FM

Oct 072014
 

Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal as revealed that left-back Luke Shaw suffered a dead knee in United’s 2-1 victory over Everton on Sunday and had to be substituted so as not to aggravate the injury.

He told BBC sport in an interview after the game that ‘He has a dead knee. He could have made it worse, so that is why he stepped out’.

Initially it was feared that the young gun could have suffered a serious knee injury but the manager played down the severity of the injury claiming that his substitution on Sunday was a precaution against making it worse. As a testament to this, Shaw is expected to line-up for the England under-21 for their Euro qualification game against Croatia.

The ex-Southampton player who joined United over the summer has had his fair ride of challenges since making the move. He was told by Van Gaal during pre-season to shapen up which he accepted and threw himself into. Only to get injured on the eve of the league opener against Swansea.

He had to make his United debut against West Ham following the suspension of United academy graduate, Tyler Blackett who was called up as a stand-in. Since the beginning of the league, Manchester United has been plaqued by injury to their senior team players. It started with Michael Carrick who got injured and limited the teams options in the midfield.

Since the start of the league, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini have all paid a visit to the physios because of injury. The grippling effect and severity of the problem became apparent while during the pre-match interview of the game against West Ham, Van Gaal declared that he had only one fit centre-back Marcos Rojo and had to hand a debut to another United academy graduate Paddy McNair.

Since the beginning of the current campaign, Van Gaal has handed first team debut to several United graduates largely because of injury to his set of first team players. Three of these players are defenders namely, McNair, Tom Thorpe and Blackett. Van Gaal has been roundly criticised by the British press and pundits for failing to shore his defence when he could during the transfer window which has cost them to lose some winnable matches.

The height of United’s shoddy defence was severely exposed when they lost 5-3 to newly promoted Leicester City in the league despite leading 3-1 by half time. United cannot afford more injuries at this time. Any more injuries especially in defense can derail the team’s campaign in the premier league this season.

It is an embarrassment to a team of United’s calibre when small and average teams who usually dread a visit to Old Trafford now come expecting to leave with a point if they couldn’t win as Sunderland and Swansea did respectively.

Now is the time to build momentum and seek to fight the real fight that will see the title contest for the premier league title which is still within reach or at least a berth among the top 4 and qualification into Europe.

Jun 102014
 

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is now just a couple of weeks away and the attention of football fans is starting to turn towards the tournament in South America. All of the qualified nations are eyeing up a successful event and one of those is certainly Argentina who have been well backed for World Cup success for some time now. They are of course packed full of attacking talent and with the World Cup being held on their own continent, you have to think that Alejandro Sabella’s side will fancy their chances of winning the tournament for the first time since the Diego Maradona inspired team of 1986…

It is fair to say that Argentina have flattered to deceive in the World Cup since that triumph 28 years ago with the past few generations falling short since despite often being well fancied. They have failed to get past the quarter-finals since losing in the 1990 final and it will be interesting to see how they shape up ahead of this tournament. The first thing to say is that Argentina did qualify with the minimum of fuss, losing just two of their 16 games and scoring an impressive 35 goals in the process.

When it comes to attacking flair, few nations have the same power as Argentina with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain offering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to attacking options. All eyes will of course be on the great Lionel Messi who has proven himself to be one of the greatest players of all time during his club career with Barcelona over the past few years. He is the captain of Argentina and you do feel that if they are to go all the way, it is Messi who will have to star for them on the biggest stage of them all. It should however be noted that Messi has fallen slightly below his usual standards for Barca this season, while his return of 37 goals from 84 games at International level is also a tad disappointing given his ability and class.

Higuain has had a good first season in Serie A with Napoli, while Sergio Aguero has been crucial for Man City in helping them to win the Premier League title but only when he has been fit. Aguero has had a number of muscle problems this season which would be a worry but if the three of them can arrive fit and healthy, Argentina’s wait for World Cup success could be over.

On the face of it, the draw has been kind to Argentina with Messi and Co drawn in Group F along with Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria. That is about as good as it gets at a Major tournament and if they do, as expected, win their pool, they are likely to face a second round tie against either Switzerland or Ecuador who are expected to be fighting it out with France in Group E. Brazil are likely to be on the other side of the draw assuming they win their group and while every game is difficult at a World Cup, Argentina can have no complaints when it comes to their path through to the latter stages of the tournament.

Other key members of the Argentina squad during the World Cup will be Real Madrid winger Angel di Maria, Javier Mascherano of Barcelona and Pablo Zabaleta of Man City who will be crucial at right-back. The defence is a slight worry for backers of Argentina with so much attacking flair almost certain to leave them a little bit short at the back which is something they will surely be guarding against. Ezequiel Garay of Benfica could be an important player with the Portuguese side currently enjoying a great run of form sweeping all before them on a domestic and a European level. He will need to transfer that form to the International stage but there is no doubt that Garay will be high on confidence after a terrific season and is likely to be a key man for Argentina in central defence.

If Messia and Aguero arrive in Brazil fit and firing then Argentina could well be major players when it comes to lifting the trophy in July which is clearly reflected in their position towards the head of the World Cup outright market. The only criticism of Messi during his career has perhaps been his performances on the International stage but this World Cup is the perfect opportunity to do put that right. He is already a hero in Argentina but if he can lead his country to World Cup glory for the first time in almost 30 years, he might just elevate himself to an even higher level matched only by the likes of Pele and Maradona. The worry for Argentina would be their recent World Cup record with the likes of Brazil, Spain and Germany perhaps made of sterner stuff when push comes to shove but it would be no surprise to see Argentina arrive to the semi-final stage at least this summer.

Jun 092014
 

Every international tournament springs surprises. We’ve seen it all from the Czech pair of Patrick Berger and Karel Poborsky lighting up Euro 96 before earning moves to English giants Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, El Hadji Diouf’s exciting displays in the 2002 World Cup earning him a move to Liverpool and even Mesut Ozil’s creative masterclass in South Africa four years ago just prior to signing for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

With this in mind we are likely to see players having similar breakout tournaments in Brazil this summer. Here are five players to watch throughout the World Cup who could take the tournament by storm:

1, Lorenzo Insigne – Winger – 22 – Italy

Italy have come a long way since the hugely disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010. After having failed to progress past the Group Stage, Italy turned to Cesare Prandelli, a coach renowned for his methodical approach to balancing squad morale with discipline, and the results have been fantastic.

Italy have integrated young talent into the team whilst keeping a core of experienced players in key positions and success on the pitch has followed. Italy are the only team to have figured out a repeatedly successful manner of playing against Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side whilst remaining a threat on the attack at the same time. This has been possible through the use of exciting individual players such as Mario Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Giaccherini however has fallen slightly out of favour following a difficult year at Sunderland and considering Lorenzo Insigne’s outstanding displays for Napoli it has become impossible for Prandelli to hold him back. Insigne has impressed a domestic Italian audience for the last two seasons now. Usually situated on the left wing but with the ability to play either on the right or as a shadow striker, Insigne has really taken his game to the next level this season.

He is quick and exciting on the ball. Whilst impossible to predict just what he will do next you can be sure Insigne is one or two moves ahead of his opponent. His footwork is remarkably similar to that of Arjen Robben, as is his low centre of gravity which allows him to escape challenges and find space when cutting inside from the flanks. The conditions in Brazil will see players tire more quickly and this serves as a further advantage to Insigne.

With Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli likely to be battling to be Italy’s first choice striker for the tournament it is likely Insigne will slip under the radar. That is until the tournament starts. The winger who will be twenty three by the time Italy take on England on June 14th is only going to get better and on his first experience of the international stage, you can fully expect him to be a shining creative spark throughout the tournament.

2, Son Heung-min – Winger – 21 – South Korea

Son Heung-min is another exciting young winger heading to Brazil this summer. Having made his breakthrough in Europe with Hamburg it became clear last summer that he had outgrown the struggling club. A move to German giants Bayer Leverkusen has simply served as the catalyst for a huge improvement in consistent displays of quality.

It seemed that whilst it was clear the talent Son had at his disposal, playing with a better team was all that was needed to truly unlock his full potential. The South Korean winger who doubles up as a second striker has enjoyed a fantastic debut campaign with Leverkusen scoring twelve goals in all competitions whilst contributing seven assists.

One of Son’s best attributes is his ability to play with both feet. In the past you have seen wingers excel on one particular flank but have flattered to deceive when shown onto their weaker side. Heung-Min is not such a player. It is believed he is naturally right footed although if you have seen much of his season with Leverkusen you would be forgiven for not being one hundred percent sure. It is this versatility that allows him to be so effective when playing just off a long frontman, almost as a second striker.

Son can pick the ball up in pockets of space and truly dictate how Leverkusen attack. With Leverkusen boasting Sidney Sam as the first choice wide player this term it has been difficult for Son to play in his natural position. However the decision to move him into the secondary striker’s role has been a masterstroke.

