April 30, 2010
The English press have been full of praise for Fulham in Friday's newspapers after goals from Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera ensured the Cottagers came from behind to beat Hamburg and book a place in the first ever European final. They will play in the Europa League showpiece against Atletico Madrid in Hamburg in May - after the Spanish outfit beat Liverpool on away goals to advance.
David Haytner of the Guardian paints us a vivid picture of the fairytale story - set against the backdrop of previous cup achievements - with Fulham's only other European appearance mentioned - a third round exit from the Intertoto Cup at the hands of Hertha Berlin!
"As Fulham were trailing at the beginning of the second half it was impossible to foresee their latest comeback. It was then that the home support on all four sides of Craven Cottage took to their feet and bellowed their defiance. "Stand up, if you still believe."
The chorus was repeated 10 minutes later, with Hamburg still in the ascendancy from Mladen Petric's 30-yard free-kick, which counted double for his team. At that stage what would follow appeared even less likely. The travelling fans were in fine voice and they took great delight in goading their counterparts, in English of course, with a reminder that "football's coming home".
Fulham, however, do not know when they are beaten and they were able to feed off the blind optimism and translate it, somehow, into something gloriously tangible. Those who thought the success over Juventus in the last 16, when Roy Hodgson's braves fashioned four goals in succession when they needed every one of them to advance, was the summit of the drama and emotion were proved wrong, to their eternal delight.
German sides are not supposed to throw away leads when the race is almost run. Bayern Munich in 1999 was surely the exception. Yet there would be a parallel for scarcely believing English eyes at full-time, when Hamburg's players slumped to their haunches and stared vacantly into the distance. They could not comprehend how they had let two goals in seven minutes unhinge them, first from Simon Davies, then from the outstanding Zoltan Gera. Had Dennis Bergkamp or Eric Cantona finished like Davies, the purists would have drooled for months."
And for Patrick Barclay at the Times, like many of the other newspaper columnists, it was Fulham boss Roy Hodgson who deserved the most plaudits for the incredible journey he has taken the Cottagers on - from relegation certaintites a few years ago to European finalists - can anyone smell a Manager of the Year Award?
"For once, the fairytale by the Thames was not just about Fulham. Ricardo Moniz, who was once a coach with Martin Jol at Tottenham Hotspur, was making his managerial debut at the age of nearly 46 in the second leg of a European semi-final. But, fortunately for Roy Hodgson, that tale had an unhappy ending.
Moniz had been promoted on a temporary basis after the sacking of Bruno Labbadia, whose last match resulted in a 5-1 defeat by Hoffenheim. And the bounce caused by the Dutchman’s appointment was marked. Yet such was the spirit of Hodgson’s Fulham that Hamburg had the prize of a home-soil final wrenched from their grasp as roars of “Roy, Roy, Roy” built to a crescendo.
It was curtailed only by what we recognised from the referee’s gestures as the last whistle of a night that (to quote Danny Blanchflower) was about glory.
Despite the bizarrely turbulent background to Hamburg’s appearance, whoever manages their team commands resources beyond the wildest dreams of the 62-year-old whose players appeared to be going out with honour, leaving memories to cherish: the glorious chip from Clint Dempsey that had seen off Juventus, to name but one."
April 29, 2010
Barcelona will have cause for frustration as a number of refereeing decisions went against them, but ten-man Inter Milan were superb in holding off a Barcelona onslaught at Camp Nou and Jose Mourinho returns to the Champions League final.
For Tony Cascarino in the Times, Mourinho's achievement in taking Inter Milan to the Champions League final proves he is a tactical genius.
That’s why José Mourinho is more valuable than any star player. That’s why he will be the hottest signing in world football this summer if he leaves Inter Milan. This was a display of tactical genius that should be a lesson to every team in Europe, especially those in England.
There will be more failures in Europe to come unless Barclays Premier League managers wise up. Their problem is tactics, not talent.
Arsenal could have conceded a dozen goals over two legs against Barcelona, but Mourinho’s Inter held out for so long in the Nou Camp despite playing most of the game with ten men. It was only in the final minutes that cracks began to appear in a back line that had withstood incredible pressure from the greatest attacking force on the planet.
The game is like chess for Mourinho. His players are so well drilled that they know where to be at all times. Mourinho’s teams are versatile, and with that comes confidence, because the players are never insecure. They’re never wondering: what am I supposed to do now? There was no sense of despair when Thiago Motta was sent off last night. Inter adapted instantly.
Once Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been substituted, they pushed Barcelona wide and made them cross high balls, knowing that the home side posed no aerial threat. Inter were so certain of holding their shape that they weren’t afraid to concede possession. They closed down Barcelona’s passers, but didn’t get so tight that they could be duped. Until the end, all the holes were filled in and around the box so there was no space for a cute one-two to set Lionel Messi clear.
A Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger team couldn’t defend like that. There isn’t the organisation, discipline or awareness. It would be last-ditch stuff, panic stations. Nothing about Inter was desperate.
Tactics in England, even for foreign managers, means deciding on a formation and line-up, then taking off a forward for a defender if winning, or throwing caution to the wind if losing. It’s no longer good enough, and that will be increasingly true when the next generation, Mourinho disciples, emerge.
It’s no fluke that the tournament’s three best tacticians — Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Louis van Gaal — reached the last four. They adapt cleverly and decisively. The mentality in England still relies more on character: slugging opponents like it’s a boxing match.
Mourinho shows up as nonsense the idea that a manager is powerless on the touchline. This tie was full of twists and he always had an answer. Defensive yesterday, Inter were devastating in attack in the first leg.
They will play Bayern Munich in the final, yet the Germans are nowhere near as good as Manchester United. The difference is that Van Gaal, their head coach, outwitted his counterpart. Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is constantly said to have “no plan B”. How’s he ever going to win the Champions League when Mourinho has plans from A to Z?
Amy Lawrence in the Guardian, meanwhile, says Mourinho triumphed with act of defiance and force of personality.
José Mourinho's notorious sprint down the Old Trafford touchline all those years ago when he was making his name with Porto was, evidently, just a warm-up. Come the final whistle of this intense yet engrossing last hurdle en route to the final in Madrid, Mourinho scampered across the sacred turf of Camp Nou, then struck a pose, a gesture of rampant defiance, aimed at the pocket of Inter fans up in the gods. Barcelona's irritated goalkeeper Victor Valdés tried to interrupt Mourinho's salute. Not a chance. This was yet another milestone moment that this singular coach intended to milk to the full.
What Mourinho has helped this team to discover is personality. The combination of his particular brand of leadership, with the inspired transfers from last summer which emboldened their ranks to the tune of Lúcio, Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito and Samuel Eto'o, has allowed Inter to express themselves on the grandest arena in a way that has eluded them for years.
The game's turning point – the dismissal of Thiago Motta just before the half hour mark, which was induced by the dramatics of Sergio Busquets – was telling. Mourinho's mock applause for the benefit of 93,000 Barça socios, as well as the referee, Frank De Bleeckere (and you could throw in the rest of the world for good measure), defined the x-factor that has taken this Inter team to the brink of the European summit.
Motta was distraught and Inter reduced. Barça expected to press the advantage home. But there is nothing like a sprinkling of injustice to fire the flames of a Mourinho team. Inter's body language was revealing. This was a group of hardened professionals who talked to each other, cajoled each other, instructed, ensured the fine tuning and focus necessary to keep a famously attacking team at arm's length despite depleted numbers.
April 28, 2010
Bayern Munich may have reached the final of the Champions League but the UK tabloids couldn't give a hoot... especially as Manchester City are set to sell of £50 million worth of players to fund a swoop for Liverpool's Fernando Torres.
I'm not sure why City, a club with almost limitless funds, would need to sell before they buy but according to The Sun's Neil Custis, Emmanuel Adebayor, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Wayne Bridge and Stephen Ireland are all one their way out of Eastlands.
"Roberto Mancini is close to leading City into the Champions League for the first time and planning radical changes he regards as vital to help him lift the Premier League title in 2010-11.
A £50 million bid for Fernando Torres will kick off his efforts to reshape the side.
Adebayor, 26, cost £25 million from Arsenal last year and has hit 13 goals in 28 games.
Wright-Phillips, 28, returned to City in August 2008 for £8.5m from Chelsea. Mancini has started him in only six games, while the player has been at odds with the manager on the training ground and with the club over a new contract.
Bridge, 29, cost £10m from Chelsea in January 2009. Midfielder Ireland, 23, has been with the club since he was 15."
The 'other' Champions League semi-final is deemed more worthy of coverage in the broadsheets and while most are tipping the beast (Inter) to see off beauty (Barcelona) in Spain, given the Nerazzurri's 3-1 lead from the first leg, there are a few dissenting voices.
Writing in The Independent, James Lawton claims Josep Guardiola's Barca will beat Jose Mourinho's Internazionale "by the required margin in the towering beacon-citadel of Nou Camp".
"Idealism will roll over the tough pragmatism and vengeful resentment of Mourinho. It will put down the once pushy, egocentric assistant to the late Sir Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barça. It will scale down the man who left the beautiful stadium burning with anger that his ambitions had been brusquely, sometime insultingly dismissed as the inappropriate self-aggrandising of a mere translator.
At least some of us might like to think it will be so because if we admire Mourinho for his refusal to be denied, if we like the fact that his chronic failure as a player only redoubled his dream of being something in a game that provided his father with a living, we also choose to believe that there is something more at stake even than the winning of the Champions League.
We like to think that Barcelona in some ways are playing for all of us tonight as they seek to push aside the first-leg 3-1 defeat, that in the beauty and originality of their football they remind us that a game is only a game if it cannot reflect some of those things which we yearn for in all corners of life."
April 27, 2010
Never ones to stick the boot in when it suits, the press can even use the Premier League Team of the Season to find fault with the England national side.
Granted, there may be only three Englishmen in that side, but do you expect a team full of Englishmen? After all, 3 out of 11 is pretty representative of the number of English players in the division.
We're pointing to an article written by Rob Smyth in the Daily Telegraph. While we think he may go slightly over top, he is most certainly correct on his assumption that Branislav Ivanovic's inclusion at right-back raises questions. Where have all the great right-backs gone?
Let's see what he has to say:
Teams of the season are rarely anything other than mere flights of fancy, hypothetical exercises in futility designed to prompt pub debate and enable football’s great and good to get together at a fancy London hotel and discuss how collectively great they all are, but occasionally they do provide an insight into the state of the game.
Take this year’s PFA Premier League Team of the Season. For those of you who missed it, it comprises Joe Hart in goal, Branislav Ivanovic at right back, a central pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and Richard Dunne, with Patrice Evra raiding down the left.
Cesc Fabregas provides midfield guile, Darren Fletcher steel, Antonio Valencia and James Milner width, while Wayne Rooney plays just off Didier Drogba in what is now known as a traditional 4-4-2, a formation so antiquated they may as well have lined them up in the W-M.
Leaving aside such perfectly valid concerns as why there is no formation of the season – 4-2-3-1, since you ask – and ignoring the complaint that football is a collective game, and therefore it is impossible to assess the contribution of an individual outwith that of his team-mates (what is known as the Emile Heskey conundrum), what does this motley crue tell us about the Premier League, 2009/10?
Firstly, there are no decent right-backs. At all. Branislav Ivanovic? Is that all we could come up with? Look at yourselves in shame, Glen Johnson, Bacary Sagna, Rafael da Silva, Micah Richards and Vedran Corluka. Ivanovic is Chelsea’s back-up utility defender. He might be a decent player, but he is not even a specialist. Have we stopped producing right-backs? Are the wide areas of parks untrampled by youngsters rampaging down the flanks? Is the verb “to raid” about to be expunged from the football lexicon?
He then goes on to even question Joe Hart's place in the squad. Do you want English players in the squad or not? Make your mind up!
