Big four fire blanks in the EPL

On November 24, 2008 by

So four games, zero goals, three points – that is your so called Big Four after this weekend’s results.

Chelsea and Liverpool had home games against weak opposition but failed to break them down. Newcastle did play well and probably fully deserved their point. Shay Given was inspired and you can see why there is a whole host of talk about Harry Redknapp wanting to take him to White Hart Lane in January.

Liverpool were without Steven Gerrard and were quite frankly without much of a clue on Saturday. Fulham are a decent side but when you are a team with title aspirations then you have to beat the likes of the cottagers at home. Fulham certainly were well worth the point and they even had real chances to steal all three.

Manchester United went into the late game on Setanta Sports knowing that they could make some real progress after the top two’s slip-ups. Aston Villa are a good side and we all know this. I saw most of the game but my kitchen was flooding at the time due to a washing machine failure I wasn’t able to sit and watch it.

It was a pretty even game from what I saw but it did have the one controversial incident. Gabby Agbonlahor fresh of his England performance in the week skinned Vidic on the left flank only to be hauled back for about ten to fifteen yards before falling over in the box.

Was in a penalty? Probably not – the tugging started outside the area but the bigger question was whether it was a clear goal scoring opportunity or not. Whilst it wasn’t in the centre of goal he was clean through running at Van der Sar and no-one was stopping him. I think he was a red and Vidic should’ve gone (although saying that I do have Vidic in my fantasy team so that wouldn’t of been good). United got away with one and it was a key decision that Chris Foy got wrong.

Last up in the big four are Arsenal – who have slipped out of the top four following their defeat to Manchester City on Saturday. Arsenal might not be a club in crisis but they are about as close as you can get for a club in the big four. William Gallas’ rather frank interview didn’t help things and a disjointed performance at the City of Manchester Stadium just piled on the pressure.

My colleague Charlotte Cook asked ‘Is it time for Wenger to call it a day?’ a couple of weeks back and surely that question is still swirling. I don’t think it is time but I am starting to think that it is at least a valid discussion.

So our best teams couldn’t even muster a goal between them – some might scoff at the nation that this is the greatest league in the world but this league is twenty teams deep and not just four.

It is not impossible to cap for England if you play in CCC

On November 21, 2008 by

Maybe it is time to check for new talents that will be able to replace Terry and Rio in the middle of our defense.

Latest proof for that is the young cap, Michael Mancienne, who is absolutely brilliant with Championship top’s Wolverhampton Wanderers. Mancienne is a talented 20-year-old central defender, Chelsea player loaned to Wolves this autumn.

He had spent last two seasons playing for QPR, having a fine spell with them. The beginning of this season saw him kicking off with his parent club but coach Scolari didn’t give him the right chance.

Taking Diego’s bait

On by

I’m sure everyone has, at some point in their life, had a teacher or maybe a parent state the following annoying comment to them: I’m not angry…I’m just disappointed. Well, today I stated that phrase…to myself.

All week I have been trying to restrain myself. I have seen the bait dangling and with each passing day it has got closer and closer and today, I am biting.

I can’t believe it was only four years ago that Diego Maradona was in hospital after having suffered a heart attack. Having also battled drug addiction, fluctuating weight, and alcohol issues over recent years, I don’t think I would be the only one to sound a tad sceptical when presented with the news that within five years of his heart attack Maradona would be manager of the Argentina national football team.

So in an amazing turn in fortunes, a rather healthy Maradona touched down in Scotland for the friendly between Argentina and Scotland and he was up to his old tricks again. Buoyed on by the jubilant Scottish fans, Maradona unbelievably claimed that he should not be judged for cheating in the 1986 World Cup because of the doubt over one of Geoff Hurst’s goals that won England the 1966 World Cup.

England certainly didn’t cheat themselves into the World Cup history books. This was a goal that has been debated for over forty years but, whatever conclusion you reach about that ‘goal’, one thing that can never be suggested is that England cheated. The decision of the linesman was nothing to do with Geoff Hurst or any of the other players.

