And they’re off …

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald www.flickr.com

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald
http://www.flickr.com

The new English Premier League season got underway last weekend and I was quite excited about it as I settled down on the sofa for Manchester United v Spurs. By half time that excitement had all but disappeared; what a dull game. It looked as though nobody had told the players that pre-season was over. The pace was pedestrian and the play was disjointed.

Man U were pretty fortunate overall to come away with a victory. I think it’s likely that they will be title contenders this season but there still seems to be something amiss with the balance of that side. The decision to sell Di Maria also means that there is a huge onus on Rooney staying fit and in form over the course of the season. If he doesn’t then things could head downhill quite quickly at Old Trafford.

The start of the season is generally a time for great excitement and optimism. GQ magazine even ran an article titled ‘16 reasons why this will be the best Premier League season ever’ (http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2015-08/07/16-reasons-why-this-will-be-the-best-premier-league-season-ever). Go to the GQ website these days and you’ll find that most headlines begin with a number. Today for instance they offer, ‘10 high-tech grooming gadgets you need right now.’ On the list is a foot buffer (no, I’ve no idea either) and I’m not convinced I need one of those at all, far less right now. Who says journalism is not what it used to be?

GQ’s reasons for predicting that this will be the best Premier League season ever include the fashion statements being made by some clubs with their new kits, the first ever football boot range by New Balance, and, most incredibly of all, the return of Ian Wright to Match of the Day.

When Wright left the BBC in 2008 he said: “I don’t know how long young people are going to want to sit down and watch that same old ‘jacket, shirt and tie’ format. Fans want people who are dressed like them.” That’s right Ian, it was mostly your shirt and tie that bothered us. I quite often watch the football in my pyjamas these days such is the time difference between Malaysia and Europe. Somebody tell Shearer to have a think about that while he’s in the wardrobe department getting ready.

Well GQ, with those sound arguments, it is hard to disagree with your confident claim as to the glorious season that lies before us. Years from now we’ll look back and say “ah, remember 2015/16? What a season that was. First one with the New Balance boots you know.”

Chelsea began the defence of their title not exactly at their best ever with a rather lacklustre home draw with Swansea. The game will mostly be remembered for Mourinho’s hysterical reaction to the club doctor and physio running on to treat Hazard when Dr. Mourinho (so special he’s apparently a qualified medic now as well) had decided that there wasn’t much wrong with the Belgian playmaker.

If that was the case Jose, then maybe have a word with Eden to stop rolling around so dramatically on the floor. The subsequent treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro by Chelsea has been an absolute disgrace.

Across London, Arsenal’s season started a day later with a home match against West Ham. They lost 2-0, a result and performance that Wenger attributed to his players being “too nervous.” For reasons I don’t understand, the perceived wisdom ahead of the season seemed to be that the signing of Cech had magically transformed Arsenal into title contenders. He’s a very good goalkeeper and although he was terrible on his debut he will improve the side. But Arsenal’s problems are not confined between the sticks.

For years they’ve needed a stronger spine to the team. Cech is one part of that but they are still a centre back, a midfield enforcer, and a top class centre forward short of having a realistic shot at the title. Arsenal will do what they’ve done for many seasons now: probably qualify again for the Champions League, get knocked out of this season’s Champions League at either the last sixteen or quarter final stage, and have a decent run in one of the domestic cups.

My team Liverpool began the season at the same place they finished last season – away at Stoke. Back in May it was a calamity as Liverpool lost 6-1 in Gerrard’s final game for the club. 11 weeks later, Liverpool again only scored once but Stoke didn’t score at all and so three hard-earned points were taken back to Anfield.

I’m not at all sure what to expect of Liverpool this season. There are a lot of new faces (again) but the pattern of play was the familiar one that Rodgers has established in his time at the club. Possession was plentiful but much of it was slow and almost entirely lacking in penetration, especially in wide areas. One point of encouragement though was that Benteke showed a sure touch and a willingness to get involved in build-up play. I think he’s going to prove to be a sound investment.

The opening round of fixtures was completed on Monday night with West Brom v Manchester City. Pellegrini’s side strolled to a comfortable 3-0 victory that was notable for the influential display of Toure and for the way that Kompany celebrated scoring the third goal (as if he’d just scored a crucial goal in a World Cup final). I get the impression that City feel they have a point to prove this season.

