Archive for the ‘Football’ Category
It’s not without a sense of irony that the high cost of tickets for Premier League matches was thrust into the spotlight by Manchester City supporters.
The £62 ticket price for a ticket to watch their team play away to Arsenal was no more than Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Spurs have had to pay for the equivalent fixture. In fact, when considering that those four clubs have consistently provided Arsenal with their biggest games of the season, visiting fans of that quartet will have had to pay top prices at Arsenal for as long as the Premier League has existed.
Man City will likely be the only one of that group of clubs rated by Arsenal as “Category A” opponents who don’t have 3,000 fans willing to pay such a high price, and for a club whose fans have often boasted about both their numbers and their loyalty – as was often the case whilst averaging 28,000 in League One – it’s surprising that there isn’t high enough demand to sell their full ticket quota for their first visit to the Emirates as Premier League champions.
However, when considering that even a must-win match in the Champions League was played out in front of almost 8,000 vacant sky blue coloured seats, perhaps the club simply don’t have the size of following that has previously been claimed. There could have been no complaints at the £35 cost of a ticket for the clash with Ajax – especially when compared to the 80€ admission cost of the reverse fixture.
The other irony about the issue having been forced by Man City fans is that clubs like Arsenal have been affected more than most by the wealth of cash thrown around firstly by Chelsea, and then, more recently, Man City themselves.
In racking up huge annual losses through the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds directly from the pockets of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, both Chelsea and Man City enjoyed the kind of spending power with which no sensibly run club could compete.
In a short space of time, Arsenal went from having consistently been one of best teams in the land, to one which could no longer compete with the best at the league’s summit. Most of the club’s star players have opted to leave due to the lack of silverware, and with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules due to take effect from next year, Arsenal face a huge challenge if they’re to strengthen enough to challenge for a league title in the near future.
Of course, none of that may be enough to justify such a high cost of tickets. But if Arsenal are able to demand up to £126 for a single Premier League match and still see the stadium full for almost all of their games, then why should there be any pressure to lower their matchday prices? Why shouldn’t Arsenal be allowed to maximise their income in such a highly competitive sport? And why should they be condemned for simply trying to compete with clubs who have been fortunate enough to find themselves bankrolled by foreign multi-billionaires?
Last year’s league titles in Spain and England were won by the two costliest football squads in history, and the Champions League won by the next biggest spenders over the last few years.
All three of those successful teams were able to invest heavily before the new financial rules take effect. Man City fans might do well to recognise that they, like Chelsea and Real Madrid, were able to spend vast sums of money in a way that their rivals couldn’t match at the time, and won’t be allowed to in the future.
Arsenal are simply one of a number of clubs doing whatever they can to remain as financially competitive as possible. And in an imperfect footballing world, no one should blame them for that.
The best league in the world. The most popular league in the world.
Both are common phrases to hear, when describing the English Premier League. Of course, they’re almost always used by British journalists or ex-players covering the English game on TV.
The recent announcement of the FIFpro World XI for 2012 was heavily criticised by many of those same British-based experts, after it consisted entirely of footballers playing for clubs in the Spanish Primera Liga.
How could it be possible that the Premier League was not represented, they asked? There were no questions of why the team included no players from the German Bundesliga, or Italy’s Serie A. But then they aren’t considered as being the best league in the world.
The most controversial omission was Robin Van Persie, who was the best player in England during 2012. He was overlooked, legitimately, in favour of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Radamel Falcao. The first two require no justification, though even Falcao managed to outscore Van Persie over the calendar year – as well as making a significant contribution to Atletico Madrid’s Europa League and European Super Cup wins.
There’s no question that the English league is the most hyped in the world, and it may even be true that it’s the most popular. After all, the revenue generated from worldwide TV rights are unmatched by any other top flight football league.
Whether it is the best though, is an entirely different question.
La Liga is generally seen as the next best league – again, based usually on the judgement of English-based experts alone. So in explaining the reasons why the Premier League rules, it is merely a case of those very people detailing why it is better than La Liga.
The main arguments usually include one or more of the following:
- English football is more entertaining to watch;
- There are only two strong teams in Spain;
- Every game in England is competitive, regardless of the gulf in class between the two competing sides;
- There is a better atmosphere in the stadiums;
- Most of the world’s best players play in England
Some of the above statements are often used with such conviction that they cannot possibly be false, but there is plenty that can be said in support of Spain’s case for having the strongest football league in Europe.
In Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga contains arguably the two best club sides in the world. Neither are invincible, but there wouldn’t generally be too many people who would strongly disagree with that assessment.
The strength of those two teams in itself doesn’t reflect the general health of the league, but a look at the performances of Spain’s teams in Europe over the last decade certainly points to a depth in the quality of teams further down the league.
