May 31, 2010
So, it wouldn't be England without some kind of media storm prior to the start of the tournament. And we've got Jose Mourinho to thank for this one.
Granted, there has always been that nagging doubt that Fabio Capello might jump ship after the World Cup finals, despite him having a contract to run until 2012. And the fact that Jose has vacated the Inter job, opening up a job for Fabio back in Serie A, has only fuelled the speculation.
Sam Wallace gives his take on a situation which threatens to undermine the World Cup campaign, in the Independent.
The England management and the FA have a history of uncertainty befalling the team on the eve of major finals and on Saturday there was that old gnawing in the stomach of here-we-bloody-well-go-again.
The drip-drip effect of Internazionale's interest in Fabio Capello and his telling refusal to put it to bed in his press conference before yesterday's game against Japan left you with that sinking feeling.
For those left holding the fort at the FA after the departure of the chairman, Lord Triesman, and chief executive, Ian Watmore, there is sympathy. The organisation has been left exposed at a critical time. For Capello, there is rather less.
One of the principal rules of his squad this summer was that there was to be no discussion of transfers and no England players involved in negotiations.
In reality, no one can stop Steven Gerrard and James Milner getting on the phone to their agents in their hotel rooms, but it was preferable to the open house that Eriksson ran at Euro 2004, when Jose Mourinho turned up to meet his new Chelsea players.
On Saturday, however, Capello broke his own rules. In the double-speak world of transfers and negotiation – where what is left unsaid is as important as what is said – Capello left so much up in the air about Inter that he can hardly have been surprised that we are starting to wonder whether he wants to stay.
And we're also taking a look at Alan Hansen's words of wisdom in the Daily Telegraph.
For all of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard’s undoubted quality, Fabio Capello will be faced with a real problem in England’s midfield if Gareth Barry fails to overcome his ankle injury in time to be selected for the World Cup.
Gerrard and Lampard are absolutely crucial to England’s ambitions in South Africa and they simply have to play because the time when you rely most on your best players is when you are performing at the very highest level.
But if Barry is not fit enough to perform the holding role in front of the back four, you only have to look at Capello’s options to realise that the England manager will be left with a real selection dilemma.
It has been a problem in the past for England when they have had Gerrard and Lampard together as a central midfield pairing, as they were in the second-half against Japan, because neither of them wants to sit back and hold.
May 30, 2010
England's best chance of winning the World Cup, of course, comes from talisman Wayne Rooney. But the Mail's Patrick Collins maintains that the striker knows it all too well.
Somebody remarked that he seemed a little weary the other evening. There were tired lines around his eyes and his roaring surges lacked some of the old conviction. ‘Needs a rest,’ said somebody else, and since he has been carrying his club on his back for most of these past nine months, that sounded true enough.
Then we remembered who we were talking about and we felt like apologising. Because Wayne Rooney’s standards are such that the slightest lapse provokes frivolous inquests. The fact that he is a force of nature is not in question. He is 24 years old and he has been around forever.
Six years have passed since Manchester United paid Everton more than £25million for his talents. Like hot pies or John Motson, he is part of the furniture of the English game. Give or take the odd expensive tantrum — much rarer these days — he is utterly dependable.
As such, he is indispensable to England’s World Cup ambitions. Indeed, when I searched for players who have been similarly essential to the English cause, I came up with only Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90, Bryan Robson at Mexico 86 and Bobby Charlton in the fabled year of 1966. Rooney is walking in the footsteps of giants.
Other players are of enormous importance: the loss of Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand or Steven Gerrard would be desperately difficult to withstand. But Rooney stands high above them all in terms of his contribution to the collective effort.
A few weeks back, I suggested in this column that without Rooney there was little point in England travelling to South Africa. As the days dwindle down, that feeling is stronger than ever. He is one of those extraordinary players whose gifts have expanded to meet the tests at hand. At every critical juncture of his career — from Everton to Manchester United to England — his game has faced down the challenge. That aura of being the best kid in the playground has remained intact through the passing years.
In all that time, he has produced not a single, memorable public phrase or insight; not, I suspect, because he is dull, but because he finds expression in actions rather than words. Over the past few weeks, he has muttered manfully when a microphone was unavoidable: ‘Do players feel jaded after a long season? Of course. It’s a long season for everyone ... This is an important time for us, we are trying to make sure we are ready for South Africa.' And so on.
The News of the World's Andy Dunn, though, thinks that strike partner Peter Crouch is being overlooked.
AMIDST the frocks and frivolity of Baden-Baden in the surreal summer of 2006, there was a chance to get up close and personal with the parents of England players.
And over a pint or two of pilsner, proud fathers could take us to task for the acres of newsprint dissecting the ability of their progeny.
The main grouch from Bruce Crouch was that every article about his son would refer to his height.
At times, he was almost convinced he had actually named his boy Beanpole. Four years on and little has changed.
Here is one recent piece. "Peter, England's tallest ever striker at 6ft 7in, . . . " The second paragraph begins: "The lanky striker . . . "
And that piece is on the Football Association's official England website. It's a wonder it didn't go on to say he is accustomed to playing at altitude.
So Bruce's protests were in vain, but he has a point. Crouch's achievements, his record, his class, have been unfairly dwarfed by his physique.
And going into this World Cup with the usual plethora of doubts, injury concerns and last-minute panic attacks, Crouch has become every bit as important to this team as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard or, dare I say it, Wayne Rooney.
Internationally, he is the striker in form. His goal against Mexico might have been scruffier than a Big Issue salesman but it was his 21st in 38 appearances - an impressive record by anyone's standards.
May 29, 2010
Exactly what does Theo Walcott need to make him a world-beater? It appears that David Beckham could hold the key... the Independent's James Lawton highlights why Becks could be the man to turn Theo into the finished article.
Here's a drop of irony to lace the pathos that has lapped around England's World Cup ambitions for 44 years. Could it be that David Beckham may, at his fourth attempt, be on the point of a most decisive contribution?
This is probably not the time to reopen the debate about whether his international achievements ever began to match his influence and his celebrity, but over one question there has never been any doubt. It was that few players on the international stage ever matched his consistent ability to deliver the ball with accuracy and bite and, yes, sheer beauty.
This makes it the best of news that Theo Walcott, a joke selection four years ago at the age of 17 but potentially a huge factor this time, has gone on the record with his determination to be the chief beneficiary of Beckham's appointment as an honorary coach, official cheerleader and, if past form is anything to go by, chief scene stealer in South Africa.
Walcott –a wide-eyed spectator in Germany after Sven Goran Eriksson decided to take him without ever seeing him in serious action, and when he had still to play a senior game – has still to build on the astonishing impact he made when putting England's nemesis Croatia to the sword in Zagreb early in England's qualifying campaign.
Yet coach Fabio Capello was never likely to abandon such a sweet ability to dissect a team with such dazzling speed and there were some potent reminders of the good sense of this in an otherwise somewhat disquieting outing against Mexico at Wembley last Monday night. On several occasions Walcott made matchwood of the Mexicans but his final ball was lacking in both timing and precision.
Enter Beckham at a point which just might not be too late for the hope that Walcott can animate the English challenge with that blistering turn of foot. There is nothing so devastating in sport as authentic speed but too often in the last four years Walcott, for one reason or another, has allowed its value to dribble away.
Turning attentions back to the domestic game, Paddy Barclay at the Times has his thoughts on the financial side of things. 'Will more clubs enter administration? Bank on it'... reads the headline.
The impotent hand-wringing of David Moores — a decent man who sold his beloved Liverpool to Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr because, after mature but sadly superficial reflection, he deemed it best for the club and himself — offers an all too accurate depiction of what the entity once known as “English football” has become.
The ideal sort of owners — prosperous local men such as Moores and Bill Kenwright, who still has neighbouring Everton because no American, Arab or Russian suitor has proved plausible to him — come under pressure to sell, usually to super-rich or wildly indebted foreigners only too anxious to take advantage of the Barclays Premier League’s mouthwatering combination of global exposure and inept governance.
The loot they provide for the locals — Moores got £88 million from the Americans — is only part of the pressure to move out. The game has also become ridiculously expensive to run because of inflation in players’ wages. An owner faces mountainous losses, such as Steve Gibson’s before Middlesbrough were carted off to the Coca-Cola Championship, or a sudden windfall. Tough choice, eh?
The system coerced Moores into making a decision that may yet prove catastrophic for Liverpool, who have no realistic prospect of returning to the Champions League. They can only hope that others go equally awry, and I suppose there is encouragement of a sort in the plight of Manchester United — another magnificent example of what Americans can do with capitalism if you strip it of the constraints imposed in their country.
Opportunists and speculators are being sucked in from all parts and it is only a matter of time before continuing to trade overseas as the “English Premier League” or “EPL” becomes utterly ludicrous.
Does it matter? Of course it does. The more football strays from its roots, the less chance there is of it ever establishing the degree of control over its affairs that was so markedly absent before, when and after Portsmouth went into administration, cheating the public purse and even charities, towards the end of last season.
May 28, 2010
The football season seems like a distant memory now, doesn't it? Everywhere you look the World Cup is the primary focus and the English press love nothing better than a good old bit of anlysis. Who should go to the finals? What needs to change? Can England win it?
Simon Barnes at the Times is no different and he's made a nice digestible list of the 11 factors required for England to be the ones holding the trophy aloft in July. Out of interest, they are: Faith, Unity, Trust, Understanding, Aspiration, Discipline,
Saltation, Decisiveness, Passion, Devil, Luck.
"Qualifying for the World Cup is like building a machine. That is if, like England, you are one of the nations that ought to qualify every time. But once you qualify, the game changes. We stop looking at mechanical efficiency and seek less tangible things. We look for the ghosts in the machine.
England need many things at the World Cup finals: things such as a holding midfield player, a dominant goalkeeper, cover in all positions, Plan B, all those matters that are susceptible to analysis. But if England are to win the World Cup, they will also need many things that are beyond analysis. Here, then, I present you with a team of Intangibles: 11 phantoms without which England cannot hope to win.
Do England believe they can win this tournament? I mean really believe, not like a politician but like Joan of Arc. They all say they do, but I can’t help wondering if they are just politely mouthing the words, like an agnostic at a wedding.
The good news is that they don’t actually need to believe now. Belief can germinate in the group stages, flower in the round of 16 and bear fruit right at the last. But without this faith, no matter when it comes, England are nothing."
Elsewhere, and Matt Scott delves into all things football in his Friday column for the Guardian, discussing England's foundering World Cup bid, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley's falling out with the Dail Mail and Roman Abramovich's charm offensive.
"Geoff Thompson today faces the most delicate dilemma of his England 2018 chairmanship so far when he presides over Uefa's vote for the host nation of Euro 2016. Two of the three candidate nations are represented by two of Fifa's most powerful figures: France by Michel Platini and Turkey by Senes Erzik. (Italy is considered the outsider in the contest.) As Uefa's president and first vice-president, Platini and Erzik are the two most senior figures on its executive committee. Both also serve on the Fifa executive-committee, which will decide in December where the 2018 World Cup will be hosted, and any horsetrading between the Euro 2016 bidders could have important implications for that vote.
