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.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Brilliant Barcelona join football's pantheon

It was the final we all wanted: the champions of Europe's two strongest leagues meeting at one of football's most spectacular venues to determine the cream of the continent.

We were assured of a contest for the ages. Manchester United vowed they had learned from humiliation in Rome two years ago, while Barcelona insisted that victory in 2009 had not showcased the peak of their powers.

The level of quality on show, coupled with the presence of dominating, attacking football as a core principle within the proud traditions of both clubs would guarantee, we thought, a competitive match on the biggest stage of them all. 

But, alas, it was not to be.

What transpired instead resembled something more like a sporting apotheosis, as through the devastating beauty of their play Pep Guardiola's exceptional side transcended the boundaries of mere excellence and staked an irrefutable claim for the current Barcelona vintage to be considered among the pantheon of the game's all time greats.

Moreover, the reality that such an outcome was not due to the faults of their opposition only amplifies the Catalans' achievement. For make no mistake, United tried their best to meet them on equal terms. 

The likes of Park, Giggs, Valencia and Hernandez, so influential in wrapping up the Premier League title, were again trusted to deliver on the big occasion, and immediately set about preventing the Spanish giants from getting into their mesmerising rhythm with typical zeal and endeavour.

For the first ten minutes, the ploy worked, and United were even able to pin their opponents back as they cautiously looked for a way to test Victor Valdes. But as soon as Barcelona began to warm to the task at hand, the gulf in class became evident.

The lethal quintet of Messi, Villa, Pedro, Iniesta and Dani Alves eagerly swarmed all over the scrambling United backline with Xavi, imperious as ever, conducting proceedings from deep. 

Sir Alex Ferguson's side looked in trouble long before the midfield maestro found Pedro with a sublimely-timed flick of his right boot and the young winger outwitted the despairing duo of Vidic and Van Der Sar with a clinical near post finish.

This United side have been accused on many occasions this season of compensating for a lack of fantasy with an abundance of resilience, but in their response to going behind both qualities were present in spades. 

Wayne Rooney's forceful but controlled finish following a rapid-fire exchange of passes with first Michael Carrick and then Ryan Giggs contained within it a level of craft which would not look out of place on the hallowed fields surrounding La Masia. 

At such a moment, the red half of Manchester may have allowed itself to believe once again that the force of destiny was with them. At the very least, their team had done more than in Rome in 2009: they had asked a question of Barcelona.

The Catalan response was emphatic. Rooney's strike proved nothing more than a spectacular anomaly in an otherwise uninterrupted pattern of suffocating Barcelona pressure, and it did not take long for the irrepressible genius of Lionel Messi, the world's best player, to finally make its mark on English soil.

As the beleaguered trio of Park, Carrick and Giggs found itself completely in the thrall of Barcelona's midfield passing carousel, Messi found himself 25 yards from goal with the United defence at his mercy.

The diminutive Argentine took his chance brilliantly, curling a venomous low short with minimal backlift around the prone Nemanja Vidic and towards goal. Van Der Sar was still diving when the ball hit the net.

It is a measure of the formidable winning mentality fostered so expertly by Ferguson that United's natural instinct was to attempt to pour forward in search of another equaliser, but Barca were by now in no mood to allow their opponents such an opportunity.

Instead the Catalans attacked with even greater vigour, appearently seized by the desire to make the scoreline reflect their utter dominance. They quickly got their wish, David Villa brilliantly curling the ball into the top corner to put the result beyond doubt.

Although they were not overawed as in 2009, United were no less overwhelmed by Barcelona, and the Spaniards third goal did what few, if any, have ever succeeded in doing to a team of men from Old Trafford: it broke their resolve.

In the last twenty minutes, Pep Guardiola's side dimmed their attacking ambitions but still held the Premier League champions at arms length with ease, defending, as they do so well, with the ball.

As the final whistle blew at Wembley to rubber-stamp Barcelona's fourth European Cup triumph at the place where it all started for them in 1992, many of those who witnessed the match were left wondering if they had ever seen a more dominant performance in the final of the continent's premier club competition.