Results in European competition are one of the few ways in which the strength of a given league can be truly measured and compared. Doing so would only lead to a conclusion pointing very much towards Spain rather than the Premier League.
Since 2000, six Champions League finals have included a Spanish club, five of them won by the team from La Liga. The other was Valencia’s 2001 penalty shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich. The most recent three occasions have seen Barcelona triumph over English opposition.
In the UEFA Cup/Europa league over that time, nine different Spanish teams have reached at least the semi final, and there have been two all-Spanish finals. Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have each won the competition twice since 2005, and Valencia lifted the trophy in 2004.
In contrast, only six different English representatives have made it to the last four, and not since Liverpool defeated Alaves in 2001 has the Premier League delivered a winner.
For a league considering itself so strong, the performance of English teams in the Europa League has been quite dreadful. Every club in the top nine places of La Liga in 2010/11 had experience of competing in a recent a European semi final, though it’d be almost unimaginable for the same to be true of the Premier League.
Based on present league placings, such a scenario would have to have seen the likes of Swansea, West Brom and Everton mixing it with the continent’s best, while even Man City have so far failed to make any kind of impression on European competition despite resources that perhaps only one or two clubs in the world can match.
Middlesbrough and Fulham did managed to achieve some continental success by reaching finals in 2005 and 2010 respectively, though neither had to face Spanish opposition until the final. Both were beaten – emphatically in Middlesbrough’s case.
The only other argument from those above that I will address is that of how competitive the matches within each league are deemed to be. Is it really true that Real Madrid and Barcelona have games where they only have to turn up to win, whereas Manchester United and Man City have to fight much harder for any points earned?
It may appear that English games are more competitive, but is that based more on the style of football? Does the fact that English teams adopt a more physical approach give an impression that smaller teams compete better against the top teams in England than in Spain?
If results were compared, it would be difficult to see any noticeable difference.
How often do any of the teams near the bottom of the table cause any problem to one of the title contenders, in either country?
Wigan’s win against Man United last spring comes immediately to mind, but there are few other examples to offer from recent seasons. Barcelona were near unbeatable in the 2010/11 season but still lost 2-0 at home to Hercules, who were relegated and won only one other away game during the remainder of the season. Evidence that hugely surprising results do occur in Spain, too.
It was said of QPR’s win over Chelsea earlier this month that the result was further proof of something which simply wouldn’t happen in Spain. But Chelsea haven’t been consistent this season to keep up with the top two and are a long way off the league leaders.
Even in the two weeks since then, Real Madrid have been held to a goalless draw by bottom of the table Osasuna. Meanwhile, amongst the points dropped by Madrid last season on their way to the title were draws against Villarreal and Racing Santander – both of whom went on to be relegated.
In Barcelona, the likes of Messi, Iniesta et al. have helped the club to a record-breaking first half of the season. A first league defeat did finally occur yesterday, and it was to 12th placed Real Sociedad – a team who made Real Madrid work extremely hard to hold on for a 4-3 win during the previous round of fixtures.
There’s a lot for football fans to admire about the Premier League, but to boast that it is the best in Europe, or to dismiss so much that the Spanish league has to offer only goes to highlight an English bias that, beyond one’s personal preference, appears to be very hard to justify.
I have two observations to make about the controversial goal scored by Luis Suarez yesterday, which has led to the player receiving both fierce criticism and also some strong support from many analysts and fellow players.
The first is that it is not the duty of players to make refereeing decisions.
Whether or not it should have been disallowed has in itself been debated. Some say that the ball ricocheted onto the arm of Suarez and therefore he couldn’t get out of the way. Others claim it was a deliberate attempt by the Liverpool striker to control the ball with his hand.
If it hadn’t been Luis Suarez, there would be much less attention given to the incident. Regardless of his undoubted talent, there have been too many controversial moments in a career where Suarez has rarely been out of the spotlight and as with some of football’s other controversial characters, such as Man City’s Mario Balotelli, the slightest hint of controversy involving Suarez attracts a media circus and endless analysis.
However, nothing in Suarez’s history should be referred to when looking at yesterday’s incident, if only for the simple fact that no one can claim with certainty that it was a deliberate handball.
Given that it was a handball though, should Suarez have been obliged to point it out to the referee? The answer to that is, of course, no.
If football was such an honest sport in which there was total fair play with no deceiving officials with skilfully crafted dives, or wasting time by feigning injury to disrupt matches and gain an advantage, then there would be a stronger argument for suggesting that Suarez had a duty to make known to the referee that the ball had hit his hand.
The reality of modern football is that it’s a world away from the above picture of a sport in which there is complete honesty, and in an ever more competitive sport – off the pitch as well as on it – there’s unlikely to be anyone playing the game today who would get a lucky break from a refereeing decision and then ask for it to be overturned.
