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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Class act Owen will inspire greater professionalism at Newcastle

For once the Newcastle board deserves praise. To pull off the £17m purchase of Michael Owen demonstrates the commitment of the board to match the ambition of their fans and aim for the top of the table. After a shaky couple of seasons and a disappointing start to the present campaign, it is also a much-needed purchase to revive positivity in the well-supported North-East club.

Michael Owen is a class act. He conducted himself with expert professionalism both with Liverpool and Real Madrid, and will expect the same standards from his new team-mates. The potential ripple effect is a major reason why Newcastle has made a great purchase. In the past couple of seasons, some prominent players at Newcastle seem to have lacked the discipline required for a club to progress. Owen will demand better- and I think his team-mates will respond to the example he sets.

Committing himself on paper for four years has reduced my concerns that he is half-hearted for the Newcastle cause. Everyone knows Liverpool was his preferred choice of club- but Newcastle is by no means a far inferior option. They regularly attract over 50,000 fans to St James' Park, and their purchases this summer - particularly Scott Parker- show they are a club not willing to stand still and stagnate.

At only 25 years old, Michael Owen should have his best years in a Newcastle shirt. But the onus is now on Graeme Souness and his coaching staff to improve the supply lines for Owen and Shearer. This may take some time. Robert and Solano were big assist makers, and since their departure the goals for Newcastle have dried up. Luque will take time to adjust to the Premiership, and the rest of Newcastle's midfield has so far failed to convince that they are reliable assist-makers. The rumoured re-purchase of Solano would be an excellent move to revive the assists potential at the club.

The bottom line is that Newcastle now own that very rare commodity: a footballer in his prime whose natural attribute is to regularly find the back of the net. The stats speak for themselves:
32 goals in 70 games for England;
158 goals in 297 games for Liverpool;
16 goals in one season for Real Madrid.

For his goal scoring potential and the effect his presence will have on the rest of the team, Michael Owen must be the buy of the summer.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Rafa never wanted Owen

I wrote an article last week suggesting that Owen had put the ball firmly in Liverpool's court by stating publicly that he wanted a return, otherwise he would join Newcastle. This meant that if Liverpool didn't make a bid for him, no one at Liverpool could complain if Owen moved to Newcastle. Owen cleverly had put himself in a win-win situation.

Rafa therefore turned the tables on Owen by meeting him yesterday and making a bid for him, knowing that his bid would be rejected by Real Madrid and therefore making out that it was Owen's decision to go to Newcastle. At least Liverpool don't look like the bad guys this way.

The bottom line is that Rafa never wanted him. I think the players and the board were keen on his return but the vibes coming out of Anfield were that it was the manager's sole decision. When asked questions about Owen, Rafa always stated that he wasn't after another striker, and with Cisse looking in good form so far this season, the writing was always on the wall for Owen.

I agree that it should always be the manager's decision on what players should be signed and sold, but I'll be honest - I'm disappinted that Rafa didn't want Owen, and sod's law, you just know that Owen will score against us.

I hope I'm wrong and Cisse scores 20+ goals this season but I cannot help wondering what it would've been like to see Owen back in a red shirt. Unfortunately we'll never know.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The necessity of bookings

I'm a bit puzzled. Watching Spurs v Chelsea on the BBC highlights, I'm adamant that, along with Michael Essien and Joe Cole, John Terry was booked and one other Chelsea player. That is because after Spurs' Andy Reid was shown his caution for dissent, commentator John Motson mentioned that the card count was four for Chelsea and two for Spurs. By that time Anthony Gardner and Reid made up the two for Spurs, Edgar Davids' caution came sometime after. Yet during the post-match interview with Jose Mourinho, the BBC caption displayed only two cautions for Chelsea, Essien and Cole. On the BBC web-site it is the same, and I've looked elsewhere and have found nothing different. I believe there has been a mistake that only Rob Styles can clarify, but he was there on the highlights blatantly showing John Terry the yellow card.

Which brings me to the bookings in that game. Alan Hansen mentioned that Essien was rightly booked for the alleged trip on Davids, and presumably not red-carded, because Terry was likely to make the ball before Davids, making Terry the last man. For me Essien didn't trip him deliberately, I saw the Ghanaian watching the play than Davids and it was an accidental contact.

Didier Drogba turned Gardner well and was blocked by the defender. I felt it was a straight forward free-kick and a word to say 'another one of those and it will be a booking' would have sufficed but the ref felt it necessary for the booking. Then sometime after, Ahmed Mido jumps for the ball with Asier Del Horno and his right forearm comes between himself and the Spaniard, the latter goes down as a result. Mido states he had his arm there to protect himself and Del Horno and this raises again the question of the using the arm for leverage to get height. But from another angle Mido appears to jump towards Del Horno rather than up alongside him for the ball, so the red card was right.

Andy Reid's booking was for dissent when he picked up the ball and dropped it behind him somewhat forcefully. Perhaps another referee would look on that as conduct that warranted a talking to rather than the necessity of a booking but Styles seemed determined to label any breach of the game with the card.

For me, there isn't a favourite referee, just a referee who one would like to rely on to administer the laws of the game with good discretion. I'm not looking for a referee to remain rigid and penalise every contact they see as an infringement, otherwise the strengths and competitiveness of the game would deteriorate to a tedious rate where players are hesitant to make a tackle at all. No, referees are not that stringent but football has an entertainment value, as well as a supporting and competitive one, and referees need to consider those values along with the lawfulness of the game.

In Europe, Pierluigi Collina was reputed as the best official in the game, yet his handling of the Villarreal v Everton 2nd leg Champions League qualifier was put under scrutiny, where some argue he cost Everton their place in the competition. Others like Markus Merck, Urs Meier, Tene Hemmick, Anders Frisk, Kim Milton Neilsen are, or were, FIFA affiliated officials. Urs Meier was criticised for disallowing England's goal against Portugal, which was a wrong decision but one taken at the speed of play. Anders Frisk was under threat from the Roma crowd when he sent off Philippe Mexes against Dynamo Kiev.

The classic decision of Neilsen sending off David Beckham for something of a petulant foot aimed at Argentina's Diego Simeone showed that discretion is paramount when officiating. The law aimed to cease deliberate kicking but Beckham's foot clearly wasn't one of a threatening manner to Simeone's personal safety and should have received a yellow. Compare that to Andy Welsh against Luis Garcia last week, similar conduct. I said in an article before the sending-off was questionable and Sunderland successfully appealed.

Discretion is key to a good flow of a game, helps to maintain the entertainment and progression of the match and the referee is that much more lenient to show the players they can go only so far. Once they overstep, then they have no complaints when disciplined.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Luque is only a partial solution to Newcastle's striker shortage

With legend Shearer on his last legs, Bellamy and Kluivert gone, and Ameobi consistently injured, it has been obvious for some time that Newcastle needed to bring in some firepower to the club. As an Arsenal fan, this fact really struck me when the young winger, James Milner, came on as substitute striker for Shearer on opening day. A club the stature of Newcastle should not be in such a deprived position. No goals in the first three premeirship games forcefully underlines this.

The purchase yesterday of Albert Luque for £9.55 m is a partial solution to the Newcastle striker crisis. This player is pure quality. A fantastic left foot, a classy dribbler, and comfortable either up front or on the left wing. But as Souness said yesterday, he is not a prolific goalscorer. His return of 11 Primera Liga goals for Depor last season was his best in three seasons. To use an old cliche: he is a scorer of great goals, not a great goal-scorer.