Platini and Erzik's national interests preclude them from participating in today's meeting, leaving Thompson, Uefa's second vice-president, in the chair during the 13-man ballot. Thompson's chairmanship gives him the casting vote and, in the event of a tie, he intends to plump for the best technical bid. But, although England 2018 has kept its distance from his deliberations, where Thompson places his support could have obvious consequences for its World Cup ambitions.
Further clouding the picture is the presence at Uefa's Nyon HQ today of Angel María Villar Llona and Gilberto Madail, the representatives of Spain and Portugal. The Iberian nations are bidding jointly to host the 2018 World Cup and their dual support for one of the Euro 2016 campaigns would be powerful. If that bloc swings behind a single bidder then either Erzik or Platini may feel obliged to Spain-Portugal in the 2018 crunch later this year."
May 27, 2010
The holding role for England is getting a lot of attention. Ledley King? Gareth Barry (if fit), Owen Hargreaves? David Batty? Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail argues that a Batty figure is missing and West Ham's Scott Parker provides the answer.
And so it comes to this. Huddled around the wireless for news of Gareth Barry’s ankle. Really? A nation with designs on the World Cup plunged into crisis because the sort-of holding midfield player might not make the first two games? Look, it’s not ideal, but there is drama and there is crisis and Barry’s race to get fit for June 1 when Fabio Capello finalises his squad fits firmly in the non-critical category.
We fret over Wayne Rooney because he is irreplaceable. So, too, Ashley Cole, or the fragile collection of central defenders. But Barry is a cog in a wheel. A very efficient cog, a slick and well-oiled cog without doubt, a cog that the manager has come to rely upon, but a machine part nonetheless. And parts can be replaced. The rising panic over Barry’s fitness has been intensified by a dismal performance in the holding role against Mexico from Michael Carrick. No surprise there.
One day an England coach is going to tot up all the opportunities Carrick has been given to win his place in deep midfield, and it will bring an end to his international career. He is a good club player but struggles to make the step up. In his defence, Carrick is not a conventional holding midfield player. Then again, neither is Barry. And that is why the hole left by his absence can be mended...
...Capello’s best option would be to turn to Scott Parker, the least heralded of his midfield squad men.
Parker has been in outstanding form for West Ham United this season, but that is not the reason to pick him. It is not his West Ham self that England need because for his club Parker is the equivalent of Gerrard for Liverpool, and Capello already has a player like that; the original, in fact.
No, Parker scores because he is the best midfield tackler in Capello’s extended England squad and if Barry is injured what is required is a destroyer who can break up play and use the ball simply. Parker would be more suited to this role than Carrick, James Milner or Tom Huddlestone, the trio Capello deployed against Mexico. All three are better passers but, as long as Parker is not tempted into over-ambition, this need not matter.
England do not need Glenn Hoddle when what is missing is David Batty. A ball-winner who then serves the ball quickly is key to any number of great teams. With direction from a world-class coach, Parker could become more important to the team than Barry.
Meanwhile, co-owner Tom Hicks has been flappin' his lip at Liverpool about the situation and Tony Evans at the Times struggles to understand how he thinks he has done a good job.
Looking for a PR disaster? Send for the Hicks clan. From the same people who brought you the Hillsborough anniversary fireside chat, “Blow me ****face” and the Christian Purslow £100 million fundraising tour, I give you The Letter II: The Yanks Fight Back.
Tom Hicks, reviled co-owner of Liverpool football club with George Gillett Jr and serial breaker of promises, cropped up on television last night to hit back at David Moores’s call for Anfield’s owners to “step aside with dignity and stop punishing the fans”.
Hicks expressed his disappointment at the former chairman’s words — he called him Moores, not Mr, not David, but a blunt surname that carried more than an edge of contempt — and then explained why everyone is wrong. Hey, Moores mismanaged the club, now it’s on the right track. Sponsorship is going through the roof, money’s pouring into the transfer kitty and the stadium — you know the one, in Stanley Park, the one where the spade was going to be in the ground in 60 days — is, er, fully designed.
“The truth is,” Hicks said brazenly, “that Liverpool is much better off than it was three years ago.” So, as the Americans say, let’s do the math. Debt on takeover: £44 million. Debt now: £351 million.
May 26, 2010
Following the news that Fabio Capello has given Gareth Barry more time to prove his fitness ahead of the World Cup finals, one of the nation’s sportswriters has been left wondering why there is no panic surrounding the fitness of a player who is key to England’s hopes.
Hysteria surrounding fitness problems now feels like an accepted part of the pre-World Cup routine, but Barry’s injury has not been met with the same level of panic as that engendered by blows to David Beckham and Wayne Rooney in the past.
And one man who cannot understand why is The Mirror’s Oliver Holt:
“There is one question that needs to be asked above all others in the aftermath of England's game against Mexico on Monday night. Why aren't we praying for Gareth Barry's ankle?
“Somehow we don't seem as devoted to it as we were to the Rooney metatarsal and, before that, the Beckham foot. There haven't been any life-size cut-outs of the Barry ankle in the newspapers yet. Uri Geller hasn't popped up on GMTV calling on the nation to unleash its healing powers on Barry's damaged ligaments.
“There wasn't a squadron of news helicopters flying above Barry's car on the way to the hospital where he had his tests yesterday. There weren't batteries of television cameras to film him coming out of the hospital, like there were when Rooney was passed fit before the 2006 World Cup.
“We didn't know the name of the hospital. We didn't have a detailed breakdown of the tests he was doing. We didn't know when it was all happening. To the minute. The 24-hour rolling news channels didn't suspend their programming to concentrate just on this.
“They should have done. Because Barry's ankle is as important to England's World Cup hopes this summer as Rooney's metatarsal in 2006 and Beckham's foot in 2002.”
Sticking with the England midfield, The Independent's Sam Wallace wonders just what exactly is Steven Gerrard's perfect position, after he performed a number of roles in Monday's friendly win over Mexico.
"It was late on Monday night, in a deserted Wembley when Fabio Capello floated an interesting concept. He referred to 'the real Steve', as in the real Steven Gerrard and in doing so presented that fundamental question: what or who is the real Steve?
"We know the answer when it comes to his Liverpool career – Gerrard is arguably the most talented player of his generation. He is the kind of player that the English like to think epitomises their game at its best in that he marries brilliant technical expertise, power and strength with an indefatigable will to win. He is many different types of player in one footballer.
"But what is the real Steve for England? It is a question that has followed him around since he made his debut at the old Wembley 10 years ago on Monday and wrote his name into Kevin Keegan's squad for Euro 2000. Now, with Gareth Barry in a desperate struggle to be fit, 'the real Steve' could well be as a holding midfielder for England – as a defensive player rather than a creative one."
May 25, 2010
You'll struggle to find too many Scottish people singing the praises of the England football team, but one such person who believes England have a chance in South Africa is the Times' Patrick Barclay.
He has been saying for some time that he feels Fabio Capello has the tools to go all the way, and he still feels that after Monday night's win over Mexico. And Patrick believes the full-backs hold the key.
A few days before England took on Croatia at Wembley last September, Fabio Capello was asked how Glen Johnson would cope with the left-flank threat of Niko Kranjcar. The Italian smiled and replied: “Kranjcar should be more worried about Johnson. I am not worried about Johnson — he is one of the best right backs in the world.”
Capello was proved right to the extent that the Croatians should have been the anxious ones; they were beaten 5-1. But his assertion about Johnson has taken longer to be vindicated amid a lingering suspicion that, for all the Liverpool player’s threat going forward, defensive vulnerability tends to cancel it out. Last night he found a balance and it looked as if the player Capello promised us eight months ago had finally arrived.
In which case England have even more reason to be cheerful about the tournament than we suspected. Full backs are very important. They receive plenty of the ball and must take responsibility for construction. To have two high-class examples can go a long way towards winning a World Cup, as France showed in 1998, when Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu were fundamental to their success.
But, in the Guardian, Richard Williams had another view point.
A row of dark-suited men watching from a row of seats behind the England dug‑out exerted more of an influence on last night's performance than most of the players on the pitch. What Fabio Capello's side lacked against Mexico was the composed decisiveness of John Terry, the dynamism of Ashley Cole, the connectivity of Frank Lampard and the imagination of Joe Cole. Even in a 3-1 victory Chelsea's Double-winners were badly missed.
Not too many conclusions should be drawn from a pre-World Cup friendly, particularly one in which England were without several key figures. But it would have been nice to see, along with the energy and the eagerness to please their coach, just a little bit of joined-up football, something to suggest that they had spent a week on the training pitch. Most of that sort of thing came from Mexico, a reminder of the times without number when even England's most ardent admirers have despaired of seeing the white shirts pass the ball with the intelligence and accuracy shown by their opponents.
While Mexico seldom distinguish themselves at the World Cup, neither do they go home in humiliation. That made them useful opponents last night, a good yardstick by which Capello could judge certain elements of England's progress. When it came to coherent defending and incisive attacking, he would not have seen much to encourage optimism.
May 24, 2010
Domestic football has finished. All attention now turns to World Cup preparations and with England hosting Mexico at Wembley on Monday night all eyes are on who will make the final cut.
Fabio Capello has to trim down his 30-man squad to just 23 players, turning what might ordinarily be just another friendly match into auditions for England's got talent.
In the Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter says it is now or never for the fringe players.
"It is talent night at Wembley. England's impresario, Fabio Capello, stages an audition masquerading as a friendly with Mexico on Monday evening.
Capello wants to give a half each to goalkeepers Rob Green and Joe Hart, assess Leighton Baines at left-back, check on Ledley King's fitness, look at James Milner through the middle and Adam Johnson out wide in the second half. Even the pitch is on trial.
Seven of the starting shirts against the United States in Rustenburg on June 12 seem established. The back four of Glen Johnson, Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole have been working together as a unit at England's training camp in Irdning, Austria. Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney are also guaranteed starters. Tonight's spotlight burns brightest on four positions: goalkeeper, holding midfielder and two of the four attacking
Keepers first, because this is Capello's greatest headache. James has been having special training sessions with the goalkeeping coach, Franco Tancredi, involving a lot of saving and swearing. At 39, James is past his peak and vulnerable to lapses, but his experience and self-belief are undoubted assets. Green has never completely convinced, while Hart has only 45 minutes against Trinidad and Tobago on his senior CV."
When England are in action there are not many people who can knock the Three lions out of the headlines, but Inter boss Jose Mourinho is one man that can.
The Guardian's Richard Williams claims that when Mourinho cast aside volatility following his side's Champions League victory at the Bernabeu at the weekend he became a better man, celebrating with surprising dignity.
"He did not take off his medal and stuff it in his pocket. He wore it proudly. He did not walk away to hide himself, as ostentatiously as a man hiding himself could possibly contrive to do, in the shadows of the dugout. Instead he went straightaway to applaud the fans dancing in ecstasy on the northern face of the mighty Bernabéu, then hugged his players and shook hands with their opponents. He hoisted his son, José Jr, wearing a black and blue No10 shirt, on to his shoulders, before setting him down, picking up the match ball and a Portuguese flag, and making his way to embrace his president.