For South Korea Son is now very much the main man. Having taken the mantle from the recently retired Park Ji Sung it is Son who carries the hopes of the nation on his shoulders this summer. It is likely Son will return to his preferred position on the wing for the national team this summer and will be a real danger when in possession of the ball because of the option to either play a reverse pass in behind, cut in and shoot or even carry on down the flank before putting a cross in, such is the variety in Son’s game.

The current crop of South Korean footballers is in fairness not at the high level of years gone by and the team may well struggle in Brazil but with Son Heung-min in the team there is real potential for attacking quality.

3, Carlos Bacca – Striker – 27 – Colombia

At twenty seven years old this is perhaps a surprise inclusion however Carlos Bacca’s performances at Sevilla this season had propelled him into the limelight and the battering ram of a centre forward could play a huge part in Colombia’s plans at the World Cup.

Having played in Colombia for most of his career, Bacca finally made the risky move to Europe at the half way point of the 2011-2012 campaign when the Colombian forward signed for Club Brugge of Belgium. What came next was thirty one goals in all competitions over the next season and half however it must be noticed twenty nine of them came in the 2012-2013 campaign once Bacca had found his feet on the continent.

This form earned him a move to Sevilla. Admittedly the club’s interested stemmed from the fact they didn’t have much money to play with, despite the sales of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. Neither the club nor Bacca has looked back since. Bacca has been a revelation with the powerful striker netting fourteen La Liga goals and five Europa League goals en route to winning the competition.

Standing at just under six foot Bacca is the archetypal hard working striker. Think Carlos Tevez but with the technical ability to match. One of the most surprising revelations as the season progressed was just how talented a footballer Carlos Bacca is. His hardworking on pitch persona combined with physical stature often meant the clever touches and off the ball runs went unnoticed. However this wasn’t the case in the second half of the season with the eyes of Europe admiring as Sevilla reached another European final.

Bacca was key, not only in his goalscoring but in his overall linkup play and the hole left by Alvaro Negredo lessened each week. Bacca was always an option for Ivan Rakitic to play the ball into with the Croatian safe in the knowledge his teammate would hold the ball up and allow for the wide players to catch up to the move hence why Sevilla were such an attractive attacking force this term.

Bacca, in terms of the national team, has struggled simply due to the fact there is a certain Radamel Falcao in front of him. However with Falcao still fighting to make the World Cup after an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury suffered in January there is a real chance Bacca will play a starring role for Los Cafeteros.

4, Ricardo Rodríguez – Full-Back – 21 – Switzerland

At a time when top quality full-backs are a rarity Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to truly catch the eye in Brazil this summer. Having joined Wolfsburg in January 2012 the former FC Zurich defender has been a revelation.

The Swiss international is a well rounded full-back. Not only is he fantastic at going forward and supplementing attacking moves but the defensive side of his game has not suffered as a result. Rodríguez’s tackling is noted as a particular strong point amongst Wolfsburg supporters.

Physically Ricardo Rodríguez is also a handful. Standing just under six foot he is incredibly difficult to dispossess when on the ball. The closest player I can liken him to physically is Liverpool’s Jose Enrique. This is what makes him such a rounded player. He excels defensively through this use of his physical stature and innate tackling ability whilst able to retain possession when going on one of his frequent marauding runs down the left flank.

Rodríguez does have the ability to switch flanks and play on the right if needs be but seldom does this happen both for club and country.

For a full-back Ricardo Rodríguez’s numbers for the 2013-2014 campaign are tremendous. In thirty four Bundesliga matches the Swiss full-back scored five goals and added nine assists with ‘WhoScored‘ giving him an average rating of 8.02 for the season.

At just twenty one his potential for further development is exciting. The World Cup is the grand stage a player can use to really catch the eye and whilst being a defender is not usually a position which grabs headlines, Ricardo Rodríguez is an exception to the rule.

Switzerland are fortunate that arguably their finest crop of young players for generations is being guided by the vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld. The Swiss team heading to Brazil, whilst very young, is also equally as exciting and Ricardo Rodríguez is just one of the players who could really catch the eye in Group E.

5, William Carvalho – Defensive Midfielder – 22 – Portugal

Arguably the most interesting name on this list for Manchester United supporters is Portugal’s twenty two year old midfielder William Carvalho. Although speculation linking the Sporting Lisbon player to Old Trafford has cooled significantly since David Moyes’ departure there is still interest in the player’s performances from supporters, even if just to see in effect what they could have had.

Carvalho is one of the more physically domineering members of Paulo Bento’s squad headed to the World Cup, standing at 6.1 feet tall Carvalho has the energy to really emphasise his physical advantage over many opponents.

One of the key components of Carvalho’s game is breaking up opposition attacks. Being such a physically domineering player that is not too difficult for him to do however it is his ability to cover ground quickly which is so impressive. Of course he is not at say for example the speed of Arjen Robben but by holding midfielder standards it is a trait which sets him apart from other players.

Manchester United have been searching for a central midfielder who can break up play since the departure of Roy Keane. Owen Hargreaves did provide significant rest bite on that front but his struggles with injuries meant the club never had the stability on the defensive side of midfield. Even if the move is probably not likely to happen this summer you do feel as though Carvalho would add a lot to United’s ailing midfield.

Carvalho has been the standout performer of Sporting Lisbon’s excellent season which has seen the club return to the Champions League once more. It has been said that Carvalho needs to move to a more competitive league to truly show his ability however whilst that is not the case, the World Cup in Brazil is highest stage of them all.

Portugal have been placed in Group G along with Germany, Ghana and the United States. These are all teams which boast quick attacking players. The counter attack is a threat Portugal have been susceptible to in the past, and will come up against this summer. However with Carvalho in place as a holding midfielder the extra protection for the back four is there. Whilst it might not be the clearest position to impress in, the holding midfield role is vitally important in a game where speed is such an advantage. Carvalho might not take the limelight like Cristiano Ronaldo will this summer but Portugal’s chance of success does rest heavily on the twenty two year old.

Jun 062014
 

After months of speculation, Roy Hodgson named his 23-man England squad for the World Cup in Brazil and preparations for the tournament can now begin in earnest this week with the first of three warm-up matches taking place against Peru at Wembley on Friday night before jetting off to Miami where they will face Ecuador and Honduras ahead of their first game in the tournament against Italy on 12th June.

It hardly needs saying that England are without a major International trophy since they won the World Cup back in 1966 and while few are expecting them to match that feat in 2014, there is a growing feeling that England can make an impression on the tournament with a number of exciting youngsters hoping to make their presence felt in South America.

The large majority of the old guard have been discarded by Roy Hodgson with Captain Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard the only remaining players of that so-called ‘golden generation’. England will be without the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand for the first time in a while at a Major tournament and in come Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, Ross Barkley of Everton and Luke Shaw of Southampton to name just three of the young guns heading to south America that are hoped to spark the next era of England’s national team. Last season’s Premier League saw a number of young English talent rise to the top of the game at Southampton and Liverpool in particular and they have been rewarded with a chance to continue that good domestic form in Brazil.

Sterling and Barkley have been highly impressive as attacking midfielders for their clubs and both have the ability to go past players with a mixture of class and speed which is what England have been so badly lacking in recent years. They have been given the freedom to express themselves by their club Managers and if Roy Hodgson allows them to do the same, they are two players who are more than capable of making a big splash for England over the next couple of months

England will need their entire squad to be in great form if they are to even qualify from their group with Uruguay and Italy their main two opponents in Group D. That was one of the toughest draws they could have received but the same applies for their opponents who would have been less than pleased to have seen the three lions land in their section. The pressure is off Roy Hodgson and the England team to a certain extent which could play into their hands as they come up against the Luis Suarez led attack of Uruguay and the experience and overall class of Italy, who knocked them out of Euro 2012 on penalties.

The headlines have so far been made by the young guns in the England squad but with their lack of experience so stark, the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard will become even more important. Both players have been to countless tournaments during their career and both are more than capable of leading England through that tricky looking Group if on form. Gerrard has been rejuvenated in a new deeper role in the Liverpool midfield and should take on the same responsibility for England, while Wayne Rooney will have a point to prove after heading to recent tournaments without a major injury overshadowing him. The Man Utd forward is likely to be paired with in-form striker Daniel Sturridge up-front which does look exciting, on paper at least and the pair could well be crucial in helping England flying under the radar into the latter stages.

At the moment England can be backed at 33/1 to win the World Cup and for once, few could argue with the bookmakers, who normally have England much shorter given the weight of the ‘patriotic pound’ from hopeful fans. However, expectations are pretty low for Roy Hodgson’s men and in truth, any sort of progression to the last 16 of the tournament is likely to be viewed as a success, given their draw. It should however be noted that if England do manage to make it past their Group they are likely to face either Colombia or the Ivory Coast in the round of 16 which is a winnable game if they are on form. That would be considered a decent enough draw for a World Cup knock-out match which could well see them head back to the quarter-finals for the first time since they fell to Portugal in 2006.