And he finishes off with more slamming of English talent. Now, we all know that Aaron Lennon would have been in this squad had he not been struck down by injury just before the turn of the year. And how the inclusion of Didier Drogba - when Wayne Rooney is alongside him - raises questions is beyond sanity.
Didier Drogba’s inclusion simply belies the lack of strikers available to Fabio Capello. It is hard to argue with Cesc Fabregas and Patrice Evra, but are the Italian’s options so limited that Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher, both effective if unspectacular this season, warrant a place ahead of their English counterparts?
The answer, of course, is yes. This is the PFA celebrating the Premier League, and rightly so. But in the course of doing so, they have exposed the great flaw in the boundless optimism coursing through the country’s veins. England’s players go to South Africa expected to become the best in the world, but travel without even the right to call themselves the best on these shores.
And we head over to Matt Dickinson in the Times for our second article, with the scribe looking into suggestions that Liverpool fans - let's not forget they are two points off the last Champions League position - wanting to lose to Chelsea so Manchester United do not take the title.
We do not know if Rafael Benítez has voted yet in the Liverpool fans’ poll that asks, with a straight face, “should we field a weakened team on Sunday?” But we can be sure that Sir Alex Ferguson will regard it as the most outrageous supporter survey since the Manchester Evening News asked its readers “should Fergie be sacked?” shortly before he embarked upon the 1995-96 season that brought them the Double.
Field a weakened side against Chelsea? Concede the game and effectively gift the Barclays Premier League title to Carlo Ancelotti’s team? What about integrity and fair competition?
These will be Ferguson’s thoughts. The intriguing question is whether he will dare to air them before Sunday and risk the charge of the most appalling hypocrisy.
Liverpool’s line-up on Sunday can be decided by only one man, and Benítez may want his strongest possible team if he is looking over his shoulder at Everton and/or truly believing that fourth place, and qualification to the Champions League, is still achievable. With each Premier League place worth at least £750,000, he might weigh up the income (although it is questionable whether he will be around to spend it).
But it is equally plausible that he could wake up on Sunday morning with very little to play for in the domestic campaign — and perhaps with the Europa League final to save his players for.
Should Everton fail to win away to Stoke City on Saturday, Liverpool will be guaranteed a top-seven finish and entry into Europe. And if Tottenham Hotspur beat Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane, also on Saturday, then the idea of fourth would seem out of reach except to the greatest optimist. Liverpool would be stuck.
April 26, 2010
Biting the hand that feeds you is never a wise approach, but it is probably fair to say the internet has a lot to answer for.
From the damage caused to your social life by an ill-advised, late-night Facebook post, to the slew of 'hilarious' videos of sneezing animals on Youtube, let's be honest (and Soccernet aside of course), the web isn't all good.
This week, rumours have been spreading regarding a high-profile player, disseminated on message boards and via email.
Well Times writer Oliver Kay has had enough, and has taken the rumour-mongers to task on Monday morning.
"You have probably heard the rumour. Shocking, isn’t it? Shocking that so many people are happy to lap up a series of malevolent lies about one of England’s leading footballers and to spread them like wildfire in the belief — and, far worse, the hope — that they must be true.
"It seems that the English public is more than happy to believe anything about footballers these days. Perhaps that is the consequence of the John Terry affair, in which the kind of improbable scandal dreamt up by the scriptwriters of Footballers’ Wives turned out to be true, but the most sickening thing about this latest sadistic rumour about another player is the unbelievable number of people on internet message boards writing things such as: "Please let this be true! LOL!"
"Please let this be true? Please let this decent man see his family life ripped apart because he happens to be a footballer playing for a club other than your own? Is that how far we have sunk? As a football-loving nation, have we actually reached the stage where we hate footballers?
"Not every footballer is a walking, talking egotist with regard only for himself, his libido and his bank balance. That breed represents a very small minority. The player at the centre of this rumour is renowned as a family man — or at least he was until some loser with a vivid imagination and nothing better to do with his time decided to dream up a scenario, post it on a message board and wait for it to spread like wildfire across the internet."
April 25, 2010
Following a bout of fixtures in which West Ham United's survival in the Premier League was all but assured and Hull City were doomed to relegation the, Sunday papers turn their attention to the managerial merry-go-round.
West Ham United may be safe, but manager Gianfranco Zola isn't, and the candidates to replace him as manager at Upton Park are a little unexpected, to say the least.
According to Paul Smith, writing in the Sunday Mirror, Leicester City boss Nigel Pearson has emerged as one of the shock front-runners.
"[West Ham] Co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold have begun to consider their options and Leicester boss Pearson is figuring high on their wish list.
He could even steer Leicester to successive promotions after virtually assuring the Midlands club of a play-off place this season.
Click here to find out more!
But Pearson, who is one of the lowest paid managers in the Championship, has refused to commit himself to Leicester beyond the final year of his current contract.
It would effectively cost West Ham as little as £350,00 to prize him away from the Walkers Stadium as compensation in his deal is restricted to just one year of his current salary."
However, writing in the News of the World Rob Shepherd has his own shock candidate: Peter Reid.
"It is an open secret that Zola and assistant Steve Clarke will be on their way at the end of the season, even if the Hammers secure Premier League survival.
West Ham, who tried and failed to lure Graeme Souness and Glenn Hoddle on short-term fire-fighting deals six weeks ago, need alternatives, and Reid is certainly an option.
Once the club examines his CV they will realise his credentials to rebuild the club on a sensible budget are hugely impressive - despite having been out of top-level club management for five years.
He achieved plenty during his spells at Manchester City and then Sunderland. Recently he has been working as Tony Pulis's deputy at Stoke."
If all that is not left-field enough for you then how about Mark Ryan's revelation in the Mail on Sunday that Hull City chairman Adam Pearson has owned up to a mistake and may invite Phil Brown back as boss.
"Pearson's overtures towards Brown are tantamount to an admission that he made a mistake by putting his manager on indefinite gardening leave and handing the team over to 'Football Management Consultant’ Iain Dowie.
Pearson said: 'Could I work with Phil Brown again? I don’t see why not.
'He’s definitely technically and contractually still the manager of this club. I haven’t discussed this with the owner or with Phil yet. But it is an option to bring Phil back in.'"
April 24, 2010
The Premier League title race is yet to be decided but attention has already turned to the World Cup in the feature pages of Saturday's newspaper.
Every injury or run of form is reported with regards to its impact at this summer's eagerly-awaited tournament in South Africa and it is certainly preying on the players' minds.
In an interesting interview with The Guardian's David Hytner, Arsenal forward Theo Walcott reveals his desire to play a key role for England and not just be part of a morale-sapping sideshow as in 2006.
"Theo Walcott's memories of the last World Cup are not only imprinted on to his mind, they are backed up on videotape. Having been thrust, as a timid 17-year-old, under a blinding spotlight, the Arsenal and England winger found some release in turning his Football Association-issue camcorder back on the paparazzi and the rest of the Baden-Baden circus.
Should Walcott ever wish to diversify into film production, he would have the raw material for a documentary classic. There are the shared moments with his team-mates, plenty more with his family and, most revealing of all, the pieces to camera.
"I was bubbling pretty much every day at the beginning but then you can gradually see my morale going down, lower and lower, because I came to realise that I wasn't going to play," he says. "It's a good watch and I saw it again a couple of months back. I would record the paparazzi and all sorts of people. It motivates me, of course, because you want to do better the next time. If I get the opportunity to go to South Africa, I want to go further.""
Over in The Independent Sam Wallace presents a handy round up of how all the World Cup squads are shaping up - from Brazil's new boy wonder to the Dutch revival.
"The World Cup starts in 48 days' time. In just six weeks, managers must name their final 23-man squads. The long-awaited action is close enough to heighten anticipation but far enough away for events to go awry for some of the top nations before that first game on 11 June.
The England manager Fabio Capello will hope that the worst is over for his team. This year, he has sacked a captain in John Terry and had an anxious wait over the injury to his star player Wayne Rooney. But he is not the only coach with problems.
France have scandal, players out of form and injuries. Portugal have key players out and a cold war between their coach and the nation's press. Germany do not have a goalscorer. Brazil might be without their best player, Kaka, this summer. And that's just scratching the surface."
April 23, 2010
Liverpool, without Fernando Torres, many fans and the usual rest periods allowed for European away games, suffered a 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid on Thursday. For a club with such fine pedigree, the Europa League seems an unhappy setting and they now have a mammoth task to get back on track.
Nonetheless, Andy Hunter in the Guardian believes Benitez will be desperate to lead the club to success in Hamburg next month as the trophy would be a fine bargaining tool for a man who has lost much of his cachet in recent months.
Rafael Benítez found himself in familiar territory tonight, and not only by returning to the city of his birth. A demanding night in Europe, and everything set for a raucous second leg at Anfield. The Liverpool manager knows the drill by now.
This season has witnessed a first failure in the group stage of the Champions League and yet, whatever their thoughts on the Europa League and the songs about Thursday night, Channel Five, United, Chelsea and Arsenal had reason to envy tonight. They will have more should Liverpool go on to lift the trophy in Hamburg on 12 May, and more resilient opponents than Atletico have folded in a second leg at Anfield.
Benítez readily admits this was a competition he never imagined being in, nor has he taken the tempting option of declaring the Europa League a panacea for the disappointments and mistakes of this season. For a manager looking to enhance his standing before any prospective new owner at Liverpool this summer, or hoping to ensure he has an attractive escape route should he decide enough is enough, another European trophy is a fine bargaining tool, regardless of its name.
The Liverpool manager would be privately confident of victory in Hamburg had he the services of another Spaniard whose Anfield future is open to debate this summer, Fernando Torres. It was bizarre, but a revealing tribute to the striker's service to Atlético, that amid such a tribal crowd as the Calderón there were so many home supporters wearing Liverpool shirts with the name of their former hero on the back. With Sergio Aguero suspended for the home side, this semi-final suffered for the absence of the competitors' leading forwards and, of course, a full travelling section due to the well-documented travel problems.
The several hundred souls who managed to make it to the Spanish capital saw David Ngog asked to fill the void created by Torres's knee injury. The French striker often appears to be criticised for the unavoidable fact he is not Liverpool's record signing and the man who delivered the European Championship to Spain in 2008. He is, as Ronseal may advertise, exactly what it says on the tin; 21, a £1.5m signing and one who has assumed greater responsibility at Liverpool than would have been needed had a decent back-up arrived last summer.
As always, Ngog, with eight goals to his name this term, worked prodigiously across the Atlético back-line to, occasionally, give Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun space to punish the Spaniards' glaring weakness. His lack of finesse and awareness, however, became glaringly apparent as the contest wore on and there was no surprise when the number 24 was held aloft with 27 minutes remaining. That quality must be discovered at Anfield next Thursday. Managerial and club reputations rest on it.
Meanwhile, in the same paper, Daniel Taylor discusses the impact of Torres' potential move to Manchester City.
Fernando Torres to Manchester City? On first reflection, the idea seems just that little bit too far-fetched even in a sport where you learn never to be surprised. Torres is royalty at Anfield; he has an affinity with Liverpool, the city and its people, and if he were to leave surely it would be to one of those clubs with a love affair for the European Cup. But then, didn't we think something similar about Carlos Tevez and Manchester United this time a year ago?
How long before football's aristocracy, institutions such as Real Madrid and Milan, reluctantly accept that the club that old agent provocateur Sir Alex Ferguson derided as United's "noisy neighbours" have enough power in the modern game to merit their place on the top table?
What we now know is that there is sufficient interest in Torres for the club already to have made their first moves behind the scenes, and that it does not particularly matter to the money men in Abu Dhabi whether it would need £50m, £60m or even more to persuade Liverpool to entertain the idea of negotiating the transfer of their most devastating player.