The response, almost unanimously, will have been no, and in the answering of this question alone the greatness of this Barcelona team becomes clear. But for any who remain unconvinced, there is further evidence to back up the case.

In the last three seasons, Pep Guardiola's side have won 10 of the 13 tournaments they have entered. This astonishing trophy haul includes three consecutive La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a World Club Championship. It is their results as much as the beauty of their methods which makes this exceptional group worthy of a place among the greatest club sides in history.

But perhaps the ultimate proof of the greatness of this Barcelona side can be found in the way other top teams approach the task of facing them.

Pep Guardiola's side alter their methods for no one, whereas even illustrious opponents such as Manchester United and Real Madrid are forced to focus their efforts on stifling the Catalans, accepting that any attempt to impose themselves will result in disaster.

And more often than not, as this season has proved, they still lose. There is no other side in recent memory - possibly ever - which has provoked such fear, and so justifiably, in its rivals.

When Barcelona demolished Real Madrid 5-0 in the Clasico last November, I claimed that Pep Guardiola's side were knocking on the door of history. On Saturday at Wembley, they crossed the threshold. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

2010/11 Season Review Part 1: Premier League Predictions

And so, 10 months and 380 matches later, the Premier League season has come to a close. We've had everything: goals, comedy, drama, controversy - and that was just Mario Balotelli.

While this season may have been less than vintage in terms of the quality at the top (although the revisionist pundits will go into overdrive if Manchester United manage to see off Barcelona on Saturday), it can rival any in the Premier League era for sheer unpredictability. 

Ok, so the title 'race' may have ultimately resembled more of a procession towards Old Trafford, and there may have been no surprise entries in the top six, but this year's relegation battle was one of the most dramatic and open in recent memory, with six teams going into the final round of matches still not assured of safety.

And despite the fact that Manchester United ultimately won their record 19th league title fairly easily, they still finished with the lowest points tally of any Premier League champions for a decade. 

None of the top teams looked invincible this year - United were vulnerable on their travels, Chelsea went on holiday for the best part of three months, Manchester City were too negative and Arsenal were, well, Arsenal.

All of which means I wasn't exactly confident when it came to reviewing how my start of season predictions had measured up. It actually turns out I haven't done too badly, although there were also a couple of glaring misjudgments which had the voice of hindsight cackling smugly in the back of my head. Have a look below and see what I mean...

1st - Manchester United (My prediction: 1st)

It was United's superior squad depth, combined with a greater hunger and resilience, which ultimately saw off Chelsea and brought a record 19th title to Old Trafford. 

That it was achieved in spite of Wayne Rooney's horrific start to the season and Rio Ferdinand's persistent injury problems may well make it one of the sweetest for Sir Alex Ferguson too. 

Chris Smalling and twins Fabio and Rafael showed signs they may be stars of the future, while the astonishing Javier Hernandez must be regarded as a star of the present. 

And when the chips were down, the experience and quality of Van Der Sar, Vidic and Giggs enabled United to stand up and be counted. Worthy champions.

2nd - Chelsea (My prediction: 2nd)

Chelsea never even got close to matching last season's double-winning exploits in a frustrating season. 

Attempting to challenge on several fronts with a razor thin squad comprising ageing stars and raw youngsters was never likely to end well, and the mysterious sacking of Ray Wilkins, combined with injuries to the key duo of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, marked the beginning of a dramatic slide out of the title picture.

A belated £70million January deadline day transfer spree failed to reignite a stuttering campaign, and the Blues were comfortably seen off by United in both the Premier League and Champions League. 

Marquee signing Fernando Torres looks just as disinterested and off the pace as he did at Liverpool, and only time will tell whether the Spaniard will ever justify his lofty price tag.

The Chelsea squad needs a major overhaul this summer, but the fact that Carlo Ancelotti has now been ruthlessly dismissed, and the club once again plunged into a state of flux, does not bode well for next season. 

3rd - Manchester City (My prediction: 4th)

That Manchester City ultimately finished above Arsenal and, indeed, level on points with Chelsea, says more about the late-season deficiencies of the two London clubs than the class of Roberto Mancini's men.