It may not turn out to be the greatest season in the history of the Premier League but just one week in, anything remains possible. I’m still excited about it but it seems that some people are writing football off altogether. There was an article in The Spectator last week by Mark Palmer titled ‘I’ve loved football for decades, now I dread the start of the season’ (https://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9600342/ive-loved-football-for-decades-now-i-dread-the-start-of-the-season/). Why so, Mark?

He suggests it’s because the game has ‘become a cesspit of greed, debauchery and racism, especially in Britain.’ He goes on to conclude that ‘football is rotten and there’s no point denying it any more. The penny dropped on seeing the footage of Souleymane Sylla, a black Frenchman on his way home from work in Paris, being pushed off a train by snarling Chelsea fans fuelled by drink and hate.’

There’s no denying the ugliness of that incident but it’s a bit much to give up on the beautiful game because of it. Like many things in life, football is indeed tainted by greed, debauchery and racism (and more ills besides) on occasion but those so-called Chelsea fans on the Parisian tube are not the face of football, or at least they are far from the only face.

On Monday night I received several photos from the West Brom v Manchester City game. They were sent by an Indian colleague of mine. He is a City supporter and took his son to the game while on a family trip to the UK. My colleague and his son had huge excited smiles on their faces. This was the first time that they had seen City play live. For weeks they’d been dreaming about the start of the season. 2015/16 will be one to remember for them.

Pre-season: the newbies, the nerves, and the nausea

Pre=season training. Photo by: Picture Esk www.flickr.com

Pre-season training. Photo by: Picture Esk
http://www.flickr.com

It’s that time of year, the sun is out (even occasionally in Scotland), the grass is freshly cut, and all across the land players are reporting back for pre-season training. They’ve had their summer holidays involving yachts, five star resorts, maybe turned up for an afternoon at Wimbledon, and now it’s back to work.

I wonder if the first day back at work after the summer holidays is the same for footballers as the rest of us: sharing awkward holiday pictures, delivering tacky souvenirs, and comparing tans. At least they probably don’t have around 2,000 emails to deal with unless they have a very active agent.

Of course almost straight away they then jet off to long haul destinations (increasingly turning up in this part of the world to meet and greet the global fan base). It’s surprising that travel supplements haven’t appeared yet on ‘this season’s top pre-season destinations: the ideal mix of climate, cuisine and local fans willing to pay inflated ticket prices while you go through the motions in a meaningless game.’

Indeed, the first match I saw here in Malaysia was a Malaysia Select XI v Barcelona. It wasn’t much of a game and Barca ended up winning 3-1. To their credit, Barca fielded a mostly full strength team but with one exception, yes, Messi was left kicking his heels and nursing a tight hamstring on the touchline. A week later, the Catalans kicked-off their La Liga campaign with a 7-0 victory over Levante in which Messi scored twice so the injury clearly wasn’t too debilitating.

I felt great sympathy for those in the crowd in Kuala Lumpur who chanted their hero’s name throughout the second half in the hope that the manager might be persuaded to send him on even for a brief cameo. Alas it was not to be and a lot of kids, plus a few big kids, with ‘Messi 10’ on the back of their strips went home at least a little disappointed.

It seemed a bit off to me to plaster Messi’s face all over town in the month before the game as part of the marketing effort and then not play him because he had a very slight injury. These games represent one of the enduring dilemmas of the modern game – sporting interests versus commercial interests. I doubt many managers of the big clubs would consider playing in the tropical heat of KL against vastly inferior opposition to be the ideal preparation for their forthcoming league campaigns.

Tomorrow night it’s Liverpool’s turn to experience the tropical conditions. They too will face a Malaysia Select XI (meaning that foreign players playing in Malaysia can be selected) rather than the Malaysian national team. In terms of the competitiveness of the contest, that’s probably a good thing since the national side’s last match was a 6-0 home defeat to Palestine.

I was at that game but I’m not going tomorrow night despite being a Liverpool fan. To be honest, I’ve lost virtually all interest in friendly matches. I can understand local fans wanting to see the teams they support live (and people here are huge supporters of the English Premier League as is the case throughout the region) but when you’ve seen Liverpool play at Anfield in a Premier League game, a game such as this holds a lot less appeal.