Tevez has done his best to fill the breach but Abu Dhabi United Group are still craving one of football's genuine superstars, someone whose signing will grab the football world by its collar and let everyone know it would be foolish to underestimate the scale of their "project". Kaká would not leave Milan. Robinho signed for a record £32.5m but did not like the north of England. Torres ticks every box: not too old at 26, instantly recognisable, poster-boy looks, clean-cut image (as opposed to John Terry, the one-time target from Chelsea), fiercely ambitious and spectacularly talented.
The problem for City, despite the incredible wealth of their owners, is that the club can still have an identity problem when it comes to the world's more gifted exponents of scoring and creating goals.
This is why Mancini spoke at length about the importance of City catching and overhauling Tottenham Hotspur, one place above them, to finish the season as fourth in the Premier League, earning a place in the Champions League qualifiers. If they are successful a category-A player could make the move without it being seen as purely money related. If they fail, Mancini said it would be "difficult" to imagine Torres wanting to move 30 miles along the M62 – even if City can double his current £5.7m annual salary.
April 22, 2010
This is the news that some Liverpool fans have been waiting all season for, and others have been dreading. Love him or loathe him, Rafa Benitez has apparently moved a step closer to a move to Italy in the close season, with La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting that Benitez has agreed in principle to sign a contract worth €4.5m a season.
He is seemingly willing to reduce his number of backroom staff from twelve to six people, and is looking to take Sammy Lee with him. The other staff on the list reportedly contains six names, said to include his Liverpool assistant Manuel Pellegrino, chief scout Eduardo Macia and Anfield fitness conditioner Paco De Miguel. West Ham United’s fitness coach Antonio Pintus is also wanted by Benitez, who has allegedly urged Juventus to hire Amedeo Carboni as his director of sport, having enjoyed a successful union at Valencia.
But the most disconcerting news for the Red’s is that he wants to take their most prized possession, Fernando Torres, with him. And given that Rafa will have a cool £70m to splash out on new players, the package being offered him by Juve looks mighty tempting.
Meanwhile, Rory Smith of the Daily Telegraph thinks that given the financial volcano that may erupt when Gillett and Hicks inevitably cut their ties with Anfield this summer, it could be the right time to cash in on Fernando Torres.
His problems over the last two campaigns are not his fault, they are not Liverpool’s fault, and he is, for my money, the best striker in the world. So why is it that, as the long journey to Madrid for this game unfolded, two or three of Her Majesty’s Press debated, in good humour and in tired minds, whether Liverpool should sell him?
It is fair to say that many of Torres’s problems are linked to over-exertion. At Atletico, only once in six seasons did he play fewer than 35 games. At Liverpool, though, he also has Champions League commitments – or at least Europa League commitments – and his responsibility with the Spanish national side has increased. He has not had a summer off since 2007. Little wonder his body, exhausted, is starting to rebel.
His value, though, continues to skyrocket. Torres, in the open market, would cost around £70 million to one of the five or six clubs who could afford him. But should his injuries fail to clear up, perhaps that value will fall, and the number of suitors with it. This may be the last season Liverpool can attract top dollar for one of the world’s most gifted players.
Providing that money does not go straight to the Royal Bank of Scotland – a big if – the club could buy a £30 million striker who, instead of playing 60 per cent of their games, could play 90.
But then no striker would be Torres. Few players have such a dramatic, visible impact on their team-mates’ performance. Liverpool, with Torres, believe. That is a priceless commodity. Even if it is only fleeting. Besides, there is no guarantee his successor would be able to play any more often, even if he is only half as successful. Perhaps this is the price you pay for possessing one of football’s crown jewels.
Oh dear. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, someone releases your financial details showing you owe £300 odd quid to the milkman, and £80 to a florist. You are, of course, Portsmouth Football Club, and the news is embarrassing, as explained in the Times by Nick Szczepanik.
The financial report to creditors released by Portsmouth’s administrators stands as a 70-page warning of what can go wrong when a football club lose touch with reality. It confirms that Portsmouth have total debts of £119 million and warns that creditors must allow time for the club to be sold as a going concern. In that best case, with the club worth an estimated £35 million, they will fall £57 million short of being able to pay all their creditors in full. If the worst happens and the club are wound up, the shortfall is estimated at £89 million.
In the report Andrew Andronikou, the lead administrator, outlines the history of the club’s descent into the financial abyss. Alexandre Gaydamak, the former owner, overstretched the club just as the world’s financial structures hit trouble in September 2008.
Banks called in loans and a series of new owners were unable to provide working capital. Finally, Revenue & Customs issued a winding-up petition late last year.
One example of the bizarre transactions that plunged the club into such dire financial straits is the £1 million owed to Tottenham Hotspur for Asmir Begovic. The former Portsmouth reserve goalkeeper was sold to Stoke City in January and was never on Tottenham’s books. He had been expected to move to White Hart Lane in January, but chose Stoke instead. Andronikou has ordered an investigation. “This is one in need of an explanation,” he said.
And, of course, with volcanic ash still flying about, the focus turns to the Europa League and Liverpool and Fulham's journeys to Europe. Kevin McCarra in the Guardian reckons the competition is taking on more relevance in England now.
Many clubs should envy Liverpool their gruelling journey to Spain. Rafael Benítez's team are still going places in every sense as they seek to beat Atlético Madrid in the Europa League semi-final. They and Fulham, who face Hamburg in Germany, are prominent on an unexpected landscape in which Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are nowhere to be seen. Those three were, of course, eliminated in the Champions League.
So, too, were Liverpool, yet it is to their advantage that they were knocked out so much earlier, even if the annual accounts may beg to differ. Whatever the financial ramifications, Benítez's side have a genuine prospect of taking a trophy. The Spaniard agrees that this was never the main priority of the campaign, yet most managers would crave the possibility at their clubs of a third piece of silverware in half a dozen seasons.
Where English football is concerned, the Europa League ought to be a competition of mounting relevance. No Premier League side, after all, got past the quarter-finals of the Champions League and, without major outlay, United and Chelsea will most likely deteriorate a little more. The outlook for Arsenal is a matter of guesswork and Liverpool cannot be certain of the ramifications should an expected takeover eventually go ahead.
England, in short, is a country now primed for the Europa League. The snobbery about the tournament has been absurd, but there are few nations left who can afford to be contemptuous of it. By this stage, there ought to have been a keen appreciation of the challenge it poses. No English club has prevailed in this event, under its previous name as the Uefa Cup, since Liverpool's 5-4 victory over Alaves in the splendidly dotty final of 2001.
April 21, 2010
All hail the Special One! Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho said his side could stop Lionel Messi and that is exactly what they did to triumph 3-1 in their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona on Tuesday night.
It was feat that all before him failed to achieve and so it is no surprise that Mourinho is lavished with praise in Wednesday morning's newspapers. "Mourinho calls the shots" and "Internazionale add style to substance" declare the back pages of the press.
Writing in The Independent, James Lawton suggests that such is the magnitude of Inter's achievement that even Mourinho has rarely known a night like it.
"....one in which not only a second Champions League title but perhaps even the keys of European football may have been at least halfway into his grasp.
If Mourinho had some substantial gifts from his Portuguese compatriot referee, including a third goal that was plainly offside, there was no questioning that he had produced from his Internazionale a magnificent response to the challenge of facing the reigning champions of Europe, a team with the potential, some of us may still believe, to touch new levels of excellence.
His reward, surely, is to place himself on the top of most people's list of desired football leadership."
In The Guardian, Richard Williams claims that the match was far from the Catalan creators versus the Italian destroyers that we all expected.
"A fixture with history in its bones lived up to the finest traditions of a great competition. With all due respect to Bayern Munich and Lyon, one could only regret that one of the two teams who provided such an enthralling match in San Siro will not be present at the Bernabeu on 22 May.
Given the depth of talent in both squads, the tactical acumen of their managers and the contrast in styles they represent, what a final it would have made.
To some, the idea of Inter beating Barcelona 3-1 might evoke visions of José Mourinho scrawling a moustache on the Mona Lisa – and, indeed, the visitors were denied three plausible penalty claims and were the victims of a poor decision for their opponents' third goal, which was scored from an offside position. But this was never as simple as free-spirited Catalan forwards thwarted by the ironclad defence of Lombardy. If Barcelona could have been two goals up within the first six minutes, Inter were not long in replying with missed chances of their own."
April 20, 2010
The Champions League semi-finals have rolled around and with all due respect to Bayern Munich and Lyon, the tie that everyone is talking about is Barcelona v Inter. After a remarkable debut season with the Catalan giants, coach Pep Guardiola is on the verge of retianing both the Champions League and La Liga titles.
It would be a feat that may surprise some, but not Michael Walker at the Mail, who insists that Guardiola was just born to lead Barcelona.
"It was mid-afternoon in Scotland but a new dawn in Catalonia. Murrayfield, Edinburgh, July 24, two years ago and the rebirth of Barcelona was about to begin.
Downstairs, Josep Guardiola was picking his first Barca team, one to face Hibernian in a pre-season friendly. Upstairs, the Barcelona president Joan Laporta was in a tartan suite alongside the day's host, Gavin Hastings, making a speech.
It emphasised that the appointment of Guardiola, then a 37-year-old who had previously managed only the club's B team, was symbolic of a new strategy that cherished Catalonia, the Barcelona academy and renewal from within.
Guardiola had first joined Barcelona as a 13-year-old and played 379 games over 11 seasons, many as captain. He won the European Cup, six La Liga titles, two Spanish Cups, the Cup-Winners' Cup and departed in 2001 aged 30 as the club personified, the player Xavi and Cesc Fabregas have said they want to be.
But his appointment as Frank Rijkaard's successor was a gamble nonetheless, though as Laporta had said: 'He is a player you can gamble on. He has got character, class, knowledge and a love for the club. That is always necessary.'"
Elsewhere, and Ashley Cole's return to fitness will provide a big boost to Chelsea's hopes of regaining the Premier League and England's hopes of regaining the World Cup - according to Matt Dickinson at the Times, who also feels that experiencing a few boos won't do the much-maligned left-back any harm.
"Ashley Cole will play his first game for more than two months this week, with Carlo Ancelotti stressing how well the defender has recovered from a fractured ankle. The body of arguably the world’s leading left back has healed. Now we wait to find out the state of his mind.
The mental wellbeing of one of England’s best, but least endearing, footballers might not be something you regard as worth fretting over.
If Cole is tormented by the ruination of his marriage to Cheryl, there are plenty of people who will queue up to tell him that he should have thought of that before risking all with his bed-hopping.
That he should have reached such a low in the past couple of months that he has contemplated whether he could carry on playing in England, and whether there was any pleasure left in playing for England, is not a revelation that will be accompanied by violins. But it features prominently on Fabio Capello’s radar.
A fit Cole should be the single part of the England defence that the Italian can rely on, given John Terry’s immobility, Rio Ferdinand’s interrupted campaign and Glen Johnson’s scattiness."
April 19, 2010
So, Manchester City suffer only their sixth defeat of the season and now it's time for Roberto Mancini to get the boot.
It's perhaps a strange quirk of the Premier League this season that the managers of both City and Aston Villa, who has lost as many games all season as Chelsea and fewer than Manchester United and Arsenal, seem to be most at risk of the chop.
And now Patrick Barclay in the Times has chosen to stick the boot in to Mancini, claiming that City need a fresh start. And that should not include their Italian boss.
So lacking in dash and vigour was Manchester City’s performance on Saturday that when Patrick Vieira came on, he hardly looked out of place.
The man who used to think nothing of a 50-50 ball with Roy Keane, is older (nearly 34) and more conservative these days, and his contribution was in keeping with a team display utterly inappropriate to the occasion, reminiscent of nothing more than the limp outing at White Hart Lane that got Mark Hughes the sack.
In truth, City were slightly better than when losing 3-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in December. But if they don’t take a bit more spirit and belief in each other into the return fixture with Harry Redknapp’s team on May 5, they can forget all about fourth place.
And that means?