At this stage though, England remain somewhat of a mystery when it comes to predicting their performance in South America. It is safe to say that most wouldn’t be surprised if they fell at the group stages but at the same time, there is more than enough young talent in that squad to see them through to the latter stages if they are given the freedom to express themselves. The defence would be a slight worry for Roy Hodgson but there is no doubt that this team is potentially full of goals with Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Barkley, Lallana and Gerrard all in great form and hoping to take their club performances onto the world stage this summer. Heads of the nation will be saying progression to the last 16 is the best Hodgson’s men can hope for whilst hearts will believe that an adventure to the last four and beyond is not totally out of the question!

Apr 012014
 

There’s a hint of a civil war among Manchester United fans at the moment. The fans are certainly divided into two camps. There are those that find themselves still firmly behind under-fire boss David Moyes and those that would favour a change in management ASAP.

It’s an issue that has really come to ahead this week with the first signs of open revolt amongst the supporters. Fans at the stadium were visibly upset following the home defeat by City last week and the manner in which the side went down so feebly.

One thing I think both sets of fans can agree on is that the plane stunt on Saturday for the game against Aston Villa was an altogether pointless exercise and generally did the club more harm than good. Fans are 100% free to express their opinion but that stunt was just foolish. I’m no fan of David Moyes but even I think there was no need for that. Thankfully it received mostly negative attention both in the stadium and in the media.

David Moyes however received an overwhelmingly positive reaction when he emerged on the pitch on Saturday. I must say I was a bit surprised by this, I thought the majority of fans, like myself, would have taken issue with both the performance on Tuesday and his remarks after that we should aspire to be like City. Following the reception he got, I’m of the opinion that he could have been waving his middle fingers at them as he walked out and it would not matter, they’d still stand and applaud for any Manchester United manager, an admirable quality in some regards.

However there is a difference between supporting your team and supporting your manager. Every single die-hard United fan calling for Moyes’s head is doing so because they believe it will benefit the team. They are refusing to stand for the mediocrity he’s brought and have grown sick of the embarrassment this proud football club has had to endure over the past months. It wouldn’t happen at Barcelona, Madrid or Bayern Munich. Those are the clubs we should be comparing ourselves with, the very best in the world, not Spurs or Everton, no disrespect intended to those two fine English clubs but they are not at the same level.

The ‘Moyes In’ side of the debate lean heavily on the fact that Manchester United are ‘not a sacking club’ and never have been. This, it must be said, is not true and a quick glance at any Manchester United history book will reveal as much. The club have just not had an under-performing manager in a very long time.

Look back to the years after the great Sir Matt Busby retired. His place was taken by Wilf McGuinness who lasted a little over a year before being dumped. Frank O’Farrell was next to try and fill the great man’s shoes and lasted a similar amount of time despite being given a hefty contract. Bear in mind that we are talking about the late 1960s early 70s, when the average tenure of a top-flight manger was much longer than it is today. Sacking a manager after just one season then seems hasty, it’s fairly standard these days.

These fans seem to think that because Ferguson was given time to build a team at Old Trafford that Moyes should be given a similar length of time but the differences between the two regimes are enormous. Ferguson, having brought domestic and European success to Aberdeen, arrived at Old Trafford with a mission (knock Liverpool off their f***ing perch) and a means by which to do so (focus on youth development but invest in experienced players when needed). He accomplished this and more during his fruitful 27 year spell at the helm.

Moyes on the other hand lacks even a shred of Ferguson’s ambition. I don’t know how many times he’s reeled out his trusty ‘We’ll try our best’ rallying call this year but it does nothing to inspire confidence among the fans. His biggest singular offences include saying that United were going to “make life difficult” for Newcastle at Old Trafford, heralding Liverpool  as favourites when they came to visit and openly saying that “we need to aspire to be like City” after their turn to run riot at Old Trafford nine days later. There’s absolutely nothing about Moyes, his attitude, personality or anything he’s done since taking over that offers any hope whatsoever he’s going to be a success at Manchester United.

For me, as a United fan, hearing his comments following the City defeat was like a dagger through the heart. The strong, winning mentality instilled by Ferguson in the 1990s, carried out by club legends such as Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo over the years has become utterly non-existent now less than a year later. I had sympathy for Moyes up until that point but to me his comments were basically spitting in the face of the club I’ve grown up loving.

‘Team Moyes In’ stand for the belief that Manchester United are not a sacking club (not wholly true) and that David Moyes, like Ferguson before him, should be given time to make his mark. They seem willing to settle for a couple of seasons in the doldrums in the belief that given time, David Moyes can somehow turn the club back into the winners they were under Ferguson. I would love nothing better than to be proved wrong but I just don’t see that happening.

‘Team Moyes Out’ have lost all faith that David Moyes is the right man for this job and see no point in settling for what they believe would be another season of embarrassing mediocrity under the current regime. Better to stop the rot now before Moyes is allowed another season to sully the club’s good name any further. He inherited the team that won the league at a canter last season and made turned them into Europa League hopefuls. The only player missing this season is Paul Scholes. Next year both Evra and Vidic will be gone, Ferdinand too and a few others presumably.

This summer is huge for United. Considerable investment is required to replace the final remnants of Ferguson’s 2008 Champions League winning side (Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Carrick, Giggs) and replace them with new, younger talent with the ultimate aim of reaching that goal once again. It seems a long way off now but this is Manchester United and that simply has to be the goal. The board must now decide whether or not the current manager who’s fumbled his way through the last two transfer windows, ended up paying over the odds for the uninspiring Fellaini from his old and buying a superstar he doesn’t know how to use, is really the right man to trust with such a huge amount of money.

 

Feb 282014
 

Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets a lot of people talking.

Whether it is for his off the pitch antics or his creativity in front of goal, it’s hard to find a footballer capable of still dividing so many opinions.

“Overrated”, “never turns up when needed” or “cocky” are a few of the words used to describe a man who couldn’t care less what people thought of him. That’s the beauty of Zlatan.

Buying Zlatan Ibrahimovic has probably been Paris Saint-Germain’s wisest move. Not only did the player lead the club to their first league title in 19 years, scoring 30 odd goals in the process, but he has also managed to do something that no previous Parisian player has ever achieved: soften the hatred Marseille fans have towards their main rivals.

For an article on their website, French radio station RMC Sport ventured into one of the best youth clubs in the South of France, Sporting Club d’Air Bel, and were surprised by what they saw. A few years ago, the only football shirts worn by the young talents would have been the white and light blue of Marseille. Now, however, more and more young football players are seen sporting Paris Saint-Germain shirts.

I’ll let you guess who the most common name on the back of these shirts is? That’s right: Ibrahimovic.

Even Bruno, Air Bel’s director, admits defeat over the Zlatan effect: “It’s true that Paris Saint-Germain have a great team and that, today, all the kids are in love with Zlatan”

Children are impressionable and that’s what Zlatan does. He impresses. His constant stream of creative goals has caught the eye of many young kids, who are now trying to emulate him, just like a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic tried to emulate a certain (now fat) Brazilian striker by watching clips of him on the Internet in his house in Sweden.

That’s what great players do. They unite people over the love of football. Take, for instance, the 2005/2006 El Clasico when Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 3-0 at the Bernabeu. Ronaldinho had probably one of the best games of his career. Instead of booing him for playing for the other team and single-handedly dismantling theirs, the Bernabeu applauded the Brazilian’s genius after he scored his 2nd goal of the game.

Of course, many people will point towards Ronaldinho’s modesty off the pitch whenever it comes to talking about his footballing abilities and say that is one of the reasons why he will always be loved more than Zlatan ever will. The thing is with Zlatan is that you cannot take him seriously.

For example, in one of his latest interviews with beIN Sport, he was asked by his teammate, Zoumana Camara, if he was worried when Zacharie Boucher (Toulouse’s goalkeeper) parried away his panenka penalty (Zlatan went on to score the rebound to complete his hat-trick). Ibrahimovic’s answer? “No, of course not. Had he saved it, I would have kicked both him and the ball into the goal”.

One of the main reasons why Zlatan is so loved by children is because he makes them laugh off the pitch as well as awes them on it. Take him less seriously and you learn to appreciate him for what he is: a big, incredibly talented at football, joker.

Oct 052013
 

A couple of weeks ago, something really got to me. All over European football media, there were reports dubbing Paris Saint-Germain vs AS Monaco as the biggest game of the season in terms of French club football and a great advert for Ligue 1. It’s not.

For me, the biggest game of a season is and should be a game deciding who could win a title but more importantly, it’s also about the history between the two clubs and the history between the fans. English football fans will know that. Manchester United vs Liverpool was for a very long time the game of the season for fans around the country, even for the neutrals. Spain have El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. France have Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain vs Olympique de Marseille.

Whereas of late, Manchester United vs Liverpool has been more or less irrelevant in terms of a title decider and El Clasico is more of an opportunity for the world to witness two of the biggest football clubs play each other and showcase their teams of superstars diving around a pitch and rolling on the floor at the slightest bit of contact, Le Classique remains one of the most heated games in Europe. On and off the pitch.

