couple of half-chances, but are maddeningly short of ideas and quality going forward.

Wayne Rooney worked hard on his first start after his ankle injury/soul-searching/contract ploy-motivated absence, but he needn't have bothered - ultimately a twelve yard tap-in was all that was required for the 25-year-old to steal all the headlines, after Steven Naismith had executed a perfect flying kick to the face of Fabio/Rafael (honestly,I don't think even Ferguson knows).

In an otherwise tepid encounter, the best bit of movement all night came courtesy of the delirious United fan whose perfectly timed dash between the Ibrox stewards earned him a euphoric embrace with Wazza himself. Unbelievable tekkers.

In Spain, Valencia supplied the final blow to Rangers' hopes of qualification for the knockout stage by destroying   Bursaspor even more convincingly than they did in Turkey on matchday one. 

The hapless visitors did however manage to notch their first ever Champions League goal - the thinnest of silver linings in what has been a frankly terrible campaign. It was borderline offside, but you'd have to be positively Tory to want to take that away from them.

Group D: Barca thrill (again), Rubin keep the faith

Barcelona are so good at times it's unfair. Having bagged eight away at Almeria on the weekend, the Catalans barely broke sweat as they swatted aside Panathinaikos to confirm their status as group winners.

A brace from Pedro and yet another goal from Lionel Messi were sufficient for the Spanish champions to wrap up the points in Greece. The little Argentine maestro now has 70 goals in his last 71 games for Barcelona, and along with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, is re-defining what is considered possible in the modern game.

Pep Guardiola's side have won Group D at a canter, and can now turn all of their attentions to Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid - starting with Monday's Clasico.

In Russia, a solitary penalty on the stroke of half-time from captain Christian Noboa was enough to earn Rubin Kazan their victory over rivals FC Copenhagen and keep their hopes of progression to the knockout stages just about alive.

Despite the victory, the Danes remain in pole position to secure second spot with Rubin facing a trip to the Nou Camp in the final round of fixtures. But the Russians have won in Spain before, and with Barca already through, Copenhagen cannot afford to be complacent.

Group E: Roma resurrect and Cartu gets mad

It's a little known fact that ever since Claudio Ranieri gave up eating houmous around ten years ago, his teams have been unable to do things the easy way. 

Okay, so that may have been a flagrant lie, but it is true that for some reason drama, if not necessarily quality, appears to follow Roma around in the Champions League. 

Sensationally beaten at home by FC Basel on matchday three, the Italians were then forced to come from behind to win the return game in Switzerland. And on Tuesday night, only the mother of all fightbacks ensured that Ranieri's team now stand within touching distance of the knockout stages.

Louis Van Gaal's Bayern had little to play for in Rome, having already secured qualification three weeks ago. But their first half performance belied this fact, with Mario Gomez netting twice to take his tally to 14 goals in his last 10 games and give the hosts a mountain to climb.

But climb they did. Spurred on by the power and pace of Jeremy Menez down the flanks, goals from Borriello and Rossi levelled the scores, before Francesco Totti's late penalty just crept under stand-in keeper Thomas Kraft to win it. Almost in spite of themselves, Roma are now only a point away from booking their place in the next round.

In Switzerland, plucky FC Basel kept up the pressure on Ranieri's side with a hard-fought win over CFR Cluj, but all of the post-match talk centered around Sorin Cartu, manager of the Romanian champions. 

Watching his side's European campaign fall apart proved too much for the 55-year-old to bear, and the former Romanian international striker showed that he has lost none of his predatory instincts with a fierce assault on the perspex dugout wall. Cartu will no doubt claim that the wall provoked him in some way, but UEFA will investigate nevertheless.

Group F: Chelsea kids come good (sort of), Spartak ambushed

Carlo Ancelotti's decision to give youth a chance against minnows Zilina had mixed results as Chelsea did just enough to secure top spot in Group F.

The first half proved a frustrating experience for the Stamford Bridge faithful, as they watched a bunch of talented youngsters play, well, like a bunch of talented youngsters, with flashes of promise interspersed with silly mistakes. 

The Slovakians capitalised on the uncertainty with a well-worked goal, and for a short while it looked as though an almighty shock was on the cards. But after a half-time telling off, Chelsea exhibited a vast improvement in the second half, and goals from Daniel Sturridge and Florent Malouda were fully deserved.

For the Blues manager, the youth experiment produced decidedly mixed results. Josh McEachran showed poise and quality beyond his years in the midfield, while Sturridge and Van Aanholt also impressed. Jeffrey Bruma, however, justified Ancelotti's decision not to use him against Sunderland with a nervy display in defence, whilst Gael Kakuta had almost no impact on the game before being hauled off at half time.