They certainly deserve their place in the top four, and appeared to grow in confidence as the season went on, but there remains the nagging feeling that this was a 'good' season which could have been 'great', if only Mancini had been brave enough to take the handbrake off his team and challenge the top two.

Not, of course, that City fans will be complaining, and nor should they. A third place finish means they avoid a potentially tricky Champions League qualifier, and victory over Stoke at Wembley gave the club a first trophy in 35 years.

Next season promises much for Old Trafford's 'noisy neighbours'. It will be up to Mancini to deliver.

4th - Arsenal (My prediction: 3rd)

Arsenal continue to be the architects of their own downfall. Once again, a season which appeared so promising fell apart after Easter, and serious questions have been raised as to whether this current Gunners crop possesses the mental strength to end the club's trophy drought, now six years and counting.

This season's Carling Cup should have been the perfect moment for the club to get that particular monkey off it's back, but instead a shocking defeat to Birmingham at Wembley provided the catalyst for another spectacular collapse.

Manager Arsene Wenger has thus far stubbornly refused to be swayed by those suggesting he must be more active in the transfer market, but growing unrest among the Emirates faithful may well force his hand this summer.

As ever with Arsenal, many of the raw components of a successful side are already present. Not many teams in world football can boast the kind of fantasy provided by the likes of Fabregas, Nasri and Arshavin, and Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny can be stars for years to come.

But the Gunners are still lacking in quality at both ends of the pitch, and their mental fragility in times of adversity has become a source of comedy among the club's rivals.

Wenger must heed the criticisms of his team soon. If he doesn't, one of the most beautiful marriages in football could end in a very messy divorce.

5th - Tottenham Hotspur (My prediction: 6th)

As the more cynical among us suspected, the Champions League proved both a gift and a curse for Tottenham. For a time, Harry Redknapp's side were the must-watch team in Europe, and gave their fans a number of memorable nights on a run which claimed the scalps of both Milan giants.

Inevitably, though, Spurs' league form suffered as a result of their European adventure, and when the latter was ruthlessly ended by Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the north Londoners didn't have enough left in the tank to catch the top four.

Still, Liverpool's awful start to the season ensured a fifth placed finish and a shot of the Europa League net season. Whether Redknapp is a fan of the tournament or not, it is European football and represents a realistic chance of silverware.

It may also persuade key players like Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart to remain at the club. If they do stay and a joined by a couple of astute signings, Spurs will be well in the Champions League hunt again next year. 

6th - Liverpool (My prediction: 5th)

My prediction that Liverpool would finish fifth was clearly not based on the assumption that Roy Hodgson would lead the club to its worst start to a league season for over 50 years and depart eight days into the new year, and even a stellar second half of the season wasn't enough to unseat Tottenham in fifth.

The Anfield giants' league position was clearly not reflective of the talent at their disposal when club legend Kenny Dalglish took over in January, and their spectacular resurgence under the Scot since then has done much to create an atmosphere of optimism going forward.

The replacement of a jaded and sulky Fernando Torres with the exciting young strike duo of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez has reinvigorated a team which had looked in danger of stagnation, and the accomplished performances of local youngsters such as Jay Spearing, John Flanagan and Martin Kelly have raised hopes of a return to the values which originally made Liverpool great.

Significant investment is still needed if the Dalglish's team are once again to challenge the country's elite, but the early signs are that there may be good times ahead for the red half of Merseyside.

7th - Everton (My prediction: 7th)

David Moyes must be wondering why his Everton team never turns up until after Christmas. Once again, an awful start for the Toffees took the shine off a campaign in which one of the Premier League's best managers worked wonders on a criminally small budget.

Despite being without a regular source of goals (top scorer Tim Cahill netted just nine times this term) and enduring a prolonged flirtation with the relegation zone at the start of the season, Moyes has yet again led his team to a respectable top half finish in the league.

Everton are unbeaten at Goodison Park in the Premier League in 2011, and only Chelsea gathered more points in the last 12 rounds of the season. If the Toffees had started their charge earlier, they may well have found themselves in the European hunt.

