Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Mourinho: I didn't snub Fergie

I seemed to notice this as well. Right after the game Jose disappeared into a secret bunker located right under the Inter Milan dugout. Mourinho explains his exit from the San Siro below.

Jose Mourinho left the San Siro without a glance towards Sir Alex Ferguson last night but the enigmatic Portuguese denied he had blanked the Manchester United manager.

The Inter Milan coach exited his dugout without exchanging pleasantries with his opposite number at the end of the 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie, but insisted Ferguson would not have expected anything more.

The time to come together and shake hands will be when the tie is over in a fortnight, according to the former Chelsea boss.

"My dugout is a special dugout because we have a door which gives me the chance to leave it directly," Mourinho explained.

"Yesterday I left a £300 bottle of wine in the hotel with a note saying we would meet each other after the game at Old Trafford.

"I am always close to him and we are always friends and I will be there for him after the second game."

Mourinho has not forgotten Ferguson's taste in wine from the days when they locked horns in the Premier League, but knows his side will have to be on form at Old Trafford for his post-match drink with Ferguson to be a celebratory one for the Inter coach.

"We have got to take the first chance which comes our way," he added.

"We need 100 per cent efficiency, that means the first chance we get must be a goal."

Mourinho predicts extra time and penalties could be required to separate the teams.

"When two great teams are playing, it is difficult that one of them is better for 90 minutes," he said.

"This is top-level football for me. They dominated the first half, but we dominated the second and this is football.

"I cannot say that it was a psychological problem for us in the first half - the problem was Manchester United, who played well.

"But we knew that in some moments of the game it would be hard for us.

"We were the better team in the second half and it took them until the 67th minute to get past us."

Even when United did get past the defence, they met their match in goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who made four good saves to deny Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Julio Cesar is fantastic," Mourinho said.

"He showed some great quality in the first half with two or three saves of huge importance to the team.

"He did not have much to do in the second half, but he still had the same quality and calmness and was very important for us."

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

A look into the life of Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan

Jose Mourinho is without a doubt up for the Champions League match against Manchester United. The Guardian takes a closer look into the manager's interesting life at Inter Milan.

There haven't been any surprises or any ­problems adapting. However, I wasn't expecting the annoying little flies you get during the afternoons here at Appiano." What sounds like the Charles Darwin-style diary of a travelling ­naturalist in fact describes the start of Jose Mourinho's Italian journey, back in the summer of 2008 at Internazionale's training ground.

Pretty quickly, however, the natives became more of a distraction than the flies, pushing Mourinho to turn his hand to anthropology as well as football coaching in a world rather different from the one he had imagined. His first task was understanding the psychology of the natives and their newspapers. On his arrival, Mourinho believed that honest and straightforward statements, even if politically incorrect, would help him steer clear of misunderstandings and frayed nerves.

Italians who did not understand or appreciate this tactic soon made themselves heard. The director of Catania, Pietro Lo Monaco, said the Portuguese manager needed "a smack in the teeth" while many journalists and TV pundits had no sympathy for Mourinho's break with the usual day-to-day hypocrisy.

Mourinho also believed that his ironclad CV was enough to protect him from demands for "everything, now", meaning results plus spectacular football. But he soon realised his reputation could run out as fast as the credit on a mobile phone. Newspapers and TV kicked off their usual delirium, going for the huge build-up, then taking great pleasure in belittling a man who failed to "keep his promises".

Mourinho reacted with irony, but also excess. Lo Monaco's name means "the monk" in Italian; Mourinho said the only monk he had heard of was a Tibetan monk. He then demanded a fee for all the free headlines Lo Monaco was getting by talking about him. With other managers and journalists he was tougher. He crossed swords with Claudio Ranieri, a favourite target since the Italian's time at Chelsea. The Juventus manager said that unlike Mourinho he did not "need to win to be sure of what he was doing". Mourinho said that "with that mentality", Ranieri had got to 70 years of age – he is actually 60 – winning just a Super Cup, "a little cup" and that he was "too old to change".

This was a replay of his duels in ­England, when he accused Arsène Wenger of being "a voyeur" and said Rafael Benítez had won little: "Three years in the Premier League without a title? I think I would be out of a job." Sir Alex Ferguson, he said, had "a mean outlook on life", after the Manchester United manager had failed to apologise for suggesting Victor Baia had dived during a match against Porto.

Then, slowly, Mourinho stopped throwing fuel on the flames, partly because the Inter chairman, Massimo Moratti, convinced him that if things got too hot the team would struggle to find its identity. But Mourinho cannot be sedated. Lately he has been venting his fury at referees, slamming "strange things" taking place on the field and accusing one referee of "being afraid" to officiate in a game against Sampdoria and favouring Inter's rivals. That claim saw him sanctioned.

Mourinho has also suffered from ­tactical headaches. Firstly, his ­underestimation of the middling teams in Italian football. Secondly, his need to work with ­players used to the tactics and mentality – more geared to Serie A than the Champions League – of his predecessor, Roberto Mancini.