This time José Mourinho was on his very best behaviour, as he had been all week. Once again he was starring in his own movie. But he was showing the world – and his employers, present and future – that he could also win one of football's biggest prizes with dignity."
May 23, 2010
Ten years ago, Blackpool were playing in the bottom tier of the football league. On Saturday, they completed a remarkable turnaround by beating Cardiff 3-2 in the Championship play-off final to secure promotion to the Premier League.
It is an achievment that almost defies belief - the Tangerines had the second lowest average attendance in the Championship last season - and the club will now be entitled to at least £90 million when you consider any future parachute payments as well. But Patrick Collins at the Mail insists that playing top flight football will not be about the money for Blackpool's players and fans, but the prestige of mixing it with England's big boys.
"They held a small party in Valhalla last night. Stan Mortensen poured the drinks, Alan Ball crooned squeaky pitched songs and Stanley Matthews, wearing that gently exhausted smile he wore when the FA Cup was won in 1953, said he could not be happier.
Blackpool, their Blackpool, were back where they belong. A tangerine dream had been ecstatically realised. And Wembley was awash with tears of joy and pride.
There are days, precious days, when the dear old game shakes off its stifling cynicism and reveals all the wonder and the passion which entranced us as children. Yesterday was such a day.
The advance publicity had dwelt upon the cash which would be generated from securing a place in the Premier League: £80million, £90m, £100m, the figures were trotted out like so much spare change.
And yet it was about so much more than money. Both clubs were playing from motives of pride and self-respect. Both sets of players retained a genuine awe for their Wembley surroundings. Year upon year, the pitch is full of world-weary footballers who treat the place as a second home. This lot played with the boyish excitement of the unknown."
Elsewhere, there was the small matter of the Champions League final - as a brace from Diego Milito handed Inter Milan a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich and a first European cup triumph since 1965. It was also a second Champions League win for Nerazzurri boss Jose Mourinho, who now seems certain to depart the club for pastures new at Real Madrid. Paul Hayward at the Guardian looks ahead to what the future may hold for "the Special One".
"Jose Mourinho's only problem is that he will run out of targets. A first league title for Chelsea in 50 years, Inter's first European Cup crown since 1965 and now the chance to manage Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká at Real Madrid.
"I want to become the only coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs. I'm not leaving Inter, I'm leaving Italy," Mourinho said after Inter's 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich on a melodramatic night, thus confirming an open secret. A European champion with Porto six years ago, Mourinho joined Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld as the only coaches to win this competition with rival clubs. "The Champions League I won at Porto was my last game there and this time it will almost certainly be my last game for Inter," he added. His flag is already planted in the Bernabéu's soil.
The sporting story of this final was an immortal display of finishing by Diego Milito, the Inter striker, but of course all eyes fell on a man who had not played but who masterminded a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and European Champions' Cup. He gave them what they craved and will now leave to continue his own amazing voyage.
All the pent-up yearning from 45 years of waiting erupted from the bench as Howard Webb, the English referee, blew time and Inter's players sprinted off in all directions to express their exultation. This time Mourinho made sure he enjoyed the deliverance. There was none of the careerist reticence that had characterised his first Champions League win with Porto. Then, Mourinho stood apart from the celebrations because he knew he was scuttling off to Chelsea. Six years on he threw himself into the rejoicing, hoisting his son on his shoulders and soaking up the love of the crowd."
May 22, 2010
All European eyes are focused firmly on the Bernabeu today as Inter take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. There are plenty of plots and sub-plots to this final, with both sides chasing a treble, Louis van gaal taking on his former apprentice in Jose Mourinho and "the Special One" managing a side at the stadium where he may find himself with increased frequency from next season.
Another Madrid storyline concerns two former Real players, and Richard Williams at the Guardian believes today's final will give Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder the opportunity to prove that they were cut from the galactico family a little too early.
"By a most exquisite – and, for some, excruciatingly painful – coincidence, morrow night's events in the Estadio Bernabéu could well be shaped by two players who left Real Madrid last summer with the label "Not wanted on voyage" around their necks. Now the supporters of Los Merengues must put up with the possibility of either Arjen Robben or Wesley Sneijder becoming the pivotal figure of the 2010 Champions Cup final.
The two Dutchmen would walk into most sides, and are scheduled to feature in their national side's World Cup campaign next month. But whatever they brought to the Spanish club, it was not enough to satisfy Florentino Pérez, Real's president. Intent on building a new squad of súper galácticos in the summer of 2009, Pérez bought Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema for an aggregate outlay of about €240m, while clearing space in the dressing room by letting Robben go to Bayern Munich and Sneijder to Internazionale.
A net loss of €22m (£19m) on the fees that had taken them to the Bernabéu two years earlier meant bargains for their new employers. Over the next few months both players proceeded to play vital roles as their teams won the Bundesliga and Serie A, their achievements pointing up the failure of their replacements to topple Barcelona from the summit of La Liga.
They may wear the same shirt number for their current clubs, but only one of them is a true No10. Sneijder, at 25 the younger of the two by a year, is a string-puller in the classic mould. Just 5ft 7in tall, he blends some of the vision of Xavi Hernández with occasional glimpses of Lionel Messi's incisive finishing."
And in a twist away from this year's finalists, Michael Walker at the Telegraph looks through some previously unseen photos of one of the most memorable European Cup finals ever: Real Madrid's 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.
"Santiago Bernabeu places his hat on the European Cup in a wood-panelled dressing room at Hampden Park. Bernabeu is smiling and we know why: Real Madrid, the club Bernabeu did more than any man to construct, had just demolished Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final, a game that many remain convinced is the greatest of all time.
In photographs previously unpublished in Britain, the scale of the 135,000 crowd in Glasgow is of epic dimensions - a young Alex Ferguson among them - but so too the happiness on the rarely-seen face of president Bernabeu. It all contributes to the sense that these French photographs captured a historic moment in the development of European football.
a delighted Santiago Bernabeu celebrates the triumph over Eintracht Frankfurt
Eintracht Frankfurt were some team - they had beaten Rangers 12-4 on aggregate in the semi-finals - but Real Madrid, with Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano at the height of their powers, won 7-3. Puskas scored four, Di Stefano three."
May 21, 2010
There is a little something called the Champions League final taking place this weekend and it dominates the opinion pages of Friday's newspapers.
Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan take on Louis van Gaal's Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu and Ian Chadband, writing in the Daily Telegraph, expects the final to mark the end of the Special One's reign as emperor of Italy.
"Listening to Mourinho here, it dawns why he has to leave Italy for new battles in Spain. There's no one left to fight. Ancelotti? Ranieri? The pressmen he blanked while forcing them to acknowledge his brilliance? The refs he almost prompted to take strike action with his handcuff gesture and other demonstrations of disrespect? What about the mafia who planned to kidnap him? He's beaten the lot.
Here's a man who operates best when armed with a siege mentality. So if there is no bogeyman, invent one. Take Van Gaal; he was Mourinho's mentor, a friend who gave him his major break as his Barcelona assistant and probably schooled him in the art of self-appreciation - hence, the billing for tomorrow's game as "God v Son of God".
Now though, as Bayern coach, he's the voodoo doll after noting mischievously this week: "I think I educated Jose a little but he trains to win, I train to play beautiful football and win. My way is more difficult."
Ooo, a red rag. If Mourinho is sensitive about anything, it's the idea that his sides are dull. "We beat Barcelona by smashing them at the San Siro with an incredible attacking football," was his boomed riposte. He's like Joe Pesci's mobster in Goodfellas who doesn't care to be reminded by an old godfather of when he was a shoeshine boy. You fancy he would enjoy nothing more than dumping Van Gaal's reputation in his car boot."
May 20, 2010
Once again the morning papers are full of different angles on the Cesc Fabregas story. With neither the player or Arsenal making any official comment, in contrast to Barcelona, we are left with plenty of comment pieces on what could be the summer's biggest transfer.
But how much will Cesc cost his hometown club? Estimates vary from £45 million to an astronomical £80 million. I'm no mathematician but that's quite a big difference.
Negotiations are sure to be fierce, even if Barcelona hope to have done the deal by the weekend, according to the Guardian's man in Spain, Sid Lowe, who also sets the price at £30 million.
While it seems no one has a clue how much Fabregas will cost, the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel believes it is time for the player to leave Arsenal and rejoin Barca as he deserves to fill his trophy cabinet.
"When Cesc Fabregas collects his belongings and passes through the gates at Arsenal’s training ground for the last time, in the brutal, finite reckoning of elite football, he will do so as a failure.
"Fabregas is a European champion with Spain and one of the finest midfield players in the world. There is no doubt Arsenal helped make him so - but at sport’s most rarefied level, success is not measured by the enthusiasm of the reviews.
"Fabregas has only an FA Cup winner’s medal to show for his time at Arsenal, won five years ago in his first proper season as a regular member of the starting team. He did not even finish the game but was substituted in the 86th minute, before extra time and penalties. For a player of his immense calibre it is nowhere near enough."
In The Sun, Steven Howard warns that time could be running out for Arsene Wenger, with a frustrated support unlikely to welcome the news that their captain could be leaving.
"Arsene Wenger has one final season in which to get it right at Arsenal. Irrespective of whether he fights off Barcelona's bid for Cesc Fabregas.
"If he draws a blank once again, then the waverers among the Arsenal faithful will turn against the Gunners boss and join those who already feel his time is up.
"There is a vociferous group of long-term Arsenal punters just to the left of the Press box at The Emirates. And it has been noticeable how their patience has been wearing increasingly thin."
May 19, 2010
All the news is, of course, surrounding Cesc Fabregas and his potential move to Barcelona this summer. But would he even get in the side? The Times' Gabriele Marcotti thinks not...
When Spanish clubs move for a high-profile star — particularly with presidential elections around the corner — an air of inevitability descends. Even before Barcelona announced that Cesc Fàbregas, the Arsenal midfield player, wanted to move to the Nou Camp — an intention he discussed with Arsène Wenger yesterday — many assumed it was a given.
After all, the 23-year-old Fàbregas has done his time at Arsenal. Seven seasons under Wenger is a long time and he has never hidden his love for Barcelona, the club he supported as a boy and where he grew up before his move to North London shortly after his 16th birthday. Why shouldn’t he want to return home?
Things may well pan out that way. Or they may take an entirely different turn. Whatever else one may think of Fàbregas, there is no question that he is intelligent and mature well beyond his years. And he realises that, at this moment, with Barcelona close to electing a new president to replace Joan Laporta, he is a useful electoral tool. Why not use that to your advantage? Why not push the envelope and get an idea of what you are worth on the open market? Who knows? It may push Wenger to change tack and make some serious investment in the North London club, something he has not done in recent years.
The sense is that there is more to this than meets the eye. Not least because when Fàbregas looks at the Barcelona line-up, he may well wonder where — and if — he fits in alongside Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, his Spain team-mates. And he may conclude that Barcelona’s interest in him has more to do with regaining prestige and helping a candidate to secure the presidency than it does with footballing reasons.