With Paris Saint-Germain being one of the youngest clubs in France, founded in 1970 (compared to Olympique de Marseille being established in 1899), the rivalry is relatively new. This didn’t stop it from quickly becoming one of the most important dates on the French football calendar. There are many reasons behind this, one of them being the rivalry for the league title during the late 80’s.
Canal+ are partially to blame (or to thank, depending on how you want to look at it) for this. Former owners of the Parisian team, the French television channel saw the potential in the rivalry and began to advertise it profusely in the early 1990’s, especially after the title deciding game (won by Marseille) in 1989. Politics come into it as well, but that would be going off topic.

From here on in, the hype surrounding the game grew, but so did the hatred between the two sets of fans. Since 1995, there have been a reported 337 arrests, 52 injuries and, unfortunately, 2 deaths from altercations between fans surrounding Le Classique, with the latest death coming as late as 2010.

On the pitch, some truly wonderful footballers have taken part and scored in these clashes: Jairzinho, Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin, Rudi Völler, Abedi Pelé, Ronaldinho, George Weah (played for both teams), Pauleta to name but a few.

Strangely enough, despite the fierceness of the rivalry, 47 players have played for both teams in their career, including Gabriel Heinze. In comparison, only a handful have played for Manchester United and Liverpool and (in a much older rivalry) only 33 have worn both Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts.

In terms of head-to-head, the statistics are incredibly close. Since 1971, 82 games have been played between the two sides (cups included). Marseille have won 32 (scoring 105 goals), Paris Saint-Germain 30 (scoring 102 goals) with the remaining 20 games being draws (obviously).

Before Sunday’s game (played in Marseille’s wonderful Stade Vélodrome), it’s worth noting that Paris Saint-Germain have not won away to their rivals since 2008 when the visitors dominated in a 4-2 win thanks to a brace from Guillaume Hoarau. PSG have also won the last 3 games against Marseille (all having been played in the Parc des Princes).

For the time being, Marseille have the upper hand in terms of trophies (they are still the only French side to have won the Champions League and have 6 more titles to their name). However, with the balance of power slowly tilting in Paris Saint-Germain’s favour thanks to their Qatari owners, the game on Sunday promises to already be a potential title decider. Currently on 17 points and in 3rd place, Marseille will want to do everything in order to try and beat their arch-rivals sitting just above them, tied in 1st place with Monaco with 18 points.

I for one will be in front of my screen at 8pm on Sunday for what should be a cracking game. A great history, a great atmosphere, goals (no 0-0 draw in the league between these two sides since 2006) and most probably a red card. What more could you ask for?

Sep 242013
 

On Monday morning the vitriol had started. From the #MoyesOut campaign on Twitter to the fallout in the press for Manchester United’s demolition by their city rivals. Watching the game, it was tough to argue with either points and there was an air of ineptitude from the first minute that left a feeling of angst among the United faithful.

Social media was awash with the rumours that Manchester United’s best player is injured and out of the derby. From here the snowball was created and resulted in United’s downfall as it looked like this knocked the confidence of the players and it could be seen on the pitch. Other than Welbeck’s first minute foray into City’s box, at no point did Manchester United really look like a team capable of creating opportunities, let alone scoring and this is a problem that will be inherent for the season unless some changes are made.

David Moyes isn’t far into his tenure but he should know better than to blame the players when tactically he was shown up to the world’s viewing eyes. He claimed that he has never suffered at the hands of Manchester City in this way when he was the Everton manager and herein lies the problem; this isn’t Everton, this is Manchester United, the champions elect. Once the rumours had been confirmed that Robin Van Persie wasn’t in the match day squad, everyone had their opinion of what the team should be. These opinions circled around the fact that United would play a variation of the 4-2-3-1 system and no one would have come up with the starting eleven that actually came out. United are a team that relies on old fashioned wing play coupled with overlapping fullbacks that create goalscoring opportunities. However it was the blue half of Manchester that adopted and executed this system ruthlessly and it couldn’t have been more ever-present than in their first and fourth goals.

On the subject of wingers, the constant inclusion of Ashley Young is now worse than a bad joke. Since his arrival at United in 2011 he has never looked up to the task of being a Manchester United winger. Last season he provided three assists and other than ‘those’ two goals against Arsenal in his debut season, has he ever provided the kind of threat required at this level? More to the point, has he ever made another team worry once they’ve seen him included in the starting eleven? It is tough to explain Ashley Young when there are players who can change games in the squad. Namely Zaha and Januzaj not even making the bench with Nani keeping it warm doesn’t even create conjecture. Antonio Valencia was good against Leverkusen but not great, let’s not get ahead of ourselves as this is the same Valencia but with a different squad number. This was just as apparent yesterday as it has been all season bar that one aforementioned game. Given that his shortcomings as an attacking player have been exhausted by all, his inclusion must be merited on his defensive capabilities and with that gone (as was apparent in their first goal), what is his basis for inclusion in the next game?

The use of ‘hard working’ wingers and a more robustness to the team is how David Moyes is displaying his cautious mindset as a manager. Deploying two like-minded defensive midfielders, one of which is his darling from Everton, and the constant running of Danny Welbeck plus the two attackingly inept wingers is erring on the side of caution. It protects against a loss as opposed to going there to win and these same tactics have been displayed against Chelsea (h) and Liverpool (a) yet only one point has been gained. This is Manchester United, comparisons to Everton are nonsensical and Moyes needs to be shorn of this cautious mindset in order to flourish at this club. Playing 4-4-2 against the riches of Manchester City was a car crash waiting to happen and you have to remember that City paid £30m to put Fernandinho next to one of Europe’s best midfielders. (Fernandinho made more tackles/interceptions/key passes than the whole of Manchester United’s midfield). After the game Moyes claimed that United couldn’t get to grips with Manchester City’s midfield and due to that, they dominated the game. What confidence does that instil in the fans? More to the point, what does that tell the rest of the managers in the league? That tactically, Moyes got it very wrong. Playing the way they did was more to combat the way that Manchester City were set up yet Pellegrini set up in only one way; to get a victory. That’s the difference here and changes need to come quickly against Liverpool in the cup on Wednesday. This point is further compounded with Tom Cleverley’s introduction when United were 4-0 down. As much as it made hearts sink to see Tom taking his tracksuit off, it did bring stability to United. It may have been down to fatigue in the Manchester City team or the fact they were 4-0 up however it gave Manchester United more of the ball in the final third of the game. This change should have been made at half time when it was clear as day that United were being overrun for an entire half of the game. Yet it leads people to think that why was this not foreseen before the match? Welbeck played as a striker, as did Rooney and 4-4-2 does not work away from home to a title rival, it hasn’t for a number of years and it didn’t on Sunday. 4-2-3-1 is not a cautious formation, it is not entirely attacking either, what it does do is afford the opportunity to manager and players alike to adapt to a football match and it is a shame Shinji Kagawa could not get a game. That, however, is a discussion for another day.

After the game the bile inducing comments about United’s opening fixtures were again mentioned by Moyes. “Any manager would have found it difficult taking over the club with that run of fixtures.” and “It’s been a difficult start – the way the balls came out at the start of the season, I said I wasn’t convinced, and I’m still not convinced.” were mentioned by Moyes post-game and as embarrassing as the team looked on Sunday, the whole club are looking even more embarrassing citing a conspiracy that has not an ounce of evidence to back it up. To point to this as the reason Manchester United have made their worst start since finishing 3rd in 2006 rather than beat what’s in front of them is not an avenue that Moyes can be afforded. Firstly due to the fact he isn’t Sir Alex Ferguson who was all for conspiracies against United but namely that he is the manager of a completely different entity to Everton. Claiming that he’s not been demolished like that as their manager (which is laughable given their failure to win away to a top 5 club in a decade) has no place in a post-match interview. He has to choose when he’s wearing his Manchester United suit or his Everton tracksuit and decisions like that were the reason he’s hired so let’s hope that he chooses the former rather than the latter going forward.

Caution shouldn’t be overlooked however pragmatism is best served with an equal measure of optimism. Now David Moyes’s attempts to alleviate pressure on himself has backfired and he looks more out of his depth than he did before he started the job in July. Had he placated the fans by taking the majority of the blame by looking inwardly at his own tactics rather than pointing the finger at his players, this Monday could have looked a whole lot different.

Aug 072013
 

Footballers don’t see the world as fans do. They aren’t stuck with one club for all eternity; they can leave when a better offer comes along. The defence of the mercenary footballer has always been that it’s a short career, but this has become a moot point when the Premier League offers such grotesque salaries: the average weekly salary in the Premier League last season was £30,000 a week. Now pause for a moment to think of some of the dross earning that sort of money. Sickening, but the simple truth is that footballers are interested in what’s best for them, which is pretty obvious.

However, despite this straightforward logic, fans place an expectation on footballers not to behave with brazen disregard for their club. We enjoy it when we can develop a bond with one of our players, and with good reason. It makes the sport feel more real, especially for those who regularly attend live fixtures. It’s that feeling someone on the pitch is actually representing you, the fans, in the sense that they care about the club almost as much as you do.