Mourinho found he was up against a number of dynamic, organised and aggressive teams who were able to train a lot more during the week than those clubs involved in Europe. Atalanta beat Inter 3–1, while Inter scraped a 1–1 home draw with Cagliari and a 10-man Genoa side held out for a 0–0 scoreline at San Siro.

Mourinho was trying to impose his philosophy of pushing up the pitch, keeping possession and speeding things up in the final 30 metres on players more comfortable with containing their opponents before delivering a knockout blow through strength and individual talent.

The problems caused by this clash of philosophies explain the impatience, frenetic behaviour and apparently irrational choices which have been displayed by Mourinho. To unpick the closed defences of opponents, particularly at San Siro, he has tried different formations, starting with his beloved 4–3–3, using two wingers, the Brazilian Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma, who were bought specifically for that role. Then there was the Brazilian-style 4–2–4, with two strikers and two wingers. Finally, Mourinho returned to Roberto Mancini's 4–4–2, with a midfield diamond.

From that moment, results have picked up. But it is not that simple – Mourinho's handiwork shines through. He has changed the way Inter move up the field, involving more of the players. That is why defenders like Maicon, Maxwell, Iván Córdoba, Walter Samuel, Nicolás Burdisso and Marco Materazzi have been scoring goals, not to mention midfielders like Patrick Vieira, Luís Figo, Sully Muntari and Dejan Stankovic. This recalls Mourinho's Chelsea, where goals were provided by John Terry, William Gallas, Michael ­Essien, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Eidur Gudjohnsen.

Add to that the form of two key players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic still scores goals – 14 so far this season – but he has also turned provider and defender. Then there is Stankovic, who has the same physique as Lampard, fulfils the same midfield duties and scores the same long-range goals.

By results alone, the Special One has already proved himself a winner. Apart from losing the first Milan derby 1–0, he has beaten Roma 4–0 away, Juventus 1–0 at home and Milan 2–1 in the return.

There is no doubt, though, that the real test comes in the Champions League tomorrow night, against Ferguson, his long time friend and foe.

The Champions League is why Moratti hired Mourinho, and it is the competition by which Inter fans will judge him.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Why Liverpool Should Fear Real Madrid’s KS Leong explores the reasons why Real Madrid have every right to believe that Liverpool are afraid of them

Real Madrid vs Liverpool. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve reached the showpiece final of this season’s Champions League. But we’re only in the first knockout stage and sadly, one of these two European superpowers will have to depart the tournament shortly.

These two sides have amassed 14 titles between them in the history of the competition, four of which have come in the last ten years alone. Yet, the Merengues and the Merseysiders have not met once since the tournament was re-branded the UEFA Champions League. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1981 European Cup final, which the Reds won 1-0, for their last ever competitive meeting.

It’s not too surprising, though, considering both clubs have had such contrasting fortunes over time. Madrid, after winning the title three times in a span of five years between 1998 and 2002, have never come close again to making another final.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have won it once, made two finals and one semi-final in the last four years since Rafa Benitez took charge of the Anfield hot-seat back in June 2004.

You can understand then why the Spaniards – from both camps, mind you – have been so anxious to build-up the contest by voicing their strong opinions and predictions for the match. Rafael van der Vaart lit the spark when he trumpeted that Liverpool have every reason to be afraid of Madrid.

But Reds goalkeeper, Pepe Reina responded by saying there’s absolutely nothing for his side to fear. In riposte, Blancos defenders, Pepe and Sergio Ramos boomed that they were optimistic of eliminating their English rivals, who retorted with their own show of confidence from Xabi Alonso and Reina again.

On paper, it would seem that there’s nothing to choose from between these two. But upon closer inspection, perhaps Madrid are the slight favourites. Perhaps Liverpool should be afraid.

1. Red Hot At the Right Time

If this encounter were to take place two months ago, the Red Army would not have hesitated to put their money and their mortgage on their Liverpool side going through to the quarter-finals. And the Madrid faithful probably would, too.

But things have changed dramatically since the turn of the year. Never mind that Benitez’s boys have been in sputtering form or that they have been struggling for consistency, Madrid have simply been in an irresistible hot streak. Nine wins in a row (ten in their last 11 games in all competitions), 25 goals scored, 10 of which came in the last game and a half, and more satisfyingly, conceding just four times.

Los Blancos may not be playing the kind of swashbuckling football to convince bookmakers to install them as favourites to win the competition, but they are getting there; and truth of the matter is that under new coach, Juande Ramos, they know how to grind out a sufficient result. Even more importantly, they know how to keep a clean sheet, which will be extremely crucial considering a single away goal could prove the difference between going home and going to the quarter-finals.

