Wednesday
Feb032016

Leicester hell bent on achieving a miracle

Had a variety of games to choose from last night but plumped for Leicester, who beat Liverpool 2-0 at the King Power stadium to protect their lead at the top of the table. The highlight was Jamie Vardy’s magnificent 60th minute strike from distance; just as Liverpool were starting to get a grip on the game.

Vardy scored a second 10 minutes later in a move originating from yet another defensive clanger by the preposterous Mamadou Sakho.

Can Leicester really win the PL? They coped very well under the pressure last night. There was no sign of panic because they are so well-organised – maybe that’s the benefit of having an Italian coach. But they still have to get through the next two games against Man City and Arsenal, and hope to avoid picking up any significant injuries in the final 14 games.

City manager Manuel Pellegrini threw the dice against Sunderland and was lucky to get away with it. He played 4-4-2 with Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in central midfield. With Jesus Navas and David Silva on the wings, his team was very lightweight and open to being physically dominated. Pellegrini was naïve to think that system would simply blow Sunderland away.

Although Aguero was once again the match winner, City were battered defensively and needed to rely on Joe Hart to pull off a string of heroic saves.

Tottenham climbed above Arsenal, beating Norwich comfortably 3-0. Harry Kane could have scored four but settled for two. The young Englishman is an effortless finisher that never gets flustered, although we’ll find out more about him if Spurs are able to sustain a title challenge. Young centre back Kevin Wimmer started his first game and was untroubled in defence, but with fixtures piling up in Europe, it remains to be seen how Spurs will cope in the absence of Jan Vertonghen who misses six weeks due to an MCL knee ligament injury.

After drawing 0-0 at home to Southampton, Arsenal are a couple of games away from blowing their Premier League challenge. Should they lose away to Bournemouth this weekend, the Gunner's chances of recovering if Man City open up a five point gap are dubious to say the least and non-existent if Leicester should record a remarkable victory over City at the weekend and topple the Gunners the week after.

The only question now is how willing the fans are to turn on Wenger, or whether they will let him off again should he ‘redeem’ himself via another jammy FA Cup draw.

Could Arsenal finish fifth? Man Utd are only five points behind after Anthony Martial turned on the style in their 3-0 demolition of Stoke. Aged 20, this boy is the real deal – a superb investment. Like Thierry Henry, he starts on the wing and drifts inside. He has a great temperament, maturity beyond his years and is coping well with the physicality of the PL.

United have changed too many players too quickly and brought in too many youngsters. It takes time for players to develop relationships on the pitch and understand each other’s movement, especially under the pressure of having to win every match. This is what Van Gaal’s season has been all about.

As an outsider looking in, I really like Van Gaal. He’s deserved criticism but coped gracefully and intelligently. At his age, having had an incredible career that’s now coming to a close, he could easily be arrogant and stick two fingers up to everyone. His behaviour is the polar opposite to Arsene Wenger, who spent the aftermath of another disasterous result demeaning himself in the tunnel with the referee and Southampton manager Ronald Koeman.

“It’s always the same with you” Wenger complained to Lee Mason, at which point Koeman stepped in and replied, “No, it’s always the same with you”.

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Monday
Jan252016

Wenger’s dipsticks nause it up again

Arsene Wenger and his losers blew it again on Sunday, bottling the big London derby at home to the worst Chelsea side in over 20 years. Per Mertesacker earned himself an early bath after tripping Diego Costa, but it was still 0-0. A few minutes later, laughable defending saw Costa – surrounded by three Arsenal players – steal in and slice home a cross from Branislav Ivanovic.

The bumbling German has always been an accident waiting to happen, and his partner Laurent Koscielny, who has a terrible record of committing clangers in big games, should have conceded a penalty after stepping across Cesc Fabregas in the box.

With the skill and movement of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, the thought of bungling Wenger starting Mertesacker against Barcelona should strike fear into the hearts of every Gooner.

Arsenal only have two points more than they did after 23 games last season, and everything points to Wenger botching up what is probably the easiest chance any Arsenal manager has had to win the title since the club was formed in 1886.

Meanwhile, Arsenal fans were back to grumbling about the usual underperformers – the selfish Ramsey, Flamini – who thinks scoring a goal at the expense of his team will save his career at the club, and Theo Walcott, who is robbing Arsenal of £140,000 p/wk.