An ostensibly meaningless game has produced much cause for thought for Ancelotti. For while Chelsea's first eleven is a match for anyone, the lack of a plan B on the bench could yet undermine their quest for a maiden Champions League triumph against top opposition.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Marseille avenged an opening day home defeat by giving Spartak a damn good thrashing on their own patch. 

The diminutive Mathieu Valbuena opened the scoring in the first half with a superb finish on the turn, and the hosts never regained their composure. Second half strikes from Loic Remy and Brandao added gloss to a scoreline which didn't flatter the French side in the slightest, and Spartak's misery was compounded by the petulant dismissal of Welliton.

The Europa League now beckons for Spartak, while Marseille can look forward to a glamour tie in the knockout stages.

Group G: Real give Ajax send off (x2), Milan job done

Real Madrid gave Ajax a controversial send off in Amsterdam - two, in fact - as they confirmed themselves as worthy group winners.

Both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos received their marching orders for time-wasting late on, meaning they will be suspended for a glorified friendly against Auxerre but conveniently return with a clean slate for the knockout stages. 

And of course, it was purely coincidental that Jose Mourinho was filmed passing a message to the duo via his coaching staff, Jerzy Dudek and Iker Casillas moments before the incident, and that neither player looked too put out at the prospect of an early bath.

UEFA have charged all five of them with improper conduct, which means that the Special One will probably be on the receiving end of an extremely angry letter from Michel Platini very soon. Whether Ramos and Alonso have their punishments extended remains to be seen.

Beneath all the controversy, there is actually an extremely impressive Real Madrid win to talk about. A clinical finish from Karim Benzema and a deflected swerving strike from Alvaro Arbeloa had already put Real into a commanding position, before Cristiano Ronaldo took his season's tally to 19 goals in as many games. He may be a prancing show pony, but he's without doubt the best prancing show pony on the planet.

In France, a measured performance from AC Milan was enough to see off a lacklustre Auxerre side and book the Italian giants' place in the knockout stages.

After a first half lacking in inspiration, Zlatan Ibrahimovic woke the crowd from their slumber by slamming the ball past a helpless Olivier Sorin from the edge of the area. Aside from the occasional dangerous set-piece, the hosts carried no real threat, and it was left to Ronaldinho to seal the points in injury time, rolling back the years with a jinking run and curling finish.

Milan may have done enough to qualify for the knockout stages, but their encounters with Real have proved that the trophy is far beyond them this year.

Group H: Gunners misfire, Shakhtar take advantage

Arsenal snatched defeat from the jaws of a draw in Portugal, as Owen Hargreaves' (pictured) Braga kept their own qualification hopes alive.

Against opponents who needed to win in order to maintain their hopes of second spot, it might have proved a wiser strategy for Arsene Wenger's side to sit back and attempt to hit their hosts on the counter attack. But Arsenal only know one way to play, and it usually involves discarding caution to the elements.

The Gunners' relentlessly attacking philosophy proved to be their downfall in the last ten minutes, as Brazilian striker Matheus twice capitalised on a lack of numbers in the Arsenal defence to race away on the counter and slot the ball past Fabianski.

Braga manager Owen Hargreaves (weren't you wondering why he hadn't played for United in a while?) deserves a great deal of credit for overseeing a run of three consecutive wins in Europe after opening their campaign with two heavy defeats, but their opportunity to qualify for the knockout stages remains small with a trip to the Ukraine lying ahead. The Europa League remains a more likely reward.

Arsenal now go into matchday six needing to win in order to qualify, but the situation is not as desperate as it sounds - Arsene Wenger's team would really have to go some, even by their own recent standards, in order to slip up against Partizan Belgrade, who are yet to claim a point in the group stage.

The real downside is that Arsenal will now most likely face a tougher draw in the knockout stages, having been all but condemned to the runner up spot in Group H by Shakhtar's victory over Partizan.

The Ukrainian champions took full advantage of the North Londoners' slip-up to put themselves in prime position to top Group H with a comfortable win over Partizan. 

Goals from Stepanenko, Jadson and Eduardo were enough to see off Partizan, who have offered literally nothing in the Champions League this year. And with Shakhtar's immense home record in Europe, it's hard to fancy either Braga or Arsenal to get what they want on the last day.

Alan Williamson once sang, 'There may be trouble ahead'. I don't know who he is, but Gunners fans may be inclined to believe him.  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Abramovich must not alienate Ancelotti

Ray Wilkins' sacking may prove the final straw for Ancelotti
Oh, how the mighty can fall. Barely a month ago, Chelsea were five points clear at the top of the Premier League, and looked like the only legitimate contenders for this year's title. Four games and three defeats later, and the defending champions have somehow contrived to blow the race wide open.