It’s not just the team collectively who have recovered their form. Individually, the players are also back to their very best, from Iker Casillas to Fabio Cannavaro to Arjen Robben and Raul. Confidence and morale will also be a huge factor and around the Bernabeu camp, there are bucket-loads of that to go around, especially after tonight’s 6-1 demolition of Real Betis.

2. No More Injury Nightmares

Two months ago, while the English were busy contemplating calling up their bookies and putting their houses on the line, Madrid’s squad were in ruins, not unlike people’s mortgages.

Most of their players could barely string three games together without falling injured, while their key figures such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mahamadou Diarra, Cannavaro, Pepe, Robben were dropping off like flies one after the other. At one point, they had more first-team players in the treatment room than they had in the dressing room.

But now, once again, things have improved significantly for the nine-time European champions. For some mystical, mysterious reason, the ‘Men in White’ are not getting injured as much under Juande as they did under Bernd Schuster. Even the Dutch Porcelain, Robben, managed to reel off seven straight games before picking up the most minor of niggles while on international duty two weeks ago.

The wing-wizard, who is in imperious form, will return in time to face Liverpool, as will midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Guti. But the Blancos are generally expected to be much fresher and fitter than their counterparts. While they’ve been playing one game a week for the last two-and-a-half months, the Reds have been busying themselves with FA Cup obligations and occasional midweek outings.

In short, Madrid have played only ten competitive matches since the conclusion of the Champions League group phase, compared to Liverpool’s 13 (inclusive of their clash with Manchester City on Sunday). It doesn’t help either that Steven Gerrard is carrying an injury while Fernando Torres is struggling with fitness.

3. Juande The Cup King

The ‘White House’ could not have chosen a better candidate to replace Schuster to lead Madrid into the knock-out stage of the tournament. Juande Ramos is an expert when it comes to cup competitions and he might just be the right man to end the club’s Champions League jinx and guide them to the elusive ‘Number 10’.

In a space of just three years, the man from La Mancha won five various titles with Sevilla (two UEFA Cups, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercopa and UEFA Super Cup) before adding another to his résumé with Tottenham Hotspur (League Cup).

In sharp contrast, Schuster, despite guiding tiny Getafe to the 2006/07 Copa del Rey final prior to his Bernabeu switch, had a dismal track record with Madrid in cup games. There was the flop in the two-legged Supercopa against Juande’s Sevilla, the embarrassing exit in the early stages of the Copa two years in a row, and of course, last season’s disappointing elimination to Roma in this very stage of the Champions League, even though his side earned the advantage – for the first time in four years – of playing the pivotal second leg at home.

4. Madrid’s ‘English Contingent’

This could very well be tagged an ‘all-Spanish clash’. There’s a very high likelihood that Liverpool could have more Spanish players on the pitch than Madrid. Well, let’s just put it this way: there will be more Spaniards on the field than there will be Englishmen, even if you count Madrid’s newly appointed Anglo-Saxon groundsman.

But that fact in itself has little significance on the game. The key element here is that the Merseysiders have a distinct edge over their opponents thanks to the heavy Spanish influence in their squad. But Madrid have their own secret weapon. They have their own English contingent… or rather, ex-Premier League contingent.

Players like Gabriel Heinze, Lassana Diarra, Julien Faubert, Robben and coach, Juande himself, all have substantial knowledge of and insight into the English game, their mentality, their subtle tricks, their strengths and weaknesses, to nullify Liverpool’s advantage. Their presence will also come in handy in the return leg at Anfield where Rafa’s side will be playing with 12 men, including the Kop.

5. Hungry Giants

Madrid’s wretched form in this competition over the past half a decade has made them extremely hungry for glory. And after watching some of their closest continental rivals such as Barcelona, Milan and Manchester United succeed over the past few years, that hunger has turned into an obsession.

While it’s one thing not to win the Champions League or go all the way to the final, it’s quite another not to have progressed past the round of 16 four seasons in succession. For a club of Madrid’s stature and history, it’s nothing short of a catastrophe.

Liverpool will no doubt have their own burning ambitions to win Europe’s top prize for a sixth time, but there’s no denying that lifting their 19th domestic crown – and their first since 1990 – has become their very own obsession. This season, they have perhaps their best chance in a long, long while to put an end to that barren spell.

But for Madrid, having already won back-to-back league honours, they have an unfathomable desire to become the very first club to reach double digits in the Champions League trophy count. And besides, with La Liga still looking a tad out of reach, although they have now cut the gap down from 12 to seven points in a space of a week, this may be their best shot of major silverware this campaign. If they can pull off the double, even better.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Who could replace Benitez if he leaves?

Mike Maguire looks at possible replacements for Rafa Benitez should he abandon ship.

Liverpool are in the midst of what could end up as their best season in decades. They may be out of the FA Cup and League Cup, but are maintaining a genuine push for the Premier League title and will face Real Madrid next week in the last 16 of the Champions League.

And yet, Rafael Benitez's future is in serious doubt.

