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.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Welsh collapse tempers England praise

Bent's goal wrapped up the points for England after 14 minutes
It was confident. It was clinical. It was frustratingly unfulfilling.

There was much to commend about England's win at a sell-out Millennium Stadium on Saturday. The likes of Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Scott Parker all showed signs that they are finally feeling at home wearing the three lions, while Jack Wilshere offered further proof that he is not merely the future of the national team, but rather a key part of its present.

John Terry produced the kind of dominant and uncompromising display which lended weight to the arguments of both those who agree with Capello's decison to reinstate him as captain and those (like myself) who are of the view that he should never have been parted from the armband in the first place.

Capello's experimental 4-3-3 formation was also a pretty unqualified success, thanks in large part to prudent choice of personnel - the discipline of Parker allowed the more creative instincts of Wilshere to roam unchecked, while the attacking disposition of full-backs Cole and Johnson ensured England never lacked for width.

Above all, it was the steely resolve with which England took to their task in the opening moments which most impressed. In an intensely hostile atmosphere rife for intimidation, the visitors remained unbowed, and ruthlessly dispatched their opponents inside the first 15 minutes.

From the moment Darren Bent followed Frank Lampard's confidently taken penalty by sweeping home Ashley Young's cross, England never looked anything other than home and dry. The intensity among the players dropped off as they sensed victory; an instinct for self-preservation emerging as some of the Premier League's big names took the opportunity to conserve energy for crucial club battles ahead.

The only bum note struck from then on was the stupid booking picked up by Wayne Rooney for a needless foul on Joe Ledley, which rules him out of Switzerland's visit to Wembley in June.

But even that may eventually play out to England's advantage, for Capello will fancy his side's chances of seeing off the uninspired Swiss even without his star man, and suspension may grant Rooney the summer break he seemingly needs to emerge fit and firing from the most frustrating twelve months of his career to date.

After the bright opening in which the game was won, it was, in essence, a walk in the park for England. And that is the problem.

For the bottom line, harsh though it is, is this: England won convincingly and impressively, but against an opposition who were so passive, so toothless, so devoid of quality of any kind that it rendered the achievement almost insignificant. But it could have been so different. 

Gary Speed's young Wales team had a rare opportunity on Saturday. It was not simply a matter of pouring misery on 'the old enemy' in front of legions of their countrymen and heaping the pressure on Fabio Capello at the end of a week in which his stock had fallen even further with his ham-fisted treatment of the captaincy saga.

It was a matter of reassuring the Welsh fans after a disastrous start to Euro 2012 qualification that there is, after all, reason to be optimistic for the future of their national team.

It was a test which should have been a cause for Welsh inspiration; instead, it bred self-destruction - first through James Collins' clumsy hack on Ashley Young after the big centre-half had been caught badly out of position, and then through defensive organisation which wouldn't have looked out of place on the school playground as Darren Bent gleefully tapped home his third - and simplest - international goal.

Aaron Ramsey looked overburdened by the responsibility of captaincy in what remains early days after his horrific leg break last year. A bad combination of ring-rusty and overly-ambitious in possession, he toiled gamely throughout, but to no avail. There is little doubt the 20-year-old will grow into his new role, but a home nations grudge match against England was always likely to prove a baptism of fire.

And while much was made pre-match about the absence of Gareth Bale through injury, it is unlikely that Spurs' flying winger would have been able to significantly affect its outcome, no matter how devastating he has looked this season. That he would have significantly enhanced the threat of the Welsh attack is undoubted, but must also be tempered with the knowledge that the defence would have been no less porous in the face of English pressure.

If Gary Speed was under any illusions as to the size of the task facing him with the Welsh national team, he is perfectly aware now.

Out-thought, out-fought and out-played in each of their first four group matches and with their dreams of qualification already dead, the 41-year-old must now rebuild this young team's fragile confidence and try to create a new mood of optimism in the group before the race for Brazil 2014 begins. On recent evidence, it will be a long, hard road.

There is of course, the argument that England forced their opponents to play badly through superior organisation, pressure, and work rate. It is has an element of truth to it.

But Wales are a team ranked 116th in the world by FIFA. They had lost their opening three qualification games prior to Saturday's clash, and their starting XI was one which, aside from a few notable exceptions, consisted of players plying their trade in the football league. Such a team would require no great encouragement to play badly from the group of established Premier League names Fabio Capello was able to field. And, as it turned out, they didn't.

Victory at the Millennium Stadium, and the manner in which it was achieved, does not even consitute the best performance of England's qualification run thus far. Both the demolition of Bulgaria at Wembley last September and the triumph over Switzerland in Basel four days later were more comprehensive scorelines over teams vastly superior to Wales.