One interesting thing about this time of year of course is the transfer merry-go-round. It’s been spinning pretty furiously at Anfield but it remains to be seen to what effect. I think Milner is an absolutely terrific free transfer signing and I’m confident that Benteke will prove a decent if perhaps slightly overpriced buy. Firmino looks exciting but Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been far from convincing so far and thus I will reserve judgment for a couple of months.

There’s a lot of pressure on new signings, especially the big money ones. If the recently arrived star striker doesn’t score in a friendly away at Yeovil or somewhere then you can be sure that he will have experienced his first crisis at his new club.

Most clubs appear to still insist on some sort of initiation ceremony for newcomers and this often seems to take the form of karaoke. I imagine Raheem Sterling may have done Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ when he arrived at Manchester City. It’s a rich man’s world indeed Raheem but it can’t buy class.

As the Sterling saga demonstrated, patience is a rare commodity in football these days and the stakes are often very high, very quickly. Already a lot of clubs are battling for qualification in the Champions League and Europa League. My Croatian team, Rijeka (who have qualified consistently for the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons), lost 3-0 at home last week to Aberdeen. At least they had the decency to lose to a Scottish team.

I had expected Aberdeen to struggle in that fixture, not least because the Croatian league season has already started while in Scotland the opening fixtures are still over a week away. I’ve recently become a convert to the idea of summer football in Scotland and one of the reasons is to improve the prospects for Scottish sides in European qualifying games.

My own memories of pre-seasons in Scotland are mostly of the harrowing variety. I remember the long runs along Carnoustie beach which lasted until at least half the squad had vomited or looked on the brink of doing so. Afterwards we would get an equally harrowing massage from the physio – it was agony but it did seem to help. Our physio wore a permanent neck brace and walked with the aid of a stick, an unlikely candidate to be a physiotherapist but he was a good one.

For all the nerves and nausea (whether as player or supporter) the build up to the first day of the season is always exciting, you’re still filled with hope irrespective of the pre-season it’s been. Football fans tend toward the optimistic at this time of year unless your team has sold all its best players (as my club have, and all of them to Celtic).

Still, a big win on the opening day and you could be top of the league. Not long to go now, I’m almost nauseous with excitement.

Gerrard v Xavi

Gerrard pic

Steven Gerrard celebrates. Photo by: terceroinf fmiralcamp http://www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard and Xavi Hernandez were both born in 1980 (the same year that I was born). Last Saturday, Gerrard celebrated his 35th birthday; Xavi celebrated winning the Spanish Cup. Gerrard had hoped that his own celebrations would coincide with an appearance in the FA Cup final at Wembley but Liverpool’s miserable end of season form put paid to any chance of that.

Gerrard and Xavi are two magnificent midfielders who have both been one club men until now (both are off to enjoy end of career pay days in foreign fields) and have shaped the game in their respective nations over the course of my adult life.

These two players have been one club men in an era of very few such men. Gerrard and Xavi both made their debuts in 1998 just three years after the Bosman ruling came into effect. Club loyalty became almost as hard to find as any sense of shame in Sepp Blatter.

Loyalty plus greatness leads to legendary status and both Gerrard and Xavi leave as club legends. They have embodied Liverpool and Barcelona for more than a decade and a half, defining the sides of which they were a part. They are both inspirational, selfless, and winners. They are also very different players.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Gerrard is drive; relentless and intense drive. At his peak, he imposed his will on the game and the opposition, seemingly everywhere, always committed to advancing and avoiding retreat. He would charge from box to box, brushing aside most that stood in his way, and with the goal anywhere in sight, unleash a ferocious shot that invariably induced panic in goalkeepers.

Gerrard snapped into tackles and won many more than he lost. As a captain he preferred to lead by example and cajole those around him; very rarely did you see Gerrard launch the sort of violent tirades that were the stock in trade of someone like Roy Keane.

The red mist would descend on occasion however. Gerrard’s sending off against Manchester United at Anfield in March was a dreadful loss of control from a player of his experience. Liverpool’s season never really recovered from that result and performance. The depressing finale to the season meant that Gerrard did not get the opportunity to add one more medal to his collection.