The Spanish manager is presently embroiled in talks over a new contract, and he has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the slowness of the negotiation process.

Indeed, in a 'catch 22' of sorts, it is Benitez's desire to speed up the way things are done at Anfield that is causing the stall: he wants more control over transfers, but it is a privilege club co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett seem reluctant to grant.

The former Valencia coach's outspokenness on such matters has hardly helped, and he hinted in the press recently that he could leave in the summer if a deal is not struck by then - regardless of what the Reds achieve this season.

If that should be the case, who would be worthy of fashioning their own groove in the Anfield hot-seat? That is what we intend to find out. And in light of recent calls for British bosses to be given opportunities at top clubs, we've decided to focus primarily on home-grown candidates...

Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa

This man is the one most observers believe is ready to step up to a 'Big Four' job. Since taking over at Villa Park in 2006, O'Neill has transformed a relegation-threatened club into Champions League contenders - and this term, they're even an outside chance for the title.

The Ulsterman's CV reads very well indeed. In the early 1990s he took Wycombe Wanderers to the Football League for the first time in their history; they reached the old Second Division under his tenure. His Leicester City side won the League Cup twice, and they never finished outside the Premier League top ten during his reign. Then came the Celtic years, during which he re-established the Hoops as the best team in Scotland and led them into the Champions League.

Thus, with the Villans now battling for the UEFA Cup and sitting third in the league, O'Neill's credentials are there for all to see. Whether he is right for Liverpool, though, is up for debate. His recent spats with the club and Benitez over Gareth Barry aside, one must remember that he was part of the Nottingham Forest team who enjoyed a fierce rivalry with the Merseysiders during the late 1970s and '80s.

Speaking of fierce rivalries...

David Moyes, Everton

It might surprise some that the Scot had only held one managerial position - at Preston North End - before succeeding Walter Smith at Goodison Park in 2002. Not unlike O'Neill, he took a struggling side and led them back to Europe - most famously to the Champions League in 2005, beating the Reds to fourth place. The Toffees have managed a UEFA Cup spot in every season since, and they are expected to maintain that record this season.

If there is such a thing as a natural gaffer, Moyes is it. He set about attaining his coaching badges at just 22 years of age, so the vast majority of his playing career was spent preparing for life in the technical area. His exploits with a club whose results far outweigh their financial clout have impressed all and sundry, and some have even tipped him as the heir to Sir Alex Ferguson's throne at Old Trafford.

The top brass on the other side of Stanley Park, however, may hope the Glaswegian instead decides to follow in Kenny Dalglish's footsteps.

Steve Bruce, Wigan Athletic

Why are the top British candidates decidedly anti-Liverpool? As a member of the great Man United team of the mid-1990s, Bruce is another who would have to change his stripes to take the Reds' reins. Not all Kopites would be against such an appointment, though.

Football fans on Merseyside know quality when they see it, and there is an undercurrent of respect for this Manc on the coast of the Irish Sea. Only once have Benitez's men beaten a Bruce-managed side, and that came in the controversial 3-2 thriller against Wigan Athletic earlier this season.

After ending his six-year stint at Birmingham City to steer the Latics clear of relegation last term, the 48-year-old assembled a team that currently sit seventh in the Premier League standings. However, the inability to keep star performers - such as Wilson Palacios and Emile Heskey - at the JJB could drive him to a club with more spending power, should such an opportunity arise.

Sammy Lee, Liverpool (Assistant Manager)

Finally, a local lad. Lee's credentials in top-flight management may not read as well as those of the others on this list; his only job as the (little) big boss came at Bolton Wanderers, and that was a near-disastrous and short-lived stint in the wake of Sam Allardyce's exit.

However, there are many factors in his favour. He's a native Liverpudlian; he knows the club inside-out, having spent 11 trophy-filled years at the club as a player; since he replaced Paco Ayestaran as Benitez's right-hand man, the team's results have picked up noticeably; and his rapport with the Spanish players and staff is excellent, thanks to his years with Osasuna.

This appointment would be a throwback to the Boot Room era at Anfield, which effectively ended when Roy Evans left in the late '90s. Many of the more senior supporters would likely welcome him to the top job, but one can't help but think that his track record - or lack thereof, perhaps - might count against him.

Jose Mourinho, Inter

The one 'foreigner' in this motley crew, and unquestionably the most qualified of all the candidates. Everyone knows what he did at Chelsea: harnessed the power of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba & Co. to lead the Blues to back-to-back Premier League crowns, an FA Cup and a League Cup in three years.

Now in Italy, he's odds on to steer Inter to their fourth consecutive Scudetto, and yet his time in Serie A could come to an abrupt halt at season's end. His 'self-assured' attitude has put him offside with the local press, and failure to deliver the Champions League title could see him go the way of Roberto Mancini.

