Based in London and writing for a global audience our aim is to produce EliteFootballTalk. Enjoy the site and feel welcome to join in our discussion on the beautiful game.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Djibril Cisse's travel plans in January 2006

Djibril Cisse: "There is not truth whatsoever in this story [Cisse's brother is said to have claimed a deal to bring Cisse over to Marseille is 90% done] and I am really annoyed with my brother, who I have no contact with, for this. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how happy I am here at Liverpool. This is my club, I waited for a long time to come here and I'm here to stay. The fans are amazing, my team-mates and manager are amazing, and it's just a fantastic club. I have had no contact with Marseille and the ongoing speculation about my future is boring.

It has caused me a lot of problems but I won't let it affect me. My mind is focused only on doing my best for Liverpool. We have some tough games coming up and I am fully concentrated on them. To score in the derby was a special moment for me and one I will never forget. My confidence is high and I just want to continue playing well and scoring goals for this club. There is so much to look forward to here. We have a great team and we have a lot to play for in the second half of the season."

Rafael Benitez: "There is no news and we don't want to sell Djib. He is a very important player for us who has shown the kind of attitude I like in players. He is a good finisher and against Everton I knew his pace would give us options."

It's the kind of statement Liverpool fans have waited to hear for quite a while now. He doesn't want to leave, neither does Benitez, neither do the fans. Now we can get on further with the football and let that, rather than the media, do the talking.


Everton need to overhaul their defence

As a non-Evertonian I watched the Merseyside Derby searching for reasons why Everton have had such a poor calendar year. The departure of Gravesen, followed by the long-term injury to his partner-in-crime in midfield Lee Carsley, has accelerated a decline in fortune for the club who took the Premiership by storm in the first half of last season.

Yet I don’t consider Everton's main problem to be in midfield. Many Premiership teams would like to select midfielders with the experience and talent of Arteta, Neville, Davies, Osman, Van der Merde (when he's fit!), Kilbane, and Cahill.

And as I saw against Liverpool, their problem isn’t a lack of heart and commitment. These players care and are giving their all for Moyes and the fans.

For me, Everton's number one problem is their defence. In short, three out of four of the defenders in Everton's back four are only average Premeirship quality and are always liable to concede quite a few goals.

David Weir is too slow and lacks strength relative to the demands of the Premiership.

Tony Hibbert is a limited footballer and is only still in the team because Wigan beat Moyes to purchase the excellent RB prospect, Ryan Taylor, from Tranmere.

And Nuno Valente is badly struggling to make the transition from the low-tempo, highly technical Portugese Championship football to the high-tempo, highly physical Premiership football. He lacks pace and I have been surprised how poor he looks for someone with a 2004 Champs League medal.

These three Everton defenders are weak-links for a team trying to stabilise. Saying this, however, it is also wrong to pin-point blame alone on Everton's defence for the club's poor results; every Everton player needs to examine their own contribution to the defensive effort as does Moyes own coaching. Conceding four goals three times this Premiership season, plus five against Bucharest and seven in May to Arsenal is a worrying trend that demands circumspection by everyone concerned.

On the plus side, I look forward to seeing whether Per Kroldrup can make the difference and strike up a good partnership with the improving Joseph Yobo who has impressed me this season. Overall, however, I reckon a bigger overhaul of Everton's defence is required if Moyes wants better consistency and form than displayed in this calendar year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Reyes/Bergkamp/Henry is AFC's most fluent attacking combination

The Reyes/Bergkamp/Henry combination made only its second appearance of the season in last night's 4-0 thumping of a sub-par Portsmouth team. The first time also resulted in four goals scored when Fulham visited Highbury on matchday three.

Injuries to all these players has prevented Wenger from fielding this trio simultaneously. It is fantastic that he has not forgotten the power, fluency and deadly effectiveness of this proven winning combination.

Its fair to say that Theirry thrives most when Dennis is in the team. He loves Dennis and over the last six years they have built-up a unique bond and ability to maximise each other's attacking talents. These two up-front together is a proven magical combo for Arsenal.

