Manchester United’s war of three fronts

March 19, 2009

Manchester United know all too well just how much can change in a Premiership week. Seven days ago Sir Alex Ferguson‘s side had an air of invincibility, able to drop players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov from the line-up against Liverpool while bookies paid out on bets that Manchester United would win the Premiership title. Two slip-ups (admittedly both chronic) from their most consistent player of the season, a red card and four Liverpool goals later and all of a sudden the picture looks very different indeed. To win the much aspired to quintuple, Manchester United will have to overcome top four Premier League opposition in at least two competitions – with either Chelsea or Arsenal coming up in the FA Cup if United can edge past Everton, and Arsenal‘s visit to Old Trafford still to come in the league. Manchester United will almost certainly have to lock horns with their domestic rivals in the Champions League to boot, with half of this year’s remaining contestants coming from the Premiership.

The problem is that against the rest of the Premiership top four, Manchester United have struggled this season – recording a solitary victory over Chelsea. The table below, looking at how the top four have performed against each other, clearly shows that Liverpool and Arsenal are laughing when it comes to seeing off similarly well-equipped opposition:

untitled-1Manchester United avoided the big four en route to their Carling Cup and (of course) Club World Cup victories. And from the look things, that was a good thing too. But they definitely won’t be so lucky in the FA Cup, and more likely than not they won’t escape this year in the Champions League either. So what are the three big factors that could turn the 2008-2009 season into a year of missed opportunities for Fergie’s men?

1. Rafa’s new contract. A good week at Liverpool by any standards – four goals a game against Real Madrid and United, followed by manager Rafa Benítez finally signing on the dotted line to commit to the club’s long-term future. A repeat of their 2005 European triumph would just put the icing on the cake.

2. Essien’s back. Chelsea have lacked bite in midfield this season without Michael Essien, and Deco has proved no replacement. The Ghanaian scored at the weekend to issue a timely reminder to Chelsea‘s rivals that the London club are a different proposition with him presiding over the centre of the pitch, and combined with Duth coach Guus Hiddink‘s nous there should be no stopping Chelsea.

3. Arsenal have discovered a bit of mental fortitude. Arsène Wenger said it himself after the Roma match, but Arsenal have lacked the strength of mind to turn 0-0 draws into more meaningful results. Queue an epic penalty shoot-out victory against canny Italain opposition and a hard fought (literally fought) win over Hull and Wenger’s boys are back in action.

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Another reason to love José Mourinho

March 12, 2009

jose-mourinhoMy sense of grief at the thought of not spending more time in the company of a certain Mr. José Mourinho after his Inter Milan side crashed out against Manchester United last night has already abated. Not because I won’t miss the lovable Portuguese rogue. But because José is determined not to go down without a fight. Literally.

First, Mourinho does the gallant thing. Blame Italy, the country he will be returning to, and not Inter Milan or even Manchester United. Next, heap praise on his victorious rivals, claim they’re on for a clean sweep of trophies and all the time make sure that he – and not Manchester United – are the centre of attention. And then, as if that wasn’t quite enough, he punches a United fan in the face outside Old Trafford. I know I should be shocked, appalled even, but the truth is that this most recent act of incomprehensible insanity is precisely Mourinho’s crowning glory in my eyes. Just like watching Phil Brown sitting Hull down in the middle of the pitch to give them a half-time team talk dressing down, or Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi, it is precisely Mourinho’s violent unpredictability that makes him so enigmatic – enticing even.

The reality is that management at the top of the Premiership has become dull, sterilised even. Arsène Wenger‘s idea of losing his cool is signing a player who, shock horror, isn’t from France (queue Andrei Arshavin). While Rafa Benítez enjoys publically crumbling into pieces, he still does so in a quiet kind of way, while Chelsea have ditched Luiz Felipe Scolari for a more sanitised alternative. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, once famed for his outbursts and for kicking a boot at David Beckham, has mellowed. Now when he gets really angry, he simply buys a cheaper bottle of red wine from Oddbins to share with the opposition’s manager.

Mourinho once questioned if Barcelona‘s Lionel Messi was prone to over egging challenges in matches: “‘Can Messi be suspended for acting? Barcelona is a very cultural city. You know all about theatre. You have theatres of high quality.” At the time it was a controversial comment. Looking back at it now, it feels like a poignant reminder of precisely the kind of theatre the Premiership has lacked in Mourinho’s absence. Come home soon, José.

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Once more into the Bridge, dear friends

February 10, 2009

scolari4_33796tLuiz Felipe Scolari‘s transformation from the amiable Brazilian who first greeted the English media in June to the humbled and humbugged coach who was sacked by Chelsea yesterday afternoon was perfectly epitomised by his reaction to Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Hull City. The man who had handled footballs harshest critics, the national papers, with such aplomb in the summer could no longer bear to face their hacks after the 15th and 16th points of the season were dropped at Stamford Bridge. Instead, Ray Wilkins was thrust in front of the cameras. If Scolari could no longer manage to charm the pants off the people who make the real decisions in the Premiership, the media, then he was no longer worth his £6 million a year.