27 years old in March, Walcott’s wage packet is an insult to his profession. In three years’ time, when his pace has gone, he’ll be comprehensively useless and have cost Arsenal approximately £70m in wages and transfer fees. It’s insulting that a player so brainless should have such riches lavished upon him.

Although it’s virtually impossible to predict anything in this dreadful, dreadful league, the pendulum may now have swung slightly towards Man City whose remaining away fixtures include five of the bottom six clubs, but they still desperately need Vincent Kompany to return. Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi was fixing his hair when West Ham’s Enner Valencia stole in to give his side the lead on 56 minutes, but genius Sergio Aguero levelled the scores on 81 to rescue a point.

Having demolished Stoke 3-0, Leicester sit three points clear at the top of the table but now face Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal in quick succession. If they want to prove they’ve really got what it takes to go the distance, then the next 12 days may be pivotal for the Midlands club.

Tottenham, the best team in the Premier League at this moment, are now two points behind Arsenal and City after beating Crystal Palace 3-1 at Selhurst Park. Dele Alli, the young player of the season, scored a blinding volley six minutes from time. Spurs fans will refuse to believe they can win the league, but it very much looks like Tottenham will earn themselves a place in the Champions League next season at the very least.

Jurgen Klopp broke his glasses celebrating Liverpool’s 5-4 victory at Norwich. The German must feel like he’s in The Twilight Zone. After seeing his side fail to clear a corner five times, 6 ft. 1 dumbo Mamadou Sakho let a high ball drop at his feet, whereupon Mbokani Bezua nipped in and backheeled an equaliser.

11 minutes later, the disinterested Emre Can just stood and watched as new signing Steven Naismith sprinted past him into the box and scored a tidy second, and on 54 Alberto Moron-o gave away a penalty so ludicrous my immediate thought was that he’s part of an illegal betting syndicate.

Liverpool still won, but Klopp desperately needs his own players; his defence is making him look incompetent. He also needs to get to the end of the season without having a heart attack.

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Thursday
Jan142016

Arsenal blow it at Anfield

More farce in the Premier League this week. Results and performances by the ‘supposed’ major clubs were poor on Tuesday and Wednesday. All those that you would expect to see challenging for a Champions League place or the title either drew or lost, and are scattered all over the table.

Liverpool and Arsenal drew 3-3 in a scrappy game full of horrendous defensive areas, mostly from Klopp’s side but Arsenal’s defence could not think on their feet and adapt to Roberto Firmino’s floating role. Ex-Arsenal legend Kolo Toure creaked back into action alongside Mamadou Sakho, the biggest donkey in the Premier League. Sakho, a clumsy throwback who treats the ball like it’s a hand grenade, is better suited to Conference football, not Liverpool.

From what I witnessed last night, Petr Cech is not the goalkeeper he used to be. A so-called world-class goalie would have saved at least one of Liverpool’s goals. Arsenal have already conceded 36 this season – only 17 less than the whole of last season, so Cech has not made a tangible difference yet. Yes, he’s made some big saves this season, but so did Wojciech Szczesny. Does he calm the defence? I see no evidence of that. Arsenal have now shipped seven in their last two away games and only won one in five on the road – and that was against feeble Aston Villa.

With a minute to go, Arsenal did what they do so often under pressure - bottled it, letting in a daft equaliser. Victory would have put them five points clear of Man City and in a very strong position at the top of the table if you discount Leicester City’s chances of competing for the PL.

Absolutely nothing has changed at Arsenal; they’re the same spineless, underachieving side as they have been for the last decade, but they have a chance of winning the Premier League simply because the standard of all their competitors has plummeted. No single team is showing any winning consistency, and I expect that to continue for the rest of the season.

Olivier Giroud did score a very fine goal though, his second was brilliantly executed. Yes, man marking is often non-existent in the PL and Giroud shouldn’t be allowed to score a lot of the goals he does, but he is quite clinical six yards from goal. I reckon Harry Kane would score 40 goals a season for Arsenal. He’d score all the goals Giroud does and more, including from outside the box, because he’s deceptively quick and twice as mobile. Kane is an intelligent player and would fit Arsenal like hand in glove.