The original plan was that Fàbregas would slot into midfield alongside Xavi, with a holding midfield player — such as Sergio Busquets or Yaya Touré — behind and Iniesta shunted out to the wing, where he would form a front three with Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But things have changed. David Villa, the Valencia striker, appears likely to join Barcelona.
If one assumes that Villa will go straight into the starting line-up and that Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and one holding midfield player are also definites, there is one slot left in Pep Guardiola’s XI. One place for Fàbregas and Ibrahimovic to fight over, not to mention the likes of Bojan Krkic and Pedro Rodriguez. The obvious solution is selling Ibrahimovic, except that given his poor season and a £6 million-a-year contract that has four years to run, that will not be easy to do.
It is very crowded in the Barcelona front six and that situation is unlikely to change soon. Fàbregas, ever rational and calculating, realises this. It is unthinkable that he will move without seeking some kind of reassurance regarding Guardiola’s plans. And, given the uncertainty over the elections, the club may find it difficult to provide these assurances, at least in the short term. Barcelona want to move quickly in making their first big signing of the summer, ideally before the World Cup. Fàbregas is unlikely to be in a similar hurry. Neither are Arsenal.
James Lawton in the Independent, believes that Arsene Wenger is to blame for only feeding Fabregas scraps of success during his time at the club.
Cesc Fabregas' birth certificate says he is 23 but everyone in football knows it is a gross understatement.
Few better than Fabregas, it is now clear. No one's time is infinite, of course, but the sense of this must be especially acute when you are so young and accomplished and you see so clearly the dispiriting fact that the years are slipping through your fingers like so many grains of sand.
Fabregas's competitive maturity is so great, and his understanding that football can take away gifts as quickly as it gives them so profound, his Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, must know that he is now facing more than the restlessness of a recalcitrant young superstar. Fabregas is a superstar all right, someone in the bracket of Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney, but he is also besieged by the conviction that unlike those brilliant and equally precocious rivals he has waited too long for the fulfilment of brilliant talent.
Meanwhile, Paul Hayward in the Guardian says that if Fabregas is sold, the manager must spend the money on experienced gladiators - not promising 19-year-olds.
Wenger's pursuit of Marouane Chamakh, the 26-year-old Bordeaux striker, comes just in time to give the high command a chance of persuading Fábregas that Arsenal's reliance on scouted youth has not become a self-defeating obsession. But there will be others in this Arsenal squad who would interpret the soul being ripped from the team as a reason to test the market. Andrey Arshavin, another Barcelona fan, is one. Anxiety could also spread to Robin van Persie.
Groping for reasons to be cheerful, an Arsenal fan might say this marks the end for Wenger's utopian phase. Reality will dictate that the Fábregas money would have to be reinvested: not on more promising 19-year-olds but ready-made gladiators who know how to win.
May 18, 2010
The acrimonious departure of FA chairman Lord Triesman still ocuupies many a column inch in the English press, with many newspapers expressing concern about the country's chances of winning hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup.
Oliver Kay at the Times takes an interesting angle though, making the observation that while Triesman resigned over his "bribery" allegations, he has never denied or withdrawn those particular claims.
"One thing seemed to go unnoticed in the furore that accompanied Lord Triesman’s departure from the FA. In his valedictory statement, he did not withdraw the allegations that caused such widespread condemnation.
He watered them down a little, referring to “speculation circulating about conspiracies in world football”, but, in his mind, if no one else’s, they were still out there.
The allegations are still out there somewhere, but, predictably, they have drifted into the ether, preserved only as evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of the man making the claims.
That is the way it works in football. No sooner is such an allegation made — whether wittingly or, in Triesman’s case, in the context of a private conversation that was recorded and sold to a newspaper — than the whistleblower realises that he has broken the sport’s moral code and the only whistle left blowing is the one to signal the end of his career in football.
As conspiracy theories go, Triesman’s claims about Spain “looking for help from the Russians to help them to bribe referees in the World Cup”, perhaps with a view to a reciprocal arrangement regarding votes in the ballot to decide who hosts the 2018 tournament, sounded about as plausible something from The X-Files."
But Richard Williams at the Guardian is a little more accepting of events and is looking towards who the FA should appoint as Triesman's successor. Former FA chairman Geoff Thompson has been chosen as an immediate firefighting successor to Triesman but Davied Davies' name has been bandied about too. Williams, though, feels that England should look further back to the man who helped the country's football recovery after Heysel - Graham Kelly.
"Send for David Davies! That was so often the cry on the frequent occasions when the Football Association managed to shoot itself in the foot. Call in Teflon Man, the Zelig of English football, the chap whose smooth demeanour and emollient words had enabled him to survive other men's crises. Not this time, however. The one they should probably summon, from wherever he has been living with his collection of Blackpool programmes, is Graham Kelly.
How we used to laugh at Kelly, the drab, droning, lard-faced apparatchik, a former amateur goalkeeper whose sights were set no higher than rising from the cashier's counter to become the assistant manager of his local branch of Barclays until he spotted an advertisement for a job at the Lytham St Annes headquarters of the Football League, whose secretary was the majestically autocratic Alan Hardaker. From that point Kelly was transformed into the man who rose without trace, taking over Hardaker's job in 1978 before becoming the FA's first chief executive in 1989.
He held the job for nine years, a turbulent period during which he assisted with the post-Heysel, post-Bradford, post-Hillsborough rebuilding of English football while dealing with a constant stream of flak from Margaret Thatcher's government. He helped to secure and stage Euro 96 as a part of that process, and gave his organisation's assent to the fateful agreement by which the top groups broke away to form the Premier League.
In the end, of course, a scandal did for him, he and his chairman, Keith Wiseman, resigning in 1998 after being accused of illegally lending £3.2m to the Welsh FA in order to secure a vote for Wiseman in Fifa's vice-presidential elections. They were later cleared of wrongdoing by a Fifa inquiry, but never returned to the top flight of football administration."
May 17, 2010
As you would expect, plenty of column inches on Monday morning have been dedicated to Lord Triesman, his allegations against Russia and Spain and the possible damage to England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
Everyone, of course, is universal in their condemnation. But Patrick Barclay, for one, writes in the Times that it has given ammunition to the wrong people.
No matter how much sympathy you may feel for Lord Triesman and his family, and contempt for the perversion of journalism that led to his downfall, his departure from the 2018 bid team was a matter of course. The issue of whether to relinquish the FA chairmanship was more complicated but, on balance, I did feel that he should lose that, too.
The success of the bid is so important that no chances could have been taken. The English, because they watch football with such enthusiasm and in such numbers, have almost a moral right to a first World Cup since 1966, regardless of the commercial benefits. Triesman’s presence could have been seen as interfering with that dominant objective of the FA’s diplomatic activity between now and December and he had to go.
The trouble with his remarks about the Spanish and the Russians is that they offered the most explosive ammunition to precisely the wrong people. Ángel María Villar Llona, who leads Spain’s section of the joint bid with Portugal, is on the Fifa referees’ committee and might therefore be permitted a little outrage. Likewise the Russians, who were supposed to be up for a bit of referee-sweetening on Spain’s behalf — and they are England’s most dangerous adversaries.
Meanwhile, in the Independent, Sam Wallace, like many others, is bemused why the Mail on Sunday would want to derail England's bid to host the World Cup just 48 hours after the Bid Book was delivered.
As for the 2018 World Cup bid, it is a source of bewilderment to other nations why the English are so determined to destroy their own chances of hosting the tournament. No one expects English newspapers to act as cheerleaders to the bid but, even by our standards, the level of self-destruction is breathtaking. We must be mad.
It also means we will not have to listen to men such as the insufferable Jack Warner, one of the 24-man Fifa executive committee (ExCo) which will make the final decision, lecture the 2018 World Cup bid on morality and ethics. We barely need to go over the story of the 2006 World Cup ticketing scandal in which Warner's son was involved, apart from to say that if Triesman did the same he would have to resign all over again.
Objectively, England is perfectly well-equipped to stage a World Cup. It has the stadiums, the infrastructure, the football heritage and the know-how. Whether Triesman has said something daft does not affect the capacity of St James' Park to host great World Cup matches or the building schedule for Tottenham Hotspur's ambitious new stadium.
The trouble is, winning the right to host a World Cup finals has never been as simple as having enough good stadiums and hotel rooms. It also does not really have anything to do with whether New Labour peers say something daft in private. Winning a World Cup bid has more to do with appeasing the myriad of different self-interest groups on the Fifa ExCo.
The 2018 bid is not dead in the water because of Triesman; no more so than it is destined to be a success because Blatter now has David Beckham on his speed dial. There will be recriminations and sermonising and then the men who run the 2018 bid will quietly go back to the business of finding out what deals can be struck to get England the votes that it needs.
Every scandal requires a sacrifice – it is the way – and there was no more fitting offering to the gods of international football than poor old Triesman. The sorry saga will enter the folklore of the FA to be treated as another one of those colourful episodes in the lives of the ordinary folk who run the English game's 147-year-old governing body.
But it is worse than that. It is, at its very heart, a stitch-up. One which only serves to make the paranoid, secretive world that is English football more paranoid and more secretive, and does no one involved any credit.
May 16, 2010
The story leading the media agenda on Sunday morning is the Mail on Sunday’s sting on FA chairman Lord Triesman.
It is believed the controversy surrounding Triesman’s claims that Spain are attempting to bribe World Cup referees could soon cost him his job, and with England’s 2018 bid at stake, it is a story of some magnitude.
The rest of the nation’s press will surely get their teeth into the story tomorrow but for now we turn to the Mail on Sunday for comment, and Patrick Collins:
“At the close of this extraordinary week, the sporting nation has been foolishly humiliated, England’s World Cup bid hangs in the balance and the chairman of the Football Association is coming under intense pressure to resign. These are the consequences of Lord Triesman’s calamitous indiscretion.
“The details of his conduct - including the bizarre claim that Spain may withdraw its own bid to stage the tournament if Russia helps it to bribe referees in next month’s World Cup - may be found at the front of this newspaper. But his loose-tongued claims are already reverberating around FIFA headquarters in Zurich, where football’s biggest decisions are made.
“Triesman’s survival is of small matter compared with the effect on England’s bid. And until these disclosures, that bid was tinged with well-founded optimism. For the entire nation has placed itself behind the attempt to host the 2018 World Cup, and the importance of the project was demonstrated when, with a Cabinet to construct, disappointed Tory backbenchers to appease and sceptical Liberals to seduce, David Cameron still found the time to call the FIFA president Sepp Blatter.”
“The tragedy is that England have the best bid, for the sport at large and the English game in particular. We should bring it off with style and flair and a love for the game which is unmatched anywhere.
“The World Cup may not be the Olympics but it is still a mighty prize which this country deserves to secure. The chances of success are now remote. The FA are once again plunged into confusion. Triesman’s enemies are rubbing their hands. And English football is paying a terrible price.”
May 15, 2010
As is to be expected, the bulk of the nation's newspapers are focused on the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Portsmouth and the feeling, of course, is that Carlo Ancelotti is almost certain to clinch a domestic double in his first season in England.
