A little bit of history repeating

May 7, 2009

thierry-henry-barcelona-001Another Champions League semi-final, another season of near misses all but complete for Chelsea fans. Even victory over Everton in the FA Cup would do little to make up for another 12 months of thwarted dreams. I never thought I would say this, but I can almost sympathise with Didier Drogba‘s reaction. The man who behaved so despicably in the final last year with his petulant slap can look upon his latest disciplinary slip with a manly pride. Not because the referee was wrong (he was, but it’s an impossible job and the harsh justice was distributed evenly, as Éric Abidal will tell you). Rather, because, like me, Drogba was enraged by the latest in a string of cruel twists of fate that started in Monaco five years ago.

That day, former Chelsea man Didier Deschamps oversaw 10 man Monaco as the French club hit two late goals to seal a 3-1 first leg win on the way to a 5-3 aggregate win. A year later and Luis García‘s ghost goal put Liverpool through to the final. Last year, it was John Terry‘s penalty miss that spelled out tragic disaster. And last night, 10 man Barcelona and their Spanish wizard Andrés Iniesta chiseled out the latest chapter in this liturgy of failure. Like a romantic hero, Chelsea seem destined to always fall at the last hurdle – their tragic flaw in character a willingness to implode at the most inopportune moments. Except, unlike a romantic hero, everybody hates us.

To be fair, there is something refreshing about the line-up for the Champions League final. For the first time I can remember, the two finalists have been consistently playing Europe’s best football over the course of the season. It’s also the first time this century that both finalists top their respective domestic leagues. But that will come as little comfort to any Chelsea fan, particularly after their heroics (yes, that word again) over two legs against a Barcelona team that has scored more than 100 league goals this season.

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Who are Europe’s top marksmen?

March 28, 2009

Marc Janko

Last season Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo took no prisoners as he slotted, slammed and stroked 31 goals past the Premiership‘s goalkeepers. In doing so, he became the first winger in history to earn the European Golden Shoe for the continent’s top goal scorer in 2007-8. This season form and fitness have contrived to take the Portuguese winger out of the race to retain his coveted title – so who are the main contenders to usurp his thrown?

German Bundesliga – Grafite

In reality, Grafite currently shares top spot in the Bundesliga scoring charts with Vedad Ibišević, the Bosnian striker who led newly promoted 1899 Hoffenheim to the summit of German football before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament to prematurely end his season. So VfL Wolfsburg‘s Brazilian striker has had his chance to shine, becoming one of European football’s hottest properties with 18 goals. Wolfsburg are one of four sides in contention for this season’s domestic title, and Grafite seems sure to profit from former Bayern Munich coach Felix Magath‘s tight regime. After all, Grafite knows exactly what it takes to slay Wolfsburg’s title rival giants – he was part of the São Paulo side that beat Liverpool in the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship.

Italian Serie A – Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marco Di Vaio

Head to head at the top of Serie A‘s scoring charts are Inter Milan legend Zlatan Ibrahimović and Bologna frontman Marco Di Vaio. While Zlatan needs no introductions (he was described by manager José Mourinho as the best player in the world earlier this season, and is certainly its highest paid), Di Vaio is one of football’s journeymen. In fact, at 32 Bologna is his ninth club – an ominous statistic, although his former employers have included such luminaries as Lazio, Juventus, Valencia and Monaco, so life at the game’s top table should come as nothing new to the Italian.

Spanish La Liga – Samuel Eto’o

Barcelona‘s Samuel Eto’o has to be a frontrunner for the Golden Shoe after 25 goals so far this season as the needle point of new coach Josep Guardiola‘s expansive brand of football. Interesting or unexpected? Well, no. But kudos to the Cameroonian striker for retaining his place after rumours of an exodus at Barcelona in the summer and for taking his goal tally at the club past the 100 mark this season, to 102 from just 135 league appearances.

French Ligue 1 – André-Pierre Gignac

Is it possible to sound more French? I suspect not… and André-Pierre Gignac is living up to the country’s history of producing extraordinary goal scorers with 18 this season. The 23-year-old has blossomed after replacing Bolton‘s Johan Elmander in the Toulouse team this season, earning a call up to the national side for the first time. Behind him in the scoring tables is Paris Saint-Germain‘s Guillaume Hoarau, who earned a move to the capital after a return of 28 goals last season with Le Havre.

The Premiership – Nicolas Anelka

Nicolas Anelka finally looks to have found his place in life at Chelsea under first Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Guus Hiddink. He has all the qualities of the perfect forward – speed, positioning and a fizzing right foot, even if he does appear to lack motivation on occasion. But with just 15 goals, he is hardly a contender for Ronaldo’s mantle, demonstrating the paucity of top strikers in the Premiership this season.