Diego Maradona on, quite literally, the other hand, cheated by deliberately handballing. I think the thing that has always riled the English so much is that he has gloated about it ever since. He has had no shame in the fact that he intentionally sought to win a game under dubious circumstances and it would appear that the only two nations who have been impressed by this act are the Argentinians and…the Scots.

So why do some Scottish fans express so much hate and bitterness towards the English national team? Well, the brief answer is concerned with success. England have won the World Cup, England are climbing up the world rankings, England have a wealth of incredible talent at their disposal. To put it briefly, Scotland haven’t.

I remember the 2002 World Cup very well. I was studying hard for my A Levels and trying to catch as much of the football as I could and one day I caught the most unbelievable sight on television: Scottish folk donning Brazil shirts ahead of England’s quarter-final match with the South American stars. I can completely understand the rivalry between the home nations and I think it is healthy. After all, there’s nothing like winning the bragging rights in the office the next day but a section of the Scottish fan base seems to take this rivalry to the extreme.

And so it was that Maradona was greeted like a national hero when he touched down in Scotland this week and, just like six years earlier when I saw the Scots in their Brazil shirts, this time the TV was showing shots of Maradona being greeted by hundreds of guffawing Scots – shouldn’t you have been at work lads?!

I guess it’s inevitable that people will claim that this blog entry means I am bitter. Not so – I’m just really fascinated. If Scotland put half as much energy into producing some world class talent as they did gloating over every English slip-up then I think they would be a force to be reckoned with.

Harking back to the 1998 World Cup, I remember a wave of excitement rippling around when John Collins hit the back of the net in the opening game against Brazil. Scotland went on to lose but we sat around talking about how they put up a good fight and how nice it would have been to see Scotland beat Brazil – David beating Goliath. The fact that there were Scots in Brazil shirts when England had the same fixture shows that the feeling isn’t reciprocated.

I have no doubt that there are many English fans who certainly don’t share my views. The violence we have seen at fixtures in the past proves this, but I can’t really imagine a huge contingent turning up at the airport to greet any particular player who has helped orchestrate a win against Scotland in the past.

Scotland have certainly improved as a football team over the last few years, save for the little blip that has seen the team slide down the world rankings, and I hope that the success of the team continues. When England next play Scotland I will be shouting as loudly as every other Englishman, hoping that we completely thrash the Scots and I would expect them to be desperate to give us a good beating too. However, the extreme that some Scots have taken the rivalry to is quite unique.

I had a browse through the Tartan Army message board and it was quite refreshing to read some of the comments. This one in particular caught my eye: “All this hero-worshipping of Maradona by Scotland fans is an embarrassment. The guy is a fat, little druggie cheat…hardly an inspirational role model. I was asked by a few non Scottish or English friends about it and I struggled to defend our reaction. Does it say a lot about us as a nation that we are more concerned about others than how we can better ourselves? We need to overcome this chip on our shoulder in order to become successful”.

It’s great to read something which proves that it isn’t the whole population who are so anti-England and I think that to a certain extent it has all been rather whipped up by the press. Maradona should sit back and take pride in the fact that he is one of the finest footballers ever. He doesn’t need to be so antagonistic and goading.

Not content with winning last night’s game, Diego felt the need to come out with the line: “Who is Terry Butcher”? The guy is just a wind-up merchant who now needs to recognise that he is the manager of a national team and a figure of authority. Simply put, he needs to concentrate on making sure that Argentina continue to be one of the finest teams in the world rather than trying to wind up anyone and everyone in sight.

As for the Scotland team, I am just looking forward to a great game with loads of goals (for England) when the Auld Enemy meet again.

England beat Germany in Berlin – what did we learn?

On November 20, 2008 by

So what did we learn from this rather ‘pointless’ friendly? We actually learnt quite a lot for once and coach Capello will be extremely happy with his years work.

A win in Germany is always good for the system but to do so with a make-shift side shows that spirit is extremely high in the camp. We’ll start from the back:

We learnt that Scott Carson hasn’t vanquished those Wembley demons and for now he isn’t going to challenge David James for the #1 jersey. James will not be a spring chicken when South Africa 2010 rolls around but no-one is stepping up to take his starting spot and until Ben Foster or Joe Hart really make a claim then it’ll be James who starts in the World Cup should we make it.

