Thursday, 31 December 2009

Premier League half-time report

We're just over half-way through the Premier League season, so who's looking good (or bad) for 2010?

Manchester United hit five against Wigan, and Arsenal notched four at Portsmouth to give Chelsea fair warning that they're up for the fight for the title in the New Year. It's hard to see beyond these three, yet all three have faltered and the number of defeats for the title contenders this season is higher than usual. No team is showing consistency yet, and the team that does will emerge as favourites.

But who will that be? I always fancy Chelsea as they are resilient and have huge resources. However, without Drogba during the African Nations Cup, they could lose points in games that should be bankers.

I don't think Manchester United are the team they were last season, and injuries make theiur squad look brittle. Yet Wayne Rooney is having some inspirational games, and he might just win them the title in that mood.

Arsenal don't quite look the finished article - especially when up against the top teams - but it would be great to see such a fluent footballing side take the title.

However, through it all, I'll take Rooney to tip the balance United's way.

Given that these three will fill the tops three positions, who else will join them in the Champions League places. Emphatically not Liverpool, who are simply not good enough. So, what of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa? None of them is showing enough consistency to challenge the top three, but with their resources and perhaps a bit of that elusive consistency, I take Roberto Mancinie to guide City into fourth place. It will be interesting to watch, whatever happens.

At the bottom, Portsmouth are four points adrift and look to have too many difficulties (for example, they lose four place to the African Nations Cup in January) to avoid the drop. Of the rest, West Ham look capable of survival, and I think Bolton will escape too. That leaves Hull City, Wolves, Wigan, Burnley, Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City as likely candidates, though Everton and Sunderland could yet run into a sticky patch.

I'll go with Hull City and Wigan Athletic to join Portsmouth in the Championship next season.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Championship half-time report

Of all the leagues the Championship is always the toughest one to call. Why this should be I have no idea, but it always seems to be tight and most prone to a team "coming from nowhere" to either gain a play-off spot or fall into the relegation places.

This season looks to be no different. Only seven points cover places fourth to 15th, so Cardiff, Leicester, Swansea, Sheffield United, Blackpool, Crystal Palace, QPR, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Watford, Doncaster and Barnsley are all in range, and Preston and Coventry are only another one and two points respectively further adrift.

Newcastle United are at the top, six points clear of West Bromwich Albion - who have a game in hand. Nottingham Forest are in third, two points behind West Brom, having played a game more. Cardiff are six behind Forest with a game in hand, and Leicester are six behind Forest with two games in hand.

How can you call it?!

I'll take Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest for the automatic places.

In the play-offs I'll go for West Brom, Leicester City, Sheffield United and Blackpool. But don't ask me to justify any of those tips!

As for relegation, expect some juggling, but I'll go for Peterborough United, Plymouth Argyle and Scunthorpe United to slip through the net.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

League One and Two half-time report

It's half-way through the season in Leagues One and Two, so let's have a half-time report.

In League One, it's hard to see past Leeds United for top spot, as they sit eight points clear of Charlton Athletic with a game in hand. Charlton, however, are probably looking over their shoulders and they'll see Norwich City three points behind with a game in hand - and they're in good form - together with Colchester United with the same points and games.

A further seven points adrift are Huddersfield Town and Swindon Town. Millwall, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers will be in the scrap for the play-offs, but anyone else will have to hit good form to join them.

At the bottom Stockport County are ten points from safety and have lost 11 league games in a row. They look doomed. Wycombe Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers don't look to have enough to escape, and there'll be a fight to avoid joining them between Leyton Orient, Brighton & Hove Albion, Oldham Athletic, Gillingham and Hartlepool United - at least. A bad run of form can suck anyone nearby into the battle.

In League Two Rochdale are top of the pile and look to be getting out of the bottom tier for the first time since 1992. They are five points clear of Bournemouth, but have played a game more. A further seven points behind are Rotherham United who have two more games in hand. With three automatic promotion places up for grabs, the four play-off spots will be hard fought between Notts County, Dagenham & Redbridge, Aldershot Town, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury Town, Bury, Morecambe and Accrington Stanley.