If honesty existed then players wouldn’t argue against decisions such as free kicks or penalty decisions when they know full well that they’ve committed a foul. Nor would players accept decisions in their favour that have been awarded for fouls when there has been no contact.
The other point I wish to make is that it’s not the first time that such an incident has happened and it’s hard to understand why such great attention is being placed on Suarez. Even the Mansfield manager, Paul Cox, refused to criticize the player.
I don’t recall such a fuss being made when AC Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi directed the ball into the Liverpool net with his hand during the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. On that occasion Liverpool were the dominant side for much of the match – unlike the meeting between the two teams in the 2005 final – and Inzaghi’s goal was a pivotal moment in swinging the match in Milan’s favour.
There could have been Mourinho-style whingeing from everyone in Liverpool’s corner, but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. It was a refereeing mistake and it went Milan’s way on that occasion. Against Mansfield, the decision was in Liverpool’s favour.
In the weeks, months and years to come, there’ll be scores more teams on the end of wrong decisions that prove costly. Most teams will benefit at some point, and suffer at other times.
But, after all, that’s football.
It’s a sign of the modern game that each and every footballing defeat is treated with hysteria and calls for managers to be sacked.
So it’s no surprise that the pressure on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger intensified following their penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford in the League Cup last night.
Arsenal are without a trophy since 2005, and with Man United and Man City already dumped out of the competition, the League Cup looked to offer Wenger’s side with a realistic chance of ending that trophy drought.
A 1-1 draw against League Two side Bradford City ended any such hopes, and the calls for Wenger to go have been fierce amongst certain sections.
The fact that the Gunners have been the victims of a huge cup upset at a time when they are struggling to find consistency in the Premier League isn’t going to help the manager’s cause.
But it’s important not to get carried away on the back of a single shock result in a cup competition. It was only the second time in Arsene Wenger’s time at the club years that Arsenal have lost to a team outside the Premier League in a domestic cup competition, and plenty of other top sides have faced the same – or even greater – humiliations over recent seasons.
Liverpool 1-2 Grimsby
Frustrated by an outstanding goalkeeping performance by Grimsby’s Danny Coyne, Liverpool were held to a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes. All seemed to be going well when Gary McAllister put Liverpool ahead in extra time, but Grimsby struck back with seven minutes remaining, before former Evertonian Phil Jevons fired a stunning winner from 30 yards which won it for Grimsby in injury time.
Burton Albion 0-0 Man United and Man United 0-0 Exeter City
Man United faced non-league opposition twice in consecutive seasons at the third round stage of the FA Cup. In 2005, the holders of the competition were drawn away to Burton, and were held to a goalless draw despite fielding a side which, although not at full strength, contained plenty of experience. The introduction of Rooney and Ronaldo in the last half hour was presumably to see the job done without the need for a replay, but Burton held on and earned a lucrative trip to Old Trafford.
A year later, the task looked even more daunting for non-league Exeter, with Old Trafford the venue for the initial match. But the outcome was the same as twelve months earlier, and a weakened Man United line-up were once again forced to a replay. Giggs, Ronaldo, Scholes and Rooney all started for Man United in the second fixture, and helped spare any further blushes as United won 2-0.
Southend 1-0 Man United
In a 2006 League Cup tie, Freddy Eastwood was the hero for Southend United as they shocked Man United. Southend were struggling in the Championship at the time of their fourth round win over Alex Ferguson’s men, who would go on to lift the Premier League title. Ten internationals made up the Man United team, with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo amongst them, but neither could prevent Southend from pulling off a famous victory.
Barnsley 1-0 Chelsea
Championship side Barnsley had already dumped Liverpool out of the FA Cup at Anfield in the previous round, and may have wished for an easier tie than Chelsea as a reward. But it mattered not as they recorded a famous win at Oakwell in arguably the biggest shock of any in this selection due to the strength of their opponents.
Chelsea, whose squad had cost more than 600 times that of Barnsley, fielded nine of the players who would go on to face Man United in the Champions League final two months later. Yet amongst all of the stars on show, it was the name of Kayode Odejayi that would make headlines the following day, as his goal separated the sides and booked a semi-final place at Wembley.
Chelsea 1-1 Burnley
Ivanovic, Lampard, Ferreira, Deco, Malouda and Drogba were just some of the big names in the Chelsea side as they took on Championship opponents Burnley. Drogba netted for Chelsea in the first half, but an equalising goal for Ade Akinbiyi took the game into extra time.
Frank Lampard was denied a winner due to a raised flag for offside during the additional half hour of play, and focus turned towards the goalkeepers as the tie went to penalties. And it was Burnley’s Brian Jensen who was the eventual hero, saving Jon Obi Mikel’s spot kick to earn his side a 5-4 shoot-out victory. Burnley went on to knock Arsenal out in the next round – Arsene Wenger’s only other loss to a team in a lower division – before losing a semi final to Spurs.