Since arriving at Highbury, Reyes has been at his best as a dynamic, attacking left winger who will get into the box to support the front two and score goals with his accurate left foot. Last night, he got in the box to support Henry and score a superb second goal to effectively end the game on 13 minutes, and on 42 minutes he sprinted into the six yard box to receive a Pires pass (I really hope the excellent Pires is given two more years!) only to be bought down for a penalty.

Reyes' youthful energy perfectly complements the legendary guile of Bergkamp and all round attacking power of Henry. The fluency of their attacking play at extreme pace and skill is simply brilliant, and is my favourite attacking combination for AFC because it consistently maximises the special talents of each of these players for the overall advantage of the team.

Arsenal more often than not fly when these three are in the same team. I hope its not another four months until I see it again!

Wenger's experiment with the 4-5-1 - maximising the talents of Fabregas and Hleb in the CM - got its first win away at Charlton, and I see good potential in its use as a Plan B, especially away from home. But in the tight confines of Highbury I prefer the compact and proven successful 4-4-2, so yesterday was excellent for seeing that Wenger will still apply this as his Plan A with the fantastic Reyes/Bergkamp/Henry combination as its spearhead.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Wigan v Man City thriller as four see red in Premiership

Quick overview of the matches yesterday. Five contentious handball decisions and four sending-offs in the Premiership, one of each came in the Liverpool v Newcastle game, which I have commented on separately in another article prior to this.

Wigan Athletic 4 Manchester City 3

Looked a fantastic game to have seen live, Wigan followed their 3-goal aggregate against Charlton with another home win almost by the same aggregate. Antoine Sibierski is finding good form for City, scoring first, and then what ensued was a home side bonanza. Jason Roberts and Sylvain Distin had a fierce time tussling which the Frenchman looked to have in the bag but when Roberts was found by Jimmy Bullard, he left Distin behind for the equaliser. Lee McCulloch sent a great header past David James, and Roberts capitalised on a clash between Ben Thatcher and Distin to run onto the ball, Distin trying to outmuscle the forward but Roberts was having none of it and kept him off to score. Henri Camara didn't want to be left out and slotted his effort for 4-1, and Wigan seemed to have relaxed too easily because Man City threatened whenever they came forward so at 4-1 it was not game over. Joey Barton slapped a great volley for 4-2 and he had been a major trouble to Wigan throughout the game, and Andy Cole made a trademark turn and shoot to bring City almost to level terms.

Charlton 0 Arsenal 1

Crucial derby game for both sides, both wanted three points to turn a troubling period for the better and I would have wagered on a 1-1 draw before kick-off. Thomas Myhre saved very well from both Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg, the Swede should have scored. But Alan Curbishley would be happy for a no-score draw at half time. But happily for Arsene Wenger is that Arsenal kept the majority of the chances and pressed on after the break, with their renowned quick movement and one-touch passing creating a host of openings to no avail. One such chance did prove fruitful with Henry found in the box and his effort was saved well by Myhre but rebounded to Jose Reyes to score. Arsenal were very lucky not to have conceded a penalty when Pascal Cygan committed contentious handball no.1, but they were worthy of the win. Danny Murphy received a second booking for dissent after throwing the ball down following a freekick against Herman Hreidarsson and red card no.1.

Aston Villa 4 Everton 0

Watched this game on Sky Sports live and Everton were unlucky in not gaining the lead first as James Beattie headed over with a good chance. But then came contentious handball no.2 as Milan Baros clearly handled with his left hand and lobbed Nigel Martyn. Mike Riley had such a clear view of it it beggared belief. I wouldn't call that indecision the turning point, Everton were caught napping for Villa's 2nd when Mark Delaney ran onto a corner ball and hooked it over Martyn and all. Tim Cahill was guilty of going to cover and then stopping, for some reason. Still, there was some 30mins or more between the 2nd and 3rd goal for Everton to exert the kind of pressure they had put on Manchester United at Old Trafford. Beattie emerged from a melee in the box to prod an effort at Thomas Sorensen and Simon Davies hit a fierce shot for the Dane keeper to touch over.

