The Pep Supremacy

pep-guardiola

Pep Guardiola. Photo by: Felipe Quintanilha, http://www.flickr.com

The build-up was more like that of a fight in boxing: two individuals, two heavyweights, the next contest in a bitter rivalry. Mourinho v Guardiola.

Oh, and Manchester united and Manchester City were also playing a football match.

Bragging rights go to the Spaniard but this was a much bigger win than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. City were miles ahead of their neighbours; 4 or 5-1 would not have flattered them.

This game was proof that United have flattered to deceive so far this season. The extent to which their early season ‘form’ has been heralded, only serves to highlight how dire they were in the last campaign.

Mourinho has brought a bit of grit and made the side more physically imposing, but the swagger that was once the hallmark of Manchester United is yet to return. Even the swaggering Special One has been a little muted and subdued since arriving in the Old Trafford dugout.

One man who presumably swaggered out of the womb is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede continued the excellent start that he’s made to life in the Premier League with another superbly taken goal. At the start of the season, I suggested that Zlatan’s Cantona-esque aura could even make United slight title favourites. I’m glad I haven’t risked any money on that prediction.

They will be a stronger force this time round, more feared and more ruthless, but already I see too many problems to be fixed before they become genuine title contenders again.

Chief among them is what to do with Rooney. If ever a man was living off his reputation then it’s Wayne. When was the last time Rooney dominated a game for club or country? I ask because I honestly can’t remember.

His commitment cannot be faulted but the spark is missing. Rooney is a number 10 and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to positional experimentation, he’s not really a Kama Sutra sort of a guy. He’s willing, but increasingly he’s not able.

Mourinho has a big decision to make: play Rooney at 10 behind Zlatan (and see if they can develop an understanding) or drop him. The captain is rightly a club legend but sometimes even club legends don’t get to choose when their time is up. That clock is ticking for Rooney and I think Manchester Untied would now be a more threatening and more balanced side without him.

The same is true of England incidentally.

Guardiola has already taken the bold step of axing club Legend Joe Hart, who is now off in search of love and redemption in Italy at Torino.

In his place, Guardiola has signed Claudio Bravo, who, unusually for a goalkeeper, is better with his feet than his hands. At least most of the time he is. On quite a few occasions on Saturday he played himself into trouble by taking an extra touch and unnecessary risks in his penalty area. He also managed to drop a cross under minimal pressure, allowing Ibrahimovic to score.

But he also showed just enough to demonstrate why his boss wanted him in his team again. City are already playing the ‘Guardiola way’ and it’s only mid-September. Be warned the rest of the league.

That ‘way’ requires everyone to be comfortable on the ball, including the goalkeeper. Bravo is. He helps to give City a platform to play out from the back and that platform will get more secure as he develops a better understanding with the defenders in front of him.

The evidence of training ground drilling was abundant in the angles that City’s players found, the subtlety of their movement, and the speed at which they broke. De Bruyne was the epitome of that style. He was man of the match and his opponents didn’t come close to figuring out how to stop him.

That too should worry Mourinho.

Guardiola has a footballing philosophy and his City players are showing themselves to be committed scholars. They will only improve further under the master’s guidance. If Pep’s style of play proves to be successful in England, it may be the most revolutionary development in the Premier League since Wenger’s arrival two decades ago.

Patience and quality of movement are not attributes typically associated with even the best Premier League teams. City fans may not now require much patience before they once again find themselves celebrating a league title.

Mourinho won’t give up without a fight and it is of course early days, but the early warning signs are there. City are going to take some stopping.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreline; this was a demolition derby.

Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?

We’re going to win the league

Ranieri Arsenal v Leicester

Claudio Ranieri – photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com

A rather remarkable title race means that four sets of fans are currently entitled to sing that line. Leicester fans can scarcely believe that they’re still in the league and yet here they are sitting atop it, gazing down in some wonder at those below.

Immediately below them are Tottenham. Spurs fans are probably also a little surprised by the present elevation of their league position. I had Spurs down for a good season but I hadn’t anticipated it being this good. They have of course benefitted from shortcomings elsewhere (most obviously in Manchester) but Pochettino is the real deal and the most important task for Tottenham in the short term is to hold on to their young manager.

Below Spurs we find their North London rivals Arsenal. Last weekend I watched the derby between the two and it exposed the frailties of both sides. Being an Arsenal fan must be one hugely frustrating experience; that team is about as predictable as a Donald Trump press conference.

Wenger’s attempt to ‘Make Arsenal Great Again’ is proving to be a decidedly protracted effort. The Arsenal boss is considered one of football’s intellectuals (hence the nickname ‘the professor’) so I’m not sure if he’s ever read Mr. Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal.’ Perhaps he should as it’s the lack of deals at the Emirates which have made strangers of Arsenal and greatness.

If Arsenal don’t win the league this season then Wenger should not begin next season in charge. Next season is already shaping up to be a very different proposition. Pep’s arrival will shake things up – and make City heavy title favourites – while the prospect of Mourinho at Man U is likely to result in a combination of both shaking and stirring.

Mourinho may have his eye on replacing Daniel Craig as Bond though; he likes a sharp suit, he tends to be a little rogue in the matter of obeying rules, and of course defence is his speciality.

Guardiola v Mourinho again could make Manchester home of a new ‘Classico’ of English football although, like all English sides at the moment, the Manchester clubs have a long way to go to bridge the gap between them and the big two in Spain.