At the bottom, Darlington look doomed, and Grimsby Town have a tough fight to avoid joining them in the Blue Square Premier in 2010.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Managers changed in England in 2009: 49

Forty-nine managers have left their posts in the four English divisions in 2009, the latest, of course, being Mark Hughes.

But even he wasn't at the highest club. It seems a long time ago, but Luiz Felip-Scolari was sacked by Chelsea only in February as Chelsea struggled with their form! Then, four months later, Guus Hiddink also left Chelsea - but at least this time it was by agreement as Hiddink returned to Russia to try (and ultimately, fail) to get them to the 2010 World Cup.

Other premiership managers to leave their club in 2009 have been: Tony Adams (Portsmouth in February), Ricky Sbragia (Sunderland, May), Steve Bruce (Wigan, June), Tony Mowbray (West Brom, June), Paul Hart (Portsmouth, November).

Of the 49 managers losing their jobs, the breakdown by division has been:
Premier League:           8
Championship:            14
League One:               14
League Two:              13

Of the 49 clubs who have changed manager, their success since has varied:
Better:      18
Same:       10
Worse:     21

Hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Storm at Manchester City will soon blow over

Talk of conspiracy theories surrounding the sacking of Mark Hughes at Manchester City undoubtedly have some truth in them, but they have little relevance and will soon be forgotten.

It would be highly unlikely that any board would sack a manager and install another straight away if some previous talks had not taken place. Manchester City admit discussions had taken place with Roberto Mancini a couple of weeks ago, but deny they were about him taking over as manager. The truth's probably somewhere in the middle, but so what?

Yes, we feel sympathy for Mark Hughes, but the fans will soon forget that if Mancini is successful. And if he is not? Well, the fans will call for his sacking. They're not likely to chant "sack the board" when the board is worth so many billions and have put the club, if not on the cusp of, then possibly on the stony path to, success.

Player rebellion is about as likely. There is some talk that craig Bellamy is considering a transfer request and that goalkeeper Shay Given and club captain Kolo Toure had a meeting with chief executive Garry Cook, who earlier refused to speak to a larger player delegation.

Again, let's get real. Players like the money, and City is the club with the money. If Bellamy jumps ship, then he'll probably be the only one (and who could say it would be out of character?).

This is quiet-time pre-Christmas story and once the action's back underway it will die down just as quickly, especially if City beat Stoke City on Boxing Day.

Monday, 21 December 2009

City owner loses patience

It would be hard to find many people without some sympathy for Mark Hughes this morning.

Hughes lost his job as manager of Manchester City on Saturday evening after a 4-3 win over Sunderland put them into sixth place on the Premier League, still boasting the fewest league defeats fn any club in the top flight this season.

Too many draws have left the club 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, but they do have a game in hand and certainly a top four place is not beyond them - and wasn't even before Hughes's replacement Roberto Mancini was appointed in amost indecent haste after Hughes's sacking.

City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak is under no obligation to explain the move, but it can only be seen as impatience that the Sky Blues are not heading the Premier League or at least in close formation behind the Blues of Ambramovich's billions.

Money can't buy everything, but apparently Mubarak beleives it should be able to buy a place at the top of the English football pile.

The problem is that Chelsea and Manchester United invariably find themselves a place at the head of the queue; Wenger's Arsenal are getting hungry for success themselves; and while Liverpool also struggle to find a winning combination, the likes of Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur are stirring like they haven't done for many a year.

Chelsea have been through and sacked a whole host of managers despite winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the League Cup in recent years.

If that wasn't good enough for one billionaire, small wonder sixth place isn't good enough for another.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Mourinho and Beckham face old friends in Champions League

A pair of amazing ties came out of the Champions league draw today.
Firstly, Jose Mourinho was drawn against his old club as Inter Milan drew Chelsea.
Secondly, David Beckham got his wish as AC Milan (where he is on loan) were drawn to face his old club Manchester United.

Arguably, Arsenal enjoyed the easiest draw of the English clubs, against Porto. Perhaps that will will quell Arsene Wenger's recent bout of moaning.