But, even when this bond appears to exist, it can pull apart as easily as if it had been held together by a very old Pritt Stick. Luis Suarez has been worshiped by Liverpool fans for his performances which, despite some fairly well noted flaws, have never lacked in effort or skill. Suarez appeared to love scoring goals for Liverpool, and the fans loved him for it, but now he wants to leave. This leaves his manager, Brendan Rodgers in a very difficult position. Losing Suarez would be a blow to Rodgers’ growing ego, as well as a blow to his team. But, despite receiving unwavering support, Suarez has brought shame on Liverpool. Rodgers needs to appease his star player, but too much grovelling looks weak. If Suarez does leave, then Rodgers needs to look tough in order to try and save face. Faced with such a dilemma, Rodgers has invoked football’s moral code, which is a bit like throwing boulders out of an extremely delicate glass bungalow.

There are two obvious steps that footballers and managers can take to avoid the risk of being identified as an enormous hypocrite. The first is not to make false promises that will only come back to haunt you. The second is not to moralise about the behaviour of others, no matter how tempting. But, Brendan Rodgers cares little for this advice. During his first job as a manager, at Watford, Rodgers responded to reports that he was interested in the Reading job by citing his integrity:

“When I am asked about other clubs, people are questioning my integrity and one thing I have mentioned is I always have integrity…I am loyal and find it disloyal when I am asked about other clubs when I am the Watford manager.”

Those quotes were reported on 22 May 2009. On 5 June 2009 Reading announced his appointment as their new manager. And, having committed the first sin, he recently committed the second. As soon as the Suarez to Arsenal story started to gather momentum, Rodgers was on the offensive, lecturing his striker about the need to show loyalty to Liverpool. Irony must be in short supply in the Rodgers household. We haven’t even mentioned his departure from Swansea and the ‘agreement’ not to sign any of their players, only to return shortly afterwards and trigger a release clause in Joe Allen’s contract, but that’s another story.

Of course, footballers and managers spouting hypocrisy is nothing new. For many years newspapers have been having fun with footballers’ meaningless declarations of love for their employers. No one should seriously begrudge Rodgers the opportunity to take the Liverpool job when manager of Swansea, but it seems loyalty becomes a much bigger deal when one of the big clubs are involved, like Liverpool or United. It is unthinkable that a player could dare to leave such a prestigious club without the blessing of their fans.

The problem with Suarez is that he’s worked himself into an indefensible position (he’s good at that) by first claiming he wanted to leave England because of the hostile press, then adapting his position when Arsenal’s interest became public. Footballers don’t have to say at one club for their entire careers, but you don’t have to defecate on your own doorstep, either. Bizarrely, Liverpool fans are still supporting their man, but that support will turn to hate if he eventually signs for a Premier League rival. If he joins Arsenal and performs well in the Champions League, it’ll be a good move for Suarez, and he’ll boost his chances of another move in a few years’ time, perhaps to PSG or Madrid. The importance of loyalty that is so frequently cited looks like a pretty weak argument in comparison. Loyalty will always matter to supporters, and it should. It helps to define the players that are revered as opposed to being simply remembered. If Suarez leaves Liverpool it’s unlikely he’ll be revered anywhere, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll care.

 

Aug 012013
 

A statistical comparison between Tottenham’s current strikers and Roberto Soldado. (Via WhoScored.com)

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy

Let’s face it. Daniel Levy’s stubbornness in the transfer market in the last 11 months have cost Spurs dearly. Champions League football is yet another year away from White Hart Lane aswell as the daunting possibility of Gareth Bale’s inevitable departure being a year earlier. Daniel Levy haggling during transfer negotiations are world-renowned and has garnered a heavy reputation as a hard-bargainer. His annoying but usually successful techniques of bringing down prices have helped Tottenham coup some of Europe’s biggest talents for relatively peanuts. Van Der Vaart, Holtby and Lloris being prime examples of players that arrived in North London for low transfer fees; with Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas describing negotiations during the Lloris deal as the “hardest in the 25 years at the club”.

Yet where Daniel has excelled, he has also faltered to devastating effect. The constant pulling-out from deals has left many Spurs fans annoyed, with Levy’s inability to wrap up deals costing Tottenham players. Levy leaving Joao Moutinho till the last few hours of last year’s transfer deadline day meant Spurs missed out because paper work could not be submitted in time; while Leandro Damiao’s transfer broke down earlier this year over the suppossed fee, despite Spurs desperately needing reinforcements. It is increasingly evident that Levy’s tactics have back-fired in the last year or so when he could be backing his new manager with to adequate resources to compete. His obsession with driving a hard-bargain and his stubbornness to cough up the extra few bucks means Spurs, inevitably, miss out on big players.

With Mourinho back, the top 3 places seem cemented, leaving just one spot left for the highly coveted chance of playing in Europe’s biggest competition. With Arsenal (again) seemingly having trouble acquiring players, this summer seems to be the perfect opportunity for Spurs to finally leap frog the Gunners.

Regardless of Arsenal’s incompentence, domestic competition has never been stiffer, so the time for Levy to back AVB with hard cash has come. Daniel Levy should not be put off spending his money considering Andre Villas-Boas’ transfer record in England – which is absolutely impeccable; it’s hard to find a single player he signed struggle. Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku & Jan Vertonghen are prime examples of players he has brought from oversees to roaring success. AVB has already sought out Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, and the deal to send him to Spurs for £17m already been completed. Yet despite signing one of Brazil’s finest talents, Spurs fans alike are all worried this could be another of those transfer windows; where they sign an excellent player but miss out on a much-needed striker. With Paulinho & young FC Twente winger Nacer Chadili already in the bag, Tottenham are now reportedly in for Valencia striker Roberto Soldado. Although Daniel Levy may have been slightly hesitant to heavily fund Andre-Villas Boas last season, he should not hesitate to now after Andre proved his worth this and showcased his tactical nous to rack up Tottenham’s highest ever points total.

To say Spurs are in desperate need of a striker is massive understatement. Tottenham’s current strike force is the epitome of inconsistence. Jermain Defoe’s early season form was sensational and it looked like he’d cement his place as the undisputed striker. However injuries disrupted his rhythm and his form dropped dangerously as he scored only a solitary goal in 2013 – a truly woeful statistic for a player who offers very little if he isn’t scoring. As for Emmanuel Adebayor, he has enjoyed dogs abuse from many Spurs fans all season – a shadow of the man who scored 18 goals and recorded 12 assists the year before. So poor were Defoe’s & Adebayor’s performances during the second half of the season, that AVB simply played Bale as a deep-lying center forward; whose brilliance pulled them out of trouble time and time again. The need for a striker is at breaking point and one of those two need replacing with a hungry established striker. Enter Roberto Soldado.

The former Real Madrid striker is Villas-Boas’ seemingly preferred target after not being impressed by Benteke and Damião. The Spanish international netted 30 goals last season – a brilliant return during Valencia’s worst season in recent memory. After missing out on Eurpean football, Soldado is reportedly desperate to seek pastures new and the appeal of the premier league has caught his eye. Roberto would slot in perfectly at Spurs in Andre’s rumoured 4-3-3 formation next season. Having played most of his career as the lone striker, Soldado’s goal-scoring abilities and hold up play are his strongest attributes – a strong mixture between Adebayor and Defoe. Soldado also boasts one of the most extraordinary conversion rates in football, scoring with 27% of his shots; a phenomenal, refreshing statistic for Spurs fans after watching Adebayor last season.

Roberto Soldado would be a test of Spur’s and Levy’s ambitions, a test they must past if Andre-Villas Boas is to take Tottenham Hotspur to the next level.

Jun 122013
 

Luis Suarez revealed earlier this month that he was ready to leave Liverpool FC. Rather than being honest to the fans and explaining that, justifiably, he wants to join a better club who can compete for the Champions League every year, he has blamed his decision on the country.

Suarez has been regularly criticised in the media after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, biting Branislav Ivanovic (the second time in his career that he has bitten someone on the pitch), sticking his finger up at the crowd and diving. Any normal person could see that if a player had done these things and not been criticised, something would be very wrong.

“Ever since I arrived I have felt bad, they have never judged me for my play but with the attitude that he dives, protests, makes gestures, racism… everything,” he told television show RR Gol.

Poor Suarez.

His biggest complaint was the difference in treatment between John Terry and himself when they were both found guilty of racially abusing an opponent, accusing this country of discriminating against him because he wasn’t English.

“Without any proof they gave me an eight-match ban, but with Terry, where they had proof, lip-readers, they gave him four. I’m South American and I think that’s the root of all of this,” he claimed.