Chelsea finished top in the league while Portsmouth finished bottom, while the Blues have a billionaire backer and Pompey are still fighting to find an owner. For Terry Venables, writing in the Sun, that means victory for Pompey would represent the mother of all cup shocks.
If Portsmouth beat Chelsea at Wembley today, it will be the greatest FA Cup final shock EVER.
Greater than Bob Stokoe's Sunderland beating Don Revie's all-conquering Leeds team in 1973. Greater than Second Division Southampton toppling mighty Manchester United in 1976. Greater even than Wimbledon's Crazy Gang slaying league champions Liverpool in 1988.
Without wishing to demean the achievements of those three triumphant underdogs, they only had to overcome problems on the pitch as they made their way to glory.
Whereas Portsmouth, as we all know, have had to also contend with a host of troubles off it following their much-publicised financial meltdown.
The crippling debts, which at the last count were estimated to be more than £135million, have already cost Pompey the services of nearly all of their best players and ultimately their Premier League place.
And they continue to jeopardise the future of a club which has been in administration since February.
With the situation worse than critical and showing few signs of improvement, the fact there is still a Portsmouth FC in existence is remarkable enough. But the fact they have made it to the final of the world's greatest club competition is even more so.
And should they go on to lift the trophy by stunning Chelsea this afternoon then, as Cup final shocks go, it would be off the scale.
Meanwhile, Barney Ronay in the Guardian asks why a Portsmouth win is so appealing to the neutrals.
The FA Cup final is already a fascinating meeting of opposites: Portsmouth, a club who have pretended to be rich, against Chelsea, a club who remain almost unassailably so. Next to today's blue-chip opponents Portsmouth have the look of a society imposter, some small-town insurgent in a borrowed tuxedo, the sole of one shoe flapping, shirt-front triangle flipping up, and an entire invented history very publicly unravelling as he prepares very quietly, to beat your brains in with an oar. Only one thing seems certain: partisans aside, it is surprisingly easy to want them to win it.
Not because Portsmouth are lovable. This is not in any sense a self-propelling crackpot modern fairytale.
Perhaps the only really lovable thing about Portsmouth is Avram Grant, often criticised at Chelsea for his glum, sardonic, mooching demeanour, even at times when his glum, sardonic, mooching demeanour was by far the best thing about Chelsea. In adversity he has developed a lovely, shrugging excitability, a conviction that something or other means something and that's the real, you know, point here.
Plus, of course, Portsmouth's supporters have remained steadfast and unbowed, even the ones who have to stand near that man and his annoying bell. But I wonder if even Portsmouth fans can really love this nonexistent screen-grab of a team. This is the seductive quality of a Portsmouth victory: it would surely be one of the most meaningless triumphs in any cup competition. This is a team of the here and now and nothing else, one that's falling apart before our eyes. Look, there go its legs racing in on goal but not stopping, carrying on over the hoardings and off down Wembley Way.
In a way you can admire the furiously literal-minded shamelessness of Portsmouth, their utter immersion in the crackhead-scale appetites of the Premier League. While also feeling a bit sorry for the FA Cup, with its foot-bath-level reservoir of dwindling magic, still standing by trying to look dignified and vital while an imported drama of opposites takes place on its lawn.
May 14, 2010
Former England skipper David Beckham will present England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup finals to FIFA president Sepp Blatter in Zurich on Friday and he has also been doing his bit to promote the bid in the newspapers.
The 35-year-old, who is ruled out of this summer's tournament in South Africa due to a torn Achilles, is leading a five-strong England delegation and writing in The Times (Well, somebody was writing for him in the Times) explains why he thinks England can win the right to host the Finals.
"As a player, nothing could possibly beat playing in front of your own fans in your own country at the World Cup and I hope our players of the future will be fortunate enough to experience this.
The bid book contains all of the detail of how we would host the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.
It shows how passionate we are as a nation for football, how our society is among the most diverse in the world with communities ready to welcome every team, how we already have fantastic stadiums, training grounds, transport and hotels which will enable us to stage a festival of football, creating the most commercially successful World Cup ever.
All of these on their own are excellent reasons why hopefully we can persuade the 24 voters on the FIFA Executive Committee in December to award England this great prize."
Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail's Des Kelly, England captain Rio Ferdinand claims he has beaten his injury jinx and will be fighting fit for this summer's World Cup in South Africa.
The Manchester United defender has been troubled by a back injuries this season but claims the issue is in the past.
"'Listen, I'm fit,' he says. 'It has never even crossed my mind that injury would put me out of the tournament. My back troubles happened before Christmas, so I knew the time scale.
'There's been a lot of frustration for me at my club and it's been a disappointing season all round. But if there is any silver lining to be found, it's that I'll be fresh and full of energy at the World Cup.'
Would he try to edge himself into the squad, even if he was carrying a back injury? 'No, I'd never put myself in a position where I was wearing an England shirt if I was less than physically ready,' he insists."
May 13, 2010
Of course all the talk in the papers is of how Fulham just lost out in the Europa League final. A hero from one of the clubs could be on his way to Anfield, says Paddy Barclay of The Times. Diego Forlan? Nope... Roy Hodgson.
For all the praise belatedly showered upon him, Roy Hodgson went into the first Europa League final with still a bit to prove - mainly because all his successes had been small wonders. This, despite the cruelty of the outcome, should make the difference.
Voted manager of the year by his peers even before Fulham took their unforgettable Europa League adventure to the 115th minute of a grippingly even final, Hodgson received from his players the most significant of tributes: yet another performance in his own image, one of relentless intelligence, a measure of flair, commitment and utter professionalism, one that had everything they could give him except a happy ending.
His team were certainly a cut above the Middlesbrough side who, under Steve McClaren, lost 4-0 to Seville in 2006. They could not have been more expertly prepared and the sad reflection as, having applauded their conquerors and their support, they left the field was that we had seen the beginning of the end.
Fulham - even Mohamed Al Fayed’s Fulham - are unlikely to emulate the glories of the past two seasons. Having lived with the big time, having beaten clubs more accustomed to the Champions League, they will not want groans of disappointment as an encore. Some players will think about cashing in. And Hodgson, who can expect difficulties in maintaining the ego suppression that has been an open secret of their success, will surely draw offers from other clubs. He did, after all, come to Craven Cottage for the sake of his career and he will leave, should irresistible temptation arise, for the same reason.
And it's THAT time of year; one month before a World Cup, when everything gets a bit silly. John Terry leaves training limping, suddenly he's a doubt for the weekend, no.. for the World Cup.. no, perhaps he'll retire from the game! Brian Viner in The Independent sums it all up quite well.
No sooner had David Cameron got his foot in the door of Number 10, than news broke that something foot-related had also befallen another true blue, John Terry. Indeed for several hours yesterday it seemed that we might have the first metatarsal injury under a coalition government. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, the Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham of modern politics, forced into a marriage of convenience, have been at pains to reassure us that Britain is about to embark on a new era, yet here was early evidence that the more some things change, the more other things stay the same.
A Labour government couldn't protect our boys' metatarsals, and nor, it seemed, could one run by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. When fresh news emerged to suggest that the damage to Terry's foot was not as serious as at first feared, the spin-doctors still finding their way round Number 10 must have heaved sighs of relief. What a terrible start it would have been. Especially with Gordon calling mean-spiritedly over his shoulder that England only win World Cups under Labour.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were excused a month of prayers for the Terry metatarsal, not that anyone outside west London would have prayed all that vigorously. With Ledley King hitting such splendid form, should the ex-captain be Fabio Capello's first choice anyway? A tiny broken bone might have made the manager's job easier; he could have picked King and not looked as if he was still punishing JT for straying from the marital bed.
May 12, 2010
How would you rate your own staff after a performance? Well, the 'Capello Index' looked set to do just that for England until the FA pulled the plug and the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel has his views on the subject. He reckons it is the first embarrassment of Capello’s reign as manager.
How do you intend to inform those players who are not going to the World Cup, Fabio Capello was asked yesterday. Had he replied that the information would be conveyed through the medium of jazz dance, nobody would be in the least surprised. Not now.
We thought we knew him, before this week. We thought he was the voice of reason. Everything was so logical, so unfussy. He dispatched John Terry as captain in 10 minutes and made Rio Ferdinand his successor without so much as a telephone call. He instilled discipline, he set standards, he won football matches. And then came the Capello Index. It lasted less than 24 hours as a going concern, but that was enough.
At Stamford Bridge last weekend, an Italian journalist, on passing a television screen showing the Sony advertisement that features Graham Taylor and Terry Venables as residents of an old people’s home, sneered contemptuously. He did so from a position of moral superiority because his man, the imported saviour of English football, was above the lure of the cheesy commercial cash-in; or so we thought.
Undetected, a crisis has been developing at the Football Association’s Wembley headquarters for several weeks. Capello had cut a deal that compromised his position as England manager, had been advised against it, but was pressing on regardless. It was called the Capello Index and used the logical method of evaluation of one of the greatest coaches in the world to calculate the worth of individual performances and implement a ranking system, with a view to gambling.
FA executives, aware of the impending announcement of this digital time-bomb, had been poring over the manager’s contract in the vain hope of a veto clause. There was none. The FA had been so hot to trot after the failure to qualify for the European Championship under Steve McClaren that they agreed to pay a man £6million a year, and did not bother to include a paragraph in his terms and conditions giving them sanction over any additional commercial arrangements. Unless Capello brought the organisation into dispute he was untouchable, the irony being that, fortunately, what he was proposing was so potentially damaging it came close to falling into that category.
And one of the most interesting stories in a while, as former Arsenal legend Tony Adams finds himself in charge at an Azerbaijani club. Shaun Walker of the Independent has the scoop.
The lanky figure dressed in a grey suit and white shirt is unmistakeably Tony Adams. So it's not all a hoax. From Baku, Azerbaijan's capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea, it takes over three hours of driving, often on bumpy and potholed roads, to get to Gabala, passing impoverished villages where the men sit outside and drink tea and the women sell pickled vegetables at the side of the road. It is not the kind of place you expect to run into an Arsenal and England legend. But at the end of the journey, here he is. Tony Adams, sitting in an orange armchair in the lobby of a hotel, deep inside provincial Azerbaijan.
This obscure outpost is where Adams says he wants to spend the next 10 years of his life, using the vast funds of a mysterious local oligarch to build a team that is capable of challenging for the Champions League. He will be unveiled this morning at a press conference in Baku, and will take charge of FC Gabala from the start of next season. Adams has signed an initial three-year contract at the club, which was founded just five years ago.
May 11, 2010
Since taking over from Steve McClaren in 2007, Fabio Capello has not put a foot wrong in the eyes of the English media. In fact, he has enjoyed perhaps one of the best relationships of any Three Lions manager in history. That was until today.
Matt Lawton at the Mail is one of a host of journalists throwing a barrage aof criticism at Capello, after the England boss revealed that he will be rating his players hours after each World Cup match as part of a charity Fantasy League game.
"Fabio Capello has scored the first own goal of his England tenure after launching a private commercial venture that will rate his players' performances online within two hours of every World Cup match.