Cahill shouldn't have been subbed, James McFadden wasted good balls and should have instead. Villa gained their 3rd when sub Juan Pablo Angel came on and 12mins later took the ball in the middle, conducting one-two with Baros as Everton's midfield were somehow missing or comatose and eventually ran onto a Baros ball to beat the off-side trap and score. 120 seconds later Villa broke on the counter, Joseph Yobo saw the danger of Baros but decided not to pay heed to it, sub Craig Gardner was found down the right and he in turn sent a lovely curling ball around the defence to the oncoming Baros who side-foot first time past Martyn, who seemed reluctant to make an effort to stop it.

Spurs 2 Birmingham 0

I thought Birmingham gave a very good account of themselves in the first-half and could have gotten more out of this game. Seeing as they are struggling but held a good side in Spurs to a no-score first half, Steve Bruce would be optimistic of getting something. But Matthew Upson had to wrap arms around Robbie Keane in the box and it doesn't take much for Keane to go down but the principle is never to do such a thing in that area. Keane slotted the spot-kick. Some seven minutes later, Muzzy Izzet received a second yellow for diving, which seemed the right decision on replay so Phil Dowd was spot on and slightly zealous in brandishing the cards, red card no.2 of the day. Jermaine Defoe added a 2nd with a run and a fierce shot that Maik Taylor had no chance with.

Chelsea 3 Fulham 2

Another good game, William Gallas capitalising on Robert Huth's flick for the opener, Frank Lampard aimed a trademark shot from outside the box off Sylvain Legwinski and high into the net. Brian McBride had a nasty gash on the side of his head from jumping with Huth but came back on to guide a delivered freekick into the net, Petr Cech had allowed the ball to come down and go through his legs. McBride hadn't finished and in the 2nd half he took the ball into the box and was fouled from behind by Joe Cole. Heidar Helguson rolled the penalty into the net. But Cole made big amends for that by running down the right and sending a great ball across goal for Hernan Crespo to touch first time past Tony Warner, on for injured Mark Crossley.

Two contentious handballs here, no.3 and 4. A Chelsea ball aimed at Crespo with Zat Knight following resulted in the defender raising his hand to stop the ball, which was thought to have crossed the line beforehand (no pun intended) but was later replayed to show the ball hadn't and was very much in play. The other was a Luis Boa Morte shot that struck John Terry on the hands but the ref must have considered it more ball to hand than vice versa, and it would have been harsh to give, considering the fierce drive of the shot. Made a good save, though.

Manchester United 3 West Bromwich Albion 0

Rio Ferdinand had an excellent performance. Helped to keep a clean sheet, started the move for the 1st goal, scored the 2nd and came forward with better focus and determination. Paul Robinson did well to thwart Wayne Rooney, who is a massive key to Utd's revival following the Europe exit, but following his collision with an Albion player he was stretchered off, so all the best to him for his recovery. Straight after, Ferdinand ran down the right and crossed for Park Ji-Sung to set up Paul Scholes for goal no.1. A Ryan Giggs delivery from a corner found Ferdinand's head for no.2, good header, and in the 2nd half Alan smith broke down the right to cross for Ruud Van Nistelrooy to complete the scoring.

Middlesbrough 0 Blackburn Rovers 2

The Riverside must be fed up of seeing Blackburn at home. Defeated by the late, late single goal in the League Cup tie, which Shefki Kuqi was partly responsible for, and despite good, good chances to score, capitulated to two Kuqi goals yesterday. Aiyegbeni Yakubu should have scored when he headed over from yards, though he may have been slightly distracted. Gaizka Mendieta could have had a penalty when he was struck by a foot across the chest but later on missed a glaring goal opportunity when Yakubu excellently stood up after a reckless Andy Todd hack that could have clearly conceded a penalty and squared it for the Spaniard. Kuqi jumped in the Boro box to head home a superb cross from the left and in the 2nd half pounced on a spill when Craig Bellamy's shot was denied by Mark Schwarzer. The Finn could have, and should have, had a hat-trick when Bellamy cross from the right with Schwarzer late to stop him, the goal completely open, Kuqi went to ride a challenge instead of aiming to make a first touch, and then couldn't recover in time to make the ball. But it emphasised what I had said from before that he should play regularly with Bellamy for Blackburn to prosper.