Viewed in isolation, this downturn in form could be seen as a problem rather than a crisis. Defeats away at Liverpool and especially at home to Sunderland were admittedly the inevitable result of poor team performances, but the Blues will consider themselves unlucky to lose at St Andrews last Saturday, having peppered Ben Foster's goal for well over an hour.

Moreover,  these reverses were suffered in the absence of key players such as Essien, Lampard and Terry. And despite recent setbacks, the West Londoners remain top of the Premier League courtesy of a superior goal difference, with plenty of games coming up providing the opportunity to rebuild their advantage.

But it is clear that the problems at Stamford Bridge run deeper than simply injuries and a run of bad results.

Rumours are rife that manager Carlo Ancelotti has been appalled at the ruthless manner of Ray Wilkins' sacking and the totalitarian way in which head scout Michael Emenalo was promoted to replace him, and that the Italian is now considering his future.

Ancelotti himself denied such reports at a scheduled press conference before the Champions League clash with MSK Zilina. But his comments to the media on Wilkins and Emenalo are indicative of a man who, rather than having an active role in directing club policy, is being compelled to tow the party line.

The 51-year-old has repeatedly asserted that neither Wilkins' dismissal nor Emenalo's promotion were his decision. Moreover, when he was pressed on his feelings towards the matter, the Italian simply stated: "I am not here to explain how I feel in this moment. I am a professional and I will continue to work." It appears to be a case of 'if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.'

Nor is there any reason to disbelieve Ancelotti when he claims that he was powerless to prevent the sacking of his assistant. For if the appointment of Jose Mourinho in June 2004 highlighted Roman Abramovich's burning desire for success, the swift sacking of 'the Special One' three years later indicated that the Blues owner's desire for unrivaled control of all things Chelsea was no less ardent. Ever since, the Russian billionaire has gradually become more and more hands-on in his approach to his 'toy'.

It was, in fact, for these precise reasons that Carlo Ancelotti was top of the list to succeed Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea in the first place. Having spent eight years in charge at AC Milan, Ancelotti was well used to the unique pressures of working for an overbearing employer in Silvio Berlusconi, and was consequently perfectly happy to be a head coach rather than a manager.

It was a perfect fit, and one which yielded immediate results.

Under Ancelotti's guidance, Chelsea ended Manchester United's three year dominance of the Premier League, and completed the first league-and-cup double in their history with victory over Portsmouth at Wembley. The former Milan man stated that he would  happily stay at Chelsea for ten years, and Blues fans dared to hope for a return to the stability which had been lacking since the departure of Mourinho.

But since then, things have begun to unravel. Abramovich's desire for a new age of financial prudence at Stamford Bridge - completely understandable considering the level of his investment to date - correctly saw over-paid, aging and expendable stars such as Ballack and Deco shown the door in the summer. However, the list of departures was considerably longer than the list of arrivals, and consequently Chelsea must now negotiate a difficult season with dangerously depleted resources.

This lack of squad depth was always likely to be exposed by the most competitive domestic league in the world, and the Blues appear a far less intimidating proposition minus the drive of Essien, the creativity of Lampard and the leadership of Terry. The onus is now on youth to provide a credible 'Plan B' when things are going wrong - something which the likes of McEachran, Bruma, Kakuta, Van Aanholt and Sturridge have so far failed to provide, despite their obvious promise.

A dearth of options threatens to derail Chelsea's ambitions on the pitch, but this pales into insignificance when compared to the tensions off the field which threaten to undermine all of the good work done at Stamford Bridge over the past twelve months.

Carlo Ancelotti may have been chosen for his willingness to cede control of various managerial responsibilities, but he has quite rightly not taken kindly to having the make-up of his technical team dictated to him - especially considering a trusted assistant has been unscrupulously removed to make way for a man with absolutely no coaching credentials whatsoever.

Roman Abramovich and Ron Gourlay may feel that Ray Wilkins' job was defunct and his wage excessive, but such arguments are, to a large extent, irrelevant. What is relevant is that Carlo Ancelotti certainly viewed Wilkins as having a necessary, and indeed crucial, role to play in the future development of his team.

By sacking Wilkins, the Chelsea hierarchy have put their relationship with their manager in the balance, and this is a huge risk to take. There are not many other, if any, world-class coaches who would tolerate the level of bureaucratic interference that Ancelotti does. If he goes, a viable replacement would not be readily available, and all of the stability built up in the Italian's reign would be lost.