The most famous and cherished of that collection is undoubtedly the Champions League winner’s medal from that extraordinary night in Istanbul. It’s that game which ensures Gerrard’s name at least warrants mention in debates about the greatest Liverpool player of all time. He somehow turned disaster into triumph with a rampaging performance that caused AC Milan to wilt just as they were expecting to waltz to an easy victory.

I’m not sure which set of players were more stunned at the end but Gerrard knew he had risen to the occasion in a once in a lifetime experience. I was left shaking my head in disbelief as I think were most people watching.

The one medal that has eluded Gerrard in his career is a league championship medal. Nobody would have believed that a Liverpool player making their debut in 1998 and being at the club for 17 years would leave without having won the league.

The club came close last year and let’s not blame it on Gerrard’s slip. People seem to forget that Chelsea won that game 2-0 and did so quite comfortably. 3-3 at Crystal Palace was a much bigger and more significant stumble. Last season’s title charge now looks more and more like the combination of Suarez’s superlative form and glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the league.

If failing to win the league is one major regret for Gerrard then the other must be his lack of international success as part of England’s so-called (and rather misnamed) ‘golden generation.’ The golden generation scarcely got near bronze far less gold, and silver linings have been thin on the ground.

Gerrard had a fine England career but like the team generally, struggled to impose himself on the international scene at the very highest level. Gerrard is a technically sound but not supremely gifted footballer. The same is true of virtually all the players that Gerrard has lined up with for England.

The technical shortcomings of the England squad have been a constant lament following international tournaments. Usually, the complaint is that English players ‘cannot pass the ball’ and are ‘unable to keep possession.’

They are guilty of the second charge but it’s not because they lack the ability to pass the ball. Watch Gerrard ping a long pass at his best and it’s every bit as accurate and assured as what Pirlo, or Ribery or Xavi will produce. He can play cleverly weighted short passes as well including defence splitting through balls. So, if passing is not the issue for Gerrard and England then what is?

In a word: movement. Throughout Gerrard’s career, the movement of the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, the leading South American nations and many other countries (think of a small nation such as Croatia for example) has consistently been vastly superior to that of the English national team.

Xavi embodies this difference. Watch Xavi play – it is especially clear when you watch him live – and you realise that the vast majority of the passes that he plays are incredibly simple. I could be successful with 90 – 95% of them. The key difference is in his movement and the movement of the players around him. For Barcelona and for Spain, just about every time Xavi receives the ball he has more options available than Gerrard has had for Liverpool and England.

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The intricate triangles that define tiki taka are created by movement and a sophisticated level of spatial awareness. This is what many English players lack and this is what leads them to concede possession so often.  Xavi meanwhile has arguably the greatest awareness of space in the game. That helps to explain why he always seems to have a little extra time on the ball and a conveniently simple set of passing options.

The game has got quicker over the course of Xavi and Gerrard’s careers, players have become more athletic, and defensive systems have become harder to break down. Each of these factors means that there is an increased premium on the ability to create and exploit space. Xavi is the master of it and so it’s little surprise that Barcelona have been the club side with the defining style of play of the last 15 years or so while Spain can justifiably claim that accolade at the international level.

Xavi is a more technically accomplished footballer than Gerrard. His Barcelona and Spanish teammates are, for the most part, more technically accomplished that Gerrard’s Liverpool and England colleagues but more importantly, Xavi and his teammates have grown up with a different understanding of how to play football. The key to that understanding is the movement of players off the ball to create space and provide options for the player in possession.

How many times have you seen Gerrrad receive the ball, turn, and then look up pleadingly for even a solitary passing option? When Xavi receives the ball and turns, he scarcely needs to look up because he knows not only that options will be available but what those options are likely to be.

Tiki taka has recently been refined, not abandoned as some (including even Guardiola) have suggested. This season Barcelona have been more direct and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, their game is now primarily built on their front three rather than their midfield three as used to be the case.

Xavi, like Gerrard, has not featured as regularly this season. He has often found himself starting on the bench. The Croatian Rakitic has had an excellent debut season at the Nou Camp, taking on much of Xavi’s role while also bringing a more muscular presence to the Barcelona midfield. It is to the immense credit of both Xavi and Gerrard that they have accepted their reduced roles with the utmost grace and professionalism.