Sunderland 0 Bolton Wanderers 0

A well earned point for Sunderland, I wonder if they can bring this kind of effort more often to get out of relegation, although it seems unlikely. Bolton rode many chances, while the home side showed guile in continuing to get at Bolton at least to be a nuisance, Jussi Jaaskelainen saving well from a Julio Arca curling ball.

Portsmouth 1 West Ham 1

There's a revival on the horizon at Fratton Park, though the away performances are yet to be analysed further under Harry Redknapp. Portsmouth FC seem to be the sinking ship that Redknapp is happy to captain and go down with, but not without the effort he is renowned for to battle for survival first. They should have had a penalty when Lomano LuaLua tricked away from Paul Konchesky and was tripped by the left-back, but later the Congolese national found Lauren Robert and the Frenchman squared for Gary O'Neil to score, so at least Portsmouth are capable now of first creating the lead. Roy Carroll came out to grab the ball and despite the Match of the Day commentator seeing the stilled replay and exclaiming the ball was within the box, it clearly was not and the Irishman was very lucky. But the lead diminished in the 56th minute when a West Ham corner was not cleared and it fell to James Collins, whose shot zipped past all and in. Robert picked up the league's fourth red card for a second yellow after catching Konchesky.


Owen's return is made low-key......very.

Liverpool 2 Newcastle 0

The pre-match hype featured on Michael Owen's return to Liverpool. Owen made comments in a Times article relating to the reception he expected to receive, the quality of our strikers not guaranteeing 20 goals a season like Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler and himself, and how the fans shouldn't take it personally if he were to celebrate scoring. "Liverpool don't really have a player who will guarantee them 20 goals a season in the way Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler or myself did. Even though it does not seem to be holding them back", said Owen. He has seven goals in eight appearances for Newcastle, 2 of which came against West Brom, 3 against West Ham, both away.

Graeme Souness returned to Liverpool himself, adding: ""Michael is an honest man and Liverpool was his first choice, but it wasn't to be. I'd like to think he will want to go back there and show them what they are missing........I'm sure he will get a fantastic reaction from the Liverpool supporters who are very, very special. They have a history of showing affection for former players who are nowhere near the stature of Michael Owen when they go back to Anfield. I don't think, I know, he will get a very special welcome. They remember him with great fondness."

Alan Shearer: "Michael makes Newcastle a much better team. I think that would apply to any team he was at, including Liverpool. He would improve any team he was playing in. That's proved by the number of goals he scores. He's a goal machine. Signing Michael was never going to be a gamble. You can never guarantee anything in football but, with him, you're just guaranteed goals. The chairman knew all about what Michael brings and that was why he was prepared to blow everybody else out of the water with his £16m bid."

So we messed up, we were not thinking correctly, didn't spend more than double what we sold Owen for to get him, allowed Newcastle to emerge and get his signature despite Owen saying he wanted to go there on loan if we were not interested, and now comes the day for us to rue in the aftermath of Owen's goals in defeat. Not.

Owen's article in the Times was merely a guidance brochure for Liverpool fans in the same way one finds the emergency procedures tucked in behind the plane seat in front. Owen scores and celebrates and we are expected to remain humble as he dances around the pitch in jubilation. Liverpool fans have further memories than that. We remember the goals he scored for us, no doubt, the movements, the runs, the nearlys', the almosts', we don't forget that, it would be very foolish to say so. We also remember when he was due to sit down and talk with new boss Rafael Benitez and then word came of interest from Real Madrid and then he was gone.

People may say Liverpool fans continue as if they expect no one to leave the club. Untrue, very. Players want to stay, good, if not and they want to leave, fair enough. We don't want anyone who wishes to leave staying and possibly spreading unhappiness to the others. This was realised with Owen and Rafael let him go, reluctantly. Remember, Owen wanted to leave, we never wanted him to go. He was said to be on the verge of signing for us until Real Madrid came in and clearly took advantage of the contractual wrangle that had Owen and Liverpool at a stalemate. We sold him for peanuts.