Liverpool 2-2 Northampton Town
It’s hard to forget the images of a rain-soaked Roy Hodgson looking on as his Liverpool team crashed out to a side who were 17th in League Two at the time. Liverpool were fortunate even to be taking part in a penalty shoot-out, having required a late equaliser in extra time just to avoid elimination in the match itself. But David N’Gog followed up his goal with one of the penalty misses and, in front of the Kop, Northampton went on to triumph 4-2.
Man United 1-2 Crystal Palace
Despite all of the successes at Man United during the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s also United who seem to have been on the end of the most shock results in cup competitions over the last few years, not all of which have been included here – such as a 2-0 home loss to Coventry City in 2007.
Their most recent was only a year ago, when they fell at the same stage as Arsenal have done this season. A weakened team still included the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia, both of whom had been key players in the club’s title success the previous season. Crystal Palace saw a lead in normal time quickly cancelled out, but Glenn Murray’s headed goal in the second period of extra time restored Palace’s advantage and it was enough to earn a semi final with fellow Championship side Cardiff City.
Regardless of the comments or excuses offered by Roberto Mancini, Manchester City’s performance in the Champions League has been dreadful.
As is widely reported, City have recorded the lowest points total of any English club in the history of the competition.
They were the first English club who have failed to win any of their six group games.
And, before any excuses are heard about the difficulty of the group that Man City were in, it should be noted that only once in 18 campaigns have a team from Scotland performed worse in a Champions League group.
When the Champions League draw was made in August, Borussia Dortmund were always going to be a side who would through any group wide open. They were, due to a weak European record in recent seasons, amongst the fourth seeds of clubs.
For Man City to be in a group with not only the highly regarded German champions, but also Real Madrid was certainly unfortunate. But for all of Mancini’s complaints of the task facing his own players, shouldn’t the same have been said about their rivals, too?
Neither Real Madrid nor Borussia Dortmund would have welcomed having to play against the winners of the Premier League – the most costly team of superstars ever put together by an English club.
Ajax wouldn’t have relished any of their fixtures, and before a ball was kicked would probably have settled for third place as a reasonable achievement. That Frank de Boer’s team also gave Man City a European footballing lesson only adds to the sense that Mancini and his players have greatly disappointed.
There are frequent references to the seeding system, but Man City, amongst the third seeds last year, were among the eight clubs in the second pot of seeds.
If anyone at the club wants to be higher, they need to earn it by winning games in Europe. A top seeding is one thing that money cannot buy, as Real Madrid themselves found out after slipping out of the top seeds in 2010 following years of under achievement. Juventus, too, are in the process of fighting their way back to the top from a lowly position in the rankings, and have faced a tough group of their own with Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Man City will get another chance next year, no doubt. But surely there will be questions asked of whether Mancini is the man to lead them through another campaign, because little seems to have been learned from last season’s European collapse.
And whatever he might say to the contrary, this season’s showing has been an embarrassment.
It’s funny how managers are treated so differently in the media.
Some are able to do no wrong, regardless of any periods of under-achievement or mistakes they might make.
Others can do nothing right, and their achievements are belittled – or credited entirely to someone else.
An example of the former is Mark Hughes, who did well with Blackburn, though achieved little beyond what was expected of him during spells with Man City and Fulham.
Hughes quit Fulham a year after taking charge, as the club failed to match his expectations. He wanted to manage at a club competing for trophies, or occupying Champions League positions.
Speaking of Fulham, his agent said at the time: “They are a great top 10, mid-table club and I think Mark really wants to be right up there competing in the Champions League positions, up there competing for titles. He’d like to win some cups.”
Quite what attracted Hughes to QPR given his lofty ambition remains a mystery. A promise of investment might have turned his head, but there was certainly no immediate prospect of silverware at a club battling to stay in the top flight.
The managerial change had little impact on the fortunes of QPR, and they finished the season in exactly the same position as they were in when Hughes replaced Neil Warnock – a single point outside the relegation zone.
Still, given a favourable perception of Hughes throughout much of the media, there’s unlikely to be too much criticism handed out, despite a dreadful time in charge of the team who are now firmly rooted to the foot of the table.
Contrast that to the reaction of Rafael Benitez’s appointment at Chelsea, which has been treated with rather a lot of scepticism – not only by fans of Chelsea but in the press, too.
“Benitez has plenty to prove” was the heading to an article by the BBC’s chief football writer, echoing the sentiments of Chelsea supporters who regard the Spaniard as not being a particularly good manager.
It’s unfortunate that such a view of Benitez has stuck, but it demonstrates the power of the media to influence minds, often based on some personal biases or club rivalries.
