I would fly 6,600 miles

United

Brothers United

Happy New Year readers! I hope 2017 is off to a good start and my best wishes to you and yours (your football team that is) for the year ahead.

The traditional festive fixture whirlwind has just blown by and left a few disgruntled managers in its wake. The managerial whine has become as much a tradition as mulled wine at this time of year. The usual suspects have had their say:

Wenger: “In 20 years it is the most uneven Christmas period I have seen on the fixture front, the difference of rest periods is absolutely unbelievable.” A surprising outburst from Arsene, a man not usually inclined to complain.

Mourinho: “The busy period is for some clubs not for everyone because you analyse there is no congestion for them. The fixtures are chosen to give some rest for some and create problems for others but we are used to it because we are in the Europa League, which creates more difficulties.” Mourinho is the great conspiracy theorist of the modern game; he sees a dark plot against him in every shadow. I rather doubt that Rupert Murdoch is out to “create problems” for you Jose but you never know.

Some are newer to the English game but have adapted quickly with their complaints:

Pochettino: “The physical demand is massive but mental too. You can see plenty of pictures from different leagues in Europe — [players] in swimming pools, at the beach, players with families, relaxing. Our players were at training, playing and going to bed early. That is tough because they are young and they need to enjoy life.” Yep, those young multimillionaire footballers hanging out with models in clubs, if only a way could be found for them to enjoy life.

Klopp: “I am a football fan, I would like to watch football everyday but if you do it, after four weeks, you cannot do it anymore. The only thing is you have to accept the problems you cause with things like this.” Is he saying that after four weeks it’s impossible to play any more football or watch it? I’m pretty sure I could keep it up for four weeks (watching that is). Indeed, it’s a challenge we all rise to every four years with the World Cup.

The unspoken complaint of course is that Chelsea have had it (relatively) easy this festive season. Conte however has a hypothesis as to what is really troubling his rivals: “I think they are angry for our position, not for the fixtures.” I think he’s right.

In his recently published Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football (buy it), Daniel Gray gets to the heart of why those of us in the stands love Christmas football:

‘Down in the concourses at half-time, football and Christmas collide to make excitable children of us all. There is probably a bigger crowd than usual. It is swelled by home-comers from London, Aberdeen and abroad, bumping into old pals and old flames, sipping with seldom-seen kid brothers. It becomes a grotto, hubbubbing with more noise than any class on a school visit could make, the air mobbed by breathless chatter about life and the transfer window.’

As an expat now, I’m one of those who’ve swollen crowds on Boxing Days as I make my annual pilgrimage. My dictionary defines a pilgrimage as ‘a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.’ That sounds a lot like my recent journeys to Tannadice from Kuala Lumpur.

We fans will get up early, arrive home late, and travel for miles to see our teams. It’s often expensive and exhausting. But you won’t hear me complaining (much), unless United lose; because 6,600 miles is a long way to travel to see your team get beat.

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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.

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.