Liverpool fans do not blame him for leaving, for wanting to leave. We blame him for leaving in the manner that he did, after negotiations with the club which seemed to end with his signature for us, only for Real to step in, and this was after they had initially failed to attract Arsenal's Patrick Vieira. Let's make that much clear. Issues were made to make Liverpool Football Club the culprit for allowing Owen to leave. It was practically the same scenario with Steven Gerrard, until a dramatic U-turn occurred, for the better for Liverpool fans. Let's make that much clear.

People may say Liverpool fans don't show respect for past players. Untrue again, very. We have seen Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish when he took over from Kevin Keegan, John Barnes (all with Newcastle with Beardsley also visiting Anfield with Everton), Paul Walsh, to name a few. The only gripe we have with a former player was with Steve McManaman, enough said about that departure, ironically to Real Madrid too and he hardly fared well there himself. Owen was said to have received mixed reactions yesterday, but he would have got a bigger red carpet treatment than that he received when he arrived at St James' Park, had he left Liverpool on better terms.

I need not spell it out but in a nutshell he should have said he wants to leave, handed in a request, explained that he wished to seek honours that he felt he could achieve with another side, then the expected attempts to convince him otherwise, to no avail, eventually accept it and then negotiations with another club comes to the purchase. We accepted we were not looking good enough to be in a position to compete for honours, much less win them, at the time and for someone like Owen to want to go was very understandable. Just not under the circumstances that emerged in the end. No.

Owen is believed to have left us for glory in an instant after it was anticipated he was going to sign for us, endured a year on Real Madrid's bench (unjustly in my opinion) when Raul and Ronaldo were not scoring often enough, scored 16 goals which would justify being a regular first-teamer than a sub, realised his position at the Bernabeu was potentially hampering his chances for England in preparation for the World Cup in Germany and therefore seeked to play regular football, with no guarantees from Real, and he wanted to return home. All of this while we improved under our new manager, almost won the League Cup, achieved a dramatic victory against the odds in the Champions League, a record 5th time for a British side. Without a guaranteed 20-goals-a-season striker too.

Of course Owen would be pushed to comment on a special day for him but should have kept it more discreet, instead of commenting on our strikers, for one. It was an attempt to quiet our fans when he celebrates scoring but with the added comments from Shearer and Souness, it failed three-fold. Gary McAllister refrained from celebrating when he scored Liverpool's 2nd against Coventry at Highfield Road in a 0-2 victory in April 2001, and they respected him even more. Kevin Phillips scored for Aston Villa against Sunderland this season at The Stadium of Light, and did the same. They didn't make comments in papers before the game to appeal to the home fans, and Owen didn't need to either but I sense it was expected he would be hyped to show Liverpool what we had missed out on. Yet he and Shearer were hardly given a sniff, according to statistics with Liverpool practically rampaging for the majority of the match with the abundance of chances that both Shearer and Owen would have cherished being on the end of.

Rio Ferdinand said it best in his post-match interview, when asked about his scoring twice in one season so far, when he said it isn't fair to rely on the forwards to score goals and therefore good for others to score too. That way, there isn't so much reliance on a 20-goals-a-season striker.

The match therefore was quite a thrill, Peter Crouch proving that he doesn't have to be a striking striker to influence or aid Liverpool, his touch on Luis Garcia's ball came to Gerrard for our 1st, then his header at the near post was just about over the line for our 2nd. Shay Given was excellent in goal again and denied what could have been more goals for us. Replays show Nolberto Solano used his arm to prevent the ball going further in the box, which was missed. I thought Lee Bowyer would be shown just a yellow at best, seemed that kind of tackle. Crouch deserved his and should have held more coolness, though I sympathise with his feelings at the time. One or two reports suggest Crouch was lucky to remain on the pitch but shoving is a yellow card offence, not red, to clear any grey area. Gerrard was lucky not to get booked himself, Shearer too. Souness claims such a decision would happen away from home especially, which could explain why Shearer was not sent off against Arsenal at St James's.