We also learnt that Glen Johnson is ready to make the right-back spot his own. He has been one of Portsmouth’s most consistent performers over the past 18 months or so and with Wes Brown really fighting for his starting place at Old Trafford, Johnson has a real chance at nailing down that spot.

We have also learnt that Matthew Upson is a top class back-up who deserves his place in the squad. Wayne Bridge shouldn’t be near the team if we are to fellow Don Fabio’s idea that if you aren’t really starting regularly that you shouldn’t be in the squad. However we all know that Ashley Cole will start at left back.

In the midfield we saw that even Stewart Downing can play well at times. The other members of the midfield all know they are there or thereabouts but it was Downing who came into the game with several question marks. He looked lively and set up both goals with delivery from dead ball situations but his crossing in open play was yet again disappointing.

Up top Gabriel Agbonlahor looked very lively and must be in the mix for one of the four or five spaces on the plane. If you think that Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey are locked in if fit, then you have two of three spots left. Michael Owen must surely still be in the mix whatever anyone says as his record for England in the big games is second to none. Then you have Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Dean Ashton, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe all fighting over the final spot or two. Crouch would surely have the inside track due to the fact that he gives something different so there could be some very disappointed players out there.

I have been a critic of Capello and his insistence of not using Michael Owen but you simply can’t argue with the results. England look like they are starting to turn it around and will now catapult themselves well into the top ten in the FIFA rankings following this impressive victory.

Can England really win the World Cup in 2010? Well let’s put it this way, a few months ago I’d of said no chance but now you’d have to put us right in the mix.

Ronaldo set to retire?

On by

Ronaldo, the former star of the Brazilian national football team, has revealed that he is considering retiring rather than continuing on his latest comeback from injury.

The striker is thirty-two years of age and has been plagued by injuries during recent months. He has been a marginal figure in the world of football since leaving Real Madrid and his contract at Italian giants, AC Milan, ran out at the end of June this year.

Since the summer, Ronaldo has been training with Brazilian team, Flamengo, in an attempt to make a successful comeback from a knee injury sustained whilst playing for AC Milan earlier this year.

He was out of action for nine months after rupturing a tendon in his knee. His time spent training with Flamengo has paid off and the striker made his first appearance since his injury during a charity match held earlier this week in Morocco.

However, whilst this news may seem positive, the fact remains that Ronaldo decided against joining Italian club, Siena, at the beginning of this month and he has admitted that he may simply decide to quit the game rather than trying to rediscover the form which proved so scintillating at clubs including Barcelona and Real Madrid. Ronaldo revealed that he is not sure if he “will continue to play” and he remains “in no hurry to make a decision”.

Whilst Ronaldo did make a comeback to match action in Morocco, the striker was quick to downplay the significance of it, since exhibition matches are a far cry from “professional football”.

The debate as to whether he should retire is certainly not one-sided though. Ronaldo revealed that football is still his “life” and he was thrilled to return to the pitch.

Chelsea give back and look forward

On November 19, 2008 by

Chelsea may be all about the big bucks but they also know that they have an important place in the community. Along with Adidas they have funded and built four blue pitches that are located in the London Boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Wandsworth.

Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack speak about what is going on with them. Ballack is on the way back from injury and hopes to be match fit within the next couple of weeks and Lampard is dead chuffed to of reached the 100 league goals landmark.

The two of them also discuss their ultimate five-a-side team and Ballack goes for an aggressive no goalkeeper strategy!

Listen to the gaffer speak about his thoughts of the season so far and how optimistic he is that this year will be the one that Chelsea climb back on top of the domestic pile and reach those European nights.

Were Bolton cheated out of a good goal?

On November 18, 2008 by

Over the weekend we saw a couple of incidents where players stood in front of the goalkeeper at a corner kick. At Ewood Park the subsequent goal stood but at the Reebok the goal was disallowed. Everyone has an opinion but some people think that there was some bias involved in giving that opinion.