The Portuguese recently declared his desire to return to Stamford Bridge one day. However, in months prior, he stated that he would like to return to England - but not necessarily Chelsea. That led to speculation concerning Manchester City, United and Liverpool, where he was a top candidate to succeed Gerard Houllier before Benitez got the gig.

The Verdict

All these potential options, bar Lee, have endured some sort of feud with Rafa the gaffer or Liverpool. However, contrary to popular belief, leopards do change their spots from time to time. Matt Busby was an Anfield legend, after all...

First, the process of elimination. Lee, while all Kopites would love to see him lead the side to glory, hasn't the experience or perhaps even the capability to do the job. He's a brilliant No. 2, a great link between the manager and the players, but at the Reebok he clearly struggled to break away from that mould and establish his own persona as a manager.

Moyes is the next least likely. Face it, he's been at Everton around seven years now, and Merseyside rivalry is not as friendly as it once was. Gone are the days of the Nick Barmby and Peter Beardsley transfers - if Moyes crossed the picket-line, he'd be waking up with the severed head of a different animal on his pillow each morning.

Bruce is not quite as far-fetched, given his excellent record against the Reds, but O'Neill and Mourinho would have to be the frontrunners of this mob. And one thinks the fans would fancy the former. 'The Special One' is renowned for getting results without paying too much attention to style; the Villa boss, though, has constructed winning teams that are very good to watch. And the Kopites crave eye-pleasing yet very effective football.

However, 'MON' has never managed an elite European club. The step up is a big one, and one that many promising mid-table managers have failed to negotiate. Can he do the job, or is Mourinho the better bet?

Or should Hicks and Gillett just keep hold of Rafa Benitez while he still wants to be there?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Prediction: Who will finish in the Top 5?

This was taken from an article written by Sportsmail, and very interesting indeed. I reckon Aston Villa will be the surprise package if they can avoid key injuries.

Sportsmail have taken a shamelessly unscientific approach (guesswork) to try and predict what we can expect in the final weeks of the season.

By our reckoning, Liverpool will finish as runners-up behind United, Chelsea will sneak third while Arsenal and Villa will only be separated on goal difference.

In the unlikely event that our predictions become reality, we could be in for a cracking end to the season.

MANCHESTER UNITED (currently on 56 points)

Feb 18 - Fulham (h)
Prediction - win
Feb 21 - Blackburn (h)
Prediction - draw
Mar 4 - Newcastle (a)
Prediction - win
Mar 14 - Liverpool (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 21 - Fulham (a)
Prediction - win
Apr 4 - Aston Villa (h)
Prediction - win
Apr 11 - Sunderland (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 18 - Wigan (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 25 - Tottenham (h)
Prediction - win
May 2 - Middlesbrough (a)
Prediction - draw
May 9 - Man City (h)
Prediction - win
May 16 - Arsenal (h)
Prediction - draw
May 24 - Hull (a)
Prediction - win
TBC - Portsmouth (h)
Prediction - win

Predicted total - 88pts (Winners)


Feb 22 - Man City (h)
Prediction - draw
Feb 28 - Middlesbro' (a)
Prediction - win
Mar 3 - Sunderland (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 14 - Man United (a)
Prediction - lose
Mar 22 - Aston Villa (h)
Prediction - draw
Apr 4 - Fulham (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 11 - Blackburn (h)
Prediction - win
Apr 18 - Arsenal (h)
Prediction - lose
Apr 25 - Hull (a)
Prediction - win
May 2 - Newcastle (h)
Prediction - win
May 9 - West Ham (a)
Prediction - draw
May 16 - West Brom (a)
Prediction - win
May 24 - Tottenham (h)
Prediction - win

Predicted total - 79pts (second)


Feb 21 - Chelsea (h)
Prediction - draw
Mar 1 - Stoke (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 4 - Man City (a)
Prediction - lose
Mar 15 - Tottenham (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 22 - Liverpool (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 4 - Man United (a)
Prediction - lose
Apr 11 - Everton (h)
Prediction - win
Apr 18 - West Ham (h)
Prediction - win
Apr 25 - Bolton (a)
Prediction - draw
May 2 - Hull (h)
Prediction - win
May 9 - Fulham (a)
Prediction - draw
May 16 - Middlesbro' (a)
Prediction - lose
May 24 - Newcastle (h)
Prediction - win

Predicted total - 73 pts (fifth on goal difference)

CHELSEA (49pts)

Feb 21 - Aston Villa (a)
Prediction - draw
Feb 28 - Wigan (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 3 - Portsmouth (a)
Prediction - win
Mar 15 - Man City (h)
Prediction - draw
Mar 21 - Tottenham (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 4 - Newcastle (a)
Prediction - win
Apr 11 - Bolton (h)
Prediction - win
Apr 18 - Everton (h)
Prediction - draw
Apr 25 - West Ham (a)
Prediction - win
May 2 - Fulham (h)
Prediction - win
May 9 - Arsenal (a)
Prediction - lose
May 16 - Blackburn (h)
Prediction - win
May 24 - Sunderland (a)
Prediction - draw