So what does this say about City and the revolution to be funded by Sheikh Mansour and his Abu Dhabi United Group? It’s going nowhere. The manager, for all his knowledge, seriousness of approach and high-class early experience, is not inspirational. At this level, it should not greatly matter. With this budget, you expect players who are self-starters. But City have bought too many of the other kind.
Passion was conspicuously absent from what had been billed as the most important derby since Alex Ferguson arrived in Manchester in 1986; at least from the City point of view, it proved the most forgettable. The highlights on Match of the Day were misleading because they concentrated on the last ten minutes. The rest of it could best be judged by the widespread opinion that Paul Scholes, who sat in comfort and sprayed at leisure before advancing to score the only goal, was outstanding.
City cannot afford to wait nearly a decade for their manager to grow a generation of Scholeses. The first thing I’d do when the season ends is start again. With a new manager and as many new players as he wants.
And for those of you who wish to broaden your footballing minds, why not check out Sam Wallace's article in the Independent. He tells all about Stevenage Borough, who at the weekend won promotion into the Football League for the first ever time.
The only television show ever set in Stevenage was Steve Coogan's brilliant Saxondale, the story of an ageing former roadie with anger management issues who ran a pest-control business. They picked Stevenage for a reason – it was supposed to represent bland, small-town anonymity. Just to add insult to injury, they filmed it in Watford.
Coogan is a genius. Stevenage, on the other hand, is a very easy target. It happens to be my hometown and I have heard all the old jokes about roundabouts and colour-coded, self-contained neighbourhoods, each of them designed to hold 10,000 people and – according to projections made in the 1940s – one car for every two houses.
As of Saturday afternoon, however, Stevenage is not just a giant piece of ambitious social engineering by the A1. Stevenage Borough's win over Kidderminster Harriers to seal the Blue Square Premier title means that, as of next season, Britain's first post-war new town has a Football League club. For a town that has always struggled to project an identity of its own, the success of its football club goes a long way to putting it on the map.
April 18, 2010
Where a week ago both the title and the race for fourth place had seemed almost sewn up, a day of drama on Saturday - as well as Spurs' midweek win over Arsenal - mean everything could yet go down to the final day.
Some have argued that the unpredictable results this season have been the result of an increase in quality throughout the division. While Hugh McIlvanney in the Sunday Times quibbles with that point, he says the Premier League was lit up on the most dramatic of days on Saturday.
This Premier League season hasn’t impressed as a sustained festival of high-quality football. The form of the teams regarded as the country’s strongest has been too erratic, and they have lurched to too many defeats, for such a tribute to be remotely tenable. Anyone ready to jump in with an insistence that the confusion of results is proof of the depth of competitive excellence in the top division should pause to explain why, for the first time since 2003, there isn’t a representative of England in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
What can be said, however, is that for right-to-the-line drama the current race for the title has had few equals in recent memory. And none of its many previous days of fluctuating fortune and draining excitement quite prepared us for the exhilarating tumult of improbable happenings that was yesterday. It seemed that no sooner had the wonderful header by Paul Scholes, inset, brought last-gasp victory for United in the Manchester derby than Spurs were going two goals ahead at White Hart Lane and Chelsea were no longer strolling to a coronation. Delicious delirium reigned.
It's a similar story for Paul Hayward in the Observer, who says the title race came alive even if Chelsea still hold the cards.
This was the kind of day that might have been designed by the Premier League's marketing department. It was an afternoon to boost foreign TV sales, to thrust in front of Spain's La Liga, which is home to more superstars but is less competitive than England's top division. A lunchtime neighbours' dispute in Manchester and a crosstown clash in the capital has turned a procession back into a scramble.
United – broken men, seemingly, after the Champions League loss to Bayern Munich and the home defeat to Chelsea – are wearing their ambush paint again while Roman Abramovich's men must concentrate all their formidable energies on hanging on in front. Beating Stoke on Sunday will be rendered more problematic by the loss of John Terry, who is suspended following his dismissal here for a second bookable offence.
The sand ran through Ancelotti's fingers all day: first with the Scholes header, then Tottenham's two-goal first-half blitz and finally with the Terry sending-off. But the Chelsea coach was hardly hysterical as he surveyed the damage. Long experience of psychological warfare in Serie A with Milan has equipped him with the skill to deflect stress.
"I'm always confident. Less confident after today - but we are in the best position," he said. "We must not panic now. We are top of the league with only three games left. Everyone would want to be in our place. We have two games at home and one difficult one away. In this moment one point more is not bad but we have to do better."
April 17, 2010
It's derby day in Manchester and, as Sir Alex Ferguson has put it, "In over 23 years at United, it is the first time we have played City when they have a chance of actually achieving something".
Manchester City can, of course, effectively end United's challenge while putting themselves firmly in pole position for the fourth Champions League spot. For Paul Vallely in the Independent, fans across the city can feel a shift in the balance of power.
"Where were you when you were s***," Man Utd fans chanted the last time Man City played at Old Trafford.
The grammar was ambiguous but the accusation was clear enough: the ranks of the City supporters have been augmented by fair-weather fans since the gushings of Arab oil wealth allowed Manchester's second team to buy a raft of players of the calibre to mount a serious challenge to their cross-town rivals.
The chant was, for all its chippiness, a tacit acknowledgement that something significant has shifted in the psycho-geography of Mancunian culture in recent times. City, once regarded by United supporters as a comic irritant, have become a potent threat to the primacy of Old Trafford.
Today's derby is widely regarded in the city as the most important for some considerable time – or "ever" to succumb to the hyperbole of the local fanzine chatrooms. Victory for City could secure their grip on a place in Europe's top-flight next season; for United a win would keep their slipping Premier League hopes alive. But there is more to it than that.
Nor is this merely a case of the added needle brought to the fixture by the defection of that whirlwind of a striker, Carols Tevez, and the provocative "Welcome to Manchester" poster which City erected to mark the Argentine's arrival from United. A firm of bookies this week have tried to rekindle the outrage/glee that provoked with a new double-headed knocking-copy poster, in the teeth of attempts by the police to lower the temperature with a 2-mile alcohol exclusion zone around the ground and pre-match warnings to Tevez and his hot-tempered opponent Gary Neville after their previous on-pitch spats.
No, what has seized fans on both sides is a sense that the old balance is shifting. The patronage of City's new Abu Dhabi owners – said to own some nine per cent of the world's remaining oil reserves – is finally bearing fruit with the club clearly determined to spend whatever it takes to turn City into serious title challengers next season.
By contrast, United, who can look pretty ordinary when Wayne Rooney is injured, have four key players aged 35 or over, a mountain of debt inhibiting big spending to replace them, Ronaldo and Tevez, and a manager whose retirement looms. City are in the ascendancy and United feel on the cusp before decline, in a sport where momentum counts a lot.
Old stereotypes are being inverted. City, whose boast has always been that they were the real Mancs by contrast with a United fan-base which stretches from Highgate to Hong Kong, are now looking like a bunch of cosmopolitan galacticos with a management bent on challenging the international marketing machine which has been built round Old Trafford. By contrast United, ironically, have a larger number of home-grown players. And while Tevez is the finest of mercenaries, Rooney exudes the dedication of a fan in his commitment and naive enthusiasm. For many the world in Manchester feels on the brink of turning upside down.
Daniel Taylor in the Guardian, meanwhile, says Carlos Tevez inspires fear and loathing at Manchester United – and it could be about to get worse.
17 June 2004. In the raging heat of Coimbra, Portugal, England are beating Switzerland 3-0 and Wayne Rooney is becoming the youngest player to score in a European Championship. In Buenos Aries, though, it scarcely registers. Every television is tuned into the Superclásico, River Plate v Boca Juniors, as a short, goblin-like footballer – scarred, broken-toothed, lank-haired – writes himself into the history of one of the sport's bloodiest rivalries.
It is the second leg of a Copa Libertadores semi-final and there are no Boca fans inside River's El Monumental stadium, banned from this stifling concrete bowl after years of riots, plastic bullets, teargas and deaths. Two minutes from time, Boca's barrel-chested striker scores what he thinks is the winner. He pulls his blue-and-gold shirt over his head, charges towards the section housing River's most feared barras bravas and starts to impersonate a chicken, pointing out his elbows, flapping his arms, pushing out his bum.
It is the most offensive gesture he could make. Boca sneeringly nickname River Las Gallinas (The Chickens) because of the way they choked in the 1996 final, turning a 2-0 lead against the Uruguayans Peñarol into a 4-2 defeat. The mood becomes poisonous. River's hooligans, Los Borrachos del Tablón (The Drinkers of the Stand) try to invade the pitch. A riot is avoided only because the offender is sent off, but as he goes there is a smile at the corner of his lips.
Six years on, Carlos Tevez's tribal instincts are, again, putting him in the centre of a neighbourly conflict. The Argentinian will not celebrate goals against his first English club, West Ham, out of "respect" but, let's be honest, whatever the police have said, whatever his employers want, he is liable to do anything if he puts the ball past Edwin van der Sar at Eastlands tomorrow.
In the blue corner of this divided city, he has become a hero, the player Manchester City took from United and who proved his point to Sir Alex Ferguson by scoring 28 goals (and counting) in his first season. Nobody is meant to make a mug of Ferguson but Tevez has got close. Or, rather, he has shown that the most successful manager in the business put his faith in the wrong man. Dimitar Berbatov does not deserve to be the only scapegoat but, in Rooney's absence, he has flopped badly. At Blackburn last weekend his hands were on his hips. The club's most expensive player: tired, exasperated, crushed.
When Roberto Mancini was asked today whether he was surprised United had not done more to keep Tevez he blew out his cheeks and held out his arms as if to say: "What do you think?" Mancini had tried to sign Tevez when he was at Internazionale and describes him, on current form, as being among the top three players in the world – a little over the top perhaps but, even so, there is a legitimate argument that if the Argentinian had stayed at United Chelsea would not be on the point of prising away Ferguson's grip of the Premier League trophy, finger by finger.
In the red corner, there is fear and loathing. When Tevez played at Old Trafford in September the reception was generally accepted to be the worst any ex-United player has received going back to the club. Tevez is now incorporated in a United chant remembering him as "that money-grabbing whore". Outside City's training ground a sticker is on view: "32 Judas" – strategically high enough to put it out of reach for anyone without a stepladder.
Not usually one to make any admissions of poor judgment, Ferguson has admitted in the last couple of years that he made a mistake selling Jaap Stam. Of Tevez, though, he refuses to accept what most United supporters now believe, namely that Rooney's absence through injury would not have been so devastating had the Argentinian still been at the club.
April 16, 2010
Today is Rafa Benitez's 50th birthday (many happy returns Rafa) but it will be a day that the Spaniard will find precious time to enjoy as he sets his sights on a win against West Ham to keep Liverpool's slim Champions league qualification hopes alive - while for the first time in a while keeping his fingers crossed that bitter rival Sir Alex Ferguson can engineer victories over first Man City on Saturday and then Spurs next week in order to help the Reds out.
John Edwards at the Mail speculates whether Benitez's 51st birthday will be spent at the Anfield helm.
"It is generally seen as a moment for looking back and taking stock, but Rafa Benitez’s thoughts are more likely to be addressing what lies ahead when he reaches 50 today.
Not least where he might be celebrating his 51st birthday, following growing uncertainty over his future and a stubborn refusal by Juventus to accept it lies anywhere other than in Turin.
Benitez can count on warm good wishes when he faces the media on Friday, ahead of Monday’s home game with West Ham, but the bonhomie will soon give way to questions about clandestine meetings in Italy and whether his Liverpool reign is drawing to a close.
There has been enough confusion at Anfield in recent months, but Benitez’s agent provided clarity on one issue by coming clean on talks with Juventus officials in Milan and admitting that they did take place."
Elsewhere and James Lawton at the Independent discusses the seemingly annual trend of weighing-up the future of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as he reflects on a fifth consecutive trophyless season with the Gunners.