Therefore, I would be happy if I were a Newcastle fan to hear that Souness has declared his intent to purchase another striker. Personally, I would leave Owen alone. He has shown a disrespect for Newcastle by admitting that he would only wear the black and white shirt on a temporary, last-resort basis. I further think that the other player mentioned by Souness as a possible purchase is the better all-round player: Dirk Kuyt. He has a big shot, is a powerful header of the ball, and a goal record of 29 last season speaks for itself. He is a pure centre-forward with a physical presence in the mould of an RVN or a Shearer, and I'm sure he could be a 15-20 goal striker.

If Kuyt was to join Newcastle I think it would be the buy of the summer in the Premiership. He is definitely more of an answer to Newcastle's striker shortage than the skilful Luque. A Shearer-Kuyt partnership, with Luque supporting, would make Newcastle a much greater force to reckoned with.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Champions League Draw - Liverpool & Chelsea Part II

Liverpool and Chelsea coming together for the group stages of the Champions League seemed as hitting a bollard in the middle of the road. You look to go left or right to preferably evade around it, but it seems ironic that you end up making contact nonetheless. The chances of meeting Chelsea again surely couldn't have been that great out of 31 teams but there we are. To be frank, it is as if someone fixed the draw for these two teams to meet. That's to look at it from a sarcastic view.

From a prospective view, not only is it one of the more attractive fixtures in the campaign, but it gives Chelsea the opportunity to avenge, as we did against Bayer Leverkusen, and looking at how they particularly finished off West Brom, they are set in a good position to take charge of Group G. Add to that Belgian side Anderlecht and Spain's Real Betis, who finished 2nd and 4th in their respective leagues, Group G will be a difficult group to manipulate. Less so, perhaps, for a dogged, determined Chelsea side with an equally dogged, determined manager. I'm looking forward to what the media will no doubt bill as 'Champions League - Liverpool v Chelsea - Part II'.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Owen playing mind games?

Owen has said he wants to start the season at Real but that if he leaves, he favours a move to Liverpool. However if Liverpool don't want him then he will have no choice but to go to Newcastle.

Owen has been very clever because he has placed the ball firmly in Liverpool's court and has piled the pressure on their current strikers to perform. Judging from Liverpool's last three games, their strikers are seriously misfiring and this may lead to want Benitez doesn't seem to want - Michael Owen.

I agree with the manager that his team need another centre half and a right winger, but at the moment they are in dire need of someone who will put the ball in the back of the net. I don't think Benitez can rely on Gerrard to keep scoring at the rate he so far has been.

So what do Liverpool do? Do they spend what's left of their transfer budget to bring back the boy wonder, or do they stand firm and let him go elsewhere? I think most of the players would like to see him back; I think the fans want him back and I think the board would splaash the cash on him without hesitation. So the question is will Benitez succumb to all this pressure?

My opinion - bring Owen home.

Liverpool fortunate but deserving overall

Liverpool began well and looked to score early as Rafael Benitez wanted, yet again we were left to rue chances in the first 15 mins as Sofia stepped up and took command of the half. A lack of concentration that could finish off an entire game, and Liverpool were behind to a well taken Valentin Iliev goal over Scott Carson. Moments after we could have been two down, as the central defence opened up and allowed Guillame Zadi to run onto a through ball, superbly denied by Carson but the ball came out to Yordan Todorov, who sent an effort just over with the goal open.

Sofia were the quicker, better passing and more creative team out of the two and they made Liverpool chase and retreat on occasions. Their passing was controlled, accurate and allowed them to advance threateningly, while our passing tended to be overhit, uncontrolled and without insight as our attacks would break down too often. The second half was much better and we had the Bulgarian side under pressure much more, the only thing missing was the killer instinct for goal. Fernando Morientes could have scored after entering the box and turning skillfully past Dejan Maksic, only to be thwarted by a few Sofia players in front of the goal. Riise delivered a poor free-kick and then immediately followed its rebound with an effort that Maksic tipped over.

Dieter Hamann was very good in central midfield but he needed an alert Mohamed Sissoko, who had a tough time making passes and productive tackles as Sofia passed and moved around rapidly, but the signs are the Mali man can improve. He was unfortunate to have hit the crossbar. Luis Garcia came on for Darren Potter and should have used the wing for crosses but decided instead to cut in. Zenden came on for Stephen Warnock, Riise going to left-back, and added more pace and attack on the left. Florent Sinama-Pongolle made a return for Djibril Cisse and looked eager, having impressed in the reserves. The worrying thing for me is Cisse's contribution is becoming questionable but we will see by Christmas.

Resting a few first-team players, and Gerrard's injury, put the team through a testing 90mins+ and at least Benitez can see clearly areas where strength and depth is important. With such a selection for Liverpool, Sofia were the ideal team to face. They have a fit, pacey squad who, perhaps with more European football, can emerge into the group stages and they deserved to win. Liverpool are comfortable that what counts at the end is that we are in the group stages.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Liverpool v CSKA Sofia: Benitez dilemma?

Tonight's 2nd leg has the trimmings of an entertaining match. The only thing is if the players are focused in that manner themselves. The fans will be, as fans are, usually, when preparing to watch a match, but they, and I, wouldn't want a repeat of the 1st half against FBK Kaunas at Anfield, which almost put me to sleep. The 2nd half needed Steven Gerrard and Djibril Cisse to inject some life into the match. Critical, but if Liverpool are to progress towards looking like worthy European champions, worthy Premiership contenders, then they should play much better. Sami Hyypia, Xabi Alonso and Steve Finnan have spoken about our recent performances and how they need sharpening up.

Tonight is not only about playing well to go through, it's about playing well to take further into the group stage and beyond. To take further into the Premiership and beyond. No doubt the players need to have that lift themselves, instead of being inspired by Gerrard's presence. It's not to say that they do but it certainly seems so. With Gerrard out with a calf injury, the Liverpool unit have to band together and play with the grace of a team confident of winning games regardless of who is playing and who they are playing against. That is seen as a tough call without Gerrard but such are the requirements right now. With Gerrard or without, the team should be performing well and they can do that tonight.

Rafael Benitez has spoken to Cisse to ignore the speculation in the press. I have to question Cisse's positioning. For me, he and Fernando Morientes have to start upfront. Milan Baros has, unfortunately, departed to Aston Villa. We do not need to be a lone-striker side, we want to encourage scoring more, that is where we need to improve. Gerrard single-handedly against Middlesbrough, Cisse missed several opportunities on Saturday where we needed to depend on a Alonso free-kick, and we have the players who can create and score. I don't like to see Cisse on the wide flank. Bolo Zenden and Luis Garcia, if they play, should be encourage heavily to deliver crosses high and low, for once our forwards sense the two wingers on the ball, they can then anticipate a good position for the delivery. It sounds obvious, but Benitez has spoken of having width and it is here, too, that Liverpool should improve, aiding the others to score from another angle.

Preferred line-up (4-4-2): Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Luis Garcia, Alonso, Hamann, Zenden, Morientes, Cisse.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Wenger must act to remedy recurring flaw

So Arsenal can again count themselves unlucky in an away match against one of their two legitimate rivals for the championship. A one-nil defeat courtesy of an offside-shinner is a ridiculous way to decide a big match but at least it didn’t break a massive unbeaten record.

Didier Drogba's lucky touch in the 73 minute broke the deadlock in an otherwise equal match-up that still had a touch of the pre-seasons about it. Mourinho admitted as much post-match, and it is a shame that these two excellent footballing sides had to meet on only the second weekend of the season with preparations interrupted by international matches.

Focusing on the Arsenal, this match again showed-up a problem which Arsene is struggling to solve. That problem, which has been highlighted previously on these pages, is that Arsenal struggle to penetrate the best teams in football.