Predicted total - 75pts (third)

ARSENAL (44pts)

Feb 21 - Sunderland (h)
Prediction - win
Feb 28 - Fulham (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 3 - West Brom (a)
Prediction - draw
Mar 14 - Blackburn (h)
Prediction - win
Mar 21 - Newcastle (a)
Prediction - win
Apr 4 - Man City (h)
Prediction - draw
Apr 11 - Wigan (a)
Prediction - draw
Apr 18 - Liverpool (a)
Prediction - win
Apr 25 - Middlesbro' (h)
Prediction - win
May 2 - Portsmouth (a)
Prediction - draw
May 9 - Chelsea (h)
Prediction - win
May 16 - Man United (a)
Prediction - draw
May 24 - Stoke (h)
Prediction - win

Predicted total - 73pts (fourth on goal difference)

The man who wants to ruin Fergie's Champions League dream again

The menacing shadows of Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan stand in the way of Manchester United and their tilt at an unprecedented five trophies in one season.
Derby manager Nigel Clough backed United’s bid to conquer all after suffering a 4-1 FA Cup defeat on Sunday but Inter later showed their own relentless power as they beat city rivals AC Milan 2-1.

Afterwards, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic said: ‘If we play like this we will beat United.’

The performance bore all the hallmarks of Mourinho’s Chelsea, a muscular resilient outfit, high on confidence and self-belief.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who has only beaten Mourinho once in a dozen attempts, will see next Tuesday’s Champions League clash as his biggest challenge of the season.

United are in command at the top of the Barclays Premier League, in the last eight of the FA Cup and the Carling Cup final, with the Club World Cup already in the bag.Ferguson will warn his European champions how threats can emerge from the most unlikely places — Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out of the Champions League on their way to winning the trophy in 2004 — and if any team look capable of halting United’s bid for history it is Inter, nine points clear in Serie A chasing a fourth straight title.

They have lost only twice in the league in Mourinho’s first Italian campaign but the former Chelsea and Porto boss was hired to win Inter’s first European Cup since 1965 and he has already made two personal checks on United, who visit the San Siro for the first leg of their last-16 clash.

Ibrahimovic said: ‘He has changed our mentality a little bit. We were good when he came but he’s teaching us something new. We have become stronger and better and are hungry for the big games.’

Ibrahimovic, a player with a reputation for his difficult attitude, is thriving in the embrace of Mourinho, who used his old ploy of calling him the best player in the world. A little ego massage often worked to good effect with his favourites at Stamford Bridge.But the true test of Mourinho’s man-management skills comes in the shape of Adriano, the wayward Brazilian who rarely fails to disappoint in terms of focus and dedication.

Even Mourinho joked that a miracle might be the only answer when he sent him home to recuperate before Christmas.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Manchester United are the untouchables - admits Wenger

Arsene Wenger once led a team of self-styled invincibles to a season without defeat, but the Frenchman has conceded that Sir Alex Ferguson's current Manchester United side could be the new "untouchables".

United sit two points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand at the Barclays Premier League summit, with Arsenal a worrying 12 points off the pace in fifth.

Wenger, whose Gunners side went unbeaten in 2003/04, is refusing to give up on having a say in the title race but admits the Red Devils are currently some distance clear of the pack.

The two-goal return of Croatia striker Eduardo after a year out in last night's 4-0 FA Cup fourth-round replay win over Cardiff gave Arsenal fans reason for cheer, but Wenger has warned that long-time rivals United will take some stopping.

"We are on a very strong run at the moment and we have promised to give everything until the last day of the season but at the moment Manchester United look untouchable," confessed the Arsenal boss.

"They are 12 points ahead of us and they have a game against Fulham which they will certainly win. If they win that they are 15 points in front and that means they need to lose five games.

"Let us say they lose one against us, that still leaves four. They still need to lose four other games, which they haven't done yet this season.

"But our basic target is to get into the Champions League and therefore the championship remains a priority."

Wenger, meanwhile, told Cardiff that the trouncing meted out to them at the Emirates could be a good thing for their promotion ambitions.

The Frenchman believes that talented Championship sides can often get sidetracked in the knockout competitions to the detriment of their league form.

"Look at the table. They are, I think, fourth with a few games in hand. For them it is better they go out of the FA Cup," he said.

"I saw it a few years ago when we battled with Sheffield United when they had (Phil) Jagielka and (Michael) Tonge in a very good team.

"There were seasons when they did very well in the FA Cup and the League Cup and in the end they always failed to come up because it was very demanding to do both.

"In the Championship there are 24 teams so there are a lot of games. This is better for them."

Bluebirds manager Dave Jones, who guided the club to last year's final, was disappointed at a performance he rated as one his side's poorest of the season.

"The fans paid good money to come and watch us and we didn't do them justice or ourselves justice," said Jones.

