Thursday, 22 March 2012

Title race is going down to the wire

In 1996, Newcastle United lost their bottle in the race for the title, which conveniently coincided with manager at the time, Kevin Keegan's infamous rant over Sir Alex Ferguson's mind games.

After Manchester City fought back against Chelsea on Wednesday evening there seemed to be no repeat of this happening at the expense of Ferguson's latest title rivals.

Chelsea offered little in attack and without their leader, John Terry took a somewhat undeserved lead at the Etihad Stadium which must have brought a wry smile to faces of United fans. All credit to Roberto Mancini and his men, they overcame this test of defiance, first with Sergio Aguero converting from a debatable penalty decision before Nasri finished delicately past Petr Cech, who was demanding in the Chelsea goal, after Carlos Tevez slid in a delightfully weighted pass into his path.

The rebellious Tevez was recalled to the squad for the first time since September, after allegedly refusing to warm up against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. After countless arguements back and forth and fine after fine being thrown at Tevez he apologised 'unreservedly' in February which prompted Mancini to re-evaluate the players position at the club, a position in which the Italian had originally stated that Tevez 'would never play for this club again'.

But with 25 minutes to go Tevez was plucked from the depths of permanent exile as Mancini surely came to the conclusion that including Tevez in the run in would clearly benefit both parties. Manchester City would recieve a vital catalyst in their pursuit for a first league title since 1976 and Tevez would have an opportunity to impress any potential buyers in the summer.

This victory leaves City trailing United by one point. Both halves of Manchester will feel that they now have their own destiny in their hands.

United are renowned for finishing the season strongly, something that Ferguson never fails to remind the team whom may ever occupy his focus at this stage in the season. The Red Devils remain favourites for the title, which will be the club's 20th and remarkabely Fergusons 13th in his twenty five years in charge at Old Trafford.

United have almost been a constant in the title hunt in the closing months in the history of the Premier League and only a fool would bet against them denying their fierce rivals that piece of glory that has long been in their grasp this season. Ferguson and his side know that by avoiding any slip ups in the last nine games, including a mouth watering tie across the City at the Etihad on April 30th, then they will surely claim their 20th league championship.

City on the other hand will look to last nights fight back and gain confidence that they in fact can match United stride for stride in the race for the title, and like United, will look to that home tie against the Reds as a potential title decider. City know if they can ride on United's coat-tails until that tie then a victory would surely hand them the title with only two games remaining.

It is written in the script that which ever way the title goes this season, then it will be decided on that fateful night at the Etihad stadium. One thing for sure, is that this season the race for first is going to go right down to the wire.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Can Kean perform this season's Houdini act?

Steve Kean has had to endure in little over a year what some managers have never experienced in their career at Blackburn Rovers since he took over from the sacked Sam Allardyce in December 2010.

Protests by the majority of Rovers fans was the norm in the early part of this season. 'Get Kean out' was the message being aimed towards owners, the Venkys family.

In return the owners never once came out in defence of their manager, instead leaving Kean to face an horrendous amount of abuse aimed towards himself and his players from the terraces, while the protests got nastier and more personal with every week.

Yet, with ten games to go Steve Kean has taken Blackburn Rovers out of the relegation zone, three points ahead of the drop zone, and could be on the verge of one the success stories of the season. It is blatantly obvious that his squad believes in him and the players are doing their utmost to restore the belief that the Scot has paid in them.

It is no secret that Rovers may in fact prefer playing away from home and away from the hostile atmosphere at times at Ewood Park, especially in the early part of the season. Steve Kean and his men have picked up twelve points on the road this season, three of those coming from Old Trafford after defeating Manchester United 2-3, one of the high points of Steve Kean's brief managerial reign. That is only one point less than at home, this is surely no coincidence.

But with the season drawing to a close Kean may well need to transfer that away form to Ewood Park, with some tough fixtures mixed into some very winnable ties. Kean and his team would have pin pointed games against Norwich and Wigan as must win games, while managing to get anything out of the home ties with Manchester United and Liverpool would be a very welcome bonus for the Blackburn Rovers boss.

If Kean does manage to pull of his own Houdini act it would be a remarkbable turn around for a manager and a club that looked to be sliding into Premier League oblivion in November, and should he indeed be successful in maintaining Rovers' top flight status then the criticism and doubt in the Scot should be put to bed, allowing Kean to get on with the job in hand.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Praying for Fabrice Muamba

The unexpected and sudden collapse due to cardiac arrest of Fabrice Muamba at White Hart Lane on Saturday has united the footballing world in prayer for the 23 year olds recovery.

Sympathy and well wishes have poured in from around the world for The Bolton Wanderers midfielder, from fans of the club in the greater Manchester area to Spain where Real Madrid players wore t-shirts with a 'get well soon Muamba' message on the front before their game against Malaga on Sunday.