Benitez arrived in English football at the same time as Mourinho, though brought much less charm with him than the Portuguese – an important quality these days it seems, as other have found out.
In taking charge of Liverpool, he also took on a far greater challenge than Mourinho was tasked with at Chelsea. There was money to spend, but the amount was limited each season and in undertaking the complete overhaul of a squad which had failed to deliver under Gerard Houllier, Benitez needed to bring a host of players with the budget.
It would have been far easier to identify an entire team of superstars and sign them up instantly, as Chelsea’s wealth allowed them to do.
The sheer amount of work required to take Liverpool from a a fourth place to title challengers was something that critics were either unappreciate of – or who simply chose to ignore it in order to continue piling the pressure on Benitez.
At the start of the 2004-5 season, Benitez’s first in English football, he was competing with two sides who already had Premiership winning squads at their disposal – both had been crowned champions over the previous two seasons – and the might of Abramovich’s free-spending Chelsea.
The fact that Liverpool competed for the title at all during Benitez’s tenure is testament to the huge improvement which took place over during the five years he was at Anfield.
Yes, the final season was a disappointment but it was also one in which the whole club was emboiled in off the pitch problems. Football was overshadowed by politics and transfer windows passed by with Liverpool expected to make a profit through player sales rather than continue investing to secure their position as title challengers. Few managers, if any, would have coped more admirably under the circumstances than Benitez did.
Up until the final year, the overall picture was one of massive progress.
Under Benitez, Liverpool reached two Champions League finals, something not even Man United had managed to do in the Champions League era.
Domestically there was a memorable FA Cup triumph and even if other pieces of silverware wouldn’t impress the likes of Chelsea or Man United, such as the UEFA Super Cup or the Community Shield, they were nevertheless trophies that the overwhelming majority of Premier League sides would have been delighted with.
Outside of Merseyside though, little credit is given to Benitez for a lot of what was achieved between 2004 and 2009.
His Champions League win was with Gerard Houllier’s team, the critics say. But if that’s the case, then Jose Mourinho shouldn’t be given any credit for what he achieved at Chelsea, given that he was successful only thanks to the team that Claudio Ranieri built. Even some of the key signings who only arrived at Chelsea after Ranieri was sacked, such as Petr Cech and Arjen Robben, were players who struck pre-contract deals in January – long before Mourinho was in the frame.
Noone would believe that to be the case and Mourinho should rightly be credited as the man who secured the Premier League title with Chelsea, just as Benitez was responsible for leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul. The argument against Benitez crumbles even further when bearing in mind that Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – two of Liverpool’s most important players throughout the successful campaign in Europe – were signed by him.
Of his signings, there were mistakes made certainly. But with the restrictions in place – i.e. no bottomless pot of cash – gambles had to be taken and some quite obviously didn’t pay off. Again, he’s not alone in that regard. If the list of failed signings at Man United and Chelsea were carefully analyzed, there would be mistakes there too. The question would be, is the team still improving? And in most cases, the answer is usually yes, despite the mistakes.
To focus on the mistakes serves to do little justice to an overall record that included huge successes. In 2009, Liverpool’s side included some of the continent’s best players in almost every position with the likes of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres all players signed by Benitez.
The last argument levelled at Benitez is regarding the amount of money spent, something else used by his detractors to “prove” that he is simply not a top manager. As already mentioned, his Liverpool side was one that needed an almost complete rebuild of the squad, and with the squads of rival clubs were in a much healthier state, requiring much less investment.
But even after considering the vast difference in quality of the squads inherited, Jose Mourinho still outspent Benitez during the three years that they each managed in England together. Should not the ‘special one’ have been able to get more out of the considerable resources already at his disposal?
In Benitez’s case, he was under almost the same amount of pressure to deliver a title. Liverpool fans are often accused of believing that they have a divine right to compete for titles, but whilst many were realistic enough to see the size of the task Benitez faced, there was unrelenting pressure from the media for Liverpool to challenge for – and win – the Premier League title.
Other teams who haven’t historically been as successful as Liverpool, would be under no such pressure, even in the same circumstances. Tottenham, for example, invested heavily and on paper were able to put together a strong enough squad to compete with the top four teams. But their top four finish in 2010 was celebrated as a monumental achievement when the same end result at Liverpool would have been deemed a failure.
Now at Chelsea, there’ll be many who are hoping that Benitez fails in order to prove that they were right about him. But with a good set of players available, I fully expect him to have Chelsea competing for the title this season.
The doubters will be disappointed to know that Benitez is a man with quite a thick skin. And based on the vast majority of his nine years with Valencia and Liverpool, he’s also quite a good football manager.
Well, Roberto Di Matteo lasted longer as Chelsea manager than some.