"Anyone who wore a yellow shirt out there can't stake a claim to anything. I'm not taking anything away from Arsenal because they sniffed that we weren't at it and went for the jugular.

"We have to learn from this and bounce back. Hopefully they will react to what has happened here."

Jones also joined in the unanimous praise for Eduardo, who earned several ovations from the crowd before leaving the field with a slight hamstring twinge.

"I'm pleased for any player that comes back from an horrendous injury like his," added Jones.

"We've all seen situations like that in football; I had an injury that finished my career as a player. "It's a long road back so it's fantastic to see a player come back like that."

Monday, 16 February 2009

The End of the Big Four’s stranglehold

It has been a momentous week at Chelsea, and therefore for the Premier League. Not because what happens at Stamford Bridge has a direct bearing on the rest of English football, but because it does not. Chelsea are a fading force, dismissible, a louder and more lurid version of Arsenal. Suddenly there are two London teams in danger of missing a top-four finish and the Champions League place that goes with it. What has just changed in English football is that the idea of a permanent top four can no longer be taken for granted.

Since 2004, just after the rules were amended to allow four English teams through, the Premier League has supplied the same four clubs to the Champions League group stage every year. Only once in 20 attempts between them – Manchester United in 2005-06 – has any of the “Big Four” failed to make it into the knockout stages of the world’s most lucrative club competition.

Even in 2005, when Everton finished fourth, they could not negotiate the qualifying round and Liverpool, who were allowed to enter from fifth place as holders, joined the usual suspects, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, in the group stages. The same four clubs had dominated the FA Cup since 1996, until Portsmouth managed to break the stranglehold last season, and in the same period the same Big Four have supplied every footballer of the year. Chelsea may have been the last to join the party, but they had the sort of money that worried immediate rivals and, in effect, closed the door on anyone else wishing to join in. Now they look and feel vulnerable.

Consider the reasons for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure, for a start. All week we have been hearing about what an extraordinary club Chelsea are, because they sacked Claudio Ranieri after he had led them to a Champions League semi-final, parted company with José Mourinho after two titles in three seasons and remained unimpressed with Avram Grant, who took them to within a whisker of glory in Moscow.

Scolari’s exit – which takes Roman Abramovich’s managerial pay-offs beyond £30m – does not belong in that catalogue. The Brazilian World Cup winner was removed because Chelsea were worried about not finishing in the top four, and that marks them out as an ordinary club. As does four managers in two years. The latest one has arrived as a temp until the end of the season, which puts them dangerously close to being as ordinary as Newcastle. The two clubs both have owners who were amused by the initial publicity, but subsequently stopped attending matches amid speculation that they were reconsidering the wisdom of their investments.

Maybe Guus Hiddink is a manager Abramovich should have gone for earlier, and maybe he will bring about an immediate upturn in fortunes. There is no doubt Hiddink is a highly competent manager, yet even if he stays beyond this season he faces a tougher task than his predecessors. The money tap has been turned off, Manchester City are the silly spenders now and even better placed to attract Brazilians without Scolari as a rival, while at the same time Chelsea are top heavy with under-motivated and over-remunerated players.

Steve Clarke has been allowed to join West Ham, whose notable improvement coincides too neatly with Chelsea’s slump to avoid conclusions being drawn, and Frank Arnesen’s much-vaunted youth production line, supposedly geared up to provide a first-team player every season from next year onwards, remains a low-profile project. Manchester United have the youth, in players such as the Da Silva brothers, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson, and all the experience in the world in Sir Alex Ferguson. It raised a smile last week to read that Scolari at 60 was too old to take on the challenge of knocking Fergie off his perch, even if it made a certain sort of sense. Ferguson has not always been 67; he has been running United since his mid-forties and winning titles for as long as the Premier League has been in existence. That is a tough nut to crack, and all Chelsea have managed this season is to prove Ferguson correct when he suggested they were the ones with the age problem if a significant improvement was expected.

It is not all about Chelsea, though. Part of the reason the top-four cartel is breaking up is the continued pressure applied from beneath by organised, well-run clubs such as Aston Villa and Everton. Particularly Villa, who have just that bit more money than Everton and are not content to keep banging their head on a glass ceiling.

There was a time not long ago when managers such as Kevin Keegan, David Moyes, Sam Allardyce and others would moan about the impossibility of breaking into the top four and the unfairness of competing in such a handicapped event. Keegan famously said last year that the Premier League was “in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world”. Not now. Martin O’Neill is going for it and even Everton might have been harbouring Champions League ambitions but for their poor early-season form.

“Even with our bad start we are not out of the running,” Moyes says. “We’ll keep on going for it, that’s for sure, because I don’t think the top four is as settled as it used to be. But for giving Arsenal two points in the last minute and letting Villa claim all three points in the last second we could be above Arsenal ourselves. The margins are closer than they have been.”