The problem with what Suarez has said here is that they did have proof. Their proof was Suarez’s own testimony. Whilst John Terry was caught on camera shouting “fucking black cunt” at Anton Ferdinand, he came up with the laughable excuse that he was asking Ferdinand whether he had accused him of calling him a “fucking black cunt” at the time the camera was on him. However ridiculous this explanation is does not change that it couldn’t be proven beyond reasonable doubt in court. Despite the chief magistrate giving his opinion that Terry’s defence was “unlikely”, there wasn’t enough evidence to disprove Terry’s silly story.

In the case of Suarez, they didn’t need lip readers to tell them what Suarez said to Evra because he told them himselves.

In the weeks leading up to the FA report being published, some newspapers claimed that the word Suarez had used was “negrito”, a less offensive and more friendly version of “negro”. They were speculating. Some Liverpool fans who, for some reason, never read the FA report still claim that this is the word Suarez used.

The FA report takes the statements of both Suarez and Evra, amongst others, and both players agree that “negro” is the word Suarez used when arguing with Evra.

Paragraph 6 of the report deals with Suarez’s explanation: “According to Mr Suarez, at no point in the goal mouth did he use the word “negro”. When the referee blew his whistle to stop play, Mr Evra said [in English] “Don’t touch me, South American.” Mr Suarez replied “Por que, negro?” Mr Suarez claimed he used “negro” as a noun and as a friendly form of address to people seen as black or brown-skinned.”

The language experts confirmed in the FA report that “negro” could be used between friends in Uruguay without any connotations of racism. They also confirmed that the word, like in England, was still a form of racist abuse if not said between friends.

Suarez admitted in the FA report that he pinched Evra and that he hit him around the back of the head. He also admitted to an earlier foul when he kicked Evra in the knee. He revealed that he was not friends with Evra. The argument they had was in the middle of a Liverpool vs United fixture at Anfield, one of the most hate-filled rivalries in the world. The FA rightly dismissed Suarez’s ridiculous claim that that he was calling Evra “negro” in a friendly way.

So, that is Suarez’s first complaint dealt with. The proof that he racially abused Evra came from his own testimony.

The next issue is to do with the length of the ban. Suarez was banned for eight games whilst Terry was banned for just four. Why?

Terry, like Suarez, was charged with a breach of the FA’s Rule E3(2) which states that football people should not use “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour”. The rule states that if such abuse includes “reference to a person’s ethnic origin, colour or race”, the panel can consider doubling the penalty it would have imposed had that “aggravating factor” not been present. The panel in the Suarez case specifically said that a four-game ban “is the entry-point” for breaches of E3(2) and it did double that minimum penalty to “reflect the gravity of the misconduct”.

The fact that Terry has been sanctioned with the minimum penalty suggests that the panel in his case, despite finding him guilty, did not find the reference to Ferdinand’s colour or race an aggravating factor such that it would double the ban.

However, whilst Suarez was banned for longer, Terry was fined more. It was a £220,000 fine for Terry and a £40,000 fine for Suarez, with the regulatory panels taking into account a player’s weekly wage.

May 162013
 

This time last year it was all going so well for Roberto Mancini and Manchester City. Two goals deep into injury time during the last match of the season against QPR meant the Italian had delivered City’s first title in 44 years in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. The long wait was over. City, who for decades had been a laughing-stock, found themselves at the summit of the English game. The days of winning ‘Cups for Cock Ups’ had gone; the Premier League trophy now had pride of place. Mancini’s position in City’s history books was secure.

Twelve months later and the landscape has altered considerably. Mancini has been sacked, with the club preparing to bring in Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini as manager. The Chilean yesterday denied reports that he is set to be installed at the Etihad, but that’s standard practice in these situations: he doesn’t want to upset his current employers, and needed to be seen as respectful to Mancini, who was still officially in charge when the denial was made. It’s become an ugly yet familiar managerial transition at City, after Mark Hughes and Sven Goran-Eriksson suffered similar fates. With the fans so emotionally attached to Mancini, this is an important appointment for the club. If it goes wrong, the relationship between the board and the fans – which has so far been serene – may be damaged somewhat.

City fans are quite rightly angry at the way it’s been handled. A not-so-private meeting with Pellegrini’s agent gave rise to intense speculation about Mancini’s future back in February, with Guillem Balague getting hold of information that a contract between City and Pellegrini’s representatives had been agreed. The Spanish journalist then proceeded to leak the information on Friday evening, just hours before City were set to play their second FA Cup final in three seasons. The rumours became so intense that the board were forced to sack him on the anniversary of that glorious day last May, denying him the opportunity of a proper send off in our final home match against Norwich. Typical City is alive and well.

Struggles in this season’s Champions League meant Mancini’s European record, and his suitability to make City the force they crave to be, came under intense scrutiny last Christmas. Pep Guardiola was the name initially touted as a replacement; a logical assumption given his links with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain whom he worked with at Barcelona. However, Guardiola soon agreed a deal to take over at Bayern Munich, leaving Pellegrini as the man most likely to become Mancini’s replacement. The club have done very little to quash those rumours and take the pressure off Mancini, something which he rightly feels aggrieved about.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel totally sorry for the outgoing manager. He was appointed in similar circumstances when he joined City, and also held talks with Monaco last season when his future was uncertain. Most people accept that secret talks are part and parcel of football, however, the timing of all this, coupled with the fact that Mancini is so well liked, means the City fans are upset. Once again, our club’s reputation has taken a hit.

Despite the undoubted success he brought us, Mancini’s management is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Public criticism of his players, best exemplified by his admission that he wants to ‘punch’ Samir Nasri for not fulfilling his potential, has led to suggestions that Mancini’s propensity for confrontation has had an adverse effect on team morale; dividing a squad that was buoyant after a title win. City’s two Champions League campaigns under the Italian saw two early exits, with City this season becoming the first English side to finish without a win in the group stage. Our defence of the Premier League title has been dreadful, effectively over in March after yet another defeat to Everton, scoring 26 fewer goals than last season, and playing without the verve and vigour that saw us tear sides apart with ease. It’s been a trophyless and disappointing campaign, unacceptable given the level of investment since Mancini took over.

However, the idea that Mancini’s reign has been a failure (perpetrated by many opposition fans), is deeply flawed. He inherited an imbalanced squad that was leaking goals at an incredible rate, and spent his first months in the job making City competitive. By the season’s end, he’d took the side up only place, finishing fifth and missing out on Champions League qualification, but the difference in professionalism and organisation was clear. It was those first seven months which laid the foundations for what was to come. The following season he delivered the FA Cup, City’s first major trophy in 34 years, and then in 2012 the title, playing the kind of football City fans had only ever dreamed of. This season was the first season in which Mancini’s City didn’t progress.

It’s probably fair to say that Mancini deserved another season to try to put City back on the upward trajectory he himself kick started, but it’s also clear that his influence was waning, and if the board feel a change was needed to really satisfy their thirst for success it should be viewed as the kind of ambition we need. This season, the squad has been disjointed and lacking in focus, with no Plan B if our narrow 4-2-3-1 formation failed. Mancini experimented with three at the back with little success, and there was a dire lack of width in the side. His last-minute trolley dash around Europe saddled the club with a string of players who now need to be sold, and the direction and momentum built up over the first two-and-a-half years in the job was lost. Brian Marwood has, quite rightly, taken much of the blame for this summer’s poor procurement process, and should be sacked during the current clear out, but Mancini still rubber-stamped those rushed transfers.

Although Hughes’ sacking was handled in much the same way, the backlash from the City fans will be much fiercer this time. Hughes’ arrogance, poor results, and inability to take responsibility for anything that went wrong under his stewardship made him a repulsive character, whereas Mancini, pretty much to man, is not just respected but loved by the City fans. His behaviour has largely been exemplary, and when he said he would win trophies at City, he delivered. His time in charge wasn’t perfect, but he will always be remembered at Manchester City as a manager who implemented free-flowing attacking football, and ended our wait for a trophy. He’s the first manager in my time watching City (Peter Reid onwards) that lived for being City boss. It wasn’t just a job, or a stepping stone, or an easy payday, this was Mancini’s life. For three-and-a-half mostly glorious years he gave everything to our club, and for that reason he leaves with the respect of every City fan.

May 022013
 

Last night’s game at the Nou Camp confirmed that two German teams would be playing in the European Cup final at Wembley later this month. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were worthy winners against the two best teams in Spain, whilst English sides made little impact on the competition. Chelsea and Manchester City couldn’t even make it past the group stages whilst Manchester United and Arsenal were knocked out in the Round of 16.

However, it’s not just the ability of the German teams we should be envious of, but their attitude towards fans. Whilst the Glazers have recently confirmed another price freeze for season tickets, the cost has risen dramatically since their takeover in 2005 and has priced many fans out. Still, the prices at Old Trafford are cheap compared to some of the clubs in London.

Arsenal charge up to £1955 for a season ticket (including up to seven cup games), Tottenham Hotspur up to £1845 and Chelsea up to £1250. QPR’s most expensive season ticket matches that of Manchester United’s, £950, whilst Newcastle charge as much as £909.