Moyes' extraordinary feats on Merseyside have prompted many to wonder what he could do at a club with greater financial resources. If he isn't backed by chairman Bill Kenwright in the transfer market this summer, the Scot may well begin to ask himself the same question.

8th - Fulham (My prediction: 9th)

A 9th place finish is a just reward for the patience Fulham showed towards Mark Hughes during a shaky start to this season.

The west Londoners always had the class to avoid the relegation dogfight, and as soon as strikers Moussa Dembele, Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson recovered from lengthy injury layoffs, the goals and results flowed.

Fulham have one of the most underrated squads in the Premier League, and in Hughes they have one of its most capable managers. They may also have another crack at the Europa League next season if the Fair Play award comes through...

9th - Aston Villa (My prediction: 8th)

The £24million Aston Villa paid for Darren Bent in January proved an absolute masterstroke as Gerard Houllier's side finished strongly to drag themselves out of the relegation dogfight and paper over the cracks of a disappointing season.

The former Sunderland man banged in nine goals in 16 appearances after his big money move to ease the Villans' worries and once again prove he is one of the most potent goalscorers in the Premier League, the club may still pay the price of a campaign which fell well short of expectations.

Star winger Ashley Young is widely expected to move on to bigger and better things this summer after a season in which he has impressed for club and country, and it is unclear how willing owner Randy Lerner will be to invest in the squad.

It isn't even clear whether Gerard Houllier will be able to continue as manager after the Frenchman suffered a recurrence of the health problems which blighted his time at Liverpool.

In short, there is much to be done at Villa Park in the coming weeks and months if the club is to once again become a force in the top half of the Premier League.

10th - Sunderland (My prediction: 11th)

It's been a season of two halves for Sunderland. A brilliant start - including that demolition of Chelsea - left Steve Bruce's side dreaming of Europa League football, but a dramatic collapse since the turn of the year briefly left the Black Cats in danger of being sucked into a relegation battle until victories over Wigan and Bolton checked the slide.

The loss of Darren Bent to Aston Villa certainly didn't help, even if the club were compensated to the tune of a cool £24million. Bruce was unable to replace his star striker before the close of the January transfer window, and injuries to Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck meant the side were briefly without any strikers.

Despite their wretched form for much of 2011, Sunderland's first half showing means they are well deserving of a top half finish. If Bruce can find a good striker to replace Bent in the summer and keep midfield prospect Jordan Henderson, they could well repeat the feat next year.

11th - West Brom (My prediction: 18th)

West Brom defied a legion of pre-season predictions - not least this one - by soaring clear of the relegation dogfight and into the comfort of mid-table in their first season back in the Premier League.

The reason? Roy Hodgson. Having failed in the thankless task of managing Liverpool during the slow and painful death of the Hicks and Gillett era, the 63-year-old came to the west midlands determined to restore his reputation. And boy, did he succeed.

Hodgson took over the Baggies mired in the relegation zone and led them on a run which saw only two defeats - one against Wolves with safety already assured, the other against Chelsea - and included a victory over his previous employers at the Hawthorns.

What's more, he managed to do it all whilst allowing offensive talents such as top scorer Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt the room to flourish. West Brom have a talented, settled squad and if they spend wisely in the summer, there's no reason why they shouldn't be looking up rather than down next term.

12th - Newcastle United (My prediction: 17th)

Newcastle achieved mid-table respectability almost in spite of themselves this season.

First owner Mike Ashley sacked Chris Hughton midway through the campaign for what appeared to be no better reason than a flying, talking horse in his dream told him to.

Then star striker and former local hero Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool in January with new boss Alan Pardew having no time to reinvest any of the phenomenal £35million it took to prise the big man away from St James' Park.

Yet in spite of it all, the good ship Toon never strayed into the choppy waters of the relegation battle. Why? Quite simply, because it turns out there was always more to this Newcastle side than a be-ponytailed young target man with a left foot like a cannon.