While Arsenal had 60 % possession and yet again put on a consummate display of flowing passing football- with Alexander Hleb showing tremendous potential in only his second Premiership match- there was a lack of cutting edge that separates the very good teams from the truly exceptional. They were restricted by Chelsea's awesome defence to a couple of speculative Henry efforts and an early Ljungberg toe-poke that went just over the bar.

Such limited returns from good possession represents a black mark that Arsene admitted as much in his post-match interview.

Unfortunately, this is becoming the customary feature of Arsenal when playing away at the likes of Chelsea, Man Utd, Bayern, etc. Because we only play away to teams with such defensive quality once in a blue moon, this problem is in danger of being missed.

I hope Arsene does not fall into that category!

Last year at the three teams mentioned above we scored only one goal- a last minute consolation in Bayern from Arsenal's best player so far this season: Kolo Toure. Otherwise, in all three matches, Arsenal barely created a goal chance worthy of the name. The same pattern repeated in the FA cup final: no goal threat.

The season before, Arsenal drew another blank at Old Trafford in a match that we played for a nil-nil. In fact, it is 18 months ago when Arsenal last convinced against a top side away from home: Chelsea in a 2-1 victory with goals courtesy of Pat and Edu.

A feature of Arsenal's attacking flaw in these matches is that we simply don't attack the penalty box in numbers. Yesterday, as against Bayern, we played with Thierry as the main striker with five midfielders supporting. The pattern then becomes familiar: Thierry gets isolated by a strong defence and a holding midfielder, so he comes deep or wide to receive the ball, which consequently leaves no expert attacker in or around the box.

In effect, we are left with zero six-yard box strikers and six or seven attacking midfielders. The world's tightest defences are repeatedly showing they can handle this. This lack of cutting edge against the best teams away from home leaves us vulnerable to sucker-punches like a Rooney dive or a Drogba shinner.

In 95 per cent of matches our system of attacking play seriously works. And at Highbury it is very rare for us to be stifled. It is the matches away from home against our biggest competitors where this problem is becoming endemic.

Two options come to mind.

One is to buy a pure penalty-box predator who may not be a great team-player but will stay in and around the box and be an ever-present goal threat. Michael Owen immediately comes to mind. When Thierry came deep yesterday it would surely have been an advantage for him and the team to know that Owen was waiting to pounce in the goal area. RVP, supreme talent that he is, did not offer this particular potential yesterday.

Second is to buy a Didier Drogba type-player who can physically barge defences and create openings for himself and others simply by having a heavyweight presence. When Drogba was at Marseille I told people that Arsenal should buy him. Whatever the critics may say about his lack of co-ordination- he is effective and has a fighting character. His physical presence was the main reason why Chelsea knocked Bayern out of the Champs League- and represented a significant contrast to the relatively lightweight physical presence that Arsenal's attack had against the German champs.

When Arsenal went after Baptista, I saw this as Arsene wanting to get an option two player. He is a muscular player who can knock defenders out of his way- an option that Arsene would have liked against Bayern.

This Chelsea defeat will be positive if it is the final wake-up call needed to spur Wenger on to buying an option one or option two striker, with the Vieira money. Otherwise, based on recent history, we will continue to come out second best when away from home against teams with top defences, due to the lack of an effective attacking edge.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Premiership Week 2 and the Battle of London

This weekend Spurs look the strongest, and that includes the Chelsea v Arsenal match today. While Man Utd carved out their single goal win against Aston Villa, Spurs have scored twice in each game and kepted their sheet clean. Paul Robinson was MOTM. With Sven Goran Eriksson watching in the stands, he chose a good game to help get over the midweek 2nd half fiasco that represented an England performance and further allegations he is in liaison with Faria Alam, the Delilah to Eriksson's Samson. He saw Robinson produce some good saves that kepted Spurs in the lead and Jermaine Defoe get into space, shift past Southgate and hit another effort from some 25-30 yards that left Shwarzer no chance. Yep, the Swede saw what Defoe can do and finally what he (Eriksson) should have done with him.

Being that Man Utd kicked off earliest, Eriksson could have found himself there first, surely a private jet laid on by the FA could have gotten him to White Hart Lane in time. Rooney and Ferdinand in action, Gareth Barry in the left side role, and perhaps Paul Scholes threatening Villa almost with every attack. In need somewhat of a holding central midfielder, Eriksson could have had a word with Scholes. Maybe.

Blackburn's game brought the Lancashire side their first win, at home too, and two superb goals to boot from Morten Gamst Pedersen, but Kerimoglu Tugay's was on a par with Rooney's against Newcastle last season. Niclas Jensen on the line didn't look to get in the way. Fulham let go of two key players in Edwin Van der Sar and Andy Cole. Cole helped City with yet another finish that is paying off his arrival. If Darius Vassell were to get better, he and Cole could be a good partnership. David James was a much better self, he could have folded but he has that kind of swagger about him that keeps him going, and again the question comes about players playing better for club than for country, at the moment at least.

Charlton and West Brom look very impressive at the moment. Darren Bent adds to his tally in two games and his test is yet to come after coming through two promoted sides. Wigan began as the league's whipping boys but so far they have conceded only two, which is as good a start as it could be, they need a win to settle themselves now. West Brom could have succumbed to Man City's bombardment but for Chris Kirkland but they did well enough to damage Portsmouth, who seem to have an odd away kit colour coordination. At one point it looked as if Lauren Robert had socks down with no shin-pads! The Frenchman consolated with another left foot finish from a freekick.

Liverpool were not as they were in pre-season and it gives me enough to think about going into the Sofia qualifier. Gerrard is out with a calf strain, as far as Rafael Benitez is concerned, so it will be up to Xabi Alonso, Dieter Hamann and Mohamed Sissoko to give a key performance on Tuesday. At Anfield, Liverpool enjoy most of the possession but Sunderland came back at us on occasions that shouldn't have happened to European Champions. Alonso finished off a freekick that looked very nice, albeit Kelvin Davies got a touch to it. Andy Welsh for Sunderland was sent off, which is questionable. Luis Garcia and Julio Arca went for a ball, Garcia got it, Arca tugged his shirt and Garcia spun, flailing a right arm which didn't connect. Welsh then came in on Garcia with a bodycheck and sticking out his left leg on the Spaniard. The leg could be interpreted as violent conduct, but in the discretion of the game Welsh should have had a booking.

Another sending off, another which involved Jermaine Jenas within a week. Through on goal, he had Paul Konchesky steaming beside him and who did well to catch up, the former Charlton man dived in excellently and got the ball to deny Jenas. Dermont Gallagher blew for a freekick but wasnt clear as to the severity of the tackle. In consulting the linesman, he sent off Konchesky. In both this case and that of Andy Welsh, and any other sending off, the red card is not to be downgraded unless mistaken identity occurred or the official understands, either through his own recollection or on advice from another official, he has made an error and can rectify it before restarting play.

The FA still have to answer for Jenas last week, which should still stand, and unfortunately the two from yesterday will stand, which shouldn't. West Ham have clearly been the better of the promoted teams, 4 pts out of 6 and a clean sheet against a good team with 10 men.

A word on Chelsea v Arsenal. Not possible with one word. Chelsea aiming to retain the title, have to impress under a boss who strives for excellence, insists on 100% and clearly isn't taking anything less unless it involves a win. Disgruntled players are quieted down and remorseful. Arjen Robben is yet another player who seems unhappy with the rotation, which could find him making way for Shaun Wright-Phillips if he is not careful. The manager can at any time look for someone to replace anyone out of order or out of performance.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal began as expected, as needed, with a win. While Chelsea just about gained theirs, Arsenal cracked on without Patrick Vieira, a name that will reverberate around Highbury (for this season at least) if gaps are seen in the play that warrant concern. Leadership of Thierry Henry is crucial, experience of he and Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg is essential and the younger members playing with energy aid the Gunners' approach into this game. If Chelsea play two upfront with Drogba, it can be problems for Arsenal. Kolo Toure looks to take no prisoners, Phillippe Senderos takes his lead from Toure, Ashley Cole nips in if needed. Chelsea could well engage the flanks often to keep Lauren and Cole away from central defence, allowing Lampard and Drogba and one other to infiltrate.

