Friday, 24 December 2010

Benitez home for Christmas

It comes to something, doesn't it, when you win the World Club Championship one day, and get sacked a few days later!

That's what's happened to Rafa Benitez, now the ex-manager of Inter Milan. The important fact is, though, that Inter Milan are seventh in the Italian League, 13 points adrift of leaders and city rivals, AC Milan. And that is a big fall from 2009-10 when Inter won the Champions League, Italian League and Italian Cup under the management of Jose Mourinho.

What a tough act to follow for Benitez, and he couldn't do it.

The sad fact is that Benitez's star has fallen from the days when he took Valencia close to Champions League success in the early 2000s. yes, he did win the same competition with Liverpool in 2005, the League Cup in the same year, and the FA Cup a year later, but he never got close to winning the Premier League - the competition Reds' supporters are desperate to win - in fact, drifitng further away from the prize.

Quite why there seems to be some feeling on Merseyside to get Benitez back, I am not sure, but that is apparently where is home for Christmas.

A footnote to Sepp Blatter: if a manager can get sacked a few days after winning your precious World Club Championship, what does it tell you about its worth?

Hint: Nothing.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

City miss their chance

Manchester City have paid an awful lot of money to accumulate their current squad, but it is evident from last night's game against Everton that they are well short of winning the Premier League title.

Everton beat City 2-1 at the City of Manchester Stadium, exposing the home defence twice early on, and then defending stoutly, even after they had been reduced to ten men by the sending off of Victor Anichebe after 15 minutes of the scond half.

None of City's high earners could break through the visiting defence, with the home goal coming by virtue of an own goal when the ball deflected off Phil Jagielka into the Everton net after 72 minutes. That might have been the cue for a City onslaught, but, despite having lots of possession and some pressure, and 24 shots, Tim Howard's goal simply wasn't threatened enough.

While all top teams stumble from time to time, Manchester City still haven't joined the big boys. This defeat cost them their chance to head the top league at Christmas for the first time in 81 years, and it's hard to see them getting among the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea when the days of reckoning approach in May.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Clubs that made hay while it snowed

For all those who whinge about the lack of a winter break in English football, well, most of them have got their wish on the last week or two. Many clubs didn't play on Saturday, and won't play again until Boxing Day. Enjoy the break.

However, for those that did play there was a chance to bag some points rather than clutch onto "games in hand". Sunderland's 1-0 win over Bolton took them into sixth place in the Premier League, only four points behind Chelsea - what a boost for the Black Cats.

In the Championship, Leeds United took advantage of many other clubs near the top being unable to play, beat leaders QPR 2-0, and moved into an automatic promotion spot for the first time this season, and had a near 30,000 crowd to boot. Would they have preferred to stay in the warm?

Likewise, near the bottom, Hull City and Sheffield United enjoyed much needed wins, and Ipswich Town did all they could to get their game on - most of the first half being played with the blue lines obscured by the ever-deepening snow - and a rather bizarre 17-minute break only 15 minutes into the second half at the behest of referee Stuart Attwell to clear the lines (that were already showing better than in the first 45 minutes!) ensured that the game was completed and Roy Keane's team bagged three vital points. A 16,728 corwd would not have had it any other way.

Back to winter breaks - it's been said many times before: when would you book it? December? January? February? Our weather's not that predictable.

Play the games when you can. If you get a postponement, put your feet up. Otherwise, get the points.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Chelsea look to end United's unbeaten run

It should be an interesting football weekend. There could well be a rash of postponements given the likely weather, but most of the tops games will probably survive courtesy of their undersoil heating systems.

Undoubtedly the highlight is Manchester United's visit to Chelsea on Sunday - a cracking antidote to snow and Christmas shopping. It might not be Chelsea's last chance (crikey, we're not even half-way through the season!), but they'll certainly be doing they can to prevent United from taking a six-point advatange (plus game in hand) into Christmas. I can see Chelsea ending United's unbeaten run.

Chasers Arsenal take on Stoke City at The Emirates and Manchester City face Everton at home on Monday evening. Tottenham visit Blackpool in an interesting Sunday lunchtime encounter.

At the bottom, no one wants to be last on Christmas day, but it is highly likely to be West Ham United, who would need to beat managerless Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park and hope that Wolves gain nothing at West Brom on Sunday.

Just above them Wigan play host to Aston Villa, and FUlham travel to Anfield in yet another ESPN-televised Liverpool game (it's a monopoly!).

Let's hope the weather holds. It's too interesting to miss!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Big Three fail to impress

Manchester United's 1-0 win against Arsenal put them two points clear of the Gunners with a game in hand. Manchester City are third and, incredibly, after the superb start they had, Chelsea are fourth, three points behind United having now played a game more.

It's Chelsea versus Manchester United on Sunday. Is it too early to say that Chelsea must win to stay in the title race? Well, yes it is, but it certainly doesn't hide the fact that this is a big game for the Blues.