Monday, December 26, 2005

FC Barcelona and the magic of Estadio Camp Nou

I have been to many famous stadiums round the world, but none come close to the experience of being in the Camp Nou. Last Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to get a pair of tickets to watch Barcelona take on Celta Vigo.

How I got my ticket?

The day before the match, my friend and I went to the Camp Nou to do a museum tour, this is a must for any tourist visiting Barcelona. When we got there, to my amazement the club was selling tickets for the match against Celta, luckily I had my credit card on me and was able to purchase two tickets for a total of 38 Euros. From the moment of purchase I was filled with excitement. As I walked back to the metro station I kept looking back at this magnificent stadium, I could not wait to be back here on match night.

My trip to the stadium on Match night

My hotel was only a short metro ride away from the stadium. I got on the train (L3) at Para-Lel. The train was packed with Barcelona fans, three stops later, we all had to vacate the train. The driver gave no explanation. Some passengers asked him what was going on, he ignored everyone and just concentrated on ensuring that no one remained in the carriages. This was greeted with jeers, but the driver just stormed off.

So we waited, only 15 minutes away from kick off, there was anxious look among the passengers, but soon afterwards another train arrived. We all squeezed on, the train was now beyond its capacity, but no one cared, everyone was just determined to get to the match. Five minutes later, we arrived at our stop, Les Corts, everyone rushed off the train and walked towards the stadium (about a two minute walk). With Kick off approaching, by the time I got to my seat in the top tear of Camp Nou, the stadium was packed with all the supporters.

Awe struck

As I took my seat in the upper tier, having climbed up millions of stairs I was awe struck. The stadium was lit up beneath a star lit sky. I was so high up , but yet felt so close to the surface. There was something magical about being in the Camp Nou, ever since that night I have been searching for the reasons for its magic. What makes the stadium unique? Why was I awe struck? I simply don’t know, this is just a feeling that one can get from being in the stadium on a match night.

The Camp Nou does not have a roof, except for a small section of the stadium, and even then the roof is barely noticeable, such is its size. That in itself makes the stadium stand out, it is almost as though the heaven is overlooking the stadium.

The match itself

Samuel Eto'o continued his remarkable goal-scoring form this season as Barcelona extended their winning streak to 13 matches with a 2-0 victory over Celta Vigo.

Ronaldinho paraded his Fifa Player of the Year Award, Samuel Eto'o his third place trophy and Lionel Messi his Tuttosport Young Player of the Year Award.

But in a lively start Celta Vigo showed they would not be overawed by the home side and their 12 match winning run as they tried to push forward.

Fernando Baiano - who has been a key man in attack for Celta this season with his pace, strength, and deft touch - set up the first chance. Played in by Silva, he fired a dangerous ball across the face of goal but Antonio Nunez was unable to stretch far enough at the far post.

Baiano was ruing his misfortune after 33 minutes when he thundered a shot against the crossbar from the right-side of the area with the keeper well beaten.

Barca were limited to a number of half-chances but showed their potency with a goal out of the blue in the 38th minute. Ronaldinho quickly took a free-kick and with the Celta defence napping, Eto'o slipped the ball past the keeper.

In the second half, Barca waited for the opening to extend their lead and it came after 56 minutes. Andres Iniesta twisted and turned on the edge of the area before slipping the ball through to Eto'o who made no mistake from 15 yards.

The three up front

Barca were not at their vintage best, but you had to be in the stadium to appreciate the movement of the front three. Barca played with one up at the top with one player on either side. The positional strategy remained the same throughout the match with the personnel changing positions all the time.

At the start it Was Eto in the middle, with Ronaldhino on the left and Deco on the right, then it was Ronaldhino in the middle with Eto on the left, then it was Deco’s turn in the middle and this patter of constant changing was evident throughout the match. In glimpses, the world footballer of the year showed why he is the world’s best player. He was involved in both of the goals, and was at his best when hugging the left touch line. He and Deco have sublime ball control, Eto lacks in that department but makes up for it with his killer instinct in front of goal.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Three elements that Arsenal need to be back to their best

Chelsea's well-drilled full team beat a somewhat makeshift/experimental 4-5-1 Arsenal team.