These two are team players, always prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Gerrard in particular has often played out of position and has usually excelled where others are often found sulking. Teammates should consider themselves very fortunate indeed to have played alongside these greats of the modern game.

Both received farewells befitting of their legendary status. It was very sad all the same to witness Liverpool collapse so abjectly in Gerrard’s last game away at Stoke. Nobody could ever accuse him of abject collapse though and he salvaged professional pride with a characteristically committed performance and a coolly taken goal.

Xavi may yet walk away from the Nou Camp with a treble to celebrate. He and his side are two thirds of the way there and face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday. The Italian’s are masters at denying space but I expect Barcelona to find just enough to win.

After that, Xavi will head east (rather bizarrely in my view) to play for Al Sadd in Qatar. Gerrard is taking his Hollywood passes to Los Angeles and will be lining up for LA Galaxy.

La Liga and the English Premier League are the biggest two leagues in the world right now. Xavi and Gerrard have been at the heart of the action in those leagues for almost two decades. Jetting off to different continents they can both reflect on the huge mark they have made on the European game. How interesting it would have been to see Gerrard try his luck in Spain or Xavi attempt to conduct the midfield for an English premiership team.

Gerrard is good enough and intelligent enough that he would have adapted to a new style of play. Xavi is so good that any team he joined would probably have adapted to his version of the game and the space that he at once sees and creates.

What game were you watching?

West Ham - David Cameron's a fan. Or maybe not.

West Ham – David Cameron’s a fan. Or maybe not.

I was watching West Brom v Liverpool this weekend and so, I presume, was Brendan Rodgers. He was certainly present on the touchline but the game he witnessed seemed to be a bit different to the one that was beamed into my living room.

Rodgers described Liverpool’s performance as “outstanding,” a claim that I would describe as outlandish. There was one genuinely outstanding moment when Ibe burst past several opponents and cracked a shot against the bar but otherwise Liverpool lacked the creativity to break down the massed ranks of Albion’s defence.

Liverpool enjoyed plenty of possession (a whopping 74% apparently) but did little with it. Coutinho found himself dropping deeper and deeper in a bid to try and influence the game and West Brom were delighted to watch his gradual retreat away from their penalty area.

Gerrard was composed but not commanding while alongside him Henderson was demonstrating that a £100k/week footballer is not necessarily an outstanding footballer. To be fair, Henderson is much improved since his arrival at Anfield but he has a long way still to go before he starts bossing games consistently in the way that Gerrard did in his prime.

In the post-match interview Henderson said: “we’ve just got to keep playing like that until the end of the season.” That should please Hull ahead of tonight’s game.

Louis Van Gaal meanwhile only had to watch his side warm-up to pass judgment on their performance in the 3-0 defeat to Everton. “I had already the feeling and my colleagues Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg had the feeling because the warm up was not so good as usual.”

I wonder if Van Gaal watched the warm-up or just relied on reports from his assistants. It’s unusual for a manager to watch the warm-up and even more unusual for them to conduct it. They probably should though, at least every so often, just to keep the players on their toes.

Warm-ups have become more sophisticated over the years. I remember the days when they consisted of little more than a few leisurely stretches and then lining up to batter the ball at the goalkeeper (usually with about four or five people shooting at once). Now there’s generally much greater intensity and some small sided games to simulate what players are about to encounter.

I suspect that Van Gaal will at least have warmed his players’ ears up at half-time with some strong words on their performance.

Arsenal fans found themselves watching and chanting “boring, boring Chelsea” at the weekend as their side were held to a 0-0 draw by Mourinho’s champions-elect. The Chelsea manager’s response was classic: “Boring is 10 years without a title.” 1-0 to the Mourinho I think Arsenal fans.

John Terry later stuck the boot in again, saying: “Possession and tippy-tappy football’s great, but if you are not winning games you’re not going to win the league.” Tippy-tappy is one of the great insults of British football, often employed at youth games by the ‘let’s get it up the park’ brigade on the touchlines.

There’s no doubt that Wenger aims for Arsenal to play in the tiki taka style of Barcelona but the line between tiki taka and tippy-tappy is a fine one. Even Barcelona these days are opting for a more direct and muscular version of tiki taka. Arsenal should take note as the Gunners still lack the necessary firepower to win the league.