It is a deeply saddening moment for the footballing world, and one that has united everyone in their wishes to see the England under 21 international make a full recovery following his cardiac arrest on Saturday.

It is at times like these where life is put into persepective.

Yes, it is very fortunate for footballers nowadays to drive expensive cars and own luxurious houses. It is every young boys dream to be able to play football for a living, but moments like this hurl the above luxuries into the shadows as the importance of health and life are elevated to the forefront of every ones minds.

We all wish Fabrice a full recovery, and all our thoughts and prayers are with the players family and friends at this tough time.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Like a Swan to Water

Brendan Rogers is due to sign a 3 year contract extension in the coming months as manager of Swansea City Football Club. When the Irishman signs on the dotted line it will surely be recognised as a remarkable piece of business and significantly, the best signing under the guidance of chairman Huw Jenkins.

Since taking charge of the club in July 2010 Rogers has guided the Welsh club to promotion from the Championship and has consolidated, although somewhat provisionally, their position in the Premier League as this years surprise package. The Swans are ten points away from the magic 40 points mark which many promoted clubs outline as the point of safety from a costly relegation from the top tier of English football.

However, it is not only the results that have got pundits purring with delight over the Swans adaption to the Premier League. It is the footballing prowess that has accompanied these results that have the admirers queueing up to heap praise on Brendan Rogers' team.

Arsenal, a team many regard as an outstanding footballing side arrived at The Liberty Stadium in South Wales in January and were a goal up inside five minutes yet Swansea maintained their patient passing game and eventually won that game 3-2 causing many pundits to propel Swansea into the same category as arguably the best side in the world today, Barcelona. Obviously this is highly premature and ludicrously giddy from the media and pundits alike, but the philosophy that Rogers has created at Swansea City seems to be directly from La Masia, the famous Barcelona academy.

Swansea recently recorded only their second away win of the season at West Bromwich Albion but it is their remarkable home form that has seen them claim 21 points from a possible 36, including that victory over Arsenal, draws with Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea and just the one loss, a 0-1 scoreline against the reigning champions Manchester United.

The news that Swansea City have retained the services of Brendan Rogers will be warmly welcomed by the 'Jack Army' and can only result in a bright future for the side from South Wales.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Championship Refreshment

When Cardiff City host Crystal Palace in the semi final second leg of the League Cup, the winner will cement their place in the final against Premier League opposition, Manchester City or Liverpool.

Sunday 26th February will be the first occasion since Birmingham City in 2001 where a second tier side has reached the final. The League Cup has often been overlooked by managers in order to provide the future of football with vital first team experience. However, there are two managers that will not be losing any sleep over this.

Malky Mackay has begun life as Cardiff City manager effortlessly with The Bluebirds sitting comfortabley in 3rd place in the Championship, just two points adrift of the summit. His summer signings have blended in wonderfully with the core of a side that lost to Reading in last years play-off semi final. It has not been easy for Cardiff fans seeing arch rivals Swansea City achieve promotion ahead of them, but Mackay and the rest of Cardiff will be looking to fulfil what has been within their grasp in the last few seasons.

Similarly, Dougie FreeDman has enjoyed a bright start to his managerial career at Selhurst Park. Freedman has been in charge exactly a year and The Eagles will be looking to break into the play-off places themselves come May. Arguably his finest moment as manager of Crystal Palace came in the League Cup where he took his side to Old Trafford and defeated the four times holders of the competition.

If ever there was an example of how this old trophy can be taken for granted it was at Old Trafford that night. Sir Alex Ferguson fielded an alarmingly weakened team and Palace took full advantage, defeating the home side after extra time. Ferguson will argue that the competition has provided many United greats with the platform to progress their career, and he would be right. This is not an attack on a managers priority to field whatever team he feels necessary but a reminder of what magic can lie in wait for a team that grasps the opportunity with both hands.

For the second year running a team representing the Championship could see European football arrive on their doorstep, if that team fails to secure promotion to the Premier League I might add.

Domestic cup competitions are, understandably, dominated by the Premier league so when the underdog prevails it is a much welcomed scenario.

Cardiff of course, have already had their Wembley moment when they made the FA Cup final in 2008, ultimately losing to Portsmouth. That wet their appetite and they will be looking to make it to Wembley once again.

Standing in their way is Crystal Palace. The Eagles will be looking to reach their first cup final since 1990 and establish their progress under Dougie Freedman in the process.

Whoever advances when the two teams lock horns once again at the Cardiff City Stadium in two weeks, it is going to be a refreshing change to see a Championship side proving their worth in the final on February 26th.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Are the wheels falling off for United?