So what are the criteria for Chelsea‘s next manager, and who can possibly live up to the job? The general consensus seems to be that the next coach has to deliver results both in the Premiership and – crucially, given the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premiership table – in Europe, which arguably presents Chelsea with their best chance of silverware this season. On those grounds, it seems that Roberto Mancini has been discounted for his failure to get Inter Milan to perform in the Champions League. But I actually disagree. I don’t think Roman Abramovich, Chelsea‘s billionaire backer, craves success or even trophies. Instead, he dreams of being popular and loved – not just by Chelsea supporters, but by fans of the beautiful game across the globe. That means aesthetically pleasing, “total football”. It means lots and lots of goals and attacking verve. But most of all, I think it means resuming the project Scolari started back in June – building a relationship of jovial back-and-forth, even co-dependence with Britain’s press. That means one man in particular is on Abramovich’s radar – while another holds the hearts of the supporters.

Guus Hiddink has been consistently linked with the Chelsea job since José Mourinho was shown the door in September 2007. From the land that invented “total football”, Hiddink has an impressive CV that spans six different clubs across three countries not to mention managing the national teams of his native Holland, South Korea, Australia and Russia. With South Korea and Australia, he grasped the imagination of millions by leading teams of little fancied underdogs to magical World Cup runs. What’s more, in his latest job with Russia, he has built strong links with the Russian Abramovich and cemented his reputation for combining flair with a solid foundation. But his only stint with a club the size of Chelsea, at Real Madrid in the 1990s, lasted less than one barren season. And the key players from his current side who he may have earmarked to join him at Stamford Bridge nine months ago, namely Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, have already made the trip across to London to join rivals Tottenham and Arsenal respectively.

Whoever Abramovich turns to, there is only one man the fans want to see in the job – and only one man who could deliver Chelsea‘s owner with the adoration he has been longing for. And he is also plying his trade on the other side of the Thames at a rival club. West Ham‘s charismatic manager and Chelsea‘s best ever player Gianfranco Zola is the only name in football that could guarantee Abramovich popularity. Popularity, but not results. Even die-hard Arsenal and Manchester United fans wouldn’t be able to stop a little smile sneaking out over the thought of Zola at the helm at Stamford Bridge, assisted by Steve Clarke and perhaps even Roberto Di Matteo. Though admittedly that smile would only get bigger if the untested trio failed to deliver results. It may not happen yet, but sooner or later Zola is the appointment Abramovich is going to have to make to secure his legacy at Chelsea as the club’s guardian angel and not just some crackpot dictator.

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One cap wonders

January 30, 2009

It’s all right for some people. With England‘s friendly international against Spain just around the corner, David Beckham has moved half-way across the globe and reproduced his finest form, all in the hope of securing a record equaling 108th cap. But in the shadow of Beckham, fans of the Premiership‘s less fashionable clubs and even some gossip columnists will be beginning to speculate about which players Fabio Capello will be handing an international debut.

Surely Aston Villa‘s James Milner – England’s most capped Under-21 international with 40 matches under his belt and eight goals – is due a promotion to the senior team? Perhaps Capello is set to spring another surprise after including Michael Mancienne in his last squad – in which case, the midfield duo of Tottenham‘s Tom Huddlestone and West Ham‘s Mark Noble have been impressing in the junior ranks. However, the fear for all of these players is that they sucumb to the fate of the “one cap wonder” – players called up on the back of exceptional form or circumstance to fill a void in the national team, or simply as a misjudged experiment. Recent candidates include Portsmouth flop David Nugent, while Jimmy Bullard has a lot of hard work to do at Hull to avoid being similarly derided. 

So I’ve put together a team of recent players to fall into the “one-cap” trap since the Premiership‘s inception in 1992. I have been careful to leave out the footballers who are likely to add to their tally, with the likes of Robert GreenBen Foster and Gabriel Agbonlahor left off the list (sorry Phil Jagielka, but that’s just my opinion). I have also missed out Francis Jeffers (who has a record of one goal in one game for England) and Michael Ball, because some wasted talent is a little too hard to stomach. To see players like Chris Sutton (a Premiership winner with Blackburn) and former UEFA Champion’s League semi-finalist Lee Bowyer in the team is certainly food for thought.

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I would love any thoughts or opinions about the respective qualities of the players above, and why any manager – and particularly such a venerable old hand as Terry Venables – would allow David Unsworth onto an international football pitch. I mean, seriously?