Having failed to beat Tottenham last Sunday - courtesy of a failed penalty by Didier Drogba in the last minute - the pressure piles up on Chelsea.

And then on 27 December, Chelsea travel to Arsenal. It really is a season-defining few games.

Despite United's 1-0 win on Sunday and the fact that they are still unbeaten, there linger some doubts that they are the Real McCoy. Yet Arsenal again failed to deliver when it mattered.

It seems to me that the Big Three (sorry - farewell Liverpool) are not as good as they were. Yet they are still in three of the top four positions.

Is the overall quality slipping?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Blackburn Rovers join the insanity

Blackburn Rovers sacked manager Sam Allardyce yesterday.

They have simply joined the lunatics in the asylum. The new owners of Blackburn Rovers are the Venky's group from India.

Undoubtedly, they are well versed in English football and the Premiership. Or at least, they have seen some of the recent goings-on and think that sacking a manager is an excellent first step.

We neutrals are running out of clubs we hope will get relegated "to teach the owners a lesson"! Big Sam didn't deserve this ignominious treatment. What do the new owners expect from Blackburn? A title? A cup? Pretty football? Get real.

The trouble is that the clubs are selling out to foreign ownership with ridiculous haste and alacrity. They're falling over themselves to get overseas owners in; plus, of course, foreign players, managers, coaches. The only English people left in the game are those who brave the recent freezing weather and pay out their hard-earned, but likely to reduce, money to see the madness unfold before them.

It's become insane, and the lunatics are taking over the asylum.

There's a big fall coming for Premier League football.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Bolton inspired by sending off

I've never quite understood why fans cheer a player of their side who's just been sent off.

It happened yesterday when Bolton's Mark Davies was sent off for a second yellow card, having elbowed Blackburn's Phil Jones in a heading challenge. Davies was cheered and applauded as he (eventually) left the field, despite having just left his team one man short and with an uphill battle for the rest of the game.

The fact that Bolton did go on to win the game is not relevant. If it was a good idea to play one man short, every team would start with only ten!

Having cheered their own dismissed man from the field, the Bolton fans then booed victim Phil Jones's every touch. Incredible.

Amazingly, Bolton did seem to be inspired by the sending off! They took the lead, and then, when Blackburn equalised, they re-took the lead within 10 seconds of the re-start, and hung on ro win 2-1. Bolton now find themselves in the dizzyingly high position of sixth, only six points behind the leaders!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Pardew signs as Newcastle manager till mid-2016. Ha ha.

So Alan Pardew has been named as the new Newcastle United boss. Well, good luck to him!

Apparently he has received phone and text messages from fellow managers telling that he is "mad" to take the job. Pardew said it was daunting, but a challenge he couldn't turn down, and that Newcastle United is one of the top five clubs in the country.

Pardew has signed a five-and-a-half year contract, taking him to mid-2016. You have to laugh. Newcastle have had seven managers in the last five-and-a-half years!

I was talking to some mates last night. They have no feeling one way or the other for Newcastle, Chris Hughton or Alan Pardew, but the general feeling was that they hope Newcastle get relegated as a reward for impatient stupidity.

Newcastle managers since 2004:
Graeme Souness 2004-06
Glenn Roeder 2006-07
Sam Allardyce 2007-08
Kevin Keegan 2008
Joe Kinnear 2008-09
Alan Shearer 2009
Chris Hughton 2009-2010

Thursday, 9 December 2010

All four English teams qualify in Champions League

All four English clubs made it through the group stages of the Champions League.

Manchester United's draw on Tuesday with Valencia wasn't not particularly relevant, except that it ensured that they won the group. It was a shame that the concession of a goal spoilt their blemish-free goals against column for the previous five games, but Sir Alex Ferguson won't worry too much about that.

Chelsea had already qualified prior to last night's 1-0 defeat at Marseille, but Chelsea's problems are longer term than worrying about an otherwise 'dead rubber' - the Blues want to get back to winning ways in any competition in any way.

Tottenham Hotspur are Chelsea' next league opponents on Sunday, and they won their Champions League group by drawing 3-3 at FC Twente on Tuesday - the first new team to win a CL group. Going forward, boss Harry Redknapp's concern might be that Spurs conceded 11 goals in the six group games - with much tougher opponents likely to be waiting.

Arsenal made it through by beating Partizan Belgrade 3-1 at the Emirates last night. The Gunners' startling start to the campaign (three straight wins) was threatened by derailment with the two defeats that followed, but they secured second place behind Shakhtar Donetsk with the win.

The draw will be interesting on 17 December.

Manchester United could get Inter Milan, Lyon, Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille, AC Milan.
Chelsea could get Inter Milan, Lyon, Valencia, Copenhagen, Roma, AC Milan.
Tottenham could get Lyon, Valencia, Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille, AC Milan.
Arsenal could get Shalke 04, Barceloan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Newcastle sack Hughton to look for more experience

The greed, impatience and yes, stupidity, of Premier League chairmen/owners was highlighted again yesterday when Chris Hughton was sacked as manager of Newcastle United.