The Italian’s 262 days in the job make him the fourth longest-serving of the eight men who have held the Chelsea manager’s job since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003.
It doesn’t make the decision to sack him any easier to understand though, and once again raises questions of who exactly Chelsea’s Russian owner is capable of trusting over a period of time that is long enough to bring about stability to the club.
Di Matteo was appointed on the back of a successful time as caretaker that included success in the Champions League and FA Cup.
His appointment was in many ways similar to that of Avram Grant, who stepped in following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho and led Chelsea to their first ever Champions League final – one which was lost only due to John Terry’s missed penalty kick.
Grant’s failure to land the Premier League title failed to earn him a permanent contract however, and the highly rated Luiz Felipe Scolari took over. Though even Scolari’s reputation as one of the world’s top coaches couldn’t help him survive once Chelsea hit a bad run of form in January of 2009.
Next was one of the most decorated coaches still involved in the game, Carlo Ancelotti – a man of vast experience and double-winner of the Champions League with Milan. His task was to bring that very trophy to Stamford Bridge. A domestic league and cup double in his first season might have been enough to earn a second year at the helm, but absence of any further silverware meant only one thing the following spring.
Following the failure of an experience coach to live up to impossible expectations was a shift to the inexperienced Andre Villas-Boas. It was supposed to represent a change of approach, with less pressure to deliver instant results and an emphasis on phasing out the old guard and freshening up the team.
That didn’t work, either. Senior players were unhappy, and weren’t afraid to say so. Villas-Boas out, Di Matteo in, and what followed under the leadership of a man whose only previous managerial experience was during a short-lived reign at West Bromwich Albion, defied footballing logic, given what had gone before.
On the verge of Champions League exit in March, Chelsea’s fortunes turned dramatically and thanks to a combination of solid defensive performances and wasteful finishing by their opponents, the west Londoners overcame the challenge of both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to lift the Champions League trophy for the first time in their history.
In doing so, they were the first team to ever triumph in Europe in the same year as being the sixth best team domestically. History may have been achieved, though there was clearly work to be done for Chelsea to do in order to have any chance of repeating their achievements, or returning to a position of challenging for the Premier League title.
Much of the necessary reinforcements looked to have been in place with a massive programme of spending during the summer to bring in stars such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, both of whom played a part in propelling Chelsea to the top of the league in October.
But once again, Abramovich has wielded the axe after a relatively short period of poor form – and the man who played a major role in helping Chelsea become champions of Europe has become the first Premier League boss to lose his job this season.
There should be no talk of any crisis at Chelsea, but with Abramovich again showing the impatience he has become notorious for, there will certainly be questions of whether anyone is capable of matching the colossal expectations that will be placed upon them.
Pep Guardiola may have been the most successful manager in Barcelona’s history, but could even he replicate that at Chelsea, or thrive at a club where so many other managers have tried and failed?
The list of other top managers who may could be tempted is much shorter than when the Chelsea have appointed managers in the past – in part because they’ve tried so many of the biggest names already.
Fabio Capello is one who hasn’t yet had his opportunity, and both Harry Redknapp and Rafa Benitez will be mentioned due to their immediate availability.
Guardiola would be the fans’ choice, but would be forgiven for considering the job is one which has too much risk. And unless Abramovich, prior to sacking Di Matteo, has already been in contact with a potential successor, he may find that there aren’t too many other managers willing to take such a gamble, either.
If that is the case, he’d have only himself to blame.
There might not be a bigger enigma in football than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Genius, or overhyped ego?
One day he seems quite happy to demonstrate his abilities as one of the world’s most gifted players, providing his fans plenty of reasons to sing his praises.
And the next, he’ll give his critics every bit as much ammunition to make claims that he simply doesn’t deliver often enough.
Whether or not he’s done enough to win over every footballing fan, his natural talent is without question – as anyone who has seen him at his best will testify.
No finer example of that was his performance against England last night. Certainly, a case can be made that in the last 20 minutes, he was facing a rookie centre back making his international debut, but that fact had little to do with the three sensational goals he scored in the final quarter of an hour.
If there has been acclaim for the way in which Luis Suarez controlled the ball on the way to his recent goal against Newcastle, then Ibrahimovic matched that with his second of the game – controlling a long ball on his chest and volleying past Joe Hart.
England’s keeper may have some fingers of blame pointed at him for Ibrahimovic’s second goal, but the sheer audacity to strike a low free kick from so far out has to be applauded.
The third second half goal is something that words would struggle to do justice to. To refer to Steven Gerrard’s assessment – that it was the best goal he’s ever seen – is about the best I can do.
When it comes to the man who in the process of his remarkable evening broke the Swedish international scoring record, special moments are by no means a rarity.