"It is that time of the spring when we brush down again the latest epilogue for Arsène Wenger and the Arsenal he nurses like some delicate plant always at the mercy of a cold snap or a harsh wind.
Again, too, there is more than a whisper of an heretical thought. It is that maybe Wenger has run his course with Arsenal, that maybe he too is tiring of the weight of the demands he makes on both his team and himself.
Of course there is a terrible danger in this time-honoured routine and it should be avoided with some care by anyone not sure of the difference between unfulfilled belief and a dead end.
This may be the fifth year of Wenger's failure to deliver a significant trophy but we cannot forget that in the matter of defeat there are many degrees or that each one of those accumulated on the shoulders of the Frenchman since his team won the FA Cup in 2005 have been accompanied by one supreme redemption.
But how do we describe and itemise this redemption? It should be no mystery, for heavens sake. We are talking, after all, about a man who would rather put his hand in a vat of burning oil than send out a team without any possibility of adding to the belief that football is the greatest of team games because of its capacity to be both beautiful and inspirational."
April 15, 2010
Arsene Wenger has acknowledged that, after a 2-1 defeat at Spurs, Arsenal have little hope of winning the title this season and another trophyless season beckons.
Many have criticised Wenger's refusal to spend, but Sol Campbell - the surprise free transfer in January - put in a fine display. Patrick Barclay in the Times believes Sol's return to hell was made bearable as the home fans curbed the abuse he has faced in recent returns.
Maybe it was the extreme pleasantness of the spring evening on which Sol Campbell made his umpteenth return to White Hart Lane. Maybe the verdict, 15 months ago, of a court that banned four Tottenham fans from attending football for three years for chanting an offensive song about Campbell also had something to do with the veteran’s muted welcome to an erstwhile hell.
But it was almost civilised. The Arsenal coach with its impassive black windows edged up the crowded lane to the stadium forecourt in near-silence. Only if curiosity had got the better of Campbell would he have put down his magazine, peered out and seen a few dozen wiggly hand gestures. A sense of proportion was in the air. And, although he was to be booed and eventually beaten, there must have been a few of the home support who quietly admired the resilience of the former England bulwark’s display.
He was described as “outstanding” by Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, and might even have earned a draw with a late header that Heurelho Gomes pushed against the crossbar.
There was so much to engage the minds of the crowd that the perceived villainy of Campbell’s departure from Tottenham was almost forgotten. He left for their great rivals nine years ago and those who despised him for it stressed that his defection, in order to sample the Champions League, did not set him apart so much as its prelude, in which he insisted that he wanted to stay. On one occasion he also said he could never sign for Arsenal.
Yet he allowed his contract to run down and became the first big Premier League name to take advantage of Bosman with a free transfer. The supporters’ response was to accuse him of greed. Every time he came back to the Lane, they reminded him of it, in virulent terms.
Yet Harry Redknapp, under whom he served at Portsmouth after leaving Arsenal in 2008, seemed to sum up the moderate position on Tuesday. After making the eyebrow-raising disclosure that Campbell had been so keen to end his first sojourn with Arsenal that he took a £3 million-a-year pay cut (hardly the behaviour of an intrinsically greedy man), the Tottenham manager said of the fans: “I just hope they don’t do anything silly or shout anything silly. Sure, if they want to jeer him, then fine.”
Absolutely. The fans are entitled to deliver an opinion for as long as they like. Except when it is seriously offensive — and last night’s worst was reserved for Arsène Wenger. When the Arsenal manager stood up, the chants were tasteless enough to have earned a few thousand bans. Campbell was accorded merely the routine booing any visiting defender might have expected after, say, a bad foul in the first minute.
Arsenal will be in the Champions League next season. But with Campbell? Few could have imagined he would be with them now, in the shirt he once tore off, and last night’s return coach journey down the corridor of scorn may not prove his farewell to White Hart Lane.
It's a similar story from David Hytner in the Guardian, who argues that Campbell showed there is life yet in the old warhorse.
Campbell was made to feel at home. His every touch was booed and he received foul and abusive chants from the Tottenham supporters. Yet this was no hate campaign inside the stadium.
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, got worse with the sickening chant that, regrettably, has yet to be drummed from various grounds. A rip-roaring derby rose above the Campbell sub-plot and any pre-match fears. Tottenham, who refuse to abandon the dream of Champions League football, simply had bigger fish to fry. The tone might have been different had Arsenal gone ahead in the first minute when Campbell, of all people, saw a deflected effort cleared off the line by Benoît Assou-Ekotto.
Campbell owed his selection here to injuries to William Gallas and Alex Song, and to how Mikaël Silvestre auditioned for the role against Barcelona at Camp Nou last Tuesday. Silvestre, however, was on from the substitutes' bench soon enough, following the injury to Thomas Vermaelen.
Campbell and Silvestre was hardly the dream central defensive pairing envisaged by Wenger at the beginning of the season for such a vital derby but, then again, injuries have repeatedly made his squad feel thin.
Although Campbell emerged with great credit for his performance, Silvestre again had Wenger clutching his head. Silvestre's lack of awareness played a full part in the excellent Gareth Bale's goal.
When Campbell left Portsmouth to sign for Notts Country in League Two last summer, it appeared that his days on the grandest of stages were over. You could have got long odds on him returning to play his part in the fight for the Premier League title and similarly lengthy ones on his wearing the red of Arsenal at White Hart Lane once more.
The shirt is like the proverbial rag to a bull at the best of times in these parts but, when worn by Campbell, it makes the locals' blood boil.
The 35-year-old never thought that the ill-feeling would be so intense and sustained when he made the life-changing decision to ignore the offer of a new contract by the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy and waltz off down the Seven Sisters Road on a free transfer to Arsenal.
"He did it because he wanted to play for titles and you cannot stop him," said Wenger. "You have the right to go where you want when you're out of contract. Jamie O'Hara was a youngster with us. He went to Tottenham and is making a good career. Good luck to him."
Wenger was on thin ice comparing O'Hara's situation to that of Campbell. The big defender did win the trophies that he craved at Arsenal and he has since watched Tottenham win a solitary Carling Cup. Vindication, in footballing terms, would seem to have been his.
But, to paraphrase Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, Campbell has suffered from greater terrace abuse than any modern player, although a clutch of Manchester United players, chief among them Eric Cantona and Paul Ince, might argue the toss. O'Hara, currently on loan at Portsmouth, does not quite engender the same feelings.
Campbell has never won at White Hart Lane as a visiting player and, with Wenger having made it plain that victory was essential for his team to sustain a title challenge, the continuation of Campbell's sequence brought frustration.
As ever, it was manifested in Wenger flapping his arms by his sides on the touchline like a great bird seeking lift-off.
The irony was that Campbell, who has looked off the pace at times since his return to Arsenal, had a fine game. From his early near miss, he was a commanding presence on the ground and in the air. One of his eye-catching moments was a saving intervention to dispossess Jermain Defoe; another, when he stepped out to halt Bale. He also hit the bar with a late header.
There is life in the old warhorse yet. Sadly for him, however, there is little chance of one more medal at the end of the season.
April 14, 2010
Following Tuesday night's 1-0 win over Bolton at Stamford Bridge the collective thinking is that Chelsea have this year's Premier League title in the bag, and it's hard to disagree.
The Blues have a four point lead over second-placed Manchester United with just four games left to play and if results go in their favour they could even secure the trophy with a win over Stoke City on Sunday week.
The Guardian's Paul Hayward admits that it was not a caviar display against Bolton but Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich can certainly open a celebratory bottle of vodka.
"Some will think Manchester United should take encouragement from the desperation in Chelsea's countenance as Bolton subjected them to a late aerial assault. More likely is that Ancelotti's men now know they can survive the muck and nettles of English folklore. Goal-scoring records have been smashed but now the 1-0 win will do. United and Arsenal will cling to the belief that both Spurs and Liverpool remain capable of inflicting misery on the leaders at White Hart Lane and Anfield. On this evidence they had better be well-armed.
According to reliable sources the scolding Abramovich gave his players after the Champions League defeat by Internazionale left egos bruised and eyebrows singed. Chelsea's owner is no closer to winning Europe's shiniest prize but at least one demand had been met. This has been a caviar campaign for goals.
Abramovich has grown a white beard waiting for his team to regain domestic power and win him a Champions League title. He looks more like Ken Bates every day."
In other news, Barcelona's man of the moment Lionel Messi gave an in-depth interview to Matthew Dunn of the Daily Express in which he barely stops short of saying outright that Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas will be at the Camp Nou next season.
"The bad news for Arsenal fans as Barcelona are rumoured to be considering a £50 million bid in the summer is that Messi diagnoses a severe case of blue and scarlet blood.
'Cesc has a place for Arsenal in his heart, but he has Barcelona in his blood,' is his verdict. 'He will want to win the biggest prizes in football, and I expect him to do that at Barcelona.
'I don’t exactly know when that will be, but I expect him to be my Barcelona team-mate again at some point. When you grow up at a club, it is more than just a club. The coaches, the players, the people in the club will be like family.
'But Barcelona is his city and it is the club of him and his family. There are only a few players in the world who can improve this squad we have but Cesc is one of them.'"
April 13, 2010
It's fair to say that the pitch at Wembley stadium has receieved more attention than the matches being played on it as, once again, it dominates headlines after the FA Cup semi-finals. Glenn Moore in the Independent has his take on the turf.
It is the most embarrassing sward of football turf since Pele threatened to quit New York Cosmos at half-time on his debut because a "fungus" had developed on his legs. He was assured this was green paint, sprayed on the Randall's Island pitch to make a dirt surface appear a grass one on television. The Cosmos, however, had an excuse: their home, Yankee Stadium, was being redeveloped. But the situation surrounding the Wembley turf is different: the Football Association has no mitigating circumstances.
English football's new Jerusalem, the stadium cost £757m, but while the surface may look green it is far from pleasant. Michael Dawson's slip, which gifted Frederic Piquonne Portsmouth's first goal in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final was an accident waiting to happening. The only consolation is that no one was injured due to a surface which Harry Redknapp, a student of the turf in more ways than one, said would be regarded as unsafe for horses.
The Tottenham manager branded the pitch "farcial" and "a disgrace", adding: "It's rock-hard and wet on the top, like a skating rink. They don't run race horses when it's like that because it's dangerous."
After watching two semi-finals which looked as if they were a footballing edition of Dancing on Ice the danger is what will worry Fabio Capello. Before England's World Cup warm-up against Mexico at Wembley on 24 May, there are five football matches scheduled, including the FA Cup final on 15 May, and, incredibly, a rugby union match, this Saturday.
The FA was largely keeping its own counsel yesterday but it is understood it is considering relaying the turf following this weekend's Guinness Premiership match between Saracens and Harlequins in the hope a new one will be bedded down in time for the FA Cup final. If it does, it will be the 11th new pitch since the stadium opened three years ago; relaying costs £100,000 a time.
As well as rugby matches the stadium also hosts corporate football matches, an annual NFL game, regular summer rock concerts, and even a motor racing event as it seeks to reduce the massive debt incurred by its construction, and significant running costs.
Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, appeared to admit there was something of a catch-22 problem when he admitted Wembley "has to have other events to pay its way, but if you do have those how frequently can you change the pitch?"
The race for fourth is also catching the eye as Kevin McCarra in the Guardian explains, tipping City for the final UCL spot.
Manchester City are out of contention in every competition, yet a great prize is within reach. Should the side's grip on fourth place be unbreakable the club will make their debut in the Champions League or, to be more precise, the qualifiers. This could not be the sort of romantic episode that saw Everton flicker in the tournament for a couple of weeks in August 2005.
The circumstances are wholly different and the means exist at City to break the assumptions that had been mistaken for eternal truths. There is no reason why Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal should go on making up the top four. In fact Liverpool's membership seems to have been revoked since they are sixth. If this phase in the history of the Premier League has not come to a close, it may still be subject to alterations.