It’s not just the most expensive tickets that are an issue for fans though, but the cheapest too. At Arsenal the least you can pay for a season ticket is £985, £730 at Spurs, £725 at Liverpool and £595 at Chelsea. United’s cheapest is £532 and QPR’s is £500.

Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness has revealed their attitude to ticket prices, comparing how German clubs treat their fans with the English.

“We could charge more than £104,” he said. “Let’s say we charge £300. We’d get £2m more income but what is £2m to us? In a transfer discussion, you argue about that sum for five minutes. But the difference between £104 and £300 is huge for the fan. We do not think fans are like cows who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.”

Apr 302013
 

Some players just aren’t made for the English game, some of us aren’t as efficient as Germans at taking penalties, even fewer are capable of playing “tiki taka” football like the Spanish, but we all wish we grew up on a Brazilian beach and could dance through challenges. These are the stereotypes in football, I’m not sure where they’ve come from but what I can tell you is who typifies their country like no one else, whilst at the same pick out the red herring and tell you he isn’t really from that country, no matter what his passport may say, his performance on the football pitch say otherwise. So without further ado, the first instalment of stereotypical footballers awaits.

What better place to start off with than the country we live in, that’s England, in case you were wondering. Okay, so who is this player that sums up the very English nature in us? Many believe Steven Gerrard wears his heart on his sleeve, his passion when he puts on that shirt, the one with the three lions, he plays for that shirt, there is pride in his performances. He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in with his challenges, he loves the Hollywood pass, he’s everything great about the English footballer but quite frankly he isn’t your typical English footballer. Scott Parker on the other hand… is just that.

Parker also wears his heart on his sleeve, he loves the shirt, he plays for the shirt! He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in and he’s got an unbelievable work rate. He would probably take a bullet for his teammates and die whilst singing the National Anthem with his last breath. The difference between Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker is that Scotty isn’t all that good. Yes, he tries hard and gives everything he has for England but in reality what has he got to offer? Besides being as tough as nails and hard graft that is. The answer is, not much. He’s not supremely talented on the ball, although he is quite partial to a ‘Cruyff Turn’ just about fooling the 90-year-old in attendance who can’t quite keep up with the game any more. His dazzling footwork can only be described as watching someone try and run around in a bog, in fact it makes quite painful viewing on the odd occasions he forgets that he isn’t playing as Messi on FIFA and in actual fact he is Scott Parker, Englishman. His passing range is limited to a 5 yard radius. He reminds me of a dog that chases a toy you throw at him endlessly, but yet more often than not, when he gets said toy he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

That being said, there is no faulting the fact Parker works his ass off when the other team are in possession but then he looks like a deer caught in headlights when he actually gets the ball and usually by the end of the game he can be found breathing out his backside. We shouldn’t forget though that journalists in this country defied Premier League Betting odds and voted him as their player of the season. Yes, the people who report on the game we love were swept away by Parker’s work ethic, during his failed bid to save West Ham from relegation two years ago, because he worked hard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, if you are the type who likes their players to show effort for the cause above having the talent to achieve this so called cause. Parker typifies not only your typical English footballer but what your average of English viewer wants to see. Forget Frank Lampard, he doesn’t look like he tries when he plays for England, I mean why isn’t he scoring 200 odd goals from midfield internationally? We don’t want him in the team, we want Scott Parker. Let’s be honest here, no other country that believes it has realistic aspirations of winning a World Cup would consider the idea of Parker being captain but he represents us, the common folk. Men (and women) up and down the country feel a sense of pride when Parker is on the pitch, it’s the underdog story that we all love so much. In spite of being not all that good, he’s out there realising the dream so many of us have shared, playing in front of a packed Wem-ber-ley on a wet, Tuesday night. If Scott Parker wasn’t a footballer, he would be in the stands, with his shirt off and part of that bloody band.

So there you have it folks, Scott Parker is your typical English footballer, yes it is a sad day. Now, for the exception…

David Beckham.

I could have ended it at that full stop and you could’ve filled in the rest yourself, but for the purpose of transparency and making sure everyone is on my wavelength, David Beckham is the best of us, he can score from in his own half, he can bend a ball like, well, Beckham. There’s no point in arguing the next point… The man is fairly handsome, he’s a celebrity, he’s an icon, he’s even accepted cultures outside these shores. What is there not to love about him? I’ll tell you what, he’s no Parker.

“God Save Our Scott Parker”

Apr 162013
 
It has been announced this week that goal-line technology will be introduced to the Premier League from next season but in my opinion, it’s far too late and far too little. It was inevitable that goal-line technology would eventually be introduced to the Premier League but why has it taken so long? The Hawk-Eye technology has been available since 2001 and was first used by cricket broadcasters in the same year, purely for broadcasting purposes. It was however implemented into the game of cricket during 2008 when a referral system was added to the rules, allowing players to challenge LBW decisions. Cricket isn’t the only sport that has been using Hawk-Eye, Tennis has been using it since 2006 and in both sports it has been a great success.
I’m sure you have all heard the story about how Frank Lampard’s famous “ghost goal” convinced Sepp Blatter that something had to be done about goal-line technology because of course Lampard’s goal was the first ever controversial goal-line incident in the history of football. That is if you ignore Roy Carroll’s fumble from Pedro Mendes’ shot, Luis Garcia’s “goal” at Anfield in the 2005 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea and Geoff Hurst’s “goal” against the Germans in the 1966 World Cup final, just to name a few. Whilst it’s good that football is finally advancing out of the Dark Ages, there are still people out there who think the introduction of technology is bad for the game.
Step forward Michel Platini, the president of UEFA. Platini once said this about goal-line technology “I prefer to put more money into youth football and infrastructure than spend it on technology when there’s a goal in a blue moon that hasn’t been seen by a referee. It’s quite expensive for the sort of mistake which happens once every 40 years.” Platini must have a very bad memory if he genuinely believes that goal-incidents occur every 40 years and the fact that the president of UEFA is capable of coming out with such a delusional, incorrect statement doesn’t leave me feeling that running of football is in the best of hands.
In the same press conference Plantini went on to say the following, “In the Champions League, I’m very happy with the results (of a five-man team). Practically no mistakes have been made and the referees see practically everything that happens on the pitch.” I’m staring to doubt whether Platini actually watches any football at all. You only have to look at the Borussia Dortmund’s winning goal against Malaga last week to see that the having two extra officials behind the goals changes very little. Officials are only human and all humans make mistakes but the stakes are so high in modern football, is it really acceptable that we continue to let poor officiating ruin game after game?
You will get people who argue that bad decisions by officials help make football as dramatic as it is but to me that’s nonsense. Giving officials more technology to help get decisions correct isn’t going to kill the dramatic side of football, players are still going to do ridiculously stupid things. Technology wouldn’t have stopped Eden Hazard kicking a ball boy or Sergio Aguero jumping in with two feet on David Luiz but it would have helped the officials see the incident properly and then they can hand out a suitable punishment in game. I like the idea of a committee sitting down on a Monday morning and handing out retrospective bans but why not have an official sitting pitch-side with a monitor so he can communicate with the referee via his headset and help him with tough decisions. It just makes sense to me.
I struggle to understand how bringing more technology into football can be seen as a bad thing for the sport. After most fouls there is a short break in play whilst the ball is retrieved anyway so why can’t an official quickly watch a replay to see if the referee needs to be showing to a card there or of it was a dive? Diving would be stamped out overnight. After most goals there is at least a thirty second break in play so there is more than enough time for an official to watch a reply to make sure no one was fouled in the build or if anyone was offside, if anyone was offside then you bring the play back and award the free-kick for the offside, all done within twenty seconds.
The technology debate will never go away until something is actually done about it. Goal-line technology is a good start but officials continue to affect the outcome of football matches with their poor decisions and it’s time the people running the game actually used their common sense. The technology is there, use it please.
Mar 202013
 

The FA yesterday announced that Callum McManaman would not face an FA charge over his challenge on Massadio Haïdara at the weekend, following the daily replays and image stills in the media. Whilst some fans have expressed their outrage, the decision should have come as no surprise, as the FA aren’t about to break their own rules when it comes to retrospective punishments. One of the officials saw the “coming together” and therefore no action can be taken. Some may argue this is a silly rule to have in place but it would be unmanageable for the FA to review every possible red card decision. How many times a weekend do you see a challenge that is dealt with by the awarding of a freekick or by dishing out a caution, when hindsight suggests that the player was actually guilty of a sending off offence?

The Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, was asked for his thoughts on the latest HORROR CHALLENGE but claimed that there was nothing wrong with it. “The referee was only 10 yards away and didn’t even give the foul – it was a fair challenge, you have to see it all – our lad went for the ball, and they collided, it is football. It is tough game but it was an accident.”

The Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, understandably saw the challenge differently. “It is an awful challenge,” he said. “The pictures speak for themselves. I thought it was a bad challenge and I was 60 yards from the incident. The players knew because they were on top of it and there was a lot of bad feeling about that incident when it goes unpunished. He (Halsey) said ‘If I’ve missed it I apologise’ – that was at half-time.”