The 'Capello Index', launched by the England manager at the London Stock Exchange just 24 hours before he names his provisional 30-man squad for South Africa on Tuesday, will mark players out of 100 based on computer analysis devised by the Italian over the last two years.
Rank stupidity: Fabio Capello launches the controversial Capello Index, which he will measure players performances during the World Cup, at the London Stock Exchange
Rank stupidity: Fabio Capello launches the controversial Capello Index, which he will measure players performances during the World Cup, at the London Stock Exchange
It puts England's players in the extraordinary position of being publicly rated by their manager during the tournament. In fact, every player in the World Cup will know how Capello's index has rated them.
On Monday night, senior FA officials were privately stunned and nervously bracing themselves for the inevitable backlash, not least because the Capello Index company, of which their manager is a partner, is backed by a gaming firm."
And Oliver Kay at the Times also expressed his belief that Capello is risking his reputation and credibility with this latest venture.
"Fabio Capello fought back against accusations of a PR own goal last night after launching an online venture that will rank his England players publicly throughout the World Cup finals.
On the eve of announcing his 30-man preliminary squad for the tournament today — in which he plans to gamble by including Owen Hargreaves, who has played only one minute in 19 months for Manchester United, and leaving out Joe Cole, the Chelsea midfield player — the England manager invited controversy by launching the “Capello Index”. The website will rate player performances throughout the World Cup and in the Premier League next season.
Capello appeared unconcerned by the potential controversy over the venture, in which he is a co-founder and business partner with Chicco Merighi, the founder of Goalventures Ltd, an online gambling company. Even though the Capello Index is simply a performance-analysis resource, the links with a gambling company will not be welcomed by the FA, which is not involved in the venture."
May 10, 2010
You can always count on Patrick Barclay to tell it how it is, and that is no different on Monday morning as he bemoans the end of the Premier League season in a tournament year.
Yes, it's off to the England camp!
He's correct in that it's now the same every year. We could sit here and write about 50 stories, and then simply insert the name where necessary. It's the time where no news is news.
Readers may scoff at us hacks collectively bemoaning the job, but you'll know what we mean in 33 days' time when England (and the USA) have still to play their first game.
Let's see what Patrick says in the Times.
We are about to enter the bulls*** season. This will continue until the end of England’s World Cup campaign, at which point there will be either a deathly silence or an explosion of joy.
Over the next few weeks, squad members will queue to tell us how the spirit in the camp has never been better and to laud Fabio Capello, whose supposed toughness will be seized upon by chroniclers. Just as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s calmness used to be portrayed as the key to heaven, Capello’s iron fist now rules in the national imagination.
I must confess to having accepted the caricature. At various stages of the qualification process, I envisaged the Italian tearing mobile telephones from the ears of players foolish enough to use them on the bus to training, or dragging mealtime absentees from their hotel rooms to be flogged before joining communal and strictly condiment-free repasts at spartan tables.
He goes on...
Although Capello is sometimes compared with Sir Alf Ramsey, and reasonably so, the game has changed since Ramsey, upon being bade farewell by a key player until “next time”, was said to have sharply replied that a “next time” would entail his being selected first.
Capello was firm enough in taking the captaincy from John Terry. But, by and large, the result is everything to him — and commandments there to be broken.
This is not to say that, if I were a player, I’d chance dolloping HP Sauce on my pasta just yet. I just think it would be nice to ban the bulls*** for a while, too.
Patrick also talks about the supposed recall of Jamie Carragher - broken by our very own Harry Harris - and that's something which Sam Wallace takes on in the Independent. Remember, Carra hung up his international boots three years ago.
It is a question that occurred to me this weekend as the predictable accusations were levelled at Jamie Carragher for once admitting his ambivalence towards the England team to which he will now return. How patriotic would the critics like him to be?
Are we talking a Union Jack waistcoat? Or an interest in commemorative Royal Family tableware? Perhaps he could atone by raising a novelty sized St George's Cross in his front garden, just to reassure everyone how much he loves the Three Lions and all that.
Carragher's return to the England World Cup squad which Fabio Capello names tomorrow is a relief. England do not have enough good players to be able to spare the likes of Carragher to early retirement – and there is an argument for saying that, were he available, Paul Scholes might still make the current squad. To reject these players on the charge of insufficient patriotism is frankly ludicrous.
May 9, 2010
While things looked bleak for Carlo Ancelotti following the Champions League exit to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, he is now expected to wrap up the season with a Premier League and FA Cup double.
For Paul Hayward in the Observer, Ancelotti will earn high praise if he can emulate Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.
You reach an age where the manager becomes more interesting than the player. Not in the athletic sense, plainly, because watching Sam Allardyce play a round of pro-celebrity golf could never compare with Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in full flight. It's just that when keeping two of life's plates spinning at once starts to feel unendurably difficult you become more appreciative of people who can twirl 50 at once. A top manager is hard-wired to deal with 20 complications an hour and somehow keep his thoughts trained on the production of a winning side.
In a season that has lacked the individual stardust of the Ronaldo and Thierry Henry years, managers have staged their own alternative theatre, and very good it has been, too. Carlo Ancelotti is no cabaret act ("we have a good opportunity to arrive in the first place" was his way of saying we can win the league), but this Italian rookie to the English game will earn high praise if he emulates José Mourinho today by winning the Premier League title with Chelsea at the first attempt.
The dry and wary Ancelotti shaped his survival plan in his first few days on Roman Abramovich's payroll. His thought bubble must have read: "The rich Russian guy gets what he wants and those five blokes in the corner run the team." Not even Mourinho could summon a league and FA Cup Double in his first 12 months. Keeping Didier Drogba happy, correcting defensive sloppiness, unlocking Florent Malouda's talent and authorising a shade more creativity in midfield have been Ancelotti's other tricks during a campaign in which he has looked half-enthused and half-baffled by his adopted culture.
The top modern manager needs to be a student of power, a Van Helsing to the monster of celebrity, and an economist to work out the hedge-fund terms.
May 8, 2010
Fabio Capello will be the man to lead England to the World Cup this summer but, as he makes his decisions ahead of Tuesday's 30-man squad, some believe he should never have been appointed.
His record so far is as close to impeccable as could be hoped but, with several English managers proving their worth this season, Scottish journalist Patrick Barclay in the Times believes the FA has paid a big price for ignoring home-grown managers.
It is the new football accessory: exotic, must-have. Yes, gift-wrap one, please, and have delivered to my club an English manager.
Harry Redknapp is English. You could tell from the way his players gleefully drenched him after Tottenham Hotspur had earned an opportunity to qualify for the Champions League; they might have thought twice about doing so to Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson or José Mourinho.
Roy Hodgson, who takes Fulham to the Europa League final in Hamburg on Wednesday, is English, even though his reputation was made in Sweden, Switzerland and Italy. And don’t be fooled by “Schteve” McClaren’s accent; the coach of Twente, the new Dutch champions, is English, too.
So be additionally cheerful as the nation contemplates a World Cup that is, with a coincidence of favours, winnable. True, some of us would be a lot happier if Fabio Capello, the England manager, were not a foreign mercenary, but let’s not spoil the moment yet.
Let’s celebrate the achievements of Redknapp, Hodgson and McClaren. And Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce for lifting Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland in the Barclays Premier League. Considering that the league is ending its season with only five English managers, they have not done badly.
I have always felt that the FA’s recourse to first Sven-Göran Eriksson and now Capello, with his vast entourage, rather insulted the best traditions of English coaching, a fraternity that became admirably open-minded and outward-looking, especially after the visit of the great Hungarians to Wembley in 1953.
The itinerant Hodgson and, to an extent, McClaren are throwbacks to it and, while you might not think Redknapp too much of an internationalist, bear in mind that at West Ham United he came under the influence of Ron Greenwood. Redknapp is no philistine. Far from it; give him Luka Modric and he knows what to do.
So why, we keep being asked, do these people not get top jobs in their own country? The premise is, perhaps, obsolescent, now that Redknapp is on the verge of making Tottenham a top job, and Hodgson can expect interest from Liverpool, particularly if Fulham succeed where the Anfield club failed in overcoming Atlético Madrid.
But since Howard Wilkinson took Leeds United into the first Champions League in 1992-93, only two Englishmen — Sir Bobby Robson, of Newcastle United, and Ray Harford, of Blackburn Rovers — has been entrusted with an English club in the competition. No wonder the excitement at the prospect of Redknapp changing that extends beyond White Hart Lane. It is a breath of fresh air.
The FA hired Eriksson with a promise that he would help to groom an English successor and, when the Swede was duly replaced by McClaren, lost patience long before the brolly came out. Any damage done to the English coaching infrastructure when the FA then splashed out on Capello is impossible to calculate.
Nor will anyone care, if England win the World Cup. But ten years ago, before Eriksson was installed, Hodgson was the man for the job — and cheap, because English managers tend not to drive too hard a bargain when the nation beckons. The FA knew better and has since spent enough money on foreigners’ wages to have built the much-discussed National Football Centre twice over.
The English manager was always there. He just needed people who could see.
Meanwhile, in the Sun, former England boss Terry Venables says Emile Heskey is key for Capello.
Heskey is a unique case and a novelty. He is probably the only England player in contention for a World Cup place despite his club form, not because of it.
His previous displays under Capello are the reason he is in with a shout of making history in the southern hemisphere this summer. His inferior displays for Villa this term are almost irrelevant.
Heskey is also the only striking candidate who won't be judged on goals - and rightly so. He showed in playing a key part in England's qualification that there is so much more to his game than hitting the target.
He may not have grabbed the headlines or the glory but his ability to knit Capello's attacking unit together and bring others into play was a key factor in our success.
Sometimes you need a frontman to hold up the ball and bring others into play and that is what Heskey can do so effectively. Rooney, in particular, has often flourished playing alongside the big man.
Heskey's inclusion would give Capello another option, while restoring our height in both boxes should Crouch get injured. I accept that, if selected, Heskey might not win the Golden Boot in South Africa - but he could help Rooney earn it.
May 7, 2010
With a terrible season behind them, Liverpool FC, their fans and their manager are going to need to do some soul searching over the summer. The media have already begun the post mortem in earnest and speculation is still rife that Rafa Benitez will be off to pastures new, namely Italian giants Juventus.
After "guaranteeing" fourth place earlier this season, a final position of 7th now appears to beckon for Benitez, and much of the blame for the Anfield club's demise has been placed squarely at the Spaniard's door.
But while many have blamed his tactics, team selection and inactivity in the transfer market, Harry Pearson at the Guardian reckons Rafa's problem is that the English public are far from enamoured with the goatee he sports on his chops.
"It is a well-known fact that most relationships which end in acrimony do so not because of a single major incident, but as a consequence of the cumulative, maddening effect of a small aspect of one party's personal appearance or habits. A single nasal hair that goes perpetually unclipped; leaving blue naval fluff on the side of the bath; saying "John White of Spurs' Double-winning side was killed by lightning, you know" whenever there is a distant roll of thunder. That kind of stuff.