Key to this game will be Arsenal's attack on Chelsea's third. Engaging the Chelsea defence often enough obviously keeps the pressure of the Arsenal back four, but also serves to chip at Chelsea's chink of armour. Break Chelsea within the first 10 or 15mins could make a difference.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Denmark v England friendly - Farcical

Martin Tyler (on Sky Sports, at the end): "Well, England have been beaten by Denmark, in Denmark, for the first time, and it couldn't be more emphatic."

"Final score, Denmark 4 - England 1"

Richard Keys: "Which is not just's EMBARRASSING, in truth."

Goodness gracious me. Richard Keys said that with great emphasis that totally summed up the night for English football. TS predicted a win and his prediction was spot-on. What did I say in my article earlier on yesterday, about playing with commitment?

Commitment, style, determination, effort, passion, pride, focus, skill, deliverance, precision, strength, energy, rhythm...need I mention more? Not about England, about Denmark. Or alternatively, all of those adjectives contain something which the England national side should have in abundance when playing. It is quite simply not about been the one selected to put on an England jersey, shorts, socks, boots and play. It's about why you are there, you are chosen out of a vast number of football talent born or linked to this country to represent, and when you get there it is for pride and passion of the shirt. Shouldn't need reminding of that. I said the players should be and want to be playing with commitment to win, for the fans, if not themselves. The Danish players went off towards their fans to celebrate, as if they'd gone through to the next stage, as if they'd knocked out England. Not only in football terms, you could say in boxing terms too. I do not blame them. It showed how much this 'friendly' meant to them.

Tonight was the first time England were defeated by the Danes in Denmark, our worst defeat since the 4-1 defeat to Wales in Wrexham, 14th May 1980. I remember that match, with Larry Lloyd, I believe, Nottingham Forest player, scoring their fourth. England had no answer then, and they didn't in the 2nd half tonight. The proverbial game of two halves, they were 65% in the first, 35% in the second. I may be generous.

The first half was prospectively a usual England game in a friendly, some running here and there, the odd effort, some missed passes that went to no-one for us. One pass went astray and Rooney had to have a moan at whoever it was who passed it. That, to me, showed the lack of communication, which has to be the part of the course why the team didn't gel together as a solid unit. But the defence were capable and solid enough to thwart the Danes' efforts coming forward, I can only think of one effort that troubled Paul Robinson and that was Claus Jensen curling an effort which, frankly, Robinson made a deal of because he was not engaged enough. The main man for me was Thomas Gravesen, why Jon Dahl Tomasson was captain instead of the Real Madrid man is beyond me. He may have allowed some light to shine on Beckham in midfield but his game was more relaxed than that of the England captain, and he aimed to push and tug and pass and direct those around him often in the game.

When the second half arrived, John Terry and Gary Neville are substituted for Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson respectively, because of knocks. Knocks, which, it was said, were not serious enough to prevent those players from playing at the weekend. So surely they could have carried on, then?? I do beg the question. Robinson is exchanged for David James as well, with Jermaine Defoe off for Michael Owen. If Robinson is OK, why take him off? If Defoe had to come off, why not replace with Darren Bent? If Owen had to come on (and with Northern Ireland in mind, it seemed feasible to do so), he could have done so for whoever, later on.

The goals.

It took 15mins to concede the first. Beckham delivers a wasted ball into the Danish box from a freekick. Thomas Sorensen catches with ease with no one attacking the ball and you immediately have Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher out of position. Frank Lampard on the edge of the Danish box. Sorenson immediately throws the ball towards a Danish player on the left, that player is stopped briefly by Glen Johnson's presence. Johnson should have closed that player down immediately to stall the attack. Gerrard has trotted and looked across to see Joe Cole and Beckham amongst the running Rommedahl and Tomasson. The ball is then superbly sent towards the running Tomasson, who is being chased by the only covering defender Ashley Cole. By this time, Rommedahl is sprinting up the middle, neither J Cole or Beckham track with him. A Cole has pace and, in my opinion, could have held up Tomasson until others arrived. But James comes running out, and not only has he come too far out but he is out of his area, so he cannot handle. He doesn't make the ball nor Tomasson, and the ball duly goes through his legs. Tomasson goes on to hit the ball, only to be denied by Cole's efforts, but the ball spills on where Tomasson passes across goal low. James makes the worse attempt to get back to goal quickly, either he cannot sprint or that is how he sprints, where Dennis Rommedahl is present to tap in.

James will be solely blamed for this goal, but some who should share it are David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, J Cole for not tracking the runs of Rommedahl and Tomasson, and Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher for sprinting back to position to help immediately after the ball was caught by Sorensen.

For the second goal, Gerrard is again questionable, and he isn't the only one. Claus Jensen is on the ball, Gerrard watches him then stays away, giving Jensen time to pass to a Danish player being marked by G Johnson. Gerrard has now slowed to a trot, not watching Jensen, Lampard is in acres of space and has no urgency to get into the box to help thwart any crosses or dangers there, Jensen goes on to pick up the return pass and sprint down the wing. G Johnson sees the danger and tries to cut off Jensen, to no avail. Jensen then spots Tomasson and aims to cross low towards him, A Cole relies on his left foot mainly and flicks the ball away, only to the head of Rommedahl, the ball coming back to goal where Tomasson scores. Comical defending from one of the sides touted to win the World Cup in 2006.

The third is from a corner. Carragher is marking Michael Gravgaard, but as the ball comes in, Gerrard has come to deal with it, getting in the way of Carragher, leaving Gravgaard free to head down and in over J Cole on the post.

Eventually Beckham ceases to be in the unorthordox sweeping role in front of defence and is found on the right, and as he runs Rooney is indicating for the pass. A Danish defender stretches out a foot but could not intervene enough, Rooney latches on to the ball and coolly dispatches to score. Yet even then, England could not keep or get into shape. As the Danes build up from within their half, the ball comes to the middle where Peres plays a through ball. A Cole seems to have stepped up to play offside on Laursen but Ferdinand has played him on. Laursen runs on, Ferdinand reaches him but it is too late, the ball is poked (and I mean poked) lightly past James.

What was missing?

Communication. That's one adjective I missed out above. Add to that any or all the rest above. When Beckham played in the freekick that preceded the first goal, no one attacked it. Gerrard, Ferdinand to name two six foot players and no one attacked it. On the subsequent attack, focus and awareness was equally absent. Urgency, no one sprinting back as A Cole tried to stop things himself. Sensibleness, from James, what was he thinking when he came out? He must have endured some 'mild criticism' from the England fans behind him. In a nutshell, we didn't come out the second half to play, there was little energy to do so. It was like a capitulation. The forwards were not engaged enough, the type of passes they thrive on was non-existent, J Cole and Beckham were employed on the wings but I cannot count the amount of crosses they delivered. Again, why was Beckham as far as the central defence collecting the ball?? At times we employed the central defence with so many passes around, the front two must have got frustrated in waiting.

As for the subs, G Johnson does not have the right temperament for England, it would have been better to have had Phil Neville. David James has made yet another calamity that hails for his selection to be denied for eternity. Carragher covered himself well enough. Owen looked slightly promising but then fizzled out to nothing, but he and Rooney had nothing provided to them on a regular basis. Lampard came off for Owen Hargreaves, the latter I feel is not good enough, certainly not for Lampard's position. Jermaine Jenas came on for Gerrard, had little of pre-season to play through injury, played 32mins before being sent off at the weekend and so did not finish the game and yet he was deemed ready for England.