This is the Newcastle whom he rescued from the doldrums of the Championship and took back to the Premier League last season, and the Newcastle who now sit in 12th place in the top league, above the likes of Everton and Aston Villa. What precisely do the owners expect?

The same thing previously happened to Billy Davies of Derby County and Phil Brown of Hull City. Did it help their clubs? Both were taken to the Premier League by those managers. Both are now in the Championship. You judge.

There were rumblings at Newcastle a few weeks ago, so it was not really a question of whether Hughton would be sacked, but when.

The club is apparently looking for some one with "more managerial experience". It's a good job all clubs don't take that view. I wonder what managers will be looking at this particular poisoned chalice. Any experienced manager now out of work must have been sacked a few times.

That must be what Newcastle are looking for. I hope they get what they deserve.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Big clubs beat the weather

So, after the World Cup bidding fiasco, it was back to the parochial limits of the Premier and Football Leagues. Except that they're not so parochial, with such wide foreign influences, and we weren't quite back as much of the Football League programme was called off because of the adverse weather.

Congratulations to all those clubs who did get their games on - all the Premier League games except at Blackpool, and seven of the 12 Championship games, together with games at Swindon Town, Northampton Town and Oxford United (not too far apart geographically, which tells a tale). Given that the higher in the league a club is, the more likely the game was to be on, it does seem that money can even beat the weather!

Chelsea's stumbling continued as Everton fought back to equalise with a late goal, and even pressed for a winner. Arsenal took advantage with a 2-1 home win against Fulham - getting over some of their recent poor home form. Manchester City have not yet been particularly convincing, but their 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers puts them only three points behind the leaders, after Chelsea have surrendered their early season advantage.

The Championship is tight, except that unbeaten QPR are four points clear, despite not playing at the weekend. Second-placed Cardiff City secured a late-late draw against bottom club Preston, whose draw must have felt like a defeat, after being denied so late. Swansea City saw off the challenge of Ipswich Town, but were greatly helped by referee Andy D'Urso's refusal to award them what appeared to be a clear penalty at 1-2; and Swansea broke away and scored a third straight away (a magnificent effort by Craig Beattie). Ipswich boss (who does have previous with Mr D'Urso) refused to blame the referee.

From Norwich City in fourth to Sheffield United in 20th, there are only 11 points separating the teams, so there is still all to play for in a division notorious for late runs both up and down the table!

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Friday, 3 December 2010

World Cup bidding process is a sham

So FIFA gave the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

Let's ignore Russia for the moment.

Qatar? Never qualified for the World Cup; 113th in FIFA's own ranking; population 1.7 million; average temperature in July: up to 46 degrees C.

This is crazy! What has Qatar got to do with football? They might as well hold the Ashes in Finland.

Back to Russia: Qualified for 9 World Cups as either Soviet Union or Russia; 13th in the rankings; population 141 million.

Neither the Russian bid nor the Qatari bid was considered the best, yet they both won. Both of them were considered riskier than most of the other bids, yet they won.

The World Cup hosting bidding process is a sham (and I don't necessarily mean corrupt). It is obvious that minds were made up months or years ago. It is obvious that FIFA want to push the boundaries of football beyond their paymasters (Western Europe) to reach the four corners of their flat world.

OK, that's fine, but don't pretend otherwise. Don't pretend that there is any merit in the bidding process. Just say: if you've got loads of money (from oil would be handy) to build big stadiums and you've not held the World Cup before, then send us your bid; but if you're a tired old footballing nation, don't bother.

Let's have some honesty and transparency, FIFA.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

World Cup hosts? Vote for England and Australia

And so we close in on the FIFA votes for the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

After all the controversy, allegations and, no doubt, nods and winks, the votes will take place tomorrow.

There are four bids in the running for the 2018 World Cup, one of which, of course, is England. By the time 2018 comes round it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. For the game's mother-country, this is, in my opinion, far too long. Other bids are Spain AND Portugal and Belgium AND Holland. Personally, I don't go for joint bids, and how is it that Spain - who hosted the tournament in 1982 - could host it alone then, but can't now? The final bid is from Russia, which one can only imagine would not be nearly as welcoming as England.

Obviously, being English, I am biased, but I fervently hope the World Cup "comes home" in 2018, and that all the reports in The Times and Panorama do not influence the final votes.

Sadly, I think it will prove to be a forlorn hope.

As for 2022, there are five bids: Australia, South Korea, Qatar, USA, Japan.

What South Korea and Japan are doing bidding for this World Cup, I can't understand, as they jointly held it so recently in 2002. That would be ridiculously soon, and the USA hosted it in1994. To my mind, you can't invite a country who has never qualified for the World Cup final stages (Qatar) to host the tournament, so my vote would go to the Aussies. We know they'd host a superb tournament.