Given this context it is not a surprise that Arsenal lost. In particular, Arsenal's defence had three players out of their regular position, and it was the lack of expertise in new positions that proved costly for both conceded goals.

Up to Chelsea's goal I felt positive about the Arsenal performance. Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb really dug in and matched up well with their more experienced midfield opponents. Toure was excellent doing the work of two players as he charged up and down the whole of the right flank. Senderos was going toe-for-toe with Drogba (an experience which will do him a lot of good). And RVP struck a lovely goal only for the linesman to incorrectly flag it offside (I really like his fighting attitude which again was evident yesterday).

Considering the relative inexperience of our team I was very happy with what I was seeing.

But Robben's goal hit our confidence, and gave Chelsea licence to fully concentrate on what they do best: stop the opposition. Chelsea know how to defend a lead and our experimental 4-5-1 was simply not grooved enough to comeback. Lauren's mistake followed by Joe Cole's superb finish merely confirmed that it was not going to be Arsenal's day.

But this fact does not mean that Arsenal are in terminal decline as some may be tempted to think. There are three elements that Arsenal need to be back to their best, and they can be activated in the short-to-medium term.

First, Arsenal seriously miss Cole/Clichy. Our defence is consistently leaking goals and it comes through not being able to pick our most experienced, well-drilled, 49ers defence of Lauren/Toure/Campbell/Cole. Getting Cole back is number one on my wish-list, and apparently this will happen in just three weeks (can't wait!).

Second is what has been mentioned so many times on EFT: we need an experienced, powerful CM with leadership qualities to back-up Gilberto, Fabregas and Flamini. I'm sure Wenger's scouting network is scouring the world for someone of this calibre, and I hope that we see someone in January (maybe non cup-tied Ivory Coast international Didier Zokora from St Etienne?).

Third, our right midfield position needs sorting out. I really wanted Wenger to buy SWP so to balance out our attacking options which mainly concentrates down the left (an option that seems to have been left alone since Cole/Clichy's absence). Freddie is increasingly going missing, and Hleb is more comfortable in the middle than on the right (apparently neither he nor Stuttgart fans were happy when he was moved into this position last season).

So it would be great if Arsene decided to buy PSV's rising star, Jefferson Farfan. He can play attacking wide right (or up front) in a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1. I was really impressed with him when Arsenal played PSV last season, and he has continued to impress in this seasons Champs league. I wanted Drogba at Arsenal a year before Chelsea bought him, and I see Farfan as a similar power-player with enormous latent potential that Wenger is expert enough to maximise.

On top of adding these three elements it must be remembered that Arsenal has some of the best youngsters in the world; one of the world's best coaches; a new 60,000 capacity state-of-the-art stadium as its home in eight months time, and a footballing tradition that rivals anyone in English football. Disappointed with recent results: Yes. Doom and gloom about the future of AFC: No chance!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Man Utd & Chelsea get further; Charlton & B'ham hit another setback

Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 2 - The VNR and Rooney show

John Motson: "Villa are all over the place and Rooney is causing havoc."

RedsMan MOTM: Wayne Rooney

Crisis? What crisis? It is thought that when a team exits a competition they can focus all the more on the league campaign. Utd remain in the league cup fixtures but a lot can go into the Champs League preparations, which are now, for them, sadly no more. It was a blow, the first time they failed to make the knock-out stages for a decade in the competition, but if they form the form they have had in the games after as a result, they can mount an even more serious challenge to Chelsea. I mentioned they may get 5pts out of three games following from the draw against Everton, but they are bang on for the full set with a rollercoaster ride in their forward line.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy pounced on a through ball and enjoys better form right now to put it away. Rooney tormented the Villa defence almost every time he advanced and he was played in for his goal, the Villa defence static in numbers around him.

Everton 0 Bolton 4 - Ups and downs for the Toffees' inconsistent late 2005

Guy Mowbray: "Everton are well and truly finished....they have folded....and Bolton are taking full advantage, they just switched off, Everton."