City are already a club apart. They have a thirst for extravagance that is almost quenched elsewhere. While there is absurdity in, say, the acquisition of Joleon Lescott for £22m, the Eastlands enterprise is so sustained that its impact is registering. The club's grip on fourth may not be broken.
April 12, 2010
Portsmouth fans must be in dreamland. They may not even have a club next season but they still have the FA Cup final to look forward to.
Dominic Fifield, one of the hacks to make the arduous journey to Wembley for the second FA Cup semi-final, writes in the Guardian. He quite rightly heaps praise on boss Avram Grant.
Avram Grant, so manic on the touchline at the final whistle, seemed numbed once that initial wave of elation had subsided. The Israeli had accepted an impossible task when assuming the reins at this financially stricken club earlier this season but, even with Pompey cast adrift and condemned at the foot of the division, he will emerge with his reputation enhanced by events this term. To have steered this mishmash of a team, an awkward blend of hugely committed cast-offs and over-paid remnants of better times, to a second FA Cup final in two years is a wonderful achievement.
All the credit Grant never received for taking Chelsea to their first European Cup final in 2008 must be heaped upon him now. His outpouring of emotion at the end, punching the air repeatedly as if he, too, was struggling to comprehend what had been achieved against all odds, was reminiscent of his celebrations when his former club ousted Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals. This was arguably an even more impressive feat.
The toils with which he has had to contend rather trip off the manager's tongue these days: "Administration, points deductions, not being able to pick players because of clauses their contracts [that would require hefty pay-outs], whether the club would even exist from one week to the other. You could write a book about the things that have gone against us this season." That was delivered with a sigh and a shrug, and to have succeeded in reaching the final against Chelsea in spite of all those toils is remarkable.
Yet it was Grant's ability to conjure performances as spirited and committed as this from a team that has been further ripped to shreds by untimely injuries in recent weeks that was truly miraculous.
Meanwhile, over at the Times, Patrick Barclay wonders if there really is hope for Liverpool fans.
At last, light appears at the end of the Liverpool tunnel. Royal Bank of Scotland will back a six-month refinancing package in the summer but only to push ahead the sale of the club. Yet another investment bank — Barclays Capital — has been appointed to look for buyers. Reports said that it is impressed by, among other things, progress on the construction of a fine new stadium. Really? I think I might buy a lottery ticket next week in the hope of impressing Barclays with my vast wealth.
There is no stadium in Stanley Park. Anyone who attended the match against Benfica on Thursday knows that there is not even a single red brick on the site. There is planning permission tucked away in the Anfield vaults; that’s all.
So whatever Barclays’ prospective buyers agree to pay - and the weekend talk suddenly restored Liverpool’s worth to the £500 million that the more determined of the Dubai bidders deemed slightly excessive in early 2007 - will have to be topped up with £300 million for a home grand enough to allow the club to compete more fairly with their London and Manchester rivals.
April 11, 2010
It's FA Cup weekend, and as Chelsea await in the final, the game between Tottenham and Portsmouth is one of the biggest in the south coast club's history. Ian Ridley in the Daily Mail looks at Portsmouth's plight and talks to Mr Portsmouth, who calls it ''a melting pot of deceit and dishonesty''
Avram Grant's quiet strength and willingness to see the job through have earned him admiration this winter through debt-riddled Pompey's administration and their inevitable relegation from the Premier League.
Today, 24 hours after that ignominy was confirmed by West Ham's win over Sunderland, Portsmouth fans will sing their manager's name and praises as they descend on Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs. It is a day out, a respite from all the woes that have stemmed from Alexandre Gaydamak's spending as Harry Redknapp - in opposition today with Tottenham - delivered the Cup just two years ago.
Fans have lost count of the number of owners since the plug was pulled and are fed up with words like due diligence and consortiums. They just want to have fun. That much becomes evident as you tour the city's environs and speak to its people.
Take John Westwood, a man so devoted to the cause that he inserted, by deed poll, the words 'Portsmouth Football Club' into his name. On match days, he is seen in a big hat and wig with his bell ringing the Pompey chimes and his voice bellowing. But in his more sober guise as owner of a bookshop in the sleepy market town of Petersfield, he tries to keep that voice down.
His shirt and club tie cover up the 80-odd tattoos but there is still no suppressing his passion for the club. 'Everyone could see this coming but turned a blind eye as long as the money was coming through from Sacha [Gaydamak],' he admits. 'Anyone with a brain would know that with 20,000 gates and no corporate facilities, you can't sustain the wages we were paying people. We love our football club but it has been treated like a rich man's toy and there is a lot of anger out there. The whole thing seems like a melting pot of deceit and dishonesty.'
It is the classic supporter's lament, although Westwood is at least honest in admitting that he will happily accept administration for winning the FA Cup.
Of course the fallout from the Champions League continues apace, and the Independent has an interesting take on Fergie's quotes from Simon Turnbull. He won't be happy to read he's being compared to Basil Fawlty.
Typical Germans. By the time the manager of Manchester United was venting his frustration to Gabriel Clarke in the Old Trafford tunnel on Wednesday, they were probably making plans to lay down their beach towels on the sun loungers at Madrid's best hotels in readiness for the Champions' League final in the Spanish capital on 22 May. That would have been typical Teutonic efficiency. The towels were doubtless already in place for the formality of the semi-final trip to Lyon. Together with orders for bratwurst, sauerkraut and Beck's, naturally.
Yes, those typical Germans: the ones who surrounded Nicola Rizzoli, the Italian who refereed the second leg against Bayern Munich, baying for a second yellow card and a sending-off for Rafael da Silva. Typical Germans like... well, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bavarian born and bred, but the principal hustlers happened to be Franck Ribéry (born Boulogne-sur-Mer, 42 French caps) and Mark van Bommel (born Maasbracht, 54 Dutch caps). Ivica Olic (born Davor, 68 Croatian caps) also chipped in with his two pfennigs-worth.
Perhaps in the circumstances we shouldn't mention the score – a 3-2 victory to United, a 4-4 away-goals defeat for the English champions on aggregate – but the Bayern team who overcame Sir Alex Ferguson's side were coached by a Dutchman, captained by a Dutchman and featured two more Dutchmen, a Belgian, an Argentinian, a Frenchman, two Croats and a Turk. Furthermore, according to their coach, a native Amsterdammer, "the Germans" were inspired by the spirit of the 44th President of the United States. "At half-time I gave a speech, 'Yes we can,' like Obama," Louis van Gaal confided. When they got back to their dressing room after the final whistle, maybe they were all singing "We are the world" in harmonic unison.
Perhaps it was understandable that Sir Alex came over all Basil Fawlty in the immediate aftermath. His team had just suffered a mighty blow, their biggest blow of the season. In the final analysis at the Theatre of Broken Dreams on Wednesday night, though, it was difficult not to conclude that Sir Alex had lost touch with the plot.
And talk of Lionel Messi hasn't stopped yet. A great goal in 'El Clasico' means Hugh McIlvanney in the Times has a tribute to the great man once again:
How Lionel Messi plays is a heartwarming reminder of why football is the most popular team sport humans have yet devised. It would be a strange spirit that wasn’t lifted by the sight of him in action, the spectacle of a repertoire of wonders delivered in the biggest arenas of the game with the joyful exuberance of a boy having fun among his friends in the schoolyard.
Often when the cameras focus on the face framed by his unkempt hair as he completes the latest surge of productive virtuosity, he looks younger than the 22 we know he is and he seems suffused with a happy sense of awe at what his supernatural affinity with the ball has enabled him to do. His features don’t clench in the expression of I-told-you-so triumphalism affected by many players as they veer at sprinter’s speed away from the scoring of a goal, frequently stripping to the waist so the shirt can be waved like a banner. Messi’s main reaction to the damage he does is to smile, and we smile with him.
Supporters of opposing clubs who suffer from the inspired feats of destruction he perpetrates with outrageous consistency on behalf of Barcelona, as Arsenal loyalists did last Tuesday night when he struck all of the four goals that crushed their Champions League hopes in Catalonia, find themselves feeling it is almost a privilege to fall to such a talent. There is a natural willingness to acclaim him as a living refutation of so many of the depressing values, ranging from the merely tiresome to the downright corrosive, that are prevalent in modern football. Most strikingly, he assiduously eschews the pursuit of celebrity that so absorbs droves of his fellow professionals.
Unadorned by visible tattoos or earrings or fancy clothes, content to drive an unspectacular car provided by his employers, he is excruciatingly shy and uncomfortable with expressing himself when outside the milieu in which he is the unrivalled genius of his era. In the words of the Spain-based writer John Carlin, Messi “concentrates every atom of his being on the pitch; off it he is a shadow”.
April 10, 2010
So England have just the Europa League to be be proud of this year. But Paddy Barclay in the Times claims that the European renaissance in the Champions League is a good thing for the game.
If I’d been given a thousand pounds for every time I was asked the question of the week — have English clubs lost their dominance over the rest of Europe? — it might have got to the stage where I cared.
But who cares? The point of European football is to present a fresh and exciting challenge, not an opportunity for muscle-flexing, and thanks to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and José Mourinho’s Inter Milan among others, it now does again. Hooray.
Of course lip-service has to be paid by television commentators and others: “We never want to see an English club lose . . .” But we do. Those of us, usually a majority, who do not support the club involved in the broadcast reject any crass notion of a general interest that, quite apart from anything else, fails to draw the crucial distinction between the club game and the international. Vive la différence.
Des Kelly in the Daily Mail blames the money, of course, and says that the English clubs did not spend enough of it.
The only club that can be genuinely pleased with their European campaign is Fulham. That is not a sentence I had anticipated writing at the start of the season. For the rest, this recession has now manifested itself in a Champions League semi-final line-up that does not include a single English club for the first time in seven years.
There are occasions when you hope your predictions retain their usual status as ready-made fish-and-chips wrapping, but I did fear the worst when the draw was made, saying: 'It's almost unthinkable, but this could be the first time since 2003 that a Premier League clubs fails to reach the last four of the Champions League. Barcelona set the benchmark in world football. The Germans are the dark horses with searing pace. This might be the year when Europe strikes back.'
April 9, 2010
Sir Alex Ferguson's 'typical Germans' remark has, understandably, stirred up a bit of a commotion and led many to suggest it is the behaviour of a sore loser.
Simon Barnes in the Times, though, asks whether the Manchester United manager is right to feel let down by refs.
It was the referee’s fault that Manchester United went out of the Champions League on Wednesday night. Nicola Rizzoli showed insufficient resolve when surrounded by the Bayern Munich players. “Typical Germans. The referee has got to handle it.”
Rafael Da Silva was sent off for two obvious fouls. “With 11 men, no problem, we would have won the game. They got him sent off. Everyone sprinted towards the referee.”
But come, let us ignore the breathtaking hypocrisy of a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose team perpetrated the finest massed, bulging-veined referee harangues of all time, with Andy D’Urso their victim in January 2000. Let us keep our minds on those naughty referees.
When was the last time the referee cost United the result they so clearly deserved? Last weekend, actually. Mike Dean turned down two appeals for penalties as they lost 2-1 to Chelsea and Simon Beck, one of the assistants, ruled that Didier Drogba was onside for Chelsea’s second goal. “A game of that magnitude, you really need quality officials and we didn’t get them today. It was a poor, poor performance.”
Referees have done many other terrible things this season. Alan Wiley was “unfit” when United drew 2-2 with Sunderland in October. The same month, when United lost 2-0 against Liverpool, it was because the referee, Andre Marriner, did not “have the experience”.
When Chelsea beat United 1-0 in November, it was Martin Atkinson’s fault. “The referee’s position to make the decision was absolutely ridiculous. The goal shouldn’t have been allowed. You lose faith in refereeing sometimes.”
And on, and on, back into history. Atkinson’s performance was “unacceptable” when Portsmouth put United out of the FA Cup in 2008. That sort of thing “should not be accepted in our game”. Against Hull City that same year, Dean “failed in his duty”. And United actually won that one 4-3.