Manchester City have invested heavily in a bid to achieve domestic dominance and at least become continental contenders. As I write this, I’m watching them make reasonably hard work of dominating Norwich. It’s nil – nil at half time.

With Chelsea’s calamitous campaign, City’s squad should be head and shoulders above the rest of the current league. Sterling is just about to come off the bench in the Norwich game and his season sums up City’s overall: flashes of inspiration but only intermittently and seemingly a rather strange lack of confidence.

I fully expect him to hit a screamer into the top corner with his first touch now.

Sterling hasn’t delivered top dollar as yet for his new club but there’s no doubt that Guardiola will be given significant funds to strengthen the squad in the summer. It will be interesting to see whose interest Pep will be able to pique.

Before then however there’s a league to be won (or more likely lost). So who will it be? Like all romantics I hope that it will be Leicester. It would be an epic triumph and about as plausible as Mourinho being cast as the next Bond. I don’t think either will happen sadly. The pressure will probably tell eventually on Leicester and more comfortable breathing will be found at lower altitude.

City’s continued struggles to break down Norwich here do not indicate a side on the verge of a title winning surge. In fact, the increasingly look like a side on the verge of a purge with the imminent arrival of the new boss.

So that leaves Arsenal and Spurs. The former will surely contrive to drop points to various relegation threatened teams during the run in, prompting phone in meltdowns from Gunners’ fans and calls for a new professor to take the class of 2016-17.

Spurs then, by default, are my pick as champions – appropriately enough in a by default sort of a season. It’s hugely exciting and gripping entertainment but the quality has been questionable. “We’re gonna win the league” will continue to ring out at many grounds in the next few weeks but it’s the Spurs fans I expect to still be singing it when the rest have ceased.

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.

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.

The magic of the cup returns

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.  Photo: Philip Currie www.flickr.com

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.
Photo: Philip Currie
http://www.flickr.com

There’s no doubt that the FA Cup has lost some of the lustre and prestige that it once had. The big teams no longer seem to care as much as they used to; the riches offered by the Premier League make that the priority alongside the Champions League for the elite.

Of course the tournament that first undermined the FA Cup was the World Club Cup. Manchester United’s hugely controversial (and utterly misguided) decision to withdraw from the FA Cup for a season (1999/2000) in order to play in the inaugural World Club Cup showed that they, and more incredibly the FA, were prepared to dump the FA Cup for what they thought was a better offer.

Manchester United failed to become World Club Champions in 2000 and the FA failed in their bid to host the 2006 World Cup – the reason that they had encouraged the English champions to participate – so the cunning little plan turned out to be a little lacking in the cunning department.

With the FA prepared to treat their own tournament with such contempt it is little wonder that others started to follow suit. The thread running from that decision all the way through to Manchester City’s decision to return from their winter training camp in Abu Dhabi the night before their FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough last week does not take much unravelling.

No sooner had City bid farewell to the Middle East than their performance went south as they also bid farewell to the FA Cup as Boro recorded a 2-0 win at the Etihad. After the game, Pellegrini said: “I think there are a lot of football reasons rather than Abu Dhabi. They are different things.” Did his players not play any football while in Abu Dhabi? Perhaps not.

City were far from the only big club to be on the receiving end of an FA Cup shock in what was an electric weekend of football. Chelsea were dumped out at home 4-2 by Bradford despite having led 2-0. In the build up to the match Mourinho said that it would be a ‘disgrace’ if his side lost the tie and to be fair he labelled them exactly that afterwards and spoke of being ashamed. Disgrace remained rather a theme at Stamford Bridge for the rest of the week thanks to the efforts of Diego Costa.

Elsewhere in the tournament, Manchester United’s millionaires headed to Cambridge and received a scholarly and humbling lesson. A goalless draw meant that they remain in the competition and Cambridge can celebrate a replay at Old Trafford.

It’s a game that’s not bringing too much cheer to Manchester United fans. As a result of some fans complaints I’ve just discovered Manchester United’s extraordinary season ticket policy: apparently season ticket holders are all required to buy a ticket for home FA Cup matches and if they don’t then their season ticket will be suspended for one league game.

The report I read suggested that ticket prices for the replay against Cambridge would cost up to £50. Some season ticket holders have indicated that they will boycott the Cambridge game. You could hardly blame them and indeed I would urge them to. If Manchester United can’t beat fourth tier opposition away, then they’ve got some cheek in demanding that their most loyal supporters pay to watch the replay.

As football supporters, if we allow clubs to carry on treating us like that then who knows how far they’ll be tempted to go. Sometimes you just have to take a stand; or in this case a seat on the sofa and watch the game on TV instead.

With so many top flight teams eliminated, the few left in the competition (including Manchester United) will really fancy their chances of winning it. Hopefully that might mean that they approach the tournament a bit differently. Nigel Clough argues that the upsets of last weekend are simply “down to the Premier League lads not taking the cups as seriously as the other players.”

It would be great for the FA Cup if they did. The FA would surely welcome such a change in attitude among the Premier League clubs but it is the FA themselves who must bear considerable responsibility for their flagship cup competition becoming a pale imitation of its former self.

There’s some way still to go to restore the credibility of the tournament (and whoever came up with the idea of using pink balls for the FA Cup cannot be considered credibility-restorer–in-chief) but I hope that last weekend marks a turning point. As the big boys produced a disappearing act, something of the magic of the cup returned.