Regular watchers of Sky Sports will know that there seems to be an unofficial ban on Alan Parry calling Liverpool matches. The question is whether this is because they see that he can’t call games involving his team or is just luck that he hasn’t commentated on the team on the channel for nearly three years. This ban doesn’t spread to Ian Darke who is a Portsmouth fan and gets Pompey games.

Anyway on Saturday whilst us in the UK were listening to the up and coming Bill Leslie alongside Andy Gray for the commentary, on the world feed Alan Parry was alongside Nigel Winterburn. Now this shouldn’t of been much of a story but the gaffer over at EPLtalk wrote an article where he basically tore Parry apart for saying that the goal that was disallowed was incorrectly chalked off.

He claimed that he was so concious in not being biased for Liverpool that he was doing the exact opposite. Now I have seen the goal on numerous occasions and saw it live. I thought it was a goal then and I still think that it is now. I do have an anti-Liverpool bias but I also have a pair of eyes and know the laws of the game.

It says nowhere in the laws of the game that any player has to move out of the way of another. Standing your ground is perfectly acceptable. If Reina wants to come for the ball then he has to go around the attacker standing in front of him – that is just the way it is. If anything it was a foul by Reina on Nolan when he shoved him with two stiff arms in the back – which is a blatant penalty.

However Rob Styles was the official and as per usual the decision seemed to favour the bigger team. Whilst I have no doubts whatsoever as to his integrity, when he makes contentious decisions they do seem to fall on the side of the bigger clubs.

Anyway back to Alan Parry and his calling of the goal. There wasn’t much wrong with it and Chris Kamara also said the goal should’ve stood as did Andy Gray. Dion Dublin thought it was a foul as Nolan had no intention of going for the ball himself so clearly it is one that is debatable. So to call out Alan Parry for his call of the goal is overly harsh.

Parry is a top commentator and is underused by Sky Sports. To see him alongside Andy Gray on Super Sunday was a pleasant surprise and hopefully both Parry and Darke can re-emerge as regular commentators on big games and leapfrog Rob Hawthorne and Bill Leslie.

Have Villa got what it takes to break in to the top four?

On November 17, 2008 by

When a team goes to the Emirates Stadium and asserts its dominance for ninety minutes, scoring two fine goals and giving nothing away at the other end, it is all too easy to become carried away.

On Saturday, Aston Villa taught Arsenal a harsh lesson on their home turf and, after the match, fans of the north London side could have little to complain about.

Villa dominated the match from start to finish and, if an alien had been sitting at the Emirates, munching on a cucumber sandwich and admiring the padding on the seats, it would have assumed that the team in the top four of the Premier League, the team who went a whole season unbeaten, and the team that have won numerous trophies whilst under the control of a gifted foreign manager, was the one bearing the name of Aston Villa.

However, this alien would, of course, be wrong. Aston Villa were truly majestic during the match on Saturday. This said, the growing amount of speculation concerning whether or not the team will be able to break in to the top four this season is simply laughable. The slightly more realistic football fan who believes such an event will occur next season, or the one after, is also deluding himself.

Let me put it simply: Aston Villa will not break in to the top four this season, or the next one, or the one after that. There are several straightforward reasons lying behind this assertion. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of money.

Randy Lerner has not exactly been tight-fisted when it comes to releasing funds for the manager to spend. Furthermore, Martin O’Neill has spent wisely in the transfer market and has also retained a focus upon mixing youth with experience (Arsene Wenger could certainly learn a thing or two from the Villa manager).

However, the financial gap between Villa and the top four is still huge and, if a key player or two becomes injured over the festive period, will Lerner be able to release enough money for the manager to purchase a top-quality player during the January transfer window?

The answer remains shrouded in doubt. Until Villa can replace a quality player with another quality player, and replicate this pattern throughout their team, they have no hope of breaking in to the top four.

Furthermore, let’s assume for a moment that Villa do improve their financial edge drastically. For example, they could undergo the financial transformation seen at Manchester City this summer. However, sudden financial transformations do not usually result in immediate success.