In 2007 Howard Webb “at times favoured Arsenal” in a 2-2 draw. That same year, Ferguson was sent to the stands for a half-time rant at Mark Clattenburg: “I told him how bad he was and he didn’t like it.”
In his consistency, Ferguson is absurd, pathetic, a figure of fun. But he carries on doing it. Some believe there is method in it — over the course of time he intimidates referees into giving pro-United decisions and, anyway, ref-bashing takes attention away from his players’ — and his own — failings. Without the latest rants, we might all be talking about the unprofessional behaviour of Rafael or United’s overreliance on Wayne Rooney.
But we’re talking about those things anyway. Meanwhile, referees continue to make decisions that go against United as well as decisions that go in their favour. So if referee-ranting is a Cunning Plan, it isn’t one that actually works.
We must consider, then, the possibility that Ferguson says these things because he honestly believes them. I think he does. He really believes that one of the most powerful and successful clubs in the world are singularly ill favoured by match officials and are consistently and unfairly discriminated against.
This sense of persecution has always been a part of Ferguson’s technique. He sees United as a group of good men besieged by the unfairness of a cruel world. That has been a potent source of their success and it is based on a strange illusion.
These matches are worth incomprehensible sums of money. And yet the refereeing refereeing of them is based on the system used for amateur games, when everyone was there for fun. Fairly serious fun, but fun nonetheless, and at the end of the match you all shake hands and go back to real life. You take bad luck with the decisions in your stride. Part of the game. Character-building.
Fifa, notoriously conservative, maintains that human error is an essential part of the game. That implies an endorsement of the lesson Ferguson teaches us: that the best way to deal with personal misfortune is to find the person least capable of defending himself and heap the blame on him.
Errors by officials are inescapable, and errors cannot help but have a huge impact on matches. It’s not referees that are at fault here. They are being used in a system that is inadequate for dealing with modern football. The problem is not referees but football.
Meanwhile, it's the FA Cup semi-finals this weekend and Tottenham take on Portsmouth at Wembley. Jermain Defoe, one of several Spurs players to face his old club, talks in the Mirror about the abuse he has faced from the Pompey fans.
A lot of our players will have mixed feelings about playing them again because of the divided loyalties and the situation the club is in.
I have to say that I, too, wouldn’t be human if I didn’t still have feelings for Pompey.
I was sold by them because of the perilous financial situation that the club was in. I had no choice in the matter.
Yet you wouldn’t believe the number of abusive phone calls and messages I got from Portsmouth fans angry at the way they thought I was treating them. Some of them very, very nasty indeed.
I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it – not only because of the things that they were saying but also the fact they had animosity towards me over a situation that wasn’t of my making.
The truth was that my departure from Fratton Park wasn’t up to me. Pompey had to cash in on me.
Subsequent events have borne that out, with virtually the whole of the team that lifted the FA Cup two years ago now at other clubs.
The chairman at the time, Peter Storrie, has since admitted that. But that didn’t stop people getting hold of my mobile phone number and bombarding me with angry calls.
They just didn’t – or wouldn’t – understand and I had to change my number quite a few times because they just wouldn’t let up.
I’d like to think that was the feeling of only a minority of their supporters but the number who felt that way appeared to be more than that and it’s a shame. Surely they will have seen the way Pompey sold off anything they could get a good price for and realised what was going on.
In the short time I was there I’d like to think I did a good job for them and, to be fair, while I was at the club they treated me really well.
I just hope our relationship can improve because all of the players that left did so in order to help the club. So to get abuse of the kind that I had to take was not nice.
April 8, 2010
The inquisition into Manchester United's exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich dominates the back pages of the UK newspapers on Thursday morning.
United's demise means there will be no English team in the semi-finals for the first time in seven years, but that is not a sign that the Premier League as whole is on the wane, it is an indication that Europe's top coaches are getting better.
That is the view of Matt Dickinson, who writes in The Times:
"As a nation, we need not read into the advance of Lyons that our own Premier League is now lagging behind Ligue 1, any more than Bayern Munich’s progress is decisive proof of a wider German revival. As for Italy, if AC Milan’s old men can remain firmly in the hunt for the title then Serie A is not back to the rude health of the Eighties and Nineties.
What does stand out is the work of the coaches in José Mourinho of Inter Milan, Louis van Gaal with Bayern and Claude Puel at Lyons. At Barcelona, of course, Pep Guardiola has fine-tuned the game’s most brilliant ensemble. It is not Italian football that is reborn, but Inter thanks to Mourinho’s good work; not German football that is marching again but Van Gaal, who has revived a mighty Bavarian institution.
In time, there may be cause for our clubs to worry as Platini’s “financial fair play” rules take hold, or the broadcast revenues dwindle, but for now we can hold off the national inquest or the headlines about the demise of the Premier League."
The angst can be contained to localised hot spots in Manchester and London, although there it may be considerable. Defeat before the semi-finals may be unaccustomed to clubs such as United and Chelsea, but these were accidents waiting to happen at the business end of the season."
Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to rush back England talisman Wayne Rooney, who later limped off after United had been reduced to ten men, from an ankle injury for the clash back-fired spectacularly and is set to cause a club versus country row, according to The Sun's chief sports writer Steven Howard.
"Alex Ferguson lost his big gamble on a night that split the nation. Wayne Rooney limped out of a game he probably should never have started and Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League. As soon as people had recovered from the shock of seeing Rooney's name on the teamsheet, the debate began.
It could be one of the most potentially divisive club v country battles yet. A tug of war that pulls at the heartstrings of every Manchester United and England supporter. And one which will revive the old argument over whether Ferguson should have let Carlos Tevez go at the same time as United lost Cristiano Ronaldo. Leaving them threadbare up front should anything happen to Rooney.
The big question: Ought Ferguson to have picked Rooney just two days after saying the England striker had 'no chance' of playing against Bayern Munich last night? Was this the action of a responsible manager? There are many who will reply in the negative.
...But it was the sight of Rooney starting to hobble in the 20th minute that had England fans muttering darkly about club v country.
It was summed up perfectly by the reactions of Ferguson and Fabio Capello. An elated United manager could be seen punching the air at various intervals as his side dominated the first half, while a look of deep concern furrowed the brow of the England chief."
April 7, 2010
The greatest in the world, and some are saying he is better than Maradona, but Lionel Messi's destruction of Arsenal has certainly got the papers talking. Matt Dickinson in the Times leads the calls for Messi to be considered among the greats of the game:
The Nou Camp hosted a football match last night, but this mighty stadium was simply a stage for one man to parade his genius. The Hall of Fame at Barcelona is full of great names such as Cruyff, Stoichkov, Rivaldo and Ronaldo but very few have been fêted like Lionel Messi, whose name rolled down the steepling terraces as he walked off, almost bashfully, bouncing the match ball like a little kid.
Cristiano Ronaldo could score five goals for Real Madrid against Barcelona on Saturday and yet still face a forlorn battle to usurp Messi as World Player of the Year. The debate may now be taken into other realms, such as where Messi stands in the all-time pantheon. Still below his compatriot, Diego Maradona, who was not only the maestro in successful teams; at Napoli and for Argentina, Maradona was the team.
Of recent greats, he sits below Zinédine Zidane, too, in that Messi does not aspire to be the conductor of his side, simply the dazzling virtuoso. He can, as Arsène Wenger pointed out, move in and out of games; it is just that his interventions this season have been so often and so spectacular that you begin to run out of superlatives.
Dominic Fifield in the Guardian agrees at that the Argentine is simply untouchable.
The pre-match predictions had been right, if only up to a point. This quarter-final was indeed to be decided by a diminutive forward with a searing burst of pace capable of unnerving the very best of back-lines, a player upon whom his nation's expectations will weigh heavy at the summer's World Cup finals. Unfortunately for Arsenal and England, Theo Walcott can still only aspire to brilliance this dazzling. This was to be Lionel Messi's night.
By the interval, all Pep Guardiola's talk in the build-up – that Walcott was "faster than all my players put together" – felt like bluff, the Spaniard's version of José Mourinho mind games to distract the watching world from the blatantly obvious. When Messi is in this mood he is as unplayable as he is untouchable. Walcott could have scorched Eric Abidal and left him a gibbering wreck in his slipstream and even done the same to the rest of Barcelona's reshaped rearguard, but Arsenal would still have been knocked out of the competition by the Argentinian.
To gawp at his 21-minute hat-trick here was to acknowledge that even the slightest optimism the Premier League club could have taken from their admirable first-leg comeback was ridiculously misplaced. The hope the hordes of Londoners carried to Camp Nou was treacherous. Messi might have scored twice in the game's opening forays. As it was, it took Arsenal's sheer audacity, in taking a lead on the night, to sting him into a frenzy with which the Gunners could not cope.
It wasn't all about the one man though, says the Daily Mail's Michael Walker. Xavi can also claim the plaudits for giving his team-mate the platform on which to perform.
So seeing is believing. High behind each net in this giant burgundy and blue bowl of a stadium hangs a screen. With a delay of around 20 seconds after a goal is scored to allow for the celebrations, the screens replay the goal.
After each of Lionel Messi’s quartet last night it felt obligatory. The Nou Camp needed to know if what they had just witnessed really was as good as it seemed. It was. Each time the gasp that came was deafening. This was both magic and real. Which just about summed up Barcelona last night. They combined energy and discipline with the feathery touches of Messi and Xavi that lift the team apparently effortlessly to another level.
It is a level that Arsene Wenger described before the first leg as ‘art’. After that vivid display in north London, one that made Wenger and his players shudder at their own limitations, Wenger added of his squad: ‘The impression was deeper on the players than it should have been.’
How could it not be? If Messi is entering the territory where comparisons with a true great such as Diego Maradona feel justifiable and Xavi is building a case to be seen as an heir to Zinedine Zidane, then the Barcelona collective are deserving of all the favourable reviews coming their way.
April 6, 2010
The Champions League returns on Tuesday with the second leg matches in the quarter-finals. There is a real chance that England's domination of the competition in recent seasons will come to a sudden halt with both Manchester United and Arsenal failing to make the final foul.
Kevin McCarra, writing in the Guardian, insists this is a good thing. Familiarity breeds contempt, you could say, with teams who know each other more likely to play a cagey game.
For the time being the English clubs are battling for no more than survival. This comes as a small surprise because at least one of them has featured in each of the past five Champions League finals. Indeed, there has lately been a cluster of these sides in the semi-finals. From the viewpoint of the continent, our representatives must look like bindweed throttling everything else in the vicinity.
Other countries have been just as exasperating in the past. Only Serie A devotees would have been thrilled to find a trio of its teams in the semi-finals seven years ago, the last time England was not represented in the last four. Appreciation declined further in a final at Old Trafford when the teams tormented everyone by appearing to agree a non-aggression pact in the latter stages before Milan prevailed over Juventus on penalties.
It was a match that reeked of the staleness that comes when opponents know one another much too well. The competition itself is bound to become jaded whenever diversity declines. English pride was the sole beneficiary when 75% of the semi-finalists came from the Premier League in each of the past three years.
That ascendancy is gone. Liverpool could not get out of the group stage, finishing behind Lyon and Fiorentina. In the last 16, Chelsea were outplayed and outwitted by Jose Mourinho's Internazionale. This week, Arsenal and Manchester United, the Premier League's survivors, cannot be handicapped by presumptuousness.
Meanwhile, over at the Times, Matt Dickinson is discussing the chances of Joe Cole making a very late run into Fabio Capello's England squad. Yes, we know what you're saying, one good game and suddenly he's the saviour. We're doubtful too.
Fabio Capello will be at Wembley on Saturday when Chelsea take on Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final. There are plenty of England players to catch his eye, from John Terry and Frank Lampard through to Ashley Young, Emile Heskey and James Milner.