Alan Pardew proved himself just as capable a Premier League operator as Hughton, the hard working duo of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton ensured the side were rarely short of drive and invention, and tough-tackling Ivorian Cheik Tiote did enough 'getting stuck in' for an entire midfield.

Oh, and they also had one of the best left-backs in the Premier League in Jose Enrique, who may well follow Carroll to Anfield this summer.

13th - Stoke City (My prediction: 12th)

When the dust settles on their FA Cup disappointment, Stoke fans and players will quickly realise this has been a fantastic season.

Just taking part in the Wembley showpiece against Manchester City was a testiment to the amazing job manager Tony Pulis has done over the last five years at the Britannia, but the fact the Potters didn't allow their glorious cup run to affect their Premier League form (a la Birmingham) is perhaps their greatest achievement of the campaign.

The physical presence and tireless work rate of summer signings Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters gave Pulis' side a formidable attacking threat, while fellow summer arrival Jermaine Pennant opened up a whole new avenue of service for the frontmen on the right flank.

Believe it or not folks, but there's now more to Stoke than Rory Delap long throws, and like them or not, it seems unlikely they'll be exiting the Premier League any time soon.

14th - Bolton Wanderers (My prediction: 15th)

For much of this season Bolton looked on course to embarass me utterly by topping the league below the big boys and finish 7th, but ultimately a wretched run of five defeats from their last five games saw Owen Coyle's side tumble to a much less impressive 14th.

Owen Coyle's side won plaudits as well as points for much of this campaign with their expansive passing style and attacking mentality, but their midfield creativity was severely curtailed when the hugely impressive Stuart Holden suffered a horrible leg break against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The balance of the team never truly recovered - although their stuttering Premier League form was briefly but significantly boosted by Daniel Sturridge's prolific loan spell - and a promising FA Cup run was emphatically and devastatingly ended by Stoke at Wembley.

Bolton showed signs of real promise this season, but much needs to be done in the summer if the club is to avoid going backwards next term. A little more squad depth wouldn't go amiss, and a replacement must be found for the outgoing Johan Elmander. A decent season though.

15th - Blackburn Rovers (My prediction: 10th)

Ok, I hold my hands up. I predicted Blackburn for a top half finish, and got it badly wrong.

But in my defence, there was no way I could foresee:

1) the club being taken over by Indian chicken magnates (something in me has always wanted to use that phrase) who harboured delusional aspirations of bringing Ronaldinho and Champions League football to Ewood Park

2) reliable Premier League operator Sam Allardyce being mysteriously sacked midway through the season (it appears that flying, talking horse gets around) and replaced by a man with no managerial pedigree whatsoever.

Looking back on it now, the fact that Blackburn are still in the Premier League at all is nothing short of a miracle. Venkys simply got lucky, but they will have to do a crash course on how to run a football club over the summer if Rovers are not to pay for their mistakes in the long term.

But I suspect they won't, and next season will be all the more infuriating for the club's fans and interesting for the rest of us as a result.

16th - Wigan Athletic (My prediction: 16th)

Another year in the Premier League for little old Wigan and a return to prediction form for yours truly (I'm going to enjoy this, because it all disappears up the proverbial cows backside from here on down).

Roberto Martinez's side blended attractive attacking football with at times comical defending to just about sufficient effect to earn another year in the top flight. Survival was once again borne out of a life and death struggle, though, only assured through back-to-back wins over West Ham and Stoke in the final two games of the season.

As has been the case in previous years, Wigan could pay for their continued presence in the Premier League with the loss of their key players. Star winger Charles N'Zogbia is surely destined to play at a higher level, while striker Hugo Rodallega and midfield wonderkid James McCarthy could also leave.

If they do, Martinez will once again have to remodel his side on a shoestring and hope for the best. The good news for him and the club's fans, however, is that Wigan appear to be becoming perennial Premier League survivors.

17th - Wolves (My prediction: 19th)

Wolves stayed in the Premier League by the sheer force of George Elokobi's six pack on the final day of a tortuous season. 

In a topsy turvy campaign, Mick McCarthy's side found themselves deep in the relegation mire despite beating each of England's top three sides at Molineux. 