Anyone who saw Sky Sports with Jamie Redknapp and Ray Wilkins would know they both hardly said a wrong word about the performance. Redknapp said this maybe the kick England needed to wake up before the qualifiers. If those players want to know commitment, look at the game and watch Rooney. He was tugged in the box, got nothing; he was on-side but goal cancelled when he simply outmuscled his marker; he was impeded, got nothing AND then had enough and ran after the Danish player, dispossessed him and played the ball AND then went on to run up the field. Playing with someone like that in the team, how can you fail to show that kind of drive and commitment??

The team is like a piece of matter, with atoms inside. The atoms have to coincide together to keep shape, otherwise if the atoms begin to go their own preferred directions, the matter goes out of shape or even disintegrates. Perhaps there is little competition, at national level, for the places to frighten the seniors. Make mistakes like that at club level and find yourself being rollicked by your manager, or dropped. Jose Mourinho made that clear to Chelsea at half-time. Start playing or you're coming off and a good number of players will be dropped. Under Eriksson, make a mistake and he'll get animated, at best, when he should be on that touchline giving messages to his players to situate them on the pitch, to win. He hasn't the fire to blast these woeful lot when they deserve it, and to drop a new names too. Until then, we will probably just about drift into the World Cup. That is if we feel like we want to win it.



Denmark v England friendly

Prior to the World Cup qualifiers with Wales and Northern Ireland, the national squad find themselves with another friendly. With foresight of those matches, Michael Owen joins the squad but will not play as he is suspended for the Wales qualifier. Jermaine Defoe steps in to partner Wayne Rooney and there is some surprise, I don't know why. The original choices upfront were of Rooney, Defoe, Andy Johnson and Owen. In Owen's absence, Defoe is the next choice to replace him, on his form from last season.

Then there is the fuss the FA chief executive Brian Barwick had made over Man Utd's Alan Smith opting to play for the Utd reserves than join with the England squad. Barwick criticised Smith and hinted that such a 'snub' could mean the end of his international career.

"He must need the football. Sven will have plenty of opportunity to either pick Alan Smith again, or not. My view is that Alan Smith was given an opportunity to play for England and has chosen to play elsewhere and it's probably not the cleverest thing he's done. I never got the opportunity to play for England, so turning it down is disappointing, perhaps."

Then it transpires that Utd had spoken to Sven Goran Eriksson, and both parties agreed Smith would be better off with 90mins of football than 90mins on the bench. Only thing is the FA chief executive wasn't aware, hence his comments. Should he have known? Probably not. Should he, since he had an opinion that he felt warranted public attention, have spoken to Eriksson before making comment? Definitely. It wasn't "the cleverest thing" Barwick had done.

Which brings me to Owen's selection again. Had Smith joined with the squad, who wouldn't have? Defoe, Rooney, Owen or Johnson? Defoe and Rooney are in top flight. Owen is in the top flight in Spain but isn't getting first-team selection. Johnson is in the Championship. Practically identical to Real Madrid, where captain Raul is the 'darling' of the club, and dropping one of the world's best talents in Ronaldo would be an unpopular move, Eriksson will not do without Owen. So, does that then mean Johnson would not have been chosen, contrary to Eriksson's statement previously that Johnson's presence in the lower division will not hamper his chances for selection? Most would select Owen over Johnson. I would have them both and omit Smith instead. He came off the bench on Saturday for Paul Scholes and Sir Alex hinted on turning him into a replacement for Roy Keane in central midfield. That makes Smith more of a makeshift striker.

As for the friendly, I'm looking for a high spirited performance and a win. That is what I expect from all the friendlies. I listened to discussion of the England team in general on the radio, and opinion was divided mostly on the side that Eriksson has wasted the team with poor selections at crucial times, wrong formations and was suspected of not having enough influence to push the team to win. The choice of keeping David Seaman in goal against Brazil in the World Cup QF with a bad back was mentioned as one bad decision.

When you have players like Rooney and Defoe with pace and skill and prepared to shoot from anywhere, prepared to fight to hold possession and can play in others, that talent must be used to it's limits. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can command the midfield together, Gerrard, David Beckham and Joe Cole can and will run with pace, then there is a back four that can consist of two out of Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and John Terry, playing for the top three teams in the country. You have attacking, usually reliable full-backs in Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, and a good keeper in Paul Robinson, with Chris Kirkland turning in a good performance at the weekend.

We simply do have the talents within the squad to beat teams. This match shouldn't be treated as a runabout, it should be treated as a catalyst for adopting a winning 'formula', for want of a better word. Too often the England side look to lethargic to seem to care about winning. Chances going astray too easily, passes are too inaccurate too often, and often the defending is the key third of the team that surpasses the other two, when in fact our midfield and forward lines are among the most energetic in Europe. We like seeing our national players play, and play well. And like with any team, if you at least play well, then the result can be meaningless in comparison. Otherwise, without that kind of drive and spirit to play, let alone win, then the crowds and enthusiasm for friendlies will dwindle.


Monday, August 15, 2005

Premiership starter review

West Ham v Blackburn

Great start for the Hammers, tipped for the relegation zone. The crux of West Ham's fightback was through the pace of their attackers, Matt Etherington, Nigel-Reo-Coker, Marlon Harewood. Andy Todd mis-controlled for Sheringham's equaliser, Reo-Coker dummied Aaron Mokoena for an unstoppable drive outside the box, and more lapsing defending by Blackburn found Yossi Benayoun on a loose ball inside the box, Lucas Neill and Todd both watching Reo-Coker with no-one picking up the running Etherington other than Benayoun, for the Hammers' third. For me, Kerimoglu Tugay and Gary Flitcroft should have been brought on into central midfield, with Shefki Kuqi staying on. What Paul Dickov was thinking of when he made that tackle on Paul Konchesky, it wasn't football.

Everton v Man Utd

Both sides were unseparable in terms of efforts on goal, Tim Cahill particularly producing a good stop from Edwin Van der Sar. Typically, Wayne Rooney was greeted as expected on his return home and he was the difference. Darren Fletcher found him in space, Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville watching him, Joseph Yobo marked Ruud Van Nistelrooy but allowed the Dutchman to spin off, Weir went to mark him, no one picked up John O'Shea on the left, his low cross was converted by a Van Nistelrooy foot. In the second half, Yobo pulled the ball back behind Weir, Rooney sensed the mistake and pounced, first touch found the back of the net. Conceding the Villarreal goal through Juan Pablo Josica was down to good play; the mistakes that led to the Utd goals were lapses of concentration. Everton need to stabilise their defence, who, under attack, seem to get into a defensive position, but not the necessary defensive position.

Sunderland v Charlton

Baptism of fire at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland, and Kelvin Davies, should have been well aware of Darren Bent. He was found too easily alone in their half and despite Davies forcing him to pause slightly and a man on the line, he still managed to score. Andy Gray did well to equalise to give Sunderland more thinking space going in at half time, and Darren Ambrose's lunge on Stephen Wright was horrendously a potential for a broken leg, and rightly ended in his dismissal. Yet with the advantage Charlton found the net, DDanny Murphy's freekick went in cleanly and skillfully. Bent was found once again deep in the Sunderland half, Stephen Caldwell tracking back with little pace as Bent went on to score across Davies.