It will be fascinating to see ex-Chelsea manager Mourinho pit his wits against current incumbent, Carlo Ancelotti. Plenty of Chelsea fans feel that Mourinho should never have been sacked.

Just as interesting will be the return of David Beckham to Old Trafford, where he will no doubt get a tremendous reception. The odds are slightly in MIlan's favour; United have not knocked them out in four attempts.

Full Draw:

Stuttgart v Barcelona

Olympiakos v Bordeaux
Inter Milan v Chelsea
Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
CSKA Moscow v Seville
Lyon v Real Madrid
FC Porto v Arsenal
AC Milan v Manchester United

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Poor Gascoigne arrested again

Football is always full of talking points.

For example:
  • Wolves's weakened team against Manchester United on Tuesday.
  • Arsene Wenger's complaints about the above as his team only drew 1-1 with Burnley on Wednesday.
  • Fulham's qualification for the knock-out stages of the Europa League.
  • The sacking of Brendan Rodgers by Reading.
  • The sacking of Jim Magilton by QPR.
  • The results achieved by Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham on Wednesday night.
  • The possible venues for England's 2018 World Cup bid.
I may return to some of these on another day, but for now it's a different topic, and a sad one.

We have all seen the fall from grace of an erstwhile England hero. Poor Paul Gascoigne has been in the news again for more misdemeanours. This tortured soul was arrested in the early hours of Wednesday morning for being drunk and disorderly, according to police.

Gascoigne was taken into custody in the Jesmond area of Newcastle, not far from where he lit up the playing arena of St James's Park in the early 1990s.

Now 42, Gascoigne has battled for many years against acoholism, and doesn't seem to be any nearer solving his problem.

There are plenty of other things that bother us about the game, but our hearts should reach out to 'Gazza', because, let's face it, at one time he warmed them all.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Avram Grant goes back to Chelsea

Avram Grant returns to Stamford Bridge this evening as Portsmouth visit Chelsea in a Premier League clash.

Sacked by manager of Chelsea at the end of the 2007-8 season, he says of tonight's match: "The fans were very supportive when I was there. I think they respect what I did for the club. For me, Chelsea are the best team in England and they play good football, especially at Stamford Bridge. They are a strong team though they haven't won for four games. They've only dropped two points at home all season, but we will try to take points. You'll see a team that will do their best to achieve a good result."

Chelsea were a John Terry penalty kick away from winning the Champions League final against Manchester United in 2008 in Moscow, but, despite coming so close, Grant was sacked by owner Roman Abramovich.

It is widely believed, however, that grant would have been sacked even if Chelsea had beaten United. Defender Ricardo Carvalho said yesterday: "I don't know if the missed penalty changed anything. There were some problems and sometimes complaints, but he had his way of doing things. In the end he was very unlucky, but his work was good."

Grant, who won 39 of 54 games when he was in charge at Chelsea, reckons Abramovich should have stuck with him. "I thought I needed to continue because the team as on the way up. Every month it was better."

I'm sure Grant would love to get something out of tongith's game, but even with Chelsea's recent winless run, I just can't see it.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Newcastle look a safe bet for a swift return

Newcastle United find themselves top of the Championship table after 21 games - seven points clear of West Bromwich Albion; ten points clear of Cardiff City who are third; and 15 points clear of Blackpool who are 7th, one place off the play-off positions.

It's looking likely that the Magpies will be making a quick return to the Premier League.

An impressive set of results since their last defeat (of three this league season) away at Scunthorpe United on 20 October has taken them clear while others below them have jockeyed for position. Seven wins and a draw have given them 22 points from the last possible 24.

Having been in a caretaker role, Chris Hughton was given the permanent job as manager on 27 October, and remained unbteaten in the league since then. (This is unusual. Most caretaker managers who are given the reins promptly fumble them and have a run of defeats!)

Another 40 points or so will probably secure promotion; that's from 25 games, and is, say, 11 wins and 7 draws, which would allow them the "luxury" of 7 defeats.

Sounds easy!