Misfiring in attack and leaky in defence, it was only Wolves' heart which kept them in the top flight - well, that and the fact there happened to be three sides even worse than they were.

But while survival was ultimately assured - and only just - this season, McCarthy needs to be given the funds to improve the side in every area of the pitch if this is not to prove merely a stay of execution.

18th - Birmingham City (My prediction: 13th)

One of the main lessons we learned from this season is that no good can come of reaching the Carling Cup final. 

Arsenal and Birmingham only recorded five victories between them after their date at Wembley, but the Midlanders' late season collapse was to have much graver consequences.

Just one point from their final six games saw Alex McLeish's side time their plummet into the relegation zone to deadly perfection, and the club's first trophy in 48 years has been sullied by a return to the Championship.

Goals had always proved elusive for this Birmingham team, but the decisive difference this season was the decline of their defence, with Scott Dann's lengthy absence through injury proving a fatal blow.

McLeish has been given the green light to lead the club's promotion charge next term, but with financial difficulties and the departures of key players on the horizon, it will be no easy task.

19th - Blackpool (My prediction: 20th)

Blackpool have so greatly exceeded incredibly low expectations this season that Ian Holloway and his players have had to endure what must have been an infuriating level of condescending praise - not least the odious expression 'breath of fresh air' which has been employed time and time again to steadily less flattering effect.

But this must not take away from the fact that the Tangerines have set a new benchmark for the way low budget Championship sides are expected to approach their season in the big time.

Many observers - this one included - queued up at the start of the campaign to dismiss them as whipping boys, but Blackpool have done so much more than make up the numbers.

They have played with unerring spirit and enterprise, taking on (and occasionally beating) teams of far more lavishly gifted stars, and have done it all with a style which has made them the entertainers of the Premier League.

Most considered it impossible for Blackpool to stay up this season, but they bloody well nearly did it. Ian Holloway's side may have lost their top flight status, but they have gained a legion of admirers.

20th - West Ham United (My prediction: 14th)

For pure dramatic effect, I've saved the biggest misjudgment for last. West Ham entered the season with one of the best squads of all the bottom half teams, and yet have somehow contrived to exit the Premier League ten months later.

In what has been a car crash of a season, it isn't easy to pin point any one factor as most important in the Hammers spectacular demise, whether it be clueless owners who undermined but didn't sack an even more clueless manager, players who wallowed in self-pity and refused to take responsibility for events on the pitch, or just plain old bad luck.

The loss of talismanic captain and FWA Player of the Year Scott Parker for the crucial final weeks of the season was certainly a hammer (excuse the pun) blow, but it need not have been fatal if any form of leadership had been present in the dugout.

Avram Grant's continuing career as a Premier League manager seems more bizarre with each passing week, and it is only to be hoped his moment in the limelight is over.

But even with Grant gone, for West Ham, the damage is already done. The club must now embark on a slow and steady process of rebuilding in the Championship, in the hope that by the time they move into the shiny new Olympic Stadium in Stratford, they have a team worthy of the venue.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

FA Cup win the perfect tonic for Mancini

Roberto Mancini celebrates his side's FA Cup win on Wembley pitch

Roberto Mancini may have been a little optimistic when he said he hoped his players would not drink excessively in celebration of their FA Cup final win on Saturday, but the Manchester City boss was shrewd enough to acknowledge that victory at Wembley provided the perfect tonic for him personally after a testing season.

The Italian greeted the final whistle with a beaming smile as he basked in the glory of ending the blue half of Manchester’s 35 year wait for silverware. Reflecting on the most successful season in his club’s recent history, the joy on his face was clear for all to see.

Well, joy, and just a hint of relief.

Relief because although they rarely threatened, Saturday’s opponents Stoke had defended stubbornly as heavy underdogs for over 70 minutes in the face of a powerful, assertive and yet occasionally plodding City performance.

Relief also because Mancini knows cup success can be a powerful springboard for a team chasing greater glories – just as League Cup triumph was for Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005, or how victory in the same competition a year later eventually proved for a young Manchester United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

After all, as far as trophies are concerned, it never pours without raining a bit first.