Portsmouth v Spurs

I looked for some inspirational play from Lomano LuaLua and Lauren Robert, and perhaps Arjen De Zeeuw's absence may hinder the Portsmouth back-four this season. Andy Griffin unfortunately tapped his interception past Sander Westerveld. That was fortuitous, the 2nd goal was similar. A hopeful past found the left side found Jermaine Defoe picking up onto the loose ball in space, where he approached and rounded Westerveld to score. Portsmouth deserved better from their performance.

Middlesbrough v Liverpool

Boro at home has turned into a bogey fixture for Liverpool, recently we have drawn or lost mostly. Rafael Benitez is happy that it's a good away performance of his side pressurising the home team, but we scored have scored. Steven Gerrard conducted a one-man war on the Boro goal, which made me wonder if his colleagues considered coming off. This game was about as best a decent 0-0 draw should be, albeit not from a Boro's fan point-of-view. Mark Schwarzer played well to deny on occasion, and Ugo Ehiogu was graceful in his dismissal, no remonstrating or pleading innocence, made the tackle, took his consequence and went off professionally. Even with the advantage Liverpool couldn't make it count. If the Reds play with this exact kind of tempo every game, much less away games, then they should be winning more games. Having scored well in pre-season, they should now be more akin to finding the back of the oppositions' net.

Aston Villa v Bolton

Best start of the day, 4 goals in under 10 mins, another debut goalscorer in Kevin Phillips. Well taken goals, the only point to make is Ivan Campo's tackle on Gavin McCann. How it did not warrant a booking, much less a sending off, was unbelievable. The officiation there was certainly lenient.

Man City v West Brom

Potentially another one-sided 0-0 draw. City gave ample testing of debutant Chris Kirkland, who should have been included in the England squad against Denmark on Wednesday. This match did well to boost his inclusion. Again, one point to make is Ronnie Wallwork going down, West Brom played on, one player indicated to Junichi Inamoto to put the ball out but he didn't, he was duly dispossessed, only for the ref to blow to stop play. Players got into a slight melee about it, particularly Danny Mills towards the referee, Daniel Sommeil is seen saying something to Wallwork, who reacted angrily as he got up. Mills, of all players, intervened as peacemaker with a firm grip on Wallwork's collar and the melee increased. Mills was outspoken previously on being under Kevin Keegan's management, which I felt was out of order in consideration, and here he was in the midst of stirring bad feelings in the game. Stuart Pearce has apologised on his behalf to the referee, when it should have been Mills.

Fulham v Birmingham

Tony Warner came in to replace the experienced Van der Sar, Luis Boa Morte the new captain (though I felt Zat Knight, Steed Malbranque or Sylvain Legwinski would be more favourable, or even Papa 'The Wardrobe' Dioup when back from injury) and forming a front three with Brian McBride and Tomaz Radzinski. This seemed an even nil draw with little to point out particularly from the first half. Julian Gray found Knight slumped on his backside and went on free towards goal to squander a great chance completely wide. Boa Morte was his usual feverish self, taking on players with pace and inching threateningly towards Maik Taylor, who had a good game between the sticks. Chris Coleman will feel the West Londoners should have had the points. On balance, so do I.

Wigan v Chelsea

One and three quarters of the three promoted teams fared very well over the weekend, and Wigan were 25% away from at least a hard fought, and yet another, nil draw. Where most felt this was a walk in the park for the Blues, Wigan went for them from the kick-off and it served to show the rest of the Premiership how to get at Chelsea. Frank Lampard didn't enjoy time to dwell on the ball, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff enjoyed little on the wings with sometimes two men marking them and Wigan went close to scoring on a number of occasions, more so than Chelsea. The game resembled that of Liverpool and Chelsea's encounters last season, with the one goal the difference. But Wigan carried the fight much further, as in the last seconds of injury time Hernan Crespo was found on the right, no one closed him down as Wigan did throughout the game, he was allowed to come onto his left and unleashed a fierce shot over Mike Pollitt. Jose Mourinho whispered to Paul Jewell that it was unfair to lose after Wigan's efforts. Too right.

Arsenal v Newcastle

The Magpies' are said to hardly enjoy their London visits, particularly to Highbury. Last season's visit came at the height of Craig Bellamy's omission from the team as a result of his personal indiscipline towards Graeme Souness. But Newcastle enjoy a good talented attacking midfield this season. Nicky Butt is playing with Birmingham, Jermaine Jenas, Scott Parker, Emre, Amdy Faye, Kieron Dyer, Lee Bowyer (on his good days) but Shearer was the only fit striker available and you need two against Arsenal. But Arsenal were held off sufficiently, despite their numerous attacks, Shay Given with a MOTM performance. Jenas was sent off for an awful tackle on Gilberto Silva, which again could have been a broken leg or ankle. I felt it warranted a straight red, particularly following the FA clampdown on dangerous tackles and those of Dickov, Ambrose and Campo. But Steve Bennett has reviewed the match and instructed the red card be downgraded to a caution, so the first sending-off in his career has still to occur for Jenas. But tackles like those are not to be produced ever again.

Charles N'Zogbia was judged to have impeded Freddie Ljungberg in the box, though for me Ljungberg scuffed his right foot along the turf and lost control of the ball before any contact. Thierry Henry (who else?) just about converted the penalty as Given almost reached it. Some minutes after a pass down the right flank found Ljungberg, who ran on to pull across for Robin Van Persie to score with a little deft touch.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Champions League 1st leg review

Liverpool seem to go on from strength to strength so far, which has to be a promising point going into the Premiership season. Any defeats would have made us look like going forward one step, backwards two, all over again. I think the only time Pepe Reina was tested was last night, making a last minute save to deny CSKA Sofia a 2nd goal. Liverpool played at times dangerously, allowing CKSA to filter through on occasions. The Bulgarian side look strong and skillful when approaching and their main man was the Moroccan midfielder Mourad Hidiouad, who held onto the ball and skillfully made his way past tackles like they hardly existed. He and Djibril Cisse clashed verbally at one point in the 2nd half and I wondered if it was that which triggered the abuse rather than Cisse's goal. Nonetheless, the incidents in the Sofia crowd was unsavoury, serving yet again that UEFA has to clamp down if they wish to preserve the game's integrity. It was nice for Fernando Morientes to score for obvious reasons, and I hope he can carry that prowess into the Premiership, starting with Saturday. Concerns for me were Steve Finnan and Luis Garcia. Finnan did a good job at right back but was suspect for gazing when the ball was played down his side and the cross came over for Petar Dimitrov to head in. Liverpool should work on their defensive duties when under attack and particularly from set-pieces. All goals were good goals.

Everton had 37,000+ for their first European Champions night for 34 years. The team looked very strong and attacking, new acquisitions Phil Neville and Simon Davies added to the flair of the team, Neville sweeping behind Mikael Arteta and Tim Cahill, with Davies and Kevin Kilbane on the wings. Though they appear to face a difficult 2nd leg in the Estádio El Madrigal, the way the played a fast pace moving game while Villarreal took time toacclimatisee to the Goodison turf shows that the Toffees have a good team to overcome the Spanish side. With the 4-5-1, Cahill was free to drift into space to aid Beattie in attack, but I feel they will be at their strongest if, injuries permitting, they had Beattie with Marcus Bent, for Bent has strength, speed and good vision to play fight for the ball and play in Beattie. That would entail a 4-4-2, which would mean Neville coming into the middle with Cahill, Arteta and Kilbane on the flanks. Villarreal looked slightlyuneasyd at the back on Tuesday, and I think that played into theirhesitancyy to deal with the high ball that Beattie converted. Everton want to pressure their back four in the 2nd leg from the kick-off and I feel then they will get to capitalise. While Beattie's goal was important and Luciano Figueroa's was well-taken, Juan Moreno Josica's header was the best.