One of my favourite goals of all time was Ibrahimovic’s strike in a 6-2 win for Ajax over NAC Breda.
Receiving the ball just outside of the area, he turned and proceeded to slalom his way through half of the Breda team.
Even when reaching the point where he was able to get a shot in, the Swede dummied a shot with his right foot, leaving the goalkeeper and the last man diving at fresh air, before then casually rolling it into an empty net with his left foot.
It was as if his only intent was to embarrass as many opponents as possible whilst demonstrating his sublime skill.
If he was rather hit and miss at Juventus, it was during a spell at Inter that he finally showed the footballing world some consistency to his game, and it earned a €69m move to Barcelona.
But despite a reasonable return of first season goals – 16 in 29 appearances, including one at the Camp Nou against Real Madrid – the fit was not right, and he moved back to Milan, first on loan and then permanently.
An average of almost a goal-per-game led in his second season in Milan persuaded Paris Saint-Germain to take him to France as the star piece of their expensively assembled squad managed by Carlo Ancelotti.
With 12 goals already, Ibrahimovic is once again enjoying a fruitful season and may be well on the way to removing any remaining doubts that he has the attitude to match his ability.
At 31, there’s still too much of Ibrahimovic’s past years that haven’t lived up to his world-class reputation for him to be regarded in the same light as Messi or Ronaldo as a modern great.
But he surely has done enough during the peak years of his career to prove beyond doubt that he is a footballing genius.
Another season of top flight football begins tomorrow, and it’s the time when everyone is out to prove their knowledge of the game by making bold predictions for the next 9 months.
However, there is frequently a touch of the unexpected in all sports and football is no different. How many people would have confidently placed Newcastle in contention for a Champions League spot last season? At the other end of the table, correctly guessing the teams who will be relegated is perhaps the most difficult of all Premier League predictions.
So, following some mixed fortunes last year, here are my 2012/13 Premier League predictions.
Champions: Manchester City
My hope for this season is that the title is a bit more closely contested throughout the whole season. There can’t possibly be a final day to match the drama of last season, but before each of the Manchester clubs had taken turns in throwing away big leads at the Premier League summit, it had looked as though Man City would be wrapping up the league championship with half-a-dozen games to spare.
Most of the pressure coming City’s way is likely to be applied by local rivals Man United, as well as from big-spending Chelsea. Each of those two sides will be boosted by star signings such as Eden Hazard and Oscar at Chelsea, and Robin Van Persie at Man United, but the overall squad strength of Man City is the reason that I consider them still to be the favourites.
As I mentioned at the same stage last year, it’s likely to be City themselves who are the biggest threat to them winning the title, and there’s sure to be something – or someone – to cause unrest within the squad. But they still had just enough to be able to overcome their off-pitch difficulties last season, and I expect that to be the case again.
Top Four: Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool
The top four used to consist regularly of what became known as the big four – Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Everton managed to break-up the establishged quartet in the 2004/5 season, and Tottenham threatened to push Arsenal into fifth place on a couple of occasions. But it wasn’t until Man City really began to demonstrate their power in the transfer market that the “big four” was truly dismantled. City’s surge up the table coincided with Tottenham finally living up to the potential that they’d shown for a number of years, and in successive seasons, both clubs qualified for a first taster of Champions League football.
Liverpool have been the biggest losers of that so far, but Arsenal have also looked to be at risk of failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Arsene Wenger, and it seems only a matter of time before they do miss out on the top four.
Liverpool finished the season poorly in the league, but regular bad finishing in front of goal was the primary reason that so many good performances during much of the first two-thirds of the season failed to earn the deserved number of points. For that reason, I don’t consider Liverpool to be too far away from genuinely being able to break back into the top four, although I can’t see them finished higher than fourth.
Tottenham were another club who had a period where results were poor even though the performances themselves were good. Fortunately for Spurs, they were in a strong position to begin with and also finished the season well.
With Arsenal weakened significantly by the loss of Van Persie, I think the race for fourth will be between Spurs and Liverpool. Both have managers who I rate highly, though if Brendan Rodgers can make the slight adjustments needed to help Liverpool turn many of their draws into victories, I predict Liverpool will edge it.
Relegation: Wigan, Southampton, Norwich
Predicting the three teams to go down is almost like picking three random names out of a hat consisting of 10 or 12 clubs. It’s often the case that one or two sides struggle to the point of being written off by Christmas, but it’s not always the most obvious club. Managerial changes can make big differences too, either for the better, such as Fulham appointing Roy Hodgson, or for the worse, such as Wolves’ sacking of Mick McCarthy last season.
It’s rare for all three promoted sides to survive, and of the three clubs to come up last season, only QPR ever looked in danger of the drop. I expect there to be much more discomfort for Norwich and Swansea this year, with both clubs having lost the managers who masterminded such respectable league finishes last term. Of the two, I think Norwich are most at risk, and they looked particularly vulnerable in a few of their matches at the end of the season.