Still, for all the apparent shock from Newcastle and neutral fans alike, we should remember we’ve been here before, when Wayne Rooney elbowed Wigan’s James McCarthy in the head out of sight of Mark Clattenburg. The referee reportedly asked Rooney what happened, to which he lied, and claimed he caught him by accident. Clattenburg then asked McCarthy who responded by saying he didn’t know. Clattenburg then awarded a freekick, meaning the challenge had been dealt with and no retrospective punishment could be made (although the FA did get their own back a few weeks later when making Rooney the only player to face a two game ban for swearing).

Despite McCarthy choosing not to tell the referee he had been elbowed, Whelan went on the attack, claiming the reason why the FA hadn’t broken their own rule to punish Rooney was because he played for Manchester United.

“Something is wrong when a top international like Rooney is seen doing something like this, as clear as day, and is allowed to get away without being punished,” he said. “If it was any other club or player, you can bet your life he would have been sent off. But officials seem intimidated by the words ‘Rooney’ and ‘United’. Manchester United are allowed to get away with things the rest of us get pulled up for. And you can’t have one set of rules for one club and another for the rest. I don’t care what the FA say about the matter being dealt with at the time by us getting a free-kick. They, and everyone else in football, know justice isn’t being served here. The FA will be delighted they can hide behind their rules.”

I believe Whelan is now the one who is delighted that the FA have this rule to hide behind, as McManaman has been allowed to get away without being punished. Turns out you don’t have to be a Manchester United player after all.

Two weeks after the Wigan game United went to Anfield to suffer the humiliation of a Dirk Kuyt hattrick and one of our players getting cut open by Jamie Carragher. The Liverpool man went in on Nani similarly to how McManaman did on Haïdara, leaving Nani with a deep gash in his leg, but Phil Dowd opted just to caution him. It was clearly a red card offence but there was no retrospective punishment on offer.

James Lawton, The Independent, wrote at the time: At the end of a week of refereeing controversy it was that Jamie Carragher was merely given a yellow card for a tackle on Nani so sickening, so dangerous, that it rendered more farcical than ever the insistence of the football authorities that they cannot revisit extreme cases of negligence, irresponsibility or – let’s not fail to explore the full range of possibilities in this case – outright failure of nerve by a match official.

Phil Dowd was close at hand, was surrounded by protesting United players and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard – who appeared to be suggesting that his team-mate was not guilty of one of the worst fouls to disfigure any ground in recent memory – and then administered two yellow cards, one to Carragher, still protesting his innocence, and the other to Edwin van der Sar, incredulous that a tackle of such crude violence could elicit such a mild punishment.

We all know what a sterling professional Carragher has been down the years but you had to be living on another planet not to be revolted by this piece of action. Nani wasn’t tackled – he was, in effect, assaulted – and we can re-run the film a thousands times without a softening of that verdict.

The issue is that every week referees make the wrong decision and if the FA can overrule them, not only will the officials be totally undermined, but the FA will be inundated with red card appeals. The only occasion when the FA have diverted from this rule was when Ben Thatcher took out Pedro Mendes and it was deemed that a yellow card wasn’t punishment enough. Referee Dermot Gallagher failed to spot that Thatcher smashed his forearm in to Mendes’ head, leading the FA to retrospectively ban the Manchester City player for eight games.

So, did the FA open a can of worms with this decision? You could argue that the fact Mendes was knocked unconscious and suffered with seizures on the way to hospital meant that this was an extraordinary case. Whilst there’s no denying that challenges like McManaman’s should not be a part of the game, it certainly wasn’t life-threatening in the way that Thatcher’s could have been. The FA and referees tend to act as a result of the damage done, which is why in challenges like the Jonny Evans-Student Holden of a couple of seasons ago, it was Evans that got sent off, despite Holden going in over the ball. Holden got his leg broken though so Evans got a red card. Had Haïdara’s leg broken in a few places and he went in to shock, there might have been more chance of McManaman becoming an exception to the rule and facing a ban, but it was never likely.

Something must be done about this though, fans keep saying, it can’t be right that players get away with such shocking challenges. We can all agree on that but it’s hard to see what the solution might be.

Jan 172013
 

Luis Suarez was banned for 8 games last season after the FA found him guilty of racial abuse after he referred to Patrice Evra as “negro” during an argument. Suarez failed to convince the FA panel that he was using the term in a friendly way, given the pair of them were clearly at loggerheads at the time. Video footage was shown to Suarez of him pinching Evra’s arm and Suarez claimed that was intended to be a “conciliatory” action too, in attempt to “diffuse” the situation, before admitting that was a lie.

Having never apologised for causing Evra offence, whether this was intended, as the independent panel concluded, or not, as he claimed, Suarez had the opportunity to make amends when he played against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Bizarrely, he chose not to shake Evra’s hand, which he later acknowledged was a mistake, with the club also apologising on his behalf.

However, when speaking to Uruguayan television months later, Suarez blamed the ban on Manchester United, claiming the club had plotted to get him banned.

“People at Liverpool are sure that it was a way that Manchester United used to put me out of the team and stop Liverpool,” he said in July 2012. “In England, Manchester United’s political power is strong and you must respect that and shut your mouth.”

Manchester United weren’t to blame for Suarez choosing to call Evra “negro”, something he admitted doing, so it’s puzzling that he could think United created the situation to get him out of the team. Also, what does he think United were trying to stop Liverpool from doing? Liverpool finished an incredible 37 points behind United last season and aren’t competitive rivals anymore.

Suarez’s paranoia doesn’t stop there though, with him claiming today that the reason he gets so much press attention is because the media is controlled by Manchester United. He also seems to imply that Evra was wrong to put in a complaint about the racist remark, claiming that when people refer to his place of origin, he doesn’t “cry” about it.

“When someone comes and says to me something bad about being a South American, I don’t cry, because that happens inside the pitch,” he said. “I have my conscience clean. But as I have said Manchester United controls the media, they are powerful and the media will always help them.”

It genuinely hasn’t crossed Suarez’s mind that he receives so much media attention because he’s a deeply unpopular person. Whether that’s for the 7 match ban he received when he was at Ajax for for biting an opponent, costing Ghana their place in the World Cup semi-finals after using his hand to stop a goal in the dying minutes of extra time, being found guilty of racially abusing an opponent, or repeatedly cheating, people have every reason to dislike him.

Maybe he should worry less about Manchester United and concentrate on their real rivals… the other midtable teams, like Swansea, Stoke and West Ham.

Dec 042012
 

Much was made of the revelation that England players used Pro Plus during the 1-1 draw with Poland in October once again brought on the age old debate regarding supplements within football. Understandably, the officiating bodies take a hard stance on the use of performance enhancing drugs – you only have to look at the respective bans Rio Ferdinand and Kolo Toure received after their run in with the law.

It is no shock to see the Football Association clamp down on proposed drug cheats. Ferdinand was banned for nine months having missed a test, while Toure was handed a six month suspension after failing his for taking an unspecified substance in water tablets he obtained from his wife.

Substance abuse is considered one of the highest forms of cheating in all sports and football is no different. Whether it is through taking water tablets like Toure or failing a drugs test for cocaine, much like Adrian Mutu did in 2004 during his time at Chelsea, any form of illegal drug, be it performance enhancing or not, is frowned upon.

Following the stalemate in Warsaw in October, Glen Johnson revealed that the players took Pro Plus before the game was initially called off for a waterlogged pitch. With the caffeine pumping through their system, the Liverpool defender admitted that players took sleeping pills to overcome the effects of the caffeinated pill, with manager Roy Hodgson confessing the team hadn’t looked as “sharp or lively” during the 1-1 draw.

In England at the time, there were those discussing whether the use of mild stimulants and sedatives was fair or even, and to a certain extent, legal. Ferdinand and Everton utility man Phil Neville argue it isn’t, while Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, of Wigan Athletic and Liverpool respectively, hinted that while they don’t agree with using artificial products to gain a minor advantage over opponents, they hinted that sleeping pills maybe used.

It’s a very grey area when it comes to legal and illegal substances. Competitors will undoubtedly want gain an advantage over opponents through the use of lighter boots, under armour, differing shinpads or in this case; Pro Plus.

The Lance Armstrong doping scandal which shocked the world of sport brought the use of supplements back into the furore, with caffeine appearing on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list until 2004.

The substance can be taken in pill form, through Pro Plus, or in coffee and energy drinks, such as Red Bull. Only last month, fans bore witness to Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor sipping from a can of the energy drink ahead of their Europa League encounter with Lazio as the teams gathered in the tunnel prior to kick off.

Yet, it isn’t just caffeine that is considered a legal stimulant to improve performance. Protein and health supplements, Creatine, even sweets, are permitted by the authorities to aid in recovery as well as bolster a footballer’s ability on the pitch.

There will always be a substance of supplement that is borderline illegal, but one that players will use in order to gain an advantage over an opponent such is the way of sport and the modern game.

“Substances in football – the debate