Man Utd should now has less off the pitch to bother them and more on to push them ahead. Rio Ferdinand has appeased the fans with the signing of a new contract, but there is still the resentment over the takeover by Malcolm Glazer. I think it would be better if the protestors get behind the team, because the Glazers are not leaving now. Nonetheless business was conducted as usual on a European night, with three goals to warm the crowd. Talk mentioned of Ruud Van Nistelrooy's lack of scoring affecting his season but the Dutchman still found the net with an assist from Wayne Rooney, having begun the scoring early and assisting Christiano Ronaldo for Utd's third. This match could have been a banana skin for the Red Devils, and the cancelled Péter Halmosi effort could have stood to make it all square again, but Utd went on to dispel the possibility, and the 2nd leg in Budapest should be a matter of tidying up theipassage intoto the group stages. Well taken goals, the best being Ronaldo's, as VNR passed to Rooney, who crossed for the Portuguese winger.


Monday, August 08, 2005

Prediction for the Premier League Season Ahead - Chelsea to be Champions Again

Captivating, exhilarating, dramatic, thrilling etc etc – No, not the Charity Shield, the result of which is as meaningless as ever, and definitely not the football off-season which was one of the dullest in recent memory - but the Second Ashes Test at Edgbaston. I have probably used up my quota of superlatives for one article in the first four words, but what the hell – England v Australia was simply breathtaking.

But as this is Elite Football Talk, I had better write something about football I suppose. And as any self respecting commentator on football is doing at this time of year – I thought I would roll out the old “prediction for the upcoming season” article – always a guaranteed winner. Because of time and space constraints, I will have to restrict it to top 6 and bottom 3 – I am not being lazy (honest!) So here goes…

The top

1 Chelsea – will prove that championships are just like buses, you wait around for one for ages and then two come along at once. The Chelsea squad has the most depth in Europe and in Mourinho they have a manager who knows exactly how to get the best out of it. Chelsea have the meanest defence around and a tireless midfield. This combination means that the Blues are incredibly difficult to beat. Add Hernan Crespo to the frontline and you have all the ingredients of champions.

2 Manchester United – The first season in the Glazer era and with it, no doubt, the chants of “USA, USA” at away grounds across the country , Man United will as ever be in the spotlight. United will need to find a way of successfully accommodating both Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney - something which Alex Ferguson failed to do last season. They will be too strong for most teams in the league and Park Ji Sung and Van der Sar are excellent signings – but they will fall short again because of lapses at crucial times and Ferguson will be fighting for his job by June next year.

3 Arsenal – Patrick Viera’s departure is a big loss, but the Gunners have proved in the past that they can sell big name players and make advances (see, Anelka, Overmars, Petit). In Fabregas they have a great talent, but my fear for him is that he will be taken ill with the dreaded SSD (Second Season Syndrome). I hope my diagnosis is wrong because Cesc is a great player to watch. Still the most fluid team in the league and boasting the best player in the world, Arsenal will push Chelsea and United all the way, but Jose’s team will have the edge.

4 Liverpool – another season of domestic transition for the European Champions me thinks. Rafa Benitez is clearly building the foundations of a title challenging team – but he knows that this will not be their season. Liverpool made the best signing of the summer when Gerrard finally learnt to trust his heart and commit himself to Liverpool and they will improve on their abysmal away form last season. Crucially though, despite signing Crouch who has a great touch for a big man (has somebody already said that?), Liverpool lack quality up-front.

5 Bolton – Sam Alladyce’s tactics may not be to the liking of everyone, but does he care? Of course not. Bolton have become one of the most savvy teams around and every player understands exactly what is required from him in every game. Big Sam pulled off two great sigings last year in Jaidi and Diouff- Could Borgetti and Faye have a similar effect this season? Europe for the Trotters!

6 Tottenham – Europe for Spurs as well! After talk of Rivaldo, Vieri, Figo and every other aging world superstar arriving at the Lane, Spurs have finally signed one, Edgar Davids. Spurs showed signs of major improvement under Martin Jol last season and they boast a great forward line led by the indefatigable Jermaine Defoe. But Davids could be the catalyst for a great campaign. Do not forget that Davids was the man who almost single-handedly propelled Barcelona from ruin to Spanish champions two seasons ago – and I think he will be up for a challenge in North London.

The bottom

18. Charlton - Everything else in this article is pretty predictable so I thought I would throw this one into the pan to spice things up a bit. Yes, Charlton have become an established Premiership side over the past few years but complacency can be a terrible thing and last season there were signs that Alan Curbishley’s magic was wearing off at The Valley. No major signings this summer and an un-inspiring strike force will mean that Charlton, not their London Rivals West Ham or West Brom will be relegated. Curbishley needs a new challenge but after next season his stock will have taken a rapid nose-dive.

19. Sunderland – I am unlike Roy Keane in many ways - I am not one of the most tenacious midfielders who ever played the game, I don't take my poor dog out for walks in Cheshire every hour of every day and I have great respect for Mick McCarthy. McCarthy has proved himself to be a very astute and knowledgeable manager – in the Championship. The Premier League is a whole different ball game though and Sunderland will struggle. However, Stead, Stubbs and Le Tallac are shrewd signings – perhaps they’ll prove me wrong.

20. Wigan – This will be one of those seasons where Wigan fans will be saying “we’re just glad to be in the top flight”. Unfortunately, they will not be saying that by the time season 2006-2007 comes around. Oh how I would love someone nicknamed “The Duke” to finish as the Premier League top scorer though. Ellington and Camara will ruffle a few Premiership defences, but at the other end Wigan’s backline will be ruffled, dishevelled, beaten up and left for dead. Oh well. Wigan - please prove me wrong.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Community Shield curtain-raiser

What started as a level playing game turned into a battle of upmanship as Didier Drogba spilled first blood within 10 mins. A clear ball from Asier Del Horno seemed telegraphed and therefore expected to be dealt with comfortably by either Kolo Toure or Phillippe Senderos. Usually the Swiss defender shows strength and tact when dealing with the ball or being on the ball. This time Drogba was too strong and too quick in getting in front of Senderos and then knocking the ball forward to hit a shot past Jens Lehmann. Prior to this Arsenal started the better, but players on both sides showed no panic or eagerness to hit the other hard from the kick-off. I sensed it would take a mistake for someone to score, so tight was the play but here Drogba was too much for Senderos. The Ivory Coast forward was a threat almost every time when the ball was near him.

Again in the second half there was little between the two sides. But then Drogba took practically the same amount of time to strike as he did in the first half, for on 52mins Eidur Gudjohnsen sent a ball over the Arsenal defence for Drogba to run on to. Senderos tracked him but couldn't muscle him off his path, which left Drogba with a one-on-one with Lehmann. As Drogba turned away from Lehmann to the left, Toure and Lauren came back to defend, Lauren's attempt to tackle seemed weak as Drogba held onto the ball and curled a shot past Toure on the line. Clearly the striker is staking a big claim for a first team spot come next Sunday.

Arsenal almost immediately hit back. Gilberto Silva made a good impression coming on for Flamini in the middle and his ball to the advancing Ljungberg on the right found the Swede crossing low, the ball coming off a Chelsea defender into the path of Francesc Fabregas, who side-footed in. It was what Arsenal needed before Drogba struck his second.

With six subs allowed from either side, Arsenal used all of theirs with Mathieu Flamini, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Senderos and Lauren coming off for Silva, Robin van Persie, Alexander Hleb, Antonio Reyes, Pascal Cygan and Justin Hoyte respectively. Chelsea made four with Drogba, Gudjohnsen, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff off for Hernan Crespo, Tiago, Shaun-Wright Phillips and Joe Cole.