Man City slipped up for the umpteenth time at home to Everton, who were lucky not to concede a penalty in the dying seconds when John Stones needlessly went to ground and clipped Raheem Stirling. Their neighbours Man Utd made another mess of things, drawing 3-3 at Newcastle having been 2-0 up. Louis Van Gaal was having kittens in the dugout as Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini missed two absolute sitters that would have clinched the three points.

Leicester City were lucky to beat Spurs 1-0. I have watched Claudio Ranieri’s side a few times recently but ended up depressed by the way they play, simply defending en masse with Kasper Schmeichel hoofing long balls to their lone forward at every opportunity. If the game is close, Ranieri will sometimes throw two up top for the last 20 minutes, which makes creaky defences panic. The manager has put Leicester in a position where he can afford to gamble like that, other sides have to be more careful.

Even without Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who score 80% of their goals, Leicester are still joint top, which just shows how brittle this league is. Even if Leicester had been bankrolled by a billionaire, their results would be impressive, but they haven’t been – they’ve spent a measley average of £9m net on players per season over the past five years.

Although it would be funny if Leicester competed for the Premier League, from a purist’s point of view it would be a damning indictment on English football.

Chelsea drew 2-2 at home to West Brom and remain stuck in the mud in 14th place. I’m not sure a lot of their players care anymore where they end up, including manager Gus Hiddink who’s just doing Abramovich a favour. It’s all about the Champions League now. Diego Costa was back to his repellent worst last night. His behaviour distracts his own team mates and he’s a shocking role model, but if Chelsea dumped him he’d only end up banging them in at Liverpool or Man Utd.

Swansea vs Sunderland featured some of the worst refereeing decisions you’ll ever see. It’s rare that I blame officials for a defeat in any capacity, but last night tested that theory to the limit. Swansea had a player sent off for nothing, while two of Jermaine Defoe’s three goals were offside and the third one questionable. Two ex-Arsenal goalkeepers, Lukas Fabianski and Vito Mannone, rolled back the years with some laughable errors. Instead of tipping the ball over the bar, Mannone caught it, yet his outstretched arms hit the crossbar and the ball bounced towards a Swansea attacker whose goal was, fortunately for Mannone, disallowed for offside.

Remi Garde won his first game as Aston Villa manager, but needed a big slice of luck as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey dropped the ball through his own legs and over the line. I’ve no idea why Villa approached Garde as he was never equipped to keep Villa up and the Championship will be another culture shock for him. The Frenchman was naïve to take the job on and the Midlands club could end up in the wastelands if they continue to make such awful decisions at boardroom level.

So, who will win the Premier League? I don’t know and I don’t care, but I’m sure whoever does win it will be the worst team to win it in my entire lifetime and will probably have the lowest points total since three points for a win was introduced to England in 1981.

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Monday
Jan112016

Bowie's cultural impact reached the football pitch too

Like many fans of a similar age to me - and many more between, my heart sank this morning when I heard the news of David Bowie's passing.

He was not a king or a president or a prime minister, he was more important than that. In today's world where violence is so frequently used to spread a message of hatred and division, terrorising people around the word, role models are few and far between.

It takes a genius like David Bowie to truly change cultural perceptions and boundaries, challenging societal attitudes towards inclusivity, freedom of expression and sexuality. Whether in our homes, down the pub, in the locker room or on the terraces, his impact cannot be underestimated and he will thankfully be cemented in British culture and our national psyche long after his passing. 

In a sporting context, I am proud to live in an open society which, for the most part, is inclusive of race, gender and religion. We see that in operation in football grounds all over the country almost every day of every week - a place where people can go to share their passion and, in the spirit of freedom and acceptance, a place of belonging. This is the TRUE value of sport. Sadly, other countries still have a long way to go, but we live in hope.

There will never be another David Bowie, but the power of his music lives on. His cultural influence is inescapable, and needless to say, it was not difficult to find a Bowie track that might somehow be applicable to our sport and its players, past, present and future.

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Saturday
Dec192015

Wenger's turd rising to the top

The craziest Premier League season of all-time reached new levels of absurdity with the sacking of Jose Mourinho this week, whose Chelsea side I rather embarrassingly tipped to win the title.