But perhaps most of all, relief because Mancini knows just how important Saturday’s FA Cup victory will be in stabilising his position at Eastlands, and how steep may have been the price of defeat.

It seems strange to say in the wake of City securing qualification for the Champions league for the first time in the club’s history but, for much of the season, the common reaction to the club’s domestic performance has been decidedly muted.

At times the displays conjured by Roberto Mancini’s men have left the clear impression of a team coasting towards their destination with the handbrake on, rather than putting pedal to the metal and forcing the issue in a season where Manchester United will finish with the lowest points total of any Premier League champions for ten years.

The City manager himself has often come across as content to fulfil his employers’ minimum requirement of fourth place in the table, in a year when even the best team in the country have seemed vulnerable to anyone brave and capable enough to challenge them. A lack of quality is regrettable, a lack of ambition unforgivable.

Pragmatism in the dugout has inevitably been transmitted onto the pitch, and as a result although City have often convinced they have rarely thrilled en route to Europe’s top table this season – although the situation has hardly been helped by the likes of Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, who have thus far done little to justify the lavish expenditure required to bring them to Eastlands.

Dzeko and Balotelli have yet to repay the combined £52m it cost City to sign them

Starved for so long of any meaningful success, City’s loyal fans have been willing to accept functionality over fantasy, even on a Hollywood budget, as long as it yields results. The club’s owners, too, have been willing to acquiesce as long as Mancini delivers on his promises.

But in testing their resolve, Mancini was playing a dangerous game.

Fail to finish in the top four – seemingly a very real possibility immediately after a comprehensive defeat inflicted by Liverpool at Anfield back in April, prior to Tottenham’s dramatic decline – and the Italian undoubtedly would have lost his job.

Lose to Stoke in the FA Cup Final and, while Mancini’s time may not have been up in Manchester, serious questions would have been asked, if not of the ‘City project’ then certainly of the manager’s compatibility with it, and the club’s league performance may well have become the subject of greater internal scrutiny.

But instead it is Mancini who is the winner. He will always be the man credited with ending City’s epic trophy drought, and his bond with the fans has been strengthened accordingly.

Chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, who must have been privately willing Mancini to justify the board’s decision to ruthlessly dispatch Mark Hughes in favour of the former Inter Milan boss, now has all the ammunition he needs to rebuff the club’s detractors.

There is no doubt that bigger challenges lie ahead for Mancini. He has a summer to mould a squad capable of maintaining a Premier League title challenge and Champions League campaign, all the while playing the sort of expansive style which will see off any remaining reservations over his suitability.

It will be a tough task. But with the time and faith a trophy has earned him, the City manager has given himself every chance.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Ancelotti's judgment on the line at Old Trafford

Chelsea's beleaguered boss must abandon the Fernando Torres experiment for Sunday's title decider, even if it costs him his job

Ancelotti's team selection may be crucial at Old Trafford as Chelsea seek to retain their title

Against all the odds, Chelsea once again find themselves in with a chance of winning a title they had done their very best to lose.

Arsenal’s defeat of leaders Manchester United on Sunday leaves Carlo Ancelotti’s side three points off the pace with an identical goal difference and with what Sir Alex Ferguson admits is a “massive chance” to frustrate United in their quest for a record 19th league crown.

With a decisive trip to Old Trafford to come this weekend, the Blues go into the final three games of the Premier League season knowing maximum points will almost certainly see them retain their title.

And this is all despite a wretched run which saw them record only five wins in 16 games between early November and mid-February,  and despite the fact that they have suffered seven defeats overall this term.

To describe this as an extremely difficult campaign for Carlo Ancelotti would be a considerable understatement.

Attempting to compete for domestic and European honours with a criminally thin squad of ageing stars against a backdrop of boardroom interference has proved a fool’s errand, and a belated £70million January transfer spree proved insufficient to deliver the Champions League trophy Roman Abramovich so greatly craves.

After all he has endured, it is likely Ancelotti will leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the season regardless of the result at Old Trafford on Sunday, either as yet another victim of the Russian billionaire owner’s well-worn axe or of his own volition.