The Verdict

The likeliest winner from Europe’s five biggest leagues looks to be Samuel Eto’o as the first from any of the divisions to pass the 20 goal mark. But this season there may just be a small chance of one of the continent’s less illustrious leagues springing a surprise. Players in the so-called lesser leagues earn fewer points for every goal they score, so the last player to overcome this weighting system was Sporting Clube de Portugal‘s Mário Jardel (who went on to play for Bolton and contend for the separate title of the Premiership‘s most overweight player ever). This year, Red Bull Salzburg player Marc Janko will have to do even more by outscoring Eto’o in the Austrian Bundesliga to win the title. And he might just do it. Janko kicked off the season with five goals in two games and by December had scored 45. With only league goals counting, he will have to improve on a tally of 33 in 27 matches, although to date he has scored five hat tricks this season and four in one game as a second-half substitute against SCR Altach to help Salzburg win 4-3 and demonstrate that anything is possible.

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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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What would Liverpool look like without Benítez?

March 13, 2009

curbishley1All hail Rafa Benítez, conqueror of Europe and vanquisher of Real Madrid. Liverpool has developed a reputation as masters of the Champions League tie, punching well above their weight in cup competitions compared to their performances in the Premiership. To date Benítez has delivered an FA Cup, one Community Shield, the European Super Cup and of course that majestic Champions League triumph against AC Milan during his five years with Liverpool. Which is a fantastic achievement. But back at the start, when Gérard Houllier was shown the door, it was a lack of league success that caused fans and the club’s senior management team alike to throw their toys out of the pram. And Benítez wasn’t the only man they thought would be up to the job.

Meet Alan Curbishley, the other front runner to replace Houllier back in 2004. As a quick bio, Curbishley is currently in line at the dole queue after solid if unspectacular spells at Charlton Athletic and West Ham. Unlike Benítez, who arrived at Liverpool on the back of two La Liga successes with Valencia, he has never won a trophy in the game’s senior echelons. But he does, arguably, have one of the best track records of consistent league performances in Premiership, turning Charlton into a serial top flight club and restoring West Ham‘s Premier League credibility.

Also featured on that short-list of bygone days, Steve McLaren, the former Middlesborough and England manager. And now, it would seem, a man who is finally proving he is capable of steering a club to the top of its league with FC Twente, currently second in the Dutch Eredivisie ahead of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Of course, these days McLaren is regarded somewhat as tarnished goods after falling victim to the ultimate trap, being an Englishman at the helm of the English national team (a danger Curbishley only just avoided).

Last but not least were the Celtic past and present axis of power, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. These are the only two names on that five year old short-list that wouldn’t invoke horror and even physical illness in Liverpool fans today. In fact, the Northern Irisham and Scot have amassed three league titles apiece with the Glasgow club, while O’Neill has restored his reputation as the Premiership‘s hottest managerial property of late with Aston Villa.

Would any of these men have restored Liverpool to their place at the Premiership‘s top table? Possibly. But without a flicker of doubt, not one of them has Rafa’s European credentials. And that means Benítez will be able to name his price to stay at Liverpool this summer, while his would-have-been competitors can only look on enviously at the resources and infrastructure at his disposal.

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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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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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Playing Cech up

March 5, 2009

t1_cech_all1Apparently Chelsea have identified lack of competition for the No 1 jersey as the main reason behind Petr Čech‘s alarming drop in form. Some reports have even suggested that the club are considering selling the Czech international in the summer. Any suggestion that the former Golden Gloves winner might move on is probably just making mountains over molehills, but without a doubt Carlo Cudicini‘s exit to Tottenham in January has left a gapping whole on Chelsea‘s team sheet – one that even the sprawling figure of Hilário can’t fill.

But just who is up to the task of taking on the Euro 2004 semi-finalist? Well, looking within the Premiership, there are a couple of first-class goalkeepers warming the substitutes bench at Manchester City and Sunderland. Joe Hart and Craig Gordon are arguably the two most promising young goalkeepers in Britain. Both are extraordinary, athletic players who have been frustrated at club level by the call for experience over promise – which is doing neither of their international careers any good. Whether they would have any better chance of making the first team deputising for Čech is another question. And neither Hart or Gordon fits the profile of Chelsea‘s usual, continental and glamorous headline signings.

Looking further afield, Chelsea‘s new manager Guus Hiddink could do worse than fast-tracking the career of his young ward in the Russia set-up, Igor Akinfeev. Aged just 22, Akinfeev has already notched up 29 caps and 136 appearances for his club CSKA Moscow. He was the youngest ever footballer to play in goal for Russia at the tender age of 18, and has a record of success at the highest level – he played in Euro 2008 and at one stage went 362 minutes in the Champions League without conceding a goal. Taking Hiddink a little out of his comfort zone, Hugo Lloris has excelled since moving to French champions Olympique Lyonnais in the summer and has since broken into the national team under Raymond Domenech. Another of the finest prospects in European football, Lloris was born eight months after Akinfeev and cost Lyon a cool €8.5 million – but Chelsea would have little trouble doubling up on that fee to bring the Frenchman to Stamford Bridge.

Of course there are cheaper options. It feels like half of the Premiership have been circling Espanyol‘s Cameroonian keeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, while Olympique de Marseille‘s Steve Mandanda would come with a lower price tag than compatriot Lloris. Whoever comes in, it’s worth remembering that when Čech came in he was by no means considered first choice ahead of Cudicini. And if the popular Italian (at one stage he was tipped for a call-up to the English national team) could lose his place so easily, perhaps Čech isn’t the “untouchable” he was under José Mourinho.

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