Those results failed to capture the public imagination for two reasons: firstly, because the games followed hot on the heels of the disappointment of South Africa and were achieved by largely the same team which had been responsible for it; and secondly, because any progress thought to have been made in those matches was quickly exposed as another false dawn by frustrating stalemate at home to Montenegro a month later, followed by a friendly defeat to France which was far more comprehensive than the 1-2 scoreline suggested.

Of course, there is plenty to suggest genuine progress is being made this time. Half the players in the squad Capello picked to face Wales were not involved at the World Cup.

Moreover, these new faces have not just been included to make up the numbers - Hart, Dawson, Wilshere, Young and Bent are making compelling arguments to become permanent components of the spine of the team, and it is to be hoped that the likes of Parker, Carroll and Adam Johnson can go on to do the same in the coming weeks and months.

But it is frustrating that Fabio Capello's brave new faces were not significantly tested on Saturday, and that the match could not tell us anything substantial about whether they or the tactics employed could work against more formidable opposition.

Perhaps Ghana at Wembley on Tuesday, friendly though it is, will provide a better indicator. What is certain, however, is that sterner examinations must be passed by Capello and his men if England fans are truly to be convinced that better times lie ahead.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Champions League battle lines drawn

The Champions League quarter final draw conjured some intriguing ties
After all the backslapping, lovingly artful montages and tired you-have-all-earned-the-right-to-be-here-but-there-are-no-easy-matches-at-this-stage clich├ęs had finally been dispensed with, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino welcomed Gary Lineker on stage at the organisation's lush headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, and got on with the business at hand.

The representatives of each of the remaining eight clubs in this year's Champions League looked on with baited breath, waiting to find out exactly what will be required if they are to emerge victorious at Wembley in May.

Now they know. As for the draw itself, it may have been a while in coming, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Both Ferguson and Ancelotti are looking for their third Champions League triumph
First up, its Chelsea versus Manchester United in a tie which is pure box office. Not only is it a rematch of the epic 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, it is also a duel between two genuine powerhouses who have, between them, dominated English football for the past six years.

Both sides will feel entitled to fancy their chances. United have been victorious on each of the previous four occasions they have been drawn against English opposition in the Champions League, and there are few coaches quite as experienced in Europe’s premier club competition as Sir Alex Ferguson.

But in Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea can also boast a manager with considerable European pedigree. Roman Abramovich brought the 51-year-old Italian to Stamford Bridge 18 months ago primarily in the hope that Champions League success would soon follow.

That hope was dashed by Mourinho’s Inter last year, but victory over United in the league earlier this month has spread cautious optimism throughout the Chelsea ranks that Wayne Rooney and co. will not be the ones to end their European dreams this time around.

If Chelsea are to see off the threat of United, it will have to be without January arrival David Luiz, the star of that league win and the man who incurred Sir Alex Ferguson’s wrath for his unpunished manhandling of Wayne Rooney, as the fuzzy-haired Brazilian is not eligible to participate in the remainder of the Blues’ Champions League campaign.

However, potentially even more decisive for the outcome of the tie are the absentees in United’s defensive ranks.

The success which has enabled Ferguson’s latest generation to lavish an impressive collection of trophies upon the already creaking trophy cabinet at Old Trafford over the last four years has invariably had the imperious defensive partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic at its foundations.
This season, with the England captain struggling with persistent injury problems, it has fallen to Vidic to assume the sole responsibility of marshalling the Red Devils backline. It is a challenge he has risen to magnificently, putting in consistently match-saving performances as an infrequently convincing United have fought to maintain their place at the head of the Premier League title race.

All of which makes the inspirational Serb’s potential absence from the first leg at Stamford Bridge through injury a grave concern for Sir Alex. With Rafael and John O’Shea also out, United’s likely alternative – the promising but inexperienced pairing of Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans at centre-back and Wes Brown guarding the right flank – is not likely to intimidate even Chelsea’s misfiring attack.       

If Vidic does not take to the field at Stamford Bridge on 6th April, Chelsea will have an invaluable opportunity to take a big step towards the Champions League semi-finals. That said, Carlo Ancelotti’s men will have to overcome themselves before they can defeat their illustrious opponents.

Only in the last few weeks have the green shoots of recovery started to emerge in West London, after three months of relegation form which all but eliminated the possibility that the Premier League’s current champions will still be so come May. But despite recent signs of improvement, the Blues are still a long way from what will be required if they are to finally claim the trophy their owner so desperately desires.

One thing is certain: Chelsea’s revival needs to be swift. There is no hiding from the fact that Manchester United usually win at home when it really matters, and so Ancelotti’s side will likely not be able to settle for anything less than a victory in the first leg. If Ferguson’s men are able to take a positive result or an away goal back to Manchester, they will fancy their chances of seeing off their rivals while being roared on by a capacity Old Trafford crowd.

In any case, the team which emerges victorious from the tie will surely fancy their chances of featuring at Wembley in May, having been drawn to face the winner of Inter and Schalke in the semi-finals.