I'm sure it won't be easy, but they'll be pressing to win every game. I can't see them failing.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ryan Giggs wins BBC's Sports Personality of the Year

Ryan Giggs won the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award last night, following up his Footballer of the Year and PFA Player of the Year successes at the end of last season.

The 36-year-old is sweeping all before him, as he has done throughout his career, being the mnost decorated player of all time in English football.

This year Giggs has passed his 800th appearance for Manchester United, scored his 150th goal and helped them reach the Champions League final.

The Cardiff-born player said: "I am playing for the greatest manager that has ever lived and I'm playing for the greatest club. Perhaps I've become more appreciated as I have got older. It's unusual for a 36-year-old to be playing with a team like Manchester United for 20 years but I am enjoying it and long may it continue."

Giggs has played in every season since 1990-1, including every Premier League season - the only player to do so.

It is to be hoped that the fine player and sportsman that he is, Ryan Giggs hae a few more years left in him yet.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Mariner takes over the reins at Plymouth Argyle

Head coach Paul Mariner has taken charge of all football activities at Plymouth Argyle until further notice after manager Paul Sturrock was removed from the position and given a business support role.

Chairman Sir Roy Gardner said: “The board has decided to make this move following the continuing poor set of results. We're convinced we have the capability to remain in the Championship.”

Argyle are currently one of the bottom of the Championship with only four wins so far this season.

Paul Sturrock joined the club for a second time in 2007, but will now be working on improving the club’s training facilities. He was first at Home Park from 2000 to 2004, and Argyle gained promotion from Division Three (now known as League Two) in 2002 and were promoted again in 2004, just after Sturrock left for Southampton.

Vice-chairman Paul Stapleton said: “Paul is remaining at the club, working closely with business director Keith Todd. We'd like to thank Paul for his considerable contribution for Plymouth Argyle over many years. But he's a realist and knows that if the results haven't come then we need to do something. There comes a time like everything in football where you have to look at the facts, look at the results, look at the points and say to yourselves we need to address that now before it gets too late.”

Fifty-six-year-old Mariner joined the club in October from US club New England Revolution. He made 135 appearances and scored 56 goals between 1973 and 1976 and made 35 appearances, scoring 13 goals for England. He said: It's a sad day, but obviously a happy day for me because I'm getting my chance to be a manager in the league. He's [Sturrock] a great friend of mine. The bond that we have together is quite remarkable and we have a mutual respect for each other.”

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Notts County up for sale

Notts County have been put up for sale by current owners Munto Finance, according to BBC Radio Nottingham, with several parties showing an interest.

It appears that one option involves a buyout which includes current direct of football Sven-Goran Eriksson and executive chairman Peter Trembling.

The club was brought into the nation’s focus when Munto bought the club in July, promising plenty of money to take the League Two club into the Championship within five years.

Eriksson reportedly wants to stay and is looking for a backer to help him finance the deal.

Munto’s promised millions saw a host of new players arrive at Meadow Lane in the summer – including an aborted capture of Sol Campbell – and the club is currently sitting in fourth place in League Two – seven points behind leaders Rochdale.

Ian McParland was sacked as manager after only two months, and was replaced by Hans Backe, Eriksson’s former assistant at Manchester City and Mexico.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Michael Owen gives Capello a firm nudge

From one oldie yesterday (David Beckham) to another today. Step forward, Michael Owen.

Although hardly a critical match for Manchester United in the Champions League, it was still an important one against Wolfsburg last night, and United had to cater for the loss of a whole host of players through injury. United wanted to avoid defeat to ensure that they topped the group to avoid some of the hardest potential encounters in the first knock-out round.

Michael Owen duly delivered with a match-winning hat-trick.

One header, one tap-in and one sprint through to chip over the keeper would surely have given England manager Fabio Capello the firmest nudge yet that Owen is not finished and would be worth a place in the England World Cup squad.

Less than a week short of his 30th birthday, perhaps Owen showed that experience is invaluable.

Although Wayne Rooney is obviously top of the strikers' pile, Jermain Defoe has scored plenty of goals for Tottenham this season, and Capello is evidently a fan of Emile Heskey, it is hard to imagine that Owen is still behind the likes of Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Carlton Cole and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Owen has proven he can do it at the top level. The doubt had to be over his fitness and sharpness. No doubts any more.

Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson might now find it hard to leave out Michael Owen.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Beckham the superstar worth a World Cup place

Watching the Wolrd Cup draw on Friday evening I was once again struck by the incredible worldwide popularity of David Beckham.

As the only non-South African assisting with the draw in Cape Town, Beckham still received the loudest reception of the evening, eclipsing those received by other home-grown sporting heroes.

When interviewed briefly after the draw, Beckham was diplomatically sincere.

How far he has come from his petulance in the 1998 World Cup, and his subsequent period of vilification at every venue except Old Trafford.

When I went to Wembley in September to watch England trounce Croatia 5-1, the single biggest cheer of the night - among all those goals, and World Cup qualification itself - was when David Beckham came on as substitute when the game was already won.

With Beckham on board for the 2018 World Cup bid, England's chances have risen dramatically.

Fabio Capello must take David Beckham to the World Cup next summer. As well as being a potentially game-turning substitute, Beckham's mere presence will increase England's popularity with the locals and, given that we have always struggled to stay in locals' good books at World Cups over the years, this must be worth a squad place.

He really does live up to his superstar billing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Chelsea slip up

Since I tipped Chelsea to challenge for all four competitions they entered last week after they had humbled Arsenal at the Emirates, they have been knocked out of one competition and stumbled in another.

It is typical of the perverse nature of football!

Super-rich Chelsea were beaten on penalties in mid-week by Blackburn Rovers in the Carling Cup, and on Saturday evening lost 2-1 to even-richer Manchester City, to a goal resulting from a handball, as Frank Lampard missed a penalty and Carlos Tevez hit a superb free-kick winner.

Chelsea have already qualified for the next stages of the Champions League and will win the group, so their game against Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus on Tuesday is hardly important, but they will be keen to get back to winning ways.

Next up in the league is Everton, who will be boosted by yesterday’s comeback to draw 2-2 with Tottenham.

With Manchester United notching up an impressive 4-0 win at West Ham on Saturday, Chelsea will have half an eye over their shoulders, but they still look strong enough to be the team to beat in their priority competitions of the Premier League and the Champions League.

Meanwhile Arsenal continue to sweep aside all but the very top opponents, and their 2-0 win against Stoke keeps them in sight of the leaders. The fourth of the Big Four, Liverpool, were unimpressive again, only managing a goalless draw at Blackburn, and slipping down to seventh.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Oddities of the World Cup draw pots

And so we come to the World Cup draw, today in Cape Town at 5.45pm, UK time.

With France; without the Republic of Ireland. No Costa Rica, either, and no Croatia or Russia - the only countries in the top 20 FIFA rankings not to make it.

The eight groups will be drawn from four pots, but it is important to note that there is only ONE seeded pot. The other three pots are made up on a geographical basis.

The seeded pot however contains one "joker", and that is the host nation South Africa, who are actually the lowest rated country in FIFA's rankings, yet join the other top seven countries from October's rankings, simply because they are the hosts.

It means that fifth-ranked (in November) Portugal are not in the top seed list, and neither are seventh-ranked France (though that would have been a travesty given the way they qualified!). England have benefited from FIFA using the October rankings. The November rankings would have seen them miss out on a seeding.

Groups will be drawn from the four pots, but - as ever - it will not be completely straightforward as no other South American team can be drawn with Brazil or Argentina, and no other African team can be drawn with South Africa.

The pots are (with November rankings in brackets):

1: Spain(1), Brazil (2), Holland(3), Italy(4), Germany(6), Argentina(8), England(9), South Africa(86).
2: USA(14), Mexico(15), Australia(21), Honduras(38), Japan(43), South Korea(52), New Zealand(77), North Korea(84).
3: Cameroon(11), Ivory Coast(16), Chile(17), Uruguay(19), Nigeria(22), Algeria(28), Paraguay(30), Ghana(37).
4: Portugal(5), France(7), Greece(12), Switzerland(18), Serbia(20), Denmark(26), Slovenia(33), Slovakia(34).