This weekend highlighted the fact that we all see games differently. It’s one of the things that make football so interesting. One man’s ‘outstanding’ is another man’s ‘mediocre.’ One man’s ‘boring’ is another man’s ‘winning.’ One man’s ‘tiki taka’ is another man’s ‘tippy-tappy.’

It can be difficult to agree what we’re watching, but at least we know who we’re watching. Right, David Cameron?

No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station
http://www.flickr.com

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.

A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

Out of their league

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner www.flickr.com

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner
http://www.flickr.com

Last week was a bad one for English clubs in Europe. Manchester City were given another lesson by Barcelona while Arsenal showed how many lessons they still need to learn as they went down to an abject defeat to Monaco. Arsene Wenger is known as ‘The Professor’ but his players appear to have been skipping European studies class. After almost 20 years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger appears to be a tenured professor but the defeat to Monaco may be the one that changes the board’s thinking.

The Europa League is often regarded as a bit of a consolation prize for teams dropping out of the Champions League but it did not provide much consolation for Liverpool as they proved not up to the task in Besiktas. Tottenham fell to Fiorentina to leave Everton as the only remaining English (indeed British) representatives in the Europa League.

Rodgers opted to rest Coutinho in Turkey and Pochettino left Harry Kane on the bench in Italy. Like Liverpool’s Brazilian playmaker, priorities remained on British soil. Liverpool in particular though should still have had enough quality to progress.

The Premier League is much hyped (and I include myself in that having written a previous post proclaiming the Premier League as the best in the world) but the quality doesn’t always justify it. Teams such as Liverpool and Spurs, competing for a top four finish in the Premier League, should be winning in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Brendan Rodgers was asked after the game if he felt that losing might be a bit of blessing in disguise. He replied: “Yeah. At the time, you don’t like to say that, because we want to win. And Europe this season has been an experience for us, both in the Champions League and the Europa League. But we’re at a different stage to a lot of other teams. A lot of our young players have gained invaluable experience in Europe this year, and they’re going to be better for it.”

It might have been even better for them to gain an additional round or two of experience. Liverpool’s team is full of experienced internationals so it’s a bit rich to claim that they’re at a ‘different stage’ to many others. Well, it is true I suppose that 16 teams are at a different, that is to say later, stage in the tournament than Liverpool.

There’s no question that Rodgers treated the tournament as an exercise in experience and it’s turned out to be a far from fruitful one. Overall, Liverpool’s performances in Europe this season, in both the Champions League and the Europa League, have been very poor. An excellent win against Manchester City yesterday still doesn’t justify the attitude displayed to European failure.

Liverpool will not win the Premier League this season, although they do still have the chance to claim silverware in the FA Cup. Re-qualifying for the Champions League is the priority, but what then? Will the recent ‘invaluable experience’ that the players have collected alongside stamps in their passports make Liverpool Champions League contenders next season? I suspect not.

After a very slow start to the season, Liverpool have scrambled back into contention for a top four finish – I think the battle is between them and Arsenal and expect the current top three will occupy the same positions at the end of the season. But even if Liverpool manage to finish fourth they would have to play a qualifying round to get into the Champions League group phase just as Arsenal did this season. Who did the Gunners beat to qualify? Besiktas. 1-0 over two legs.

It’s one thing for Rodgers to treat a trip to the Bernabeu in Madrid as an exercise in experience building, as he did in November, but it’s quite another to travel to Istanbul with the same mentality. The Liverpool boss should look instead to another side in the Spanish capital – Atletico Madrid.

Atletico won the Europa League in 2011/12 and finished fifth in La Liga. Two years later, they were Champions League finalists and La Liga champions. Lessons learned. A winning habit was formed in the side and the players believed that they could compete with Europe’s best.

Brendan Rodger’s wants the same for his side but to achieve it he should start taking tournaments such as the Europa League more seriously. Liverpool went back to league business yesterday and won, but in Europe this season they’ve looked decidedly out of their league.

Counting up the Liverpool misses

Photo by: Calcio Mercato www.flickr.com

Photo by: Calcio Mercato
http://www.flickr.com

It’s a little late to be reviewing last weekend’s action (Manchester City v Crystal Palace is just about to kick-off now to start this weekend’s round of fixtures) but the only excuse I can offer is that it’s been a busy week including travelling to Europe for Christmas and New Year. I’m looking forward to watching some games at regular times (whatever such times are these days – I remain a Saturday 3pm traditionalist) and to going to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (which kicks off at 12.15).