Manchester City’s recent run of form highlights this fact. Oh, and before you raise the point, Chelsea were already striving for Premier League success prior to the arrival of Roman Abramovich, which is why the team was able to achieve the potential already inherent within it, following the sudden and dramatic cash injection.

Villa’s other problems include the inability to pick up points whilst playing badly, especially against poorer teams. Chelsea became masters of this during their successful back-to-back Premier League campaigns and any team in the top four needs to become accustomed to doing so.

There is no doubt that the team spirit is intact and the players obviously want to get good results for their manager, who has been a breath of fresh air since taking over at Villa.

However, Villa fans should start accepting that they stand a good chance of winning the mini-league which exists below the top four but as for breaking the domination of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool? No chance.

Are Manchester United slipping away from the title race?

On November 16, 2008 by

Trying to make any kind of accurate prediction about the outcome of the Premier League title race during the middle of November is difficult and rather foolish. However, at the moment, speculations can certainly be made. After all, the league table does not lie.

A quick glance shows Chelsea sitting pretty at the top, with a vastly superior goal difference to Liverpool, who sit in second place with the same points total. Arsenal sit in third place, six points behind the leader, whilst Manchester United are two points behind the North London team.

It is true that Manchester United have a game in hand but, let’s assume for a second that this game was played and all three points were collected, the league table would still show the team sitting in third place, five points behind Chelsea and Liverpool and with an inferior goal difference (which we all know can be worth an extra point towards the end of the season).

To put it simply, it is far too early to rule Manchester United out of the title race. However, if Ferguson wants to lead his team to another title, he will need to improve his tactics, and quickly. They say that you learn the most about the big teams during clashes with minor teams. As such, Arsenal’s defeat at the hands of Stoke told us all we needed to know about their temperament and resilience.

Similarly, United’s narrow victory over Hull at home revealed uncharacteristic defensive frailties that worried both the club’s fans and the manager. Matches between clubs occupying the top four positions in the Premier League are, on the other hand, often tense, boring affairs that reveal little or nothing about the team’s aspirations and long-term prospects.

However, last weekend’s match between Arsenal and Manchester United was an exception to this rule. Certain weak points in the United team were all too clear last Saturday. Gary Neville proved to be a liability in the right-back position, particularly when faced with the pace and skills of Samir Nasri, who scored for the North London club.

Neville, a legend for both United and England, has not often looked like a liability during a game of football but the Arsenal players simply taunted the aging defender at times.

This, however, was not the team’s biggest problem. Why on earth Ferguson decided against playing a 4-3-3 formation during the game is a mystery. United were simply incapable of matching Arsenal in the midfield area and Cristiano Ronaldo was denied the freedom of movement which made him so potent during the last two seasons. Speaking of Ronaldo, after seeing that he was having a negligible impact on the game, why did Ferguson not switch his position on the pitch?

These tactical problems are not easily solved and they hint at deeper problems at United than can be fixed overnight. If United do want to challenge seriously for the Premier League this season, Ferguson will need to sort out the problems exposed at the Emirates Stadium last weekend.

Fans of the club will hope that the manager can at least make a start on the issues before they come up against a Stoke team complete with the effective weapon of Rory Delap’s long throw tomorrow afternoon.

Clever Trevor (Brooking that is)

On November 14, 2008 by

Over the last few years we have heard more about Lilly Savage than we have about Lilleshall. Why is this? Well, principally because the school of excellence, which gave us household names such as Scott Parker, Jermaine Defoe, Joe Cole and Michael Owen, shut down over eight years ago.

As more and more money floods into the English game, success is required immediately. Clubs don’t have time to spend months and years nurturing a young British talent so instead they take their cheque books to foreign shores and fork out for someone who can make an instant impact. What is the consequence of this?

The 18 year old midfielder who has been slogging it out in the youth teams for the past however many years is called into the manager’s office at the end of the season and told he is being let go. What is the chairman going to say to the manager if the player he spent £15 million on is sitting on the bench whilst a kid cuts his teeth in the first team?