But it is the name of Joe Cole that the Italian will immediately scan for when he is handed the teamsheet.
Having written off Cole only a few weeks ago, reliable sources say that Capello is now willing to alter his assessment should the Chelsea player’s form continue its upswing. A place in the World Cup squad is his to claim.
April 5, 2010
It may be two days since Chelsea beat Manchester United but the press are still getting on the backs of United, with Sir Alex Ferguson coming in for plenty of criticism for trying to hide his team's inadequacies by ranting at the ref. Patrick Barclay at the Times is one of the school of Sir Alex critics as he also looks ahead to how the remaining games of the titlte race could pan out.
"Yet again, Sir Alex Ferguson tried to conceal his team’s shortcomings under criticism of the referee, fooling no one outside the Manchester United family — and probably only a small proportion of those within it.
“When I saw Mike Dean was refereeing this game, I did worry,” the United manager told MUTV, whose job is not to subject his implications to the sieve of truth, to point out that Chelsea were already winning on Saturday when Didier Drogba was allowed an offside goal; that the goal by Federico Macheda that might otherwise have given United a point was virtually hurled into the net; and that the penalty claim against Gary Neville for barging Nicolas Anelka over was granite (to borrow from Lord Mandelson’s comparison of the main-party leaders) next to the plastic of Deco’s foul on Park Ji Sung.
The part played by the referee and his unlucky assistant whose view of Drogba appeared to be blocked by Darren Fletcher was to award six to one side and half a dozen to the other. United came off the worse because their midfield, even with Fletcher, was almost as porous as in last season’s Champions League final against Barcelona and because Ferguson’s team arrangement ensured that just about every opening fell to Park, whose technique is hardly calculated to produce the resonant thwack of banjo on cow’s backside."
Sticking with United, but moving to another person destined for criticism - Dimitar Berbatov. Daniel Taylor at the Guardian reckons the Bulgarian is both a shadow of the player he once was at Spurs and a shadow of the player he is being charged with replacing -Wayne Rooney.
"For almost a week Manchester United had been telling us they would cope without Wayne Rooney. Yes, they admitted, it was a blow to lose him but they still had Dimitar Berbatov, a player who had spent some time explaining that he really wanted to show he was passionate about the cause. And then there was young Federico Macheda, someone Sir Alex Ferguson was suddenly talking up as the best 18-year‑old he had ever seen inside the penalty box. Some compliment, given that Ferguson has been in the game more than 50 years and worked with enough players to fill an ocean liner.
This is what football people do when a key player gets injured: they tell us they have to get on with it and there is no point feeling sorry for themselves. And they are right, of course. But sometimes the truth is something they do not want to confront and in this case it is unavoidable, no matter how much Ferguson, or Gary Neville, or anyone else from Old Trafford, tries to talk up Rooney's replacements.
Although there were reports last night that Rooney could somehow make a shock return for Wednesday's Champions League clash with Bayern Munich – Manchester United's medical staff rate his chances of playing as "40%" – the simple fact is this: that Rooney's injury, if it is as bad as first feared, could threaten to bring United's season to a juddering halt."
April 4, 2010
Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday puts the Blues firmly in pole position to lift their first Premier League title in four years next month - that's something that all the Sunday papers agree on.
Many are looking on where the blame rests, and Patrick Collins at the Mail, insists that Sir Alex Ferguson shoud not be blaming the officials for defeat, and instead needs to look a little closer to home for the reasons behind the loss.
"As the consequences of his dreadful lunchtime in Lancashire started to sink in, Sir Alex Ferguson yielded to temptation. Asked to apportion blame for the defeat which may cost United their title, he promptly attacked a man with a flag.
Simon Beck is a linesman and, on this evidence, not a terribly good one. After 78 minutes of a largely uninspiring contest, he watched Didier Drogba move on to a pass from Salomon Kalou. Drogba's control was instant, his drive impeccable, his celebration unrestrained. Unfortunately, he was a full yard offside when the pass was played. Mr Beck was perfectly positioned to disallow the goal: he did nothing.
Ferguson was unforgiving. 'If he can't get that right, why is he officiating in a game like today?' he asked. 'It's just the quality of the decision, I'd say. It's cost us.' That was his public posture, and it found an echo among the aggrieved United fans as they grumbled their way into the spring sunshine.
But we must assume that the private Ferguson was thinking quite different thoughts. Sure, it was a poor decision. Every team gets them. Chelsea had suffered an equally scandalous misfortune when Gary Neville hurled himself into a ludicrous barge on Nicolas Anelka, an assault which richly merited the penalty it never received.
Yet they got on with their job, played most of the football,embraced their strategy and eminently deserved their points. It was their composed and diligent performance, not the deficiencies of an assistant referee, which proved so expensive for United."
Staying with the title race and the Telegraph's Mark Ogden was at Old Trafford to watch United's old guard slip up against Carlo Ancelotti's men - and Ogden sees the ageing Scholes, Giggs and Neville as a sentimental problem that Sir Alex must solve sonner rather than later.
"Whenever the Manchester United captain deigns to enlighten us with his opinions they are usually worthy of discussion, be it his views on authority, referees, opponents or the comings and goings at Old Trafford.
He is rarely credited with being perceptive. Neville's negative comments about the value of Carlos Tévez prior to the Argentine's match-winning performance for Manchester City in January's Carling Cup semi-final first leg were as rash as his costly handball against Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.
But the 35 year-old's admission in the match programme for the Chelsea game, that he, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes "have been at United for a long time" was a case of stating the obvious and referring to the elephant in the room at the same time.
Neville added: "We've also seen a lot of players come and go, but this club is always moving and that is all down to the manager. I think the future is looking good here."
The three of them have almost 30 Premier League winners' medals between them and they have collectively racked up 2,065 first-team appearances for United. They are the good stats. The bad one tells you that their combined age is a creaking 106."
April 3, 2010
Manchester United face Chelsea on Saturday in a match that will go a long way to deciding the destination of the Premier League title. If that isn't tasty enough on its own, further spice is added to the mix as United go into the clash at Old Trafford without start striker Wayne Rooney.
Rooney has scored 34 goals so far this season and United have been accused of being a one-man team, so how will they cope without their England star?
Well, pretty well actually. At least those are the thoughts of former England manager Terry Venables. 'No Rooney, no problem', he writes in his column in The Sun.
"With no Rooney to worry about, Carlo Ancelotti's side are widely expected to have little trouble collecting a point or three at the club one place and one point above them in the league.
I do not subscribe to that view. I believe the opposite to be true. United will be smarting after what happened against Bayern, and their players, with Alex Ferguson's justifiable post-match blast still whistling in their ears, will be looking to set the record straight in the biggest game of the top-flight season so far.
They will be eager to make amends and prove to doubters they can remain a force even without their leading scorer, most-prized asset and inspirational talisman.
Of course United will miss Rooney.
He has always been an outstanding talent. But since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure last summer Rooney has come to the fore, netting 34 times for his club this season and earning a reputation as one of the world's best, if not the best.
Any team would miss him. But, as Ron's exit enabled Roon to flourish, so his absence could provide the chance for Dimitar Berbatov to shine."
But it's not all about United and Rooney. This week also saw rumour and counter rumour regarding Martin O'Neill's future at Aston Villa. The Villa boss was forced to defend his team and his position as manager following the 7-1 defeat to Chelsea, but as Patrick Barclay wrote in The Times: O'Neill is a voice of sanity in Premier League asylum.
"There is something about O’Neill that the rest of us wish could be bottled and put on sale. Its ingredients, I’d guess, include honesty and wit, as well as talent.
It was that honesty that impelled him to defend his record at Villa. The club had just finished sixteenth when he took over from David O’Leary in the summer of 2006. They have since finished eleventh, sixth and sixth again, and lay seventh when O’Neill addressed rumours that he had quit after a row with Randy Lerner, the owner. No wonder that, for once, the wit deserted him.
Football, like the Monty Python sketch, has become silly. Notably in the Premier League. The acceptance, indeed encouragement, of debt has brought about a situation in which Lerner, a much-liked American, feels obliged to play an expensive game of catch-up.
Sixth brings you a round of applause soon drowned by a clamour for fourth and the Champions League, and if you do not answer it, the manager and the players he has bought are accused of underachievement, to put it politely."
April 2, 2010
Feast your eyes on this, readers, for it many never happen again. In Friday’s Times, the respectable Paddy Barclay compares Fulham’s Bobby Zamora to all-time great Marco van Basten.
Yes, the same Marco van Basten who scored that goal at Euro ’88 and enjoyed such success with Ajax and AC Milan. Barclay sees fit to make this astounding comparison following Fulham’s victory over Wolfsburg in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Zamora scored once again for the Cottagers and Barclay feels that Capello can no longer ignore the claims of the English Van Basten.
“The goal, Bobby Zamora’s seventh in 13 Europa League matches, was a classic and the way he set up one for Damien Duff was reminiscent (it is barely hyperbolic to say) of how Marco van Basten used to make the game look elegant simplicity. But there was so much more to admire.
“Seconds from half-time came a perfect illustration of Zamora’s value to Fulham. A Wolfsburg attack had foundered and Simon Davies, in possession deep in Fulham’s half, might have been tempted to roll the ball to Mark Schwarzer. Instead he looked up and measured a long ball for the ever-alert Zamora, whose deft chest-pass sent Duff hurtling into the German penalty area.
“No goal resulted on that occasion, but the switch from defence to attack was contemporary football of a quality that has caused speculation that Zamora, at 29, might be called to join England at the World Cup. A year ago, when his goalscoring rate was making Emile Heskey look prolific, the notion would have been laughable (though not entirely foolish), but this season Zamora has done everything that could be asked of a centre forward."
“Having turned down a chance in 2005 to represent Trinidad and Tobago, whence his father once landed in Essex, he changed his mind last year and would have played for them in a World Cup qualifying match but for an injury.
“He looked worth an England trial even before the purple patch that began when he took out three Wolfsburg defenders with a sidestep and continued as Konchesky’s superb angled pass was coaxed into the path of Duff. This was class. International class.”
April 1, 2010
Such was their utter dominance on Wednesday night, Barcelona must have felt they were on the receiving end of a particularly cruel April Fool’s joke when glancing up at the scoreboard to see it read 2-2 at full time against Arsenal.
But no. It really did happen. Instead we can rely on tales of ‘ref-mobiles’ - that’s match officials on Segways of course - for our yearly dose of hilarity.
Back to Barcelona and the disappointing news that Cesc Fabregas could miss the rest of the season due to a broken leg. The Indepdent's Jason Burt captures superbly the drama of an emotional night for the Arsenal captain as he scored against his boyhood heroes in an epic contest.
"For 84 minutes Cesc Fabregas suffered from a sore knee and a bad case of wounded pride. There may even have been a bout of twisted blood to contend with because rarely, if ever, will he have been given the run-a-round like this.
"And then he went to ground, under Carles Puyol’s challenge, and his world, which had been crumbling around him, gained some semblance of stability. Fabregas drove home the penalty, so powerfully that he did further damage to himself, and collapsed on the turf. What a price to pay. Maybe his World Cup is over, too. The storylines continued.
"Arsenal may not have deserved anything from this match, but for sheer belligerent determination in the face of being completely outplayed, they must be lauded. It beggared belief that they had somehow salvaged a draw from what was set to be a humbling experience."
"His appearance had been a calculated risk – a risk now not worth taking – and he and Arsene Wenger will have reasoned that the opponents, the occasion, the adrenalin, plus a pain-killing injection, in all probability, would have propelled him through. He was, after all, desperate to be out there against the club he left, aged 15, and who still regard him as the one that got away and to whom, one day, he may return to play alongside his childhood friends, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.
"The pressure on Fabregas was, therefore, immense because he was not just Arsenal’s driving force, Wenger’s icon, but facing the club coached by the player, Pep Guardiola, he had idolised. What a maelstrom of emotion to contend with."