As in life, so in sport. It is not the big events – the lies, the deceit, the wild and profligate spending on Argentinian left-backs – which send lifelong supporters to the phonebook to look up the number of a lawyer so they can discuss who gets custody of Peter Crouch, but the irksome, maddening little details.
Ultimately it wasn't Steve McClaren's record as England boss that drove fans up the wall. Sir Bobby Robson's early years in charge of the national team were no more successful than the Wally with the Brolly's were, yet failure to make the European Championship finals in 1984 did not cost Sir Bobby his job. No, it was not results that led to the irretrievable breakdown of our relationship with the Yorkshireman – it was his toothy grin, coach driver quiff and that bloody, damned umbrella. God, even now I feel like breaking it over his head.
Likewise, while there may appear to be many important reasons why Liverpool have fallen out of love with Rafael Benítez (the 11 defeats so far this season, the failure to secure a Champions League place, the potential loss of Fernando Torres), I can't help thinking that his ridiculous goatee beard is very much the "you never once rang out the dishcloth properly" of this apparently soured romance."
Elsewhere, and a manager of contrasting fortunes has emerged in Tottenham gaffer Harry Redknapp. The Englishman demonstrated the magic touch at Portsmouth - guiding them to FA Cup success in 2008, and now 'Arry has masterminded Spurs' ascent into the top four and next season's Champions League qualifiers. Oliver Kay at the Times is full of praise for the man with the midas touch, whose trick has been to toughen Spurs up.
"It was January 2009 and Harry Redknapp, sitting behind his desk at the training ground, was looking weary. He had been in his new job less than three months, but already, he said, he was fed up at having discovered, like so many of his predecessors, that Tottenham Hotspur were a soft touch.
“It is a problem,” he said, leaning over his desk. “We need to realise that it’s all about winning. It’s not about being able to play when things are going well. It’s about digging in when things are a bit tougher. They’re not a bad bunch of boys. I just feel that it’s a club that, if you like, needs toughening up somewhere.”
Fast-forward 15 months and there was Redknapp in the bowels of the City of Manchester Stadium on Wednesday night, expressing his pride in that same bunch of softies. “Triffic group of lads,” he said repeatedly, marvelling at their achievement — their achievement, he was eager to stress, not his — in going from a team scrapping meekly against relegation to one who have secured at least fourth place in the Barclays Premier League and are looking forward to a tilt at the Champions League.
So how did it happen? The easy answer is to point to Redknapp’s manoeuvrings in the transfer market. He has indeed lived up to the characterisation of a wheeler-dealer during his time at White Hart Lane — selling Younès Kaboul to Portsmouth and buying him back, buying Pascal Chimbonda and selling him on, buying Robbie Keane and loaning him to Celtic — and, given that five of his additions to an underachieving squad have been bought for sums between £8 million and £15 million, a sharp upturn in form was to be expected."
May 6, 2010
Much of the talk on Thursday morning surrounds the inquest into Manchester City's implosion at home to Tottenham Hotspur, which guaranteed Harry Redknapp's side a place in the Champions League qualifiers - at least - next season.
Oliver Kay in the Times is quick to praise the efforts of Harry Redknapp who, in little more than 18 months, has turned Spurs from relegation certainties to the verge of a place in the group stages of the Champions League.
The league table never lies. Even in this most topsy-turvy Premier League season, it has remained true to reality, which is why Tottenham Hotspur deserve their long-awaited crack at the Champions League, leaving Manchester City to reflect that there are some things that money cannot buy — at least not yet.
It came down to a scrambled goal from Peter Crouch with eight minutes remaining to propel Tottenham into the fourth place and the Champions League play-off round — not to be confused with automatic passage to the tournament itself, as Everton will testify — but even had they not claimed the win their efforts merited on a tense evening in Manchester, they would have been confident of finishing the job away to Burnley on Sunday.
As it is, securing their highest Premier League finish must go down as a remarkable achievement for Tottenham, even in a season in which Liverpool’s regression has effectively reduced the “big four” to a gang of three.
When Harry Redknapp took charge of Tottenham in October 2008, they were bottom of the Premier League with two points from eight games. Barely 18 months later, they are looking forward to dining at the top table in Europe.
Football is about players, not managers, but, as the Tottenham team celebrated in front of their supporters at the final whistle and their City counterparts sank to their knees in anguish, the eye was immediately drawn to the technical area in front of the benches.
Mancini stood frozen in disbelief before attempting to console his players, while Redknapp sneaked off to the dressing-room, leaving his players to bask in the glory that fourth place in the Premier League has come to represent.
An English manager in the Champions League. Who would have thought it?
Meanwhile, over at the Independent, Ian Herbert looks at the pain which Manchester City fans have to endure.
The most fitting part of it all was the match programme cover, adorned with the names of a sample of the club's 9,000 season card holders. These are the ones who have travelled the full, unexpurgated journey with Manchester City and who are so inured to the pain that accompanies every significant football occasion that you couldn't tell one of them before kick off last night that everything was going to be all right.
"That's what all the non City fans say," said one of the few City senior executives who has lived through relegation at Luton in 1983 and the Paul Dickov moment against Gillingham at Wembley in 1999, when offered some pre-match reassurance. You can spend £200m and talk about a "winning mentality" all night but you won't purge this pessimism from a City fan. They know there is a comedy moment or defensive mishap around every corner, waiting to happen on a night like this. One of the more bizarre items in the programme quoted Stephen Ireland denying rumours he was intending to build a shark tank at his house: that's the kind of surreal place the club can be at times.That link to the past is inexorable.
May 5, 2010
As Tottenham head to Manchester City, both clubs are under great pressure to secure a place in the Champions League for the first time. For Spurs, it is likely to represent their best chance for years. For City, the axe is likely to swing if the expensively assembled side cannot fulfil their brief.
For Kevin McCarra in the Guardian, Harry Redknapp will have to use every scrap of his 27 years' know-how if Spurs are to finish in fourth and have a shot at the European Cup.
In a sport crammed with angst and ambition, Tottenham Hotspur have shown a peculiar sense of their place in the grand scheme of the Premier League. Apart from the eruption in 2005-06 and the following season, when they finished fifth, the club have come no higher than eighth and no lower than 15th. All that could be about to change tomorrow night.
Should Harry Redknapp's side win at Manchester City they will finish at least fourth and so clinch a berth in the Champions League qualifiers. The team have shed much of their self-effacing character, with Arsenal and Chelsea both beaten at White Hart Lane in April. Tottenham had not been victorious in the north London derby in the league since 1999.
The outlook has been brightening since he took over from the sacked Juande Ramos in the autumn of 2008, when Tottenham had lost six of their eight league games and drawn the other two. Redknapp then led them to a place of safety with little fuss. Although his reputation as a trader in footballers is well-preserved, his main achievement has been to get more out of the men he inherited.
Tottenham are engaged in nothing less than a bid to achieve a status they have not enjoyed in modern times. Redknapp will have to call upon every scrap of know-how he has collected over 27 years in management.
In the Times, meanwhile, James Ducker has provided a Q&A on the issues surrounding the big game.
What would qualification for the Champions League mean for City?
If City win and go on to claim fourth then it will spark some incredible activity in the transfer market this summer. With that in mind, I find it hard to believe that they are going to surrender a place in that top four. The players know that once the club is in the top four it could be in there for a long time. Victory tomorrow would kickstart a new phase in City's history.
How will Tottenham view this match?
Tottenham may sense that this is a golden opportunity. They may think that this is the weakest City are going to be for the next five or ten years, so they will know they need to seize their chance.
It is important to bear in mind that Tottenham only need a draw, because they probably have the most nailed on three points against Burnley at the weekend. They have also got a very healthy record against City and in recent weeks they have shown they are a team for the big occasion.
Which of the two managers needs Champions League football more?
Roberto Mancini's future remains unclear. He has done an extremely good job, although there are some suggestions that some of the camp remain unhappy with his training methods. Having said that if he gets them to fourth then you would think he would be kept on. If City finish fifth his future will come under scrutiny.
City have chopped and changed managers for so long that someone needs to be given a period of time to achieve something. If their long-term dream target, Jose Mourinho, were to become available in the summer then they would pull out all the stops to sign him, but that is a big if.
Mancini was set a 70-point target, which has been good enough for fourth place in 11 of the past 17 Premier League seasons. If he achieves that then he deserves the chance to take City on.
But wouldn't it be fascinating to see Harry Redknapp test himself in the Champions League? He is a man who has performed wonders throughout much of his managerial career and I don't think anyone would begrudge him the chance to test himself on the biggest stage in club football.
May 4, 2010
The Premier League is to be decided by the lowest points total since 2003, and English sides - Fulham apart - have endured a difficult season in Europe.
But Kevin McCarra in the Guardian argues that, although it could be a while before the next great side emerges in England, that may be no bad thing.
If Chelsea beat Wigan Athletic on Sunday they will reclaim the Premier League title and no Stamford Bridge fan would care a jot that they would have done so with 86 points, the lowest total for any champions since 2003. The statistic, indeed, is highly encouraging for the sport at large in its hint that the top flight is on the verge of change.
As economics shift, so too does the hierarchy of the game. It has already been a while since brute wealth reduced opponents to a state of helplessness before the game even started. Should Carlo Ancelotti prevail in this campaign it will be because he has influenced the Chelsea squad rather than rebuilt it.
In the weekend's 2-0 victory at Anfield, there was not a single member of the starting line-up who had been bought by him. Management in many places has reverted to the traditional virtues of making the most of what you already have. There will always be acquisitions, but Manchester United are sustaining their challenge to Chelsea while counting on people who were once Alex Ferguson's fledglings.
Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs all took part in FA Youth Cup finals in the early 1990s, but the manager is asking them now to strive for a major prize even as the plumage of those former fledglings grows sparser still. Not even Ferguson can intimidate time, however, and the passing of the years will harm the club if there are no means to buy elite footballers.
Upheaval is registering elsewhere, too. Liverpool, at best, will come sixth this season and an unbroken run of Champions League appearances that started in 2004 has now snapped. Anfield fans, however, have a deeper disquiet than that. There are no signs of a takeover being completed, but without it a mid-table position could start to look natural at a club where squad strength is waning fast.
We are already seeing fresh contenders emerge. At Eastlands tomorrow Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur will each be vying for a spot in the Champions League, a tournament that has not featured either team since the 60s, when it was still known as the European Cup. Money has much to do with the upsurge of City in particular and a step into the grandest competition would surely bring another surge of cash from Sheikh Mansour.
That, however, is an anomaly. Extravagance is less common in a period when club proprietors often concentrate on holding on to their wealth. There have been doubts as to whether Martin O'Neill will stay at Aston Villa and the sort of gossip there concerns the prospects of retaining Ashley Young or James Milner, rather than of Randy Lerner producing the funds for an upgrade in the squad.
We are entering the sort of landscape that should look full of beauty and promise for Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal manager, with good cause, makes his charges of "financial doping" against rivals, but there are no longer so many clubs who would test positive for unacceptable levels of affluence.