Perhaps it’s time for a little personal anecdote. What do Danny Shittu and Michael Turner have in common? Both were let go by my team, Charlton Athletic, as players who were never going to make the breakthrough and dislodge foreign players such as Mark Fish and Herman Hreidarsson.

To a lesser extent, at the weekend I saw Charlie McDonald scoring for Brentford. He too was let go as he was never going to oust players like Jonathan Johansson or Sean Bartlett for the strikers’ positions at Charlton. I have no doubt that there’s an abundance of fans all over the country asking the same question as I am about their youngsters: “Why did we let him go?” The answer is all down to immediacy.

These players have come good, but too late. Charlton couldn’t have stuck an inexperienced 18 year old Michael Turner into a relegation battle – it could have shattered his confidence. No, it was easier to go with the experienced foreigners but a few years down the line when they have either retired or jumped the sinking ship, what do you have – a team, relegated, shipping goals left, right and centre looking on as one of their former “rejects” excels in arguably the best league in the world.

It’s all very well that clubs are keeping their training/YTS schemes ‘in-house’ for want of a better phrase, but I truly believe there needs to be an independent training camp, run for the FA by some of the best former players ever to play professional football, where aspiring pros can be sent.

They should live on campus and train every day as if they were players reporting for international duty and they should stay there for half a season, maybe a whole season and then when they return to their clubs they will have a far more rounded view of the game. It’s the same in any aspect of working life. Even if you go somewhere and don’t learn something new, you may just learn to look at things from a different perspective and that can only be healthy for the game.

It could even work the other way: the FA could have a scouting system that brings the finest young talent from Sunday league into an independent training school and then the players are sent out on ‘work placements’ to clubs over the course of a season. When the season is over the club can take an opportunity to buy the player from the FA. Where would the money go? Straight back into the scouting system!

There is just so much money in the game now. Let’s take Chelsea as an example. They spent over £30 million on Andrei Shevchenko, who is undoubtedly a striker of world class proportions. But as Peter Kenyon was counting the number of noughts on the cheque, Andrei was knocking 30 years of age.

Despite his world class pedigree he failed to shine in the Premiership and is now back in Italy but just imagine how far that money would have gone if it had been invested in the Chelsea youth scheme. If, from that money, they had produced just one John Terry and just one quality striker, they would have got more than their money’s worth but no, Andrei didn’t work out, Roman shrugged it off as £30 million isn’t too much to a chap like him, and they went and bought Nicolas Anelka for a mere £15 million as a replacement.

Just look at what can be achieved with a positive YTS scheme. I vividly remember, just as I was becoming genuinely interested in football, that Alex Ferguson made the ridiculous decision to play a bunch of “kids” like a couple of brothers by the name of Neville, Paul someone and a greasy haired nobody called David Beckham.

A pounding from Aston Villa had everyone crowing about how Sir Alex had lost the plot. Ten years later and that bunch of English nobodies had won virtually every honour in the game. I hate to say it but over the last decade Manchester United have shown the rest of England how it should be done.

Yes they have foreign players who have contributed more than their fair share towards the team’s success but all the while there has been an English spine running through that team. But even United though are starting to fall into the trap that so many others have. From the great days of producing players such as Butt, Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and er… Chadwick, even United have started to fall into the trap of just splashing the cash in the search for immediate success.

Perhaps you could argue that that particular bunch of players was a one-off and that it will be a long time, if ever, that we see such success from so many home-grown players. A lot has been made of Arsenal’s destruction of Wigan in the Carling Cup earlier this week and some of those players have the potential to star for England for many years to come but we mustn’t overlook the fact that there were still a number of foreign players in that team and, although it is something he does very well, Arsene Wenger seems to pluck out the finest young foreign talent and nurture it rather than focusing purely on the English.

Sir Trevor Brooking is a wise man and what he has said today needs to be acted upon. He himself works for the FA so it’s about time that they sat up and took notice, pulled their fingers out and started working to preserve the future of English football.

We all know where it starts – on the local green on a Sunday morning so let’s get the finest young players out there, let’s nurture them, turn them into the next David Beckham, the next Wayne Rooney and then let’s, as a country, celebrate the success of our national team way into the 21st century.