After years of faithful service, the manner of Ray Wilkins' departure has left a sour taste. Roman Abramovich must now ensure that the Carlo Ancelotti era does not suffer a similar fate.  

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Holloway fury justified

Will Holloway make himself a martyr for managers everywhere?
Precedents are important. Held up as the definitive and recommended way of dealing with a novel situation, they are vital in the regulation of any industry or collective, ensuring that all parties are dealt with in a consistent and (hopefully) fair manner.

But precedents are also dangerous when slavishly adhered to. They can make regulation automatic, inflexible, impervious to the occasionally pertinent contribution of valuable human qualities - namely, common sense.

In February of this year, Mick McCarthy was charged by the Premier League for making 10 changes to his side for a trip to Old Trafford. They lost 3-0, and whilst McCarthy initially defended his team selection, he ultimately did not challenge the suspended fine of £25,000 imposed on the club. 'It has set a precedent and I've accepted it,' he stated.

But what kind of precedent did it set? Primarily that the Premier League would never tolerate what it considered to be a manager effectively throwing in the towel and protecting his key players from a game which he did not believe he could win. 

However, the ruling also implied that the Premier League considers itself entitled to interfere with managerial team selection if it doesn't agree with the manager's choice. Whether he privately agreed with it or not, when McCarthy accepted his punishment, he also accepted his job being dictated to him.

By fining Wolves, the Premier League committed themselves to punishing any manager who fields anything other than what they consider to be his strongest available side. This was always going to put them on a collision course with a manager who refused to have his authority undermined in such a way.

Step forward Ian Holloway.

The charismatic 47-year-old has done a fantastic job with Blackpool, last year leading one of England's grand old clubs back into the top-flight after a 40 year absence. This season, the Seasiders have beaten Liverpool at Anfield, drawn with Everton and given Manchester City's millionaires absolute hell in a 3-2 defeat. Moreover, they have done it all by playing a gutsy, open and attacking style of play which has made them one of the most entertaining teams in the league.

Blackpool's 3-2 defeat against Aston Villa last Wednesday was no exception. Having twice shown great resilience to fight back from a goal down against strong opponents, Holloway's men were a minute away from earning a creditable point when James Collins headed in a late winner. 

In fact, the only thing which distinguished this particular Blackpool performance from so many others this year is that it was achieved with 10 new faces from the game against Everton the previous Saturday. And this is where the problem lies.

Despite Blackpool's valiant efforts at Villa Park, the Premier League feels compelled by last year's treatment of Wolves to investigate Ian Holloway's team selection for the game. But where Mick McCarthy took his punishment lying down, Holloway is determined not to go quietly.

The Blackpool manager was riled after the game by media suggestions that he could be fined, and threatened to resign if the Premier League took any action against him. 'I'm not having anyone telling me who I can play. My chairman doesn't do it, so why should the Premier League?'

Holloway's reaction to much of the media after the game was misguided, as he misunderstood the tone in which these questions were being asked. Journalists were simply raising the issue of team selection, not imposing unfair judgment on him and his players. His responses did nothing to engender goodwill or sympathy.

But nevertheless he had a point. The Premier League has no place questioning the team selection of a manager whose team gave as much as Blackpool did at Villa Park. 

And if they really are concerned about clubs playing their strongest XIs for every match to maintain the 'integrity' of the competition, why were Liverpool not punished for resting key players at the end of the 2007 season with a Champions League final imminent? Their actions certainly had an impact on the relegation battle, as the three points gained by Fulham over a weakened Reds side at Craven Cottage in May enabled them to stay up by a single point.

The Premier League has a justifiable concern that, in a sheer act of desperation to stay in the top-flight, clubs near the bottom could decide to 'write off' a match against one of the top clubs in order to concentrate on matches with their direct rivals. This was the implied reasoning behind Mick McCarthy's team selection at Old Trafford, and his punishment was viewed as a 'deterrent' to other similar-minded managers.

But it is clear that Ian Holloway is not a similar-minded manager. Every player which he has sent out this season has shown 100% commitment to the cause, and a manager with his limited resources is not afforded the luxury of giving up on any match. Blackpool need every point they can get.

It is uncertain whether Holloway actually intends to make good on his threat to resign if charged, but the Premier League should be reluctant to take that risk. If he did walk away, the powers that be would be making him a martyr for managerial authority, and this could well lead to a grave backlash from all corners of the English game.

As the governing body of the top-flight in England, the Premier League has many important duties to fulfill. Telling managers how to do their jobs is not one of them. They would be well advised to think twice before automatically adhering to the precedent set last February.