Wenger's frugality assists in paying off the £390m cost of building the Emirates Stadium and he has indicated that Arsenal's cash flow can now begin to pour more freely into his budget. Judging by the type of speculation that presently links him to a £22m bid for the Ajax forward Luis Suárez, the manager may yet see the day when a ground with a 60,000 capacity in a relatively rich city puts him in a stronger financial position than almost all of his Premier League counterparts.
Even as matters stand, there ought to be pressure on Wenger to compete more vigorously. No spree is anticipated at United and Roman Abramovich does not look inclined to cut loose at Chelsea. Any opportunity for Arsenal, of course, will remove Wenger from a comfort zone in which he is complimented on the style of his side and excused for the lack of honours since the 2005 FA Cup.
The league title had gone to Highbury the year before, but Abramovich was just getting into his stride at Stamford Bridge and José Mourinho took the reins in that summer of 2004. We are in a very different period now and the comparative austerity is to be measured in the elimination of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool before the Champions League semi-finals this season.
It could be a while before we see the next exceptional side emerge, but there are compensations. Although the Premier League may not hit the heights, interest will soar if the dull old certainties have vanished.
May 3, 2010
So it looks like Chelsea are closing in on the title with one game left and Daniel Taylor in the Guardian has an explanation why. Well, despite the failure of Man Utd striker Dimitar Berbatov, the reasons go deeper than one scapegoat.
In the circumstances, it was a Manchester United performance of class and achievement. Sir Alex Ferguson's players were quick to the ball, their passing was crisp and it was not until the final whistle that their body language betrayed them.
For a few seconds they just stood around, unsure perhaps how to react or whether it was appropriate to look pleased with themselves. Slowly, they started to move among one another, shaking hands, nodding in appreciation of each other's work but very little was said and it was all tinged with unmistakeable sadness.
They had just become only the third Premier League side to beat Sunderland on their own ground this season but the celebrations were restrained to say the least. No bearhugs, no piggy-backs, no let's-all-have-a-disco. Nobody even punched the air. Footballers usually like to get a bit silly when they have won away from home. But here was Rio Ferdinand with his hands on his hips. Paul Scholes looked like he had just lost the biggest match of his life. Dimitar Berbatov, on an afternoon of personal humiliation, headed straight down the tunnel. The others followed slowly; a brief clap to the away fans from just outside the centre circle but noticeably no closer and then they were gone...
And so, barring one last feat of escapology that would exceed anything David Blaine has done, the championship trophy will be leaving Old Trafford after three years. United have lost seven times in the league and there is a blame culture in football that means individuals will always be identified for special criticism. In this case, Berbatov, inset, has become the popular scapegoat and it is undeniable that he has endured a difficult year, particularly towards the business end of the season, but the reasons are more diverse than just one player's erratic form.
United can cite a luckless run of injuries (17 players have missed a month or more), the regression of players such as Michael Carrick and Ferdinand and the way the team have missed Cristiano Ronaldo and, to a lesser extent, Carlos Tevez – two players who have scored over 50 goals between them this season for Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively.
Selling Ronaldo was always going to hurt the team, not just because of his goals but also because of the sapping effect his presence can have on opponents. That wow factor has gone this season, even if Nani and Antonio Valencia have been two of the better performers. Berbatov, the club's most expensive player, has flickered only sporadically and, on a personal level, this game was another ordeal.
Away from the Premier League, Paddy Barclay's column in the Times deals with the issue of Trinidad & Tobago, who have been forgotten since their participation in the last World Cup.
The next stage of England’s campaign to host the 2018 World Cup, due shortly, is the presentation of the bid book. It would dignify the whole process if Jack Warner, one of the most influential Fifa bigwigs involved, were to open his own books. The legal process patiently awaits sight of them — as do 13 Trinidad & Tobago footballers yet to be paid sums negotiated nearly five years ago for their part in the last World Cup.
You may vaguely remember the joyous scenes that accompanied Trinidad & Tobago’s qualification, and more sharply recall the obduracy of their resistance before Peter Crouch, having subtly tugged Brent Sancho’s dreadlocks, headed England into a late lead in Nuremberg.
The beaten goalkeeper was Shaka Hislop. He still awaits his money, conservatively estimated at £80,000 a man. Likewise Kenwyne Jones, who had come on as a debutant substitute, unaware that fate was to have him rubbing shoulders with Crouch and company in the Barclays Premier League.
Jones earns about £2.5 million a year from Sunderland, so his need for the £80,000 (or even double) being withheld by Warner is less than pressing. But several of the 13 are out of work, the latest being Kelvin Jack, whose short-term contract as a reserve goalkeeper with Southend United expired on Saturday. Jack, who was 34 last week, once earned £80,000 a year with Gillingham, before suffering a broken leg on loan at Barnsley. Those halcyon days may never return and he has a family to feed, clothe and educate.
May 2, 2010
All eyes are on Anfield this Sunday, with Liverpool's ability to beat Chelsea likely to decide the destination of the title.
Should Liverpool fail to win, their very distant hopes of making fourth place will end once and for all. Should Chelsea win, they look certain to regain the title.
For Hugh McIlvanney, writing in the Sunday Times, the absence of Fernando Torres is likely to lead to title glory for the Blues. He feels that even that victory, though, may not quite be enough to erase the memory of this season's European disappointment.
The key to what happens on Merseyside then could well be the fact that Fernando Torres won’t be involved. Torres, who was recovering from knee surgery in Barcelona while Liverpool were sliding lifelessly to a 1-0 Europa League defeat by Atletico in Madrid on Thursday night, has inflicted five goals on Chelsea since coming to this country at the beginning of the 2007-08 season and he has a better Premier League strike rate against them than against any of the clubs closest to Chelsea in the table: United, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City. In the 2009 equivalent of Sunday’s fixture he struck twice to give Liverpool a 2-0 victory.
But there is much more than statistical evidence to emphasise how important the absence of Torres will be for Chelsea on May 2. Even amid the impression of stupefying drabness frequently created by Liverpool performances this season, his mere presence on the field, the menace of his pace and movement and finishing prowess, has stirred the kind of alarm among opponents to which lesser players have been able to subject Chelsea of late. Just not having the dread of seeing his defenders, and particularly the labouring, seriously diminished John Terry, exposed to the threat of the 26-year-old Spaniard is perhaps the best boost to Carlo Ancelotti’s confidence as he attempts to close in on the title.
Of course, Stoke’s stubborn pragmatism has yet to be overcome this afternoon and Wigan will refuse to think of themselves as punchbags. But knowing the Anfield match is more eminently winnable than it would have been with Torres in action clearly underpins the bookmakers’ belief that Chelsea will be at least a point ahead at the end of the struggle, whatever United can do against Sunderland in the northeast and Stoke at Old Trafford.
Given those persuasive indications that Stamford Bridge is about to be a scene of wild celebration, it may seem churlish to suggest that no amount of justified partying will dispel the small, accusing cloud of underachievement hanging over the place. What slightly pollutes the impending pleasure is, obviously, the European experience. English football should be mortified to find all of its Champions League contenders excluded from this season’s semi-finals, and the blushes should have been deepened by the lamentable deficiencies betrayed by Lyons against Bayern Munich in midweek.
But for Chelsea, whose expensively assembled squad have at their best performed with an authority signifying the capacity for continental supremacy, bitter failures stretch back across seven or eight years. So if congratulations are due, they should be accompanied by an exhortation.
May 1, 2010
Seventh in the table with two games to play and now without any hope of silverware, nobody at Liverpool could possibly have expected such disappointment this season.
It's expected that Juventus will approach Rafael Benitez as they look to recover from their own dismal campaign and, for Mark Lawrenson in the Daily Mirror, Kenny Dalglish is the man to lead the Reds back to success.
Liverpool’s season has been a disaster and I fear the consequences will mean years outside the elite of the European and English games.
They are now just an ordinary team with a few extra-special players.
And without Champions League football to offer their biggest stars – Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard – or the prospect of investment to revive the challenge next season, vultures will soon be picking over the carcass of a desperately poor campaign.
Worse still, a Liverpool win against Chelsea this weekend could help Manchester United win their 19th title and overtake the Scousers’ record haul of championships.
I am sure they’ll be going all out for a win, but it would be no surprise if Liverpool looked demoralised after their Europa League semi-final defeat. However, there are bigger issues to worry about right now than losing records to United.
They are not going to finish fourth. Look ahead to this time next year and there is no guarantee Liverpool will be in the top four then either.
So how do Liverpool get back into it? That is why they are at such a crossroads. With no Champions League football what does Gerrard do? What does Torres do? They now have an excuse to leave.
Stevie G does not need an excuse. He has been Mr Liverpool for years and has been fantastic. In recent games you look at him and he is looking around shaking his head thinking: “What are we doing?”
Torres? People say he is loyal, but I have heard City will go seriously for both of them. So what happens next?
Rafa Benitez will go. He has his exit strategy ready. If Juventus want him Benitez should cut a deal with Liverpool.
It is down to the negotiations between Liverpool and Benitez. From what I believe Benitez’s contract is watertight in terms of the payment he would get if he was sacked.
They have to say it is not working. I have quite liked Benitez, but that is now six years and you have to ask whether they are any better off now than when he took over. No. Nowhere near.
Liverpool are fortunate Kenny Dalglish is around. He could take the reins for a few months and into next season.
The irony is that Roy Hodgson would be the perfect fit for Liverpool. He would make the team difficult to beat but he also understands the other end of the operation that wins you games. With Benitez the glass was half-empty but with Hodgson it is half-full.
How would you go to Fulham and get Hodgson on those terms? That is where King Kenny comes in.
He would be a galvanising figure who has been there and done it. I would be surprised if he said no.
Patrick Barclay in the Times, meanwhile, believes significant sales are the only option if the takeover does not take place sooner rather than later.
The question is not of how much longer Benítez should stay at Anfield but who should replace him after the parting is negotiated — a process that, if the parties do get round to it, is likely to be difficult, given the difference between what is left on the manager’s contract and the amount the club have to spare.
The air of unreality was enhanced by Benítez’s remarks after the Europa League exit. He declared: “Two or three players have said we need three, four or five more players to progress and I agree with them.” In their dreams! Liverpool and their owners are in debt.
They can sign a group of new players only by taking their text from the Portsmouth manual of financial management and if Benítez is suggesting that, the sooner he goes the better. A break from Anfield’s daily charade is the least he deserves. Football people understand that Liverpool are prisoners of their proud past as well as the chaotic present and Benítez will have no trouble finding his next post. Juventus are pressing him for a decision and even Real Madrid are interested.
If only Liverpool’s future were as simple. The club need new ownership. If that cannot be arranged — and at present it looks about as likely as the much-promised new stadium — they need greatly scaled-down expectations. When Benítez goes, he should be swiftly followed by Torres, Gerrard while he can still command a large fee, Javier Mascherano and the rest.
Then the new manager will have some money to work with. As David Moyes has shown with Everton, and Roy Hodgson most startlingly with Fulham, it need not be a king’s ransom. Neither, of course, has been quite so cursed as Benítez by those expectations. But Liverpool do have one thing: potential. It should sustain them through the long haul.