I was still in Malaysia for the Manchester United v Liverpool game last Sunday and Liverpool are still in their present malaise. If a week is a long time in politics, nine months is an age in football. That’s how long it’s been since the two sides last clashed at Old Trafford. On that occasion Liverpool won 3-0 and the score line didn’t flatter them in the least. This time the score line was reversed and while Liverpool could take some comfort in De Gea being man of the match, they were still thoroughly deservedly beaten.

The most worrying aspect of the defeat was the fact that Manchester United didn’t even have to play superbly well to come away with such a comfortable win. Van Gaal said in midweek that he expects performances to improve despite his team’s recent winning run. Rodgers certainly needs performances to improve as Liverpool’s season stutters further into mediocrity.

Liverpool started the game without a recognised striker on the pitch and Sterling was tasked with leading the line. He played quite well but missed a couple of excellent chances. Balotelli missed considerably more after he came on but to be fair, he was somewhat unlucky to find De Gea in such brilliant form.

Mario is presumably now composing a letter to Santa, asking if he can have a goal for Christmas. There may be some debate in the grotto as to whether the Italian has been a good boy or not this year. There’s less debate that he’s been a bad buy for Rodgers and I wonder if he will still be at Anfield in February. I don’t imagine he’s currently on too many managers’ Christmas shopping lists.

I saw an interesting piece on the BBC website today in which Robbie Savage reviewed all 24 of the signings that Brendan Rodgers has made since becoming Liverpool manager. In total he’s spent £206.5m. Savage identifies just four hits out of the 24 signings – Sturridge, Coutinho, Toure, and Moreno – and I don’t disagree although he’s possibly being a little generous with Toure.

It’s a very poor return on the investment made and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s in the transfer market that managers are made or broken. Rodgers is an excellent coach but much of his current difficulties stem from the failings that he’s made in signing players. The same could be said of Wenger over the past decade or so.

By contrast, if Chelsea win the league this year, the most significant decisions that Mourinho made came before the season started with his signings of Fabregas and Costa. Of course the more money you have the easier such decisions become in theory but you still have to identify the right player at the right time for your team. Ferguson was a master at this until almost the end. His signing of Van Persie was practically a title winning decision on its own but he subsequently failed to perform the surgery that was necessary on that squad, a task that Van Gaal is now pursuing with relish.

The other big talking point from last weekend was diving following Chelsea’s rather theatrical performance against Hull. Diving is the thing that I’d most like to see stamped out of the game and the authorities should simply get tougher with it. Personally I’d like to see dives result in a straight red card and a three game suspension. It would be controversial for sure and there would be a few mistakes made along the way (although these could be reviewed afterwards) but it would definitely bring about a huge reduction in this ugly blight upon the beautiful game.

The Dog and Duck v The Red Lion preview

Photo by: Seth Anderson www.flickr.com

Photo by: Seth Anderson
http://www.flickr.com

Manchester United play Liverpool this weekend in what is always one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the season. Following Manchester United’s lacklustre and “lucky” victory over Southampton last night, Gary Neville suggested the fixture could be “like the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion” such is the pub-like quality of the two sides at the moment.

Louis van Gaal rather touchily referred to Neville as an “ex-legend” in response. Apparently the Dutchman is already so powerful at Old Trafford that he gets to withdraw legendary status from critical former players. I haven’t seen much of Neville as a pundit but I hear good things about him in that role and I think we can all appreciate the point he was making with some humour.

It was Van Gaal himself that described his side’s win as “lucky” and his players will likely be able to enjoy a light refreshment or two in celebration of climbing to third in the league. I predicted a while ago that Manchester United would comfortably finish in the top four and that’s looking like an increasingly safe bet. So far however, it owes as much to deficiencies elsewhere (Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs) as it does to their own rather laboured efforts.

With no European games to distract him, Van Gaal has all week to prepare his team for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers however, faces a huge game tonight with Liverpool needing to beat Basel at Anfield to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Their recent form remains far from convincing but Rodgers has suggested that his players can write themselves into “club folklore” with a win.