Many are asking the question: who is to blame? We all know that Mourinho is a divisive character, but so are many of the characters in the Chelsea dressing room. My inclination would have been to start sacking players, not the manager. The attitude and performance levels of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, to name but three, have been utterly unacceptable.

Some say that Mourinho is to blame for alienating his players, but building solidarity within a squad has proven to be one of his key strengths. Of course, the situation is more complicated and nuanced than that. It’s a combination of things, big-headed players who can’t take criticism, sporting directors failing to strengthen a title-winning side that very much needed strengthening, and a small squad that Mourinho drained every last drop of sweat out of last season lacking the motivation and energy to do it all over again.

The result is that Chelsea has lost one of, if not the best managers in world football, yet remains lumbered with certain players that are clearly divisive, unprofessional and untrustworthy going forward. I get the feeling Abramovic might regret this decision. Whatever you think of Mourinho, and I’m well aware he’s detested – winners like him always are, but he’s one in a million and there are not many managers like him available on the horizon at present.

The Premier League looks weird with Leicester City sitting at the top. One defeat in 16 for a team that was threatened with relegation last season demonstrates just how weak and feeble this dire league is. It’s a league where few teams can defend (or attack) with any consistency, and the football is mostly clueless. You only have to look at Watford who, having won less than half their games, sit in seventh place playing a 4-4-2 system that would normally be thought of as suicidal for a newly promoted team.

At this point, the PL is probably a two-horse race between Man City and Arsenal. As a (relatively) sane, rational man watching an insane, irrational league, I have to discount Leicester as genuine title contenders. Any loss of form or injury to Riyad Mahrez or Jamie Vardy will surely see the wheels come off. Between them, they have scored an astonishing 76% of Leicester’s goals - that's not sustainable.

In terms of title challengers, I’m discounting Man Utd too, because Louis Van Gaal is clearly stuck between a rock and a hard place. He had to sort out Utd’s defence, and has somewhat succeeded, but doesn’t have the firepower to compensate. There’s no understanding in the final third, which is hardly surprising considering the age of Memphis Depay (21), Anthony Martial (20) and Jess Lingard (23). Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, is at the wrong end of the bell curve and looks past it.

It must be tempting for Van Gaal, usually an attack-minded coach, to play 4-4-2 with Marouane Fellaini supporting Rooney up front, but Utd are not Watford, they’re expected to compete for the title. Van Gaal is waiting for his young side to click, they need time – it may not happen. Throwing the dice, even in this garbage league, will probably not work. Huge money has been spent at Old Trafford, not necessarily badly, but without doubt inappropriately.

Jurgen Klopp has not lost the plot. Liverpool have slumped after the expected boost that followed his arrival, and the German’s reaction is to refuse to shake Tony Pullis’ hand, punch the air like a madman and lead his players on a victory parade around Anfield following a paltry home draw against West Brom.

This is all part of Klopp’s plan, he did the same at Borrussia Dortmund, where the fans often blew other teams off the park. Make no mistake, he wants that stadium stoked-up week in, week out – and this is his way of going about it. I’m pretty sure that next season Klopp will raid his old club and pickpocket a few players. Don’t be surprised to see Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Mats Hummels at Anfield next season, relishing the challenge.

So the title race is between Arsenal and Man City, and City is completely defective without its leader Vincent Kompany. We’ve seen in the last few seasons how readily they collapse without his leadership. Pellegrini has quite simply failed to coach the defence to an adequate standard, and refuses to drop the mercurial Yaya Toure, whose attitude is far too blasé to be relied on in a DM capacity. Pellegrini’s days are numbered and I believe Pep Guardiola will replace him as soon as is viable – unless Abramovic has convinced him otherwise.

At this point, one might conclude that God is a Gooner.

It’s all fallen into Wenger’s lap without him lifting a finger. He can keep making the same mistakes he always makes, has license to knacker the team physically, watch them crumble under pressure like they always do and continue unabated with his clueless blanket tactics, yet still win the title – probably with a record-breaking low points total.

The big question is, if the turd rises to the top and Wenger does fall over the line, will he have the brain cells to leave while he's on top or will his overblown ego go stratospheric? The answer to that question probably lies in the fitness of Vincent Kompany.

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