Most will say today was not an expectation of what will come in the campaign, but neither side wanted to lose to the other and here Chelsea have current bragging rights. I felt Arsenal were not strong enough overall, their running was as expected but Vieira's presence in the middle with command and vision, awareness and superiority was missing. Too often the midfield was open for Chelsea to steadily pass around and Arsenal became all the better when Silva was introduced. While Arsenal are reported to be unsettled with Sol Campbell, they are not releasing him and his strength and speed at the back will be welcomed. Senderos had some difficulty with Drogba but in fairness he held the defence well overall.

Thierry Henry wasn't the usual rampant self where he'd come deep to pick up and practically out-sprint all towards goal. The kind of ball he would gobble up from Bergkamp or Vieira or even Silva hardly came but he made several link-ups with Hleb and Fabregas, more than he did in the first half. Hleb made a number of good passes that reached their targets instead of giving away possession.

Chelsea played very well to hold out Arsenal and hardly made silly mistakes, which will please Jose Mourinho as much as the win itself. Petr Cech had a relatively active game, while the same could almost be said for Lehmann. Other than Drogba's goals, Chelsea hadn't really troubled the German and then Chelsea did look to threaten, the linesman's flag stopped them. Claude Makelele seems an average player on appearance but he manages to hold onto the ball and diverts it away from danger with accuracy under pressure almost every time.

John Terry had a good game, coming to meet several high balls to clear, William Gallas had a good game too, attacking as a sweeper behind Paulo Ferreira particularly with Pires and Ashley Cole. I found it odd to play Gudjohnsen in a midfield role, whereas I feel he is even more effective up with Drogba but he put in the same solid effort today as he always does.

It was a good game, slightly slow to begin with but picked up after the first goal.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Amsterdam Tournament win highlights the Bergkamp problem

The Amsterdam tournament was reassuring for this writer. I was happy to see Ashley Cole in an Arsenal shirt playing to his normal high standard; new signing Alexander Hleb showed good technical ability and an eye for a killer pass; and Mathieu Flamini showed great Parlour-esque energy as the midfield anchor-man.

Moreover - albeit it was only a pre-season tournament - to beat Ajax and Porto on the road must add to the team's collective confidence which often takes a hammering when in Europe.

However, the main player behind the victory should concern Arsene Wenger. He is the one player who the others look up to, and who links the midfield and attack like no one else can.

That player is Dennis Bergkamp.

It is only hypothetical, but if Dennis was available for away games in Europe, there is no doubt in my mind that Arsenal would have fared better in the Champs league in the last six years.

On Sunday, Dennis was rested on the bench in the first half. Up-front Jose was paired with Thierry. Hleb played on the left and Pires again took on the central midfield playmaker role that I envisage he will rotate with Cesc Fabregas this season.

Porto outplayed Arsenal in the first half and deservedly went in one-nil ahead. Arsenal had no passing cohesion, attacks broke down easily, and Porto accordingly grew in confidence culminating in their goal. It was reminiscent of our worst away performances in the Champs League- a pale shadow of our potential.

The second half saw the arrival of Freddie and Dennis. With Dennis on the pitch, the whole team lifted in confidence. They played the ball through Dennis, and the team found their attacking rhythm.

In particular, Thierry always looks a more contented player when Dennis is on the pitch; he is nowhere near gaining a similar working partnership with Reyes.

Within fifteen minutes Arsenal had made the first half domination of Porto a distant memory and were ahead through two Freddie goals.

The contrast of the first half to the second half was marked. And the key to this was Dennis Bergkamp. The fact that Arsenal are still over-reliant on someone who is unavailable for away matches in Europe should concern Wenger. I believe he AGAIN must have taken note of this fact.

I wrote after the Bayern defeat that Mr Wenger's first priority next year must be a forward player who can partner Thierry with the same qualities that Bergkamp possesses. It was always going to be a big ask.

It looks as if Julio Cesar Baptista was ear-marked for this role, but Real Madrid stole in on him. Michael Owen could not fulfil the Bergkamp role because he is a pure finisher, not an all-round team player; hence the Wenger 'no thanks' to making a move for the ex-Liverpool striker.

Arsene's experiment of a defensive 4-5-1 that took everyone by surprise in the FA cup final was not on show at the weekend. However, unless Wenger can bring in a Bergkamp clone to the club in the next few weeks, (or can convince Dennis that flying will not lead to inevitable disaster) I believe this formation will re-emerge away in Europe this season.

With Bergkamp in an unaccustomed target man role, and Reyes in an even more unaccustomed right-wing role, the performance against Man Utd was always doomed to be a failure.

But Arsene won’t repeat the same mistakes again. I think it will look more like this:

_________________Ljungberg__________ Reyes

P.S. I see that Peter 'bad for the game' Kenyon is at it again this morning; this time smirking as he dismissed all opposition for the Premiership crown. Rarely has there been a more deserving candidate for the expression 'pride comes before a fall'.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The one who regrets is Mourinho

Not only has Peter Kenyon stoked the fire by speaking out against Manchester United and Arsenal, not only has Chelsea contributed to severing relations with Arsenal over the Ashley Cole affair, not only has Jose Mourinho poured scorn over the club's relations with Arsenal by stating that he has no feelings towards them, not only has Mourinho upset Arsenal by inferring their vice-chairman David Dein may have influence within the Football Association (where Arsenal's fixtures are concerned), Mourinho now states that Steven Gerrard will rue not joining Chelsea this season.

"It will be a loss for him, for his career. He can say 'I was European champion at Liverpool' and that is correct,.....[b]ut I can say to him in the next 10 years we will compare trophies at Chelsea and Liverpool. And he'll lose.

[I]t is Gerrard's loss more than Chelsea's."

What Jose Mourinho fails to have understood is that Gerrard didn't stay because he expects to win more achievements with Liverpool. He stayed because he is Liverpool. He stayed because he is passionate about the club. He stayed because he knew how much we wanted him to stay and how much he wanted to stay. At one point it seemed he wasn't sure that the board wanted him to stay, but we did and he did. If the player loves the club so much that despite interests from elsewhere, even from the top of the league, they remain with the club, then there is more to his life than more money and being with another, more competitive club.

Gerrard has won the FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup, Charity Shield, European Super Cup, and Champions League, so he is more than a European champion. Domestically, he needs the title. Internationally, he needs the European Cup and World Cup. More importantly, he wants to do these as a Liverpool player. It is Mourinho who is upset because he didn't manage to coax Gerrard away, despite big monies and big plans of football domination. That is Mourinho's vision, fair enough. It just wasn't exactly Gerrard's.

This season could be the one where Benitez emerges further than others would bet on. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are Mourinho's prime rivals, the top three, so focus is aimed towards their respective camps and preparations. But while Chelsea may mainly look over at Arsenal and Man Utd, they could do with a look out at Liverpool too.

It is easy to say "....Chelsea have good solutions; a good team with the conditions to improve and a club that will be one of the best in the world in a short period of time." When you have £200m+ to spend on players, you are expected to buy the best, be the best, beat the rest. Rafael Benitez didn't and doesn't and still spirited his team to win. Perhaps if Mourinho wanted to manage a player of Gerrard's calibre, he should have informed Anfield of his interests instead of Stamford Bridge. I have said before that a true test would have been managing in the Premiership without such a budget, instead relying on team spirit, graft, fitness, talent and tactics.

I am aware of Mourinho's achievements, a treble with Porto 2003; a double in 2004 including the Champions League; and the Premiership double this year. The Premiership is a new ball game to many of Europe's leagues'. You don't need multi-million budgets and star players to win, even Mourinho witnessed that with Porto.



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