I’m not so sure that a home win over Basel to qualify for the last 16 would really be a folklore worthy achievement given Liverpool’s history in Europe. How many Liverpool fans will refer to ‘Basel 2014’ in future even if we win? I expect it to be close and I’m not hugely optimistic about Liverpool’s chances, I think it might well end up 1-1.

Another man whose legendary status is being called into increasing question is Arsene Wenger. Arsenal’s loss at Stoke was exactly the sort of result and performance that has frustrated Arsenal fans so often in the last few years. The chorus of complaint seems to be growing in volume, frequency, and number of voices.

He may save his job with a top four finish, a run to at least the quarter finals of the Champions League, and bringing Henry back in a coaching role but even with all of that I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the chop (or should that be Klopp) at the end of the season.

As some of the big boys struggle, the likes of Southampton and West Ham are scaling up their ambitions. Koeman is doing a great job at Southampton and although I think the top four will prove a stretch too far they could easily hang on for a very creditable fifth or sixth place finish.

West Ham meanwhile are heading north and looking down from Andy Carroll-like heights. Sam Allardyce is a great example of how fickle managerial popularity can be. Not so long ago he seemed about as popular as a Scottish Cup replay in Inverness but now he’s being lauded (rightly) for West Ham’s performances as well as their results. Again, I expect gravity to have its say before the end of the season but I don’t think they will fall too far.

Football is a game full of exaggerations. It is triumph or disaster; fans are either singing the manager’s name or singing for his sacking. Neville of course was exaggerating a little too. But in a week when the Discovery Channel aired Eaten Alive, a show in which a rather foolish individual tried to get himself eaten by a snake but thought better of it with just the tip of his head inside the anaconda’s mouth, Neville is far from alone in the use of exaggeration.

There’s not likely to be too many major discoveries on Sunday. Manchester United and Liverpool are both in rebuilding phases and neither has sufficiently solid foundations as yet. Still, it’s a big game and one that remains worth a little trip to The Dog and Duck.

Champions League intrigue

Photo by: El Ronzo www.flickr.com

Photo by: El Ronzo
http://www.flickr.com

As usual, the group stage of the Champions League has been little more than a procession for most of the contenders for the trophy. The tournament is a cash cow and a very well milked one. Nonetheless, as the group stage approaches its conclusion with one round of fixtures remaining, there is much to ponder in the performances of the English sides.

Chelsea have shown themselves to be the best side in the English Premier League by some distance so far this season and they are replicating their domestic form on the European stage. A 5-0 away win in Germany sends out quite a statement. Mourinho described the performance as “perfect” and spoke of his team’s “big self-belief.”

Self-belief doesn’t come any bigger than Mourinho’s own but he’s almost never failed to walk the strutting walk to accompany his generally self-congratulatory talk. I think he’s the best manager in the world and has been for some time.

I expect Chelsea to end the season as league champions but winning the Champions League will be much tougher. Real Madrid are the best team in Europe – for me the recent El Classico proved that beyond doubt – but Barcelona and Bayern Munich both have enough quality, experience and fire power to be very confident themselves. Madrid, Barca and Bayern are the big three in Europe right now in my assessment with Chelsea probably leading the chasing pack.

Two other English sides also had an excellent week in the tournament. Arsenal recorded a comfortable win over Dortmund (admittedly a side that looks a shadow of its recent self) while Manchester City produced a remarkable late comeback to claim a 3-2 win over Bayern. Aguero scored a hat-trick and vividly demonstrated the sort of quality that sides need to succeed at that level.

Sadly such quality is not much in evidence at Liverpool at the moment. The team at least avoided defeat for the first time in November with a 2-2 draw at Ludogorets. Remarkably, Rodgers referred to the result as “a real confidence boost” which only serves to highlight the depths to which confidence has sunk at Anfield.

The confidence boosting performance included another howler from goalkeeper Mignolet and the concession of a late equaliser at the cost of two points. If that’s his side playing with confidence then we Liverpool fans have a lot to be nervous about.

Liverpool can still qualify with victory over Basel next month but on current form I don’t feel too confident about that. As he goes about the task of repairing his team’s dented morale, I hope that Rodgers gets some advice from his old mentor Mourinho. After all, the Portuguese always looks as though he has a little confidence to spare.