Of the promoted sides, West Ham have enough experience to remain in the top flight. Southampton and Reading only have to look at last season to realise what is possible, but I don’t expect either team to match the mid-table finishes of Norwich or Swansea. Both have prior experience in the Premier League, but having been in League One only 15 months ago, I can see Southampton struggling the most to avoid the drop.
Wigan complete my trio of teams and having enjoyed some of the drama produced by their previous relegation escapes, I’m actually hoping that I’m proved wrong. If Roberto Martinez can see his team getting the kind of results that Wigan were achieving at the end of last season, then perhaps this will be a year without quite as much stress for the Wigan fans.
It’s fair to acknowledge that even when results were bad, Martinez stuck to his style of playing football and it was that which proved the catalyst for wins at Arsenal and Liverpool, as well as at home to Man United. Can Wigan perform like that from the start of the season? Will they cope without the likes of Hugo Rodallega and Mohammed Diame? If so, they have every chance of staying up. But it’s unlikely that even Wigan have any more rabbits to pull out of the hat should they find themselves in such a precarious position again.
For many reasons, it’s been a while since I’ve had either the time or motivation to blog, so as I aim to get La Rambler moving again, perhaps a look at the recently concluded European Championships would be a good place to start.
I didn’t have the opportunity to watch too many games in full, especially in the earlier rounds of group games, but Euro 2012 certainly gave us our fair share of surprises – albeit without any massive shocks – in a tournament which was enjoyable without ever looking likely to be remembered as a classic.
For the third time, the European Championships were hosted jointly. And for the second successive competition, both of the host nations were dumped out at the group stage. Also knocked out were Holland who, along with Ireland, were one of two sides to go home without picking up a single point.
Holland may have been the biggest first round casualty had it not been for Russia’s defeat to Greece in their last group match, which highlighted one of UEFA’s more ridiculous ways of trying to encourage attacking football.
Greece went into the game three points behind Russia and with an inferior goal difference, but knew that they needed simply to beat Russia in order to move above them on the head-to-head ruling, used as the deciding factor between teams on the same number of points, regardless of goal difference. With a 1-0 lead there was no need for Greece to score again, even though Russia still had a better goal difference.
In group C, which included Italy, Spain and Croatia, a situation unfolded during the last group game in which Italy led the group despite having the same number of points as Spain and Croatia, and a lesser goal difference than both. When taking into account that, at that stage of the evening, the games between the three teams had resulted in a draw – or were on course to do so – it seemed ridiculous to think that goals scored in draws between three teams on the same points should be used instead of overall goal difference.
Fortunately, Spain secured a late winner against Croatia and the group was settled on points alone, with Spain taking top spot.
England were amongst the other group winners, and despite a squad lacking a number of experienced international players, went on to record their best performance on foreign soil since 1968 – when the tournament included just four teams.
Not until Portugal in 2004 did England progress beyond the group phase in a competition hosted overseas and when bearing in mind some of the failings of the England national team over the previous ten European Championships – four of which England failed even to qualify – it was little surprise that topping a group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine earned Roy Hodgson and his team so many plaudits.
Optimism was high amongst England fans ahead of a quarter-final showdown with Italy, and although hindsight can be used to suggest that a certain degree of that optimism was misplaced following Italy’s dominant display in a match they should have won long before penalty kicks, it is worth noting that Italy’s own performances in the group stage – none of which were overly convincing – were a big factor behind English expectation.
Their ultimate loss to Italy simply resulted in hype being directed elsewhere by the British media.
And from not even being considered as serious trophy contenders before the quarter-final stage, Italy became the new media favourites and found themselves going into the final against Spain just a week later with a number of analysts in the British media almost regarding them as competition favourites. Such a view was based largely on an impressive, albeit overrated, victory over Germany in the semi finals – a match in which a catalogue of Italian defensive blunders in the opening quarter-hour of the match could have seen the Germans with a convincing early lead.
In addition, Mario Balotelli, the talented but temperamental character leading the Italian strikeforce, was hyped to the point that a career of ups, downs and controversies was seemingly overshadowed by a fine performance in the semi final in which he scored twice on an all too rare occasion in which Balotelli’s contribution to his team in a decisive match was entirely positive.
Spain won’t have cared much for the hype and perhaps were more concerned with criticism they were receiving for their style of play. Either way, despite the over-excited hype towards the Italians, normal service was resumed in the final and Spain proved once and for all that they remain the best national team in the world.
It may not go down as the best European Championship event of all time, but Spain’s achievement in securing a third straight major tournament win will at least ensure that Euro 2012 has a little place in football history.