The way FIFA fill their pots means we could end up with a 'Group of Death' containing: Spain, USA, Cameroon and Portugal (combined ranking of 31), and a 'Comatose Group' containing: South Africa, North Korea, Ghana and Slovakia (combined ranking of 241).

Do FIFA just pray things will work out all right? You watch something odd happen.

England will be praying the worst doesn't happen to them.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

No change to refereeing for 2010 World Cup

Yesterday Sepp Blatter announced that there will be no change to the way games are refereed in the 2010 World Cup. Two further assistant referees (as used in the Europa Cup this season) will not be introduced in South Africa.

Blatter said: "We spoke about what to do with refereeing in future. It's clear that the main match official and his assistants cannot see everything that happens on the field of play. So, is it better to have more match officials or open the door to technology? We will have to evaluate this, though we did take one decision: even if the experiment with two additional match officials in the [UEFA] Europa League continues through to the latter stages (of the competition), there won't be any changes for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We will continue to use one main match official, two assistants and a fourth official. There's no discussion on this, (the finals) are too soon for us to evaluate other possibilities."

It seems pretty blinkered to me. The introduction of two more assistants - one behind each goal - would make it almost impossible for players to get away with hand balls in the penalty area, and goal line judgements would be improved. It seems an easy one.

Video technology - although quoted as being used in other sports (e.g. cricket, rugby) is a more difficult one. The nature of football is its flow and several interruptions per game for video reviews would not serve the game well. This, therefore, is not an easy decision to make, but at least they're looking into it.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Agents want a place on the FA council

After the figures were revealed earlier this week of the amounts paid to agents in football, Mel Stein, chairman of the Association of Football Agents has called for agents to be represented on the FA's ruling council.

It was shown that £70 million was paid to agents in the year to September 2009 and Stein was not surprised. "They are in line with the industry average, which is around five per cent on player transfers or contract renegotiation," he said. "It is unjustified to criticise agents on the basis of figures published into a vacuum and with no context of what agents do on a deal, or indeed how many people may be involved."

He said that no one was holding a gun to clubs to work with agents.

"Agents perform a valuable role," he continued. "We should be acknowledged as stakeholders in the game. The AFA has more than 300 members and I believe we should have a place on the FA council so that we can make a contribution, and other parts of the game can hear our voice directly."

Manchester City paid £12.87m to agents; Chelsea paid £9.56m; Liverpool paid £6.66m; and Tottenham paid £6.07m.

I wonder if the fans of all those clubs think the money was well spent. The trouble is that there is so much money going out of the game, and many clubs are hugely in debt.

Is this the basis for a sound future?
Do the agents care about that?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Ireland look for 33rd place in the World Cup

The Football Association of Ireland yesterday confirmed that it had asked FIFA if the Republic of Ireland could be found a place in the World Cup in South Africa next year. A statement on its website read:

"The Football Association of Ireland today (November 30) confirmed that it attended an hour and a half meeting, at its request, with Mr Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA on Friday in Zurich. A lot was discussed at the meeting and at one stage the FAI asked if Ireland could be accommodated into the World Cup 2010.

"Other suggestions were also made to mitigate against further occurrences of such incidents, including the use of additional goal line assistant referees for FIFA international matches, further use of video technology for matches at the highest level, stronger provisions to discourage players from engaging in such blatant breaches of the Laws of the Game and provisions to strengthen referee selection for such important matches."

Sepp Blatter said: "I will bring it to the attention of the Executive Committee." The committee meets on Wednesay prior to Friday's World Cup tournament draw.

Any action to accommodate Ireland would be an astonishing move. The precedent would leave tournaments open to all sorts of claims and counter-claims in the future.

Blatter pointed out that Costa Rica  also believe they were unfairly denied a place in the finals. In their case it was because of an offside goal from Uruguay, so they would also have to be acknowledged if extra places are discussed.

It is sad that Ireland missed out because of Henry's cheating and officials that missed the offence, but moves to change tournament set-ups must be avoided. The real way forward is to put in place systems which avoid such errors in the future.