Sir Alex Ferguson would have been sitting in Alan Pardew's office, one of them enjoying and one of them drowning their sorrows with an expensive bottle of red wine after Newcastle inflicted Manchester United's third defeat of the season, and second in consecutive games at The Sports Direct Arena.

The United mantra to 'never lose two games in a row' was clinically foiled by Pardew's men leaving Ferguson to ponder what exactly is going on at Old Trafford.

United kicked off the season in blistering form by beating local rivals City in the Community Shield before notching up some high scoring victories including the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal at the Theatre of Dreams. Their performances had pundits purring with delight and many fancied United to outlast Manchester City in the title race this season.

Then derby day arrived and United were handed a humiliating 1-6 defeat in front of their own fans by their most fiercest rivals. Ferguson admitted that this was his worst day in charge of the Red Devils and vowed that United would bounce back.

United responded in typical fashion by recording 25 points from a possible 27 points until trouble stricken Blackburn Rovers handed them their second league defeat at Old Trafford on New Years Eve, which was followed by the defeat to Newcastle.

Ferguson has insisted that his team will not panic, but there certainly is something wrong at Old Trafford this season with some claiming that these problems were evident from last season. Sir Alex will point to the extensive injury list that United are having to deal with which includes the dominant Nemanja Vidic and the promising Tom Cleverley but United have a big squad which should have enough quality to deal with such situations.

The problem is, they don't, well not to compete with City's billionaire squad anyway. This is not an attack on Manchester City, if you've got it, flaunt it. Manchester United have struggled to cope with injuries this season and the squad contains too many average players. United's defence is desperately short with Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia filling in over the last few games but it's midfield where they are desperately short of quality.

Ferguson was widely rumoured to be close to signing Inter Milan playmaker Wesley Sneijder last summer but this move broke down due to the players demands. If United are to compete with City over the coming months then this stubborn stance must make way in order to bring in genuine quality. It has once again been rumoured that Inter are willing to sell Sneijder in the current transfer window. If this is true then Ferguson, despite his reluctance to make transfers in January, must do all he can to bring the Dutchman in.

Not only should United bring in a creative player, they further need to strengthen the central midfield area. Cheick Tiote dominated the centre of the park against Carrick and an ageing Ryan Giggs at The Sports Direct Arena, a player of this mould should also be on Ferguson's radar if not now, then in the summer.

Ferguson insisted that it's not time to panic, and he is correct. United still only trail City by three points. The Scot would also do well not to overlook Tottenham Hotspur's pursuit of their first title since 1961.

Manchester United will be looking to welcome back key players from injury in the coming weeks as well as possibly recruiting one or two new players in January, but in the mean time, Sir Alex Ferguson must find a way of getting the best out of an inconsistent squad starting with the 'noisy neighbours' in the FA Cup at Eastlands on Sunday.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Sensational Bale

"There's not a weakness in his make-up" were the words used by Harry Redknapp to describe the Welshman after his match winning performance against Norwich City.

The Tottenham Hotspur manager went on to add; "He can head the ball, he's as strong as an ox, he can run, dribble and shoot. Most important of all,  he's a smashing lad" in praise of this most precious of talents. So does Gareth Bale have any weaknesses?

Well judging by his performance at Carrow Road there certainly is value in Redknapp's verdict of Bale. There is nobody in a better situation to make this statement than the Spurs boss with Redknapp claiming only the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City are able to afford Bale's price tag and wages, although, it is important to highlight that Redknapp insists the Welshman is not for sale.

When Bale signed from Southampton in 2007 for £5m little did anyone know that this young left back would evolve into one of the best left sided attackers in the current game. Bale unfortunately, and from no doing of his own, collected the ugly record of not ending up on the winning team for his new club in 24 games. He shook off this unwanted tag after moving further up the field to cover injuries and flourished under his new, unrestricted role. The transformation has been sensational with Bale's improvement echoing Spurs' fine form under the guidance of Harry Redknapp. Spurs threaten to break the stranglehold of the two Manchester clubs this season with Bale a massively key figure in this quest.

Bale is blessed with extraordinary pace and power that allows him to breeze past defenders and cruically delivers a final ball that his team mates thrive on. It was this pace and delivery that exploded Bale onto the world stage and into the eyes of Europe's leading clubs when he scored a hat-trick in the San Siro against Inter Milan and later tore Inter's defender Maicon to pieces at White Hart Lane in last seasons UEFA Champions League.

Redknapp touched on how Bale is "a smashing lad" most importantly. This may well be his most defining characteristic. In an era where contracts mean nothing next to the size of the wage packets being thrown around and where loyalty rarely ceases to exist Bale has never once hinted at anything other than repaying the club and the manager that has been so loyal to him.

So does Gareth Bale have any weaknesses?

There is always room for improvement but Bale is certainly showing signs that his qualities warrant him to be mentioned in the same breathe as one of the best players in the world.