And this is exactly why, having been presented with one last opportunity to lead Chelsea to an unlikely defence of their Premier League crown, the Italian must be bloody-minded, and disregard any prior deference to Abramovich’s vanity when picking the eleven players who will face United.

The presence of a misfiring Torres has created a huge problem for Ancelotti

I am talking, of course, about Fernando Torres, the £50million gift that just isn’t giving. It is the Spaniard who represents the biggest threat to the Blues’ chances of seizing the initiative in the title race this weekend.

Torres’ struggles over the last 18 months have been well documented, and there are countless theories which have sought to explain his drastic decline in form.

Protestations of unhappiness on Merseyside secured a big money move to west London, but if anything the 27-year-old has looked even more lost in his new surroundings, as he tries to adapt to a new system, new teammates and a new way of playing.

Ancelotti has tried gamely to find a style which brings the best out of his new frontman, but all have involved shoe-horning too many square pegs into round holes. Torres’ epic Chelsea drought may be over, but one goal from fifteen appearances remains a damning indictment of both player and manager.

Ancelotti recently described Torres in a press conference as ‘the present and future of Chelsea.’ He’s half right.
Having spent so much money on bringing in a world-class striker six years the junior of Didier Drogba, it is inevitable the powers that be at Stamford Bridge want to build the next great Blues side around the Spaniard.
Didier Drogba's improving form has been an key component in Chelsea's revival

But it is the Drogba, not Torres, who must lead the line at Old Trafford on Sunday. For starters, big name competition appears to bring the best out in him.

The big Ivorian responded to the arrival of Andriy Shevchenko in 2006 by scoring a then-career best 33 goals for Chelsea the following season, and Torres’ presence appears to have had a similar effect.

Drogba has still to hit top goalscoring form since contracting malaria in October last year, but he is the main reason why Chelsea have taken 25 points from a possible 27 in their last nine games despite never looking their imperious best.

With Drogba leading the line, Chelsea are a formidable attacking force. With Torres, they are a team carrying a passenger. If Ancelotti thinks any different, he would be well-advised to re-watch the tapes of his side’s Champions League exit at Old Trafford last month.

Chelsea looked toothless and sluggish for well over an hour of that game until their manager lost patience with Torres and handed Drogba the unenviable task of rescuing the tie inside the last 20 minutes. The 33-year-old did not succeed, but accomplished more in his brief cameo than Torres has since January.

United’s excellent central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will feel no fear if they see the Spaniard’s name on the team sheet again on Sunday.

Nor is pairing the two together a viable option. On the occasions when it has been tried, the whole team has suffered.

Drogba and Torres have struggled to play together since the latter's January arrival

Playing two central strikers necessitates a narrow four-man diamond midfield and an over-reliance on the full-backs for width, and Chelsea have been found out very quickly by both United and Liverpool when playing this way recently.

Even on a purely footballing level, when they have been on the pitch together, Torres and Drogba have appeared at best incapable of playing together and at worst unwilling to try.

In such a situation, Ancelotti must go with the more effective choice. And, of course, Torres would still be a potentially dangerous one man 'plan B' if Chelsea are forced to go for broke late on at Old Trafford.

Chelsea will not necessarily win if Drogba starts on Sunday, but they will have a fighting chance. If Torres starts, all available evidence suggests they will lose.

After all he has seen over the past few weeks and months, it is almost inconceivable that privately Ancelotti has not reached this same conclusion, despite what he says in public.

Consequently, if he selects Torres to lead the line against United, it must be interpreted as an attempt to indulge the Chelsea owner to the detriment of his side's chances.

But any such attempt at indulgence would prove fruitless for the Italian. 

Roman Abramovich has shown himself to be a man who will not countenance failure, even if he has contributed to it. He has no record of showing mercy to his managers or even acknowledging his part in their downfall, and there is no reason to assume this will change.

It will be Carlo Ancelotti’s judgment, and probably his job, on the line at Old Trafford on Sunday. Therefore it is his own judgment by which he must abide.