Inter Milan are the likely opponents for Chelsea or United in the semi-finals
The Italian giants have surely used up their allotment of fortune in defeating Bayern Munich in what was arguably the outstanding match of the last round. To their credit, Leonardo’s players also showed great resilience to come back against the Bundesliga champions after a first half in which they conceded enough chances to lose several matches.

This Inter are, however, simply not the same team as the one which swept all before them last season under Mourinho, even though most of those players remain. They are rightly favoured to defeat Schalke over two legs and advance to the semi-finals, but unless drastic improvements are made, both Chelsea and United would likely have the measure of the Serie A champions.

In fact, Inter's defensive vulnerability is such an issue that it would be foolish to rule Schalke out, and the Germans' impressive dispatching of an in-form Valencia side in the last round is proof enough of their capability to cause an upset.

But the Gelsenkirchen-based club appear to be in a state of crisis. Their wonderful achievements in Europe represent the only positive in an otherwise disappointing campaign which currently sees them languishing in 10th in the Bundesliga. 

Coach Felix Magath has already paid for this underachievement with his job, and although there is likely to be a new man in charge by the time the quarter-finals commence, the gut feeling is that Schalke may well find themselves out of their depth against the reigning European champions.

Rafael Van der Vaart will face former club Real Madrid in the quarter-finals
While it was the meeting of Chelsea and Manchester United which has got the most column inches in the national newspapers, it is the prospect of Tottenham facing up against Real Madrid which arguably does more to excite the imagination. 

Harry Redknapp's side are statistically the most exciting team to watch in the Champions League this year - there were, on average, five goals in each of their matches in the group stage - and although they showed a more conservative side against AC Milan in the last round, any team with Modric, Bale and Van der Vaart in its ranks will have no shortage of attacking intent. 

Spurs' impressive feat in claiming the scalps of both Milan giants also shows that, while this may be their first ever campaign in the Champions League, they are not intimidated or overawed by big names or reputations. It is a quality they will need again in spades - for as reputations go, they don't come bigger than Real Madrid. 

By pairing two of the most attack-minded teams left in the tournament, the the quarter-final draw has set up a mouthwatering new chapter in Tottenham's European adventure. It has also set up comfortably their stiffest test so far. 

Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid are an outstanding side. Prior to their 5-0 mauling at the hands of Barcelona, they were widely regarded as the second best football team on the planet. And although the praise has been slightly more reserved since then, Real remain a team consisting of world class players almost in every position, directed by the greatest tactician in the game. 

But they are far from invincible. For while the centre-back pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe has remained largely solid this term, the latter is occasionally prone to positional errors and bouts of indiscipline. Then there is also the fact that full-backs Marcelo and Sergio Ramos, for all the attacking threat they carry down the flanks, can occasionally be caught out defensively - a weakness which Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon will surely look to exploit. 

Madrid are also, somewhat inevitably, over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar has scored an astonishing 37 goals and chalked up 12 assists in 42 appearances this season, but a hamstring injury threatens to keep him out of the first leg at the Santiago Bernebeu on 5th April. 

Ronaldo's absence could be crucial to Spurs' hopes of ensuring the tie is still alive when Real come to North London two weeks later. If they succeed in doing so, expect White Hart Lane to be rocking in anticipation of another great European night.

Even in the event that Harry Redknapp manages to best Mourinho - something he has so far failed to do in five attempts - Spurs' path to the final is likely to be blocked by the beautiful yet devastating presence of Barcelona. Well, unless Shakhtar Donetsk can achieve the mother of all upsets.

Are Shakhtar the team to derail the Barcelona juggernaut?
The Ukrainian champions are the ones unlucky enough to be facing the "side to avoid" in Friday's draw. But it may be surprising to learn that Pep Guardiola and his "dream team" are not overly keen on the prospect of facing Shakhtar either.

You see, Mircea Lucescu's men have previous with the Catalans. Paired together in the group stage of the 2008/9 tournament, Barca were made to work incredibly hard for a controversial win in the Ukraine before Shakhtar claimed a shock win in the Nou Camp. And, given that the personnel on both sides has changed little in the last two years, you can see why the La Liga champions are fearful of history repeating itself.

A two-legged tussle against Shakhtar entails a long and arduous trip to Eastern Europe and back for Barca, just at the moment when big games are coming thick and fast for them. Not to mention the fact that the Ukrainians are approaching the tie fresh from a pre-season break, whilst their opponents have been playing high-intensity football for over six months.

The caveat to all of this, of course, is that we must remember just how good Barcelona are. Shakhtar must journey to Spain for the first leg of the tie, and will have to travel better than they did against Arsenal in the group stage, when they were soundly thrashed 5-1. Messi and co. are more than capable of blowing Lucescu's team away at the Nou Camp and making the second leg a dead rubber.

But if they don't, things may just get interesting.