Everton captain Phil Neville agrees: “It is great for the league that Everton and Villa are pushing to get into that top bracket. If you look at the clubs below the top six then there’s probably only Man City who have got a team and resources to really challenge. That would make it seven teams challenging and it can only improve the quality of the league.”

Everton have Villa back at Goodison in the FA Cup this afternoon and Moyes finds himself in the familiar position of putting out a patched-up side (Marouane Fellaini is the latest casualty) against top-four opponents. “We would have loved to have gone for Emile Heskey in January, but we couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I have every admiration for Martin O’Neill, though, he started at the bottom in England and he proved himself at the top in Scotland. He’s doing everything right, and he is turning Villa into a top-four side. He’s dragging them forward and he’s bought some very good players.”

Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa’s in-form forward, says: “The way the top four or five is working, anyone could finish anywhere. I don’t think Arsenal are out of it and don’t think Everton are. We’re just looking at trying to keep that position at the moment and if we can get higher we will.”

O’Neill is not making any promises. He hardly needs to when results speak so clearly for themselves. “The key to doing well is going on winning runs of six, seven, eight games in a row,” O’Neill said after Villa’s win at Blackburn. “That’s what the top teams do and amazingly that’s what the lads have managed here. Whether we can sustain our momentum over the next four months is obviously debatable, but we are where we are with two thirds of the season gone.”

If nothing else, Villa’s rise should ensure this will not be another season when the top four remain static by default while none of the chasing pack has sufficient drive to attack the target.

“The most competitive end of the league, the top four, is being broken up,” says Allardyce, now at Blackburn but with plenty of experience from Bolton of having to be content with sixth or seventh position. “I hope we do see a change this season. It’s healthy for the league and important for the entertainment value.”

Arsène Wenger would disagree, having already had to dig deep into his reserves of goodwill this season in a way that Scolari could not, yet it seems clear the Big Four are no longer as insulated against mixed results. When things do go wrong the pressure is both intense and unfamiliar.

So Hiddink could hardly have been handed a trickier first Premier League fixture than Saturday’s trip to Aston Villa. He will get a shock when he studies the tape of his opponents, too, for when Villa visited Stamford Bridge back in October, Chelsea’s 2-0 victory was hailed as a masterclass by the home side and a cruel lesson for O’Neill’s players in the harsh realities of life at the top of the Premier League. Still unbeaten at that point, Chelsea were being described as nailed-on favourites for the title, while Villa, who might have lost by several more goals but for a typically inspired display by Brad Friedel, were being politely told to go back home and forget about the top four. That is how much has changed in under five months.

Villa have lost only one away game since then, bizarrely at Newcastle, and have put together a magnificent sequence of seven consecutive wins on their travels. They sit two points above Chelsea and their manager is having to field questions about a title challenge. No one except Hiddink is talking about a title challenge from Chelsea, and while the new manager is fully entitled to be bullish before a ball has been kicked, his can-do optimism needs to be weighed against Scolari’s weary assertion that he had a “bureaucratic” team without flair or spontaneity. The challenge facing Chelsea is simply to restore confidence to players and spectators and preserve their top-four status. Hiddink talks a good game, but he has been brought in as a firefighter, not a miracle-worker.

Perhaps his task would better be described as preserving Chelsea’s Champions League status, since the old, set-in-stone top four is also being pressurised this season by Uefa rule changes designed to help teams from weaker leagues. The fourth team in the Premier League will still have to go through a qualifying round to reach the financial haven of the group stages, but can no longer expect an easy passage against no-hopers. Instead, those from the leading nations who finish fourth are more likely to find themselves playing each other on a knockout basis, which means only three clubs per season can rely on Champions League income.

While this may appear a subtle change, it is unsafe to assume a permanent top four will easily resolve itself into a permanent top three; nor does it necessarily follow that fourth place will become the springboard into the group stage for newcomers to the Champions League. Teams such as Aston Villa and Everton, as the latter know to their cost after their chastening experience with Villarreal in 2005, are not ideally placed to negotiate sudden-death qualifiers with tasty European opponents, while teams such as Chelsea or Liverpool have the squad size and the experience to take them in their stride. It is difficult to say with any certainty how the rule tweak will work out, but it could end up encouraging smaller teams to aim straight for the top three while allowing certain others to settle for fourth and take their chances.

Not that gatecrashing the group-stage party necessarily sets you up for a comfortable future. Apart from Everton’s abortive attempt, the most recent fingernails dug into the Champions League top table have belonged to Leeds and Newcastle, and look how they ended up. Gaining access to Champions League revenue is just the start. You still need the squad, the stadium, the support and most crucially the success next season to keep it coming. Newcastle appreciate that now, even if it might be too late for Leeds.

“Our intention is to get back on track, and I think our business plan will also be a model for a lot of Premier League clubs,” Newcastle’s hitherto silent managing director, Derek Llambias, has just said, before going on to sound a death knell for the top four as we know it. “We hope to be like Aston Villa.”