RedsMan MOTM: Stelios Giannakopoulos

Guy Mowbray described an implosion, which seemed fitting as the home side notched their 5th home defeat out of 8, their 10th defeat overall so far. Kevin Davies looped a header into goal that was rightly judged over the line, which made me wonder why Everton had striker James Beattie defending when they have adequate defenders to do so already. But this came on the half hour mark and Bolton's second didn't come until 15mins from time in the 2nd half, which is why the Everton fans were extremely frustrated. Three goals in 5mins. Personally I favour Kevin Kilbane over Simon Davies, Kilbane for me was instrumental for Everton at Old Trafford and is a faithful servant to the club.

Ricardo Vas Te is continuing to make a mark from the bench, 2mins on and he bursted through an open Everton defence to feed Giannakopoulos for Bolton's 2nd. Nuno Valente is said to have his arms around Davies in the box to give away the penalty for Bolton's 3rd and then the scoreline is completed when Gary Speed hard-tackles, the ball spills to Giannakopoulos, who slips Joseph Yobo, slips David Weir and hits a nice shot in. David Moyes called three of the goals 'park goals'. Couldn't be in terms of their quality, but in terms pf how they were defended.

Fulham 2 Blackburn Rovers 1 - Blackburn failing to release full potential

Martin Fisher: "Blackburn have found goals so hard to come by away from home, I suppose it's fitting that it's a member of the opposition that gets them the goal here today."

RedsMan MOTM: Luis Boa Morte

Blackburn are made to battle with a side which has good potential but fail because they cannot comprehend how to gel as a unit. Defensively it is a matter of clearing the ball rather than any thought into how to distribute calmly and accurately, particularly on the counter-attack. So on occasion they fail to read the movements of others, which breaks down their attack and they are open on the counter. Fulham are quite good in bursting on the counter, Steed Malbranque, Luis Boa Morte, Papa Dioup, Collins John are particularly capable of breaking out in pace, with Boa Morte and John eager to finish. I'm not aware of the impact of the captaincy on Boa Morte but he has a zest for play that Chris Coleman can ill-afford to do without. His freekick was delivered in for Dioup to head and score.

Fulham followed that with Heidur Helguson finding Boa Morte in the box and the Portuguese man finished off with a goal. Blackburn came back when Paul Dickov aimed to cross and Zat Knight headed in in an attempt to clear. It can happen but a decent defender doesn't do that as poorly. Blackburn started this match the brighter but failed to make more use of their possession, which opened John to force a good save out of Brad Friedel with a header some 20mins into the 1st half. Mark Hughes has Shefki Kuqi on the bench and opted for Bentley to partner Dickov. He needs to bring on Kuqi more from the start, Dickov could do with his energy and running to feed or to feed off.

Manchester City 4 Birmingham City 1 - Better response to WBA defeat for Pearce

Dan O'Hagan: "Jiri Jarosik with a shot....and a goal! It's a consolation, mere consolation, finishing start and his side have been woefully short of that this afternoon."

RedsMan MOTM: Joey Barton

Birmingham aimed to continue the blessed win they obtained last weekend against Fulham but turned up a different side with a different temperament. City were rampant from the start, David Sommeil taking the opportunity, after a melee in the box following a corner, to score. Keeper Nico Vaesen upended Darius Vassell for the penalty that led to Joey Barton's goal and City's 2nd. Antoine Sibierski outjumped all to head in City's 3rd on 38mins. Man City were not messing around, Stuart Pearce giving a little air punch and turning around to greet fans behind him when the first goal went in. The home side increased their lead when Bradley Wright-Phillips came on on 68mins and ran on 2mins later to meet Sibierski's knock-down to score.

With two substitutes in the 1st half, Steve Bruce had one more to go and put on Jarosik for Walter Pandiani and 3mins later the Czech ran on and sent a low shot round David James as, in the commentator's words, "mere consolation". To compound Birmingham's afternoon, Bradley-Phillips chased a ball into the box which Vaesen came to meet and held, then spilled and hastily grabbed again, judged to have happened outside the box. It was the keeper's 2nd booking.

Portsmouth 1 West Brom 0 - An awaited homecoming for manager and club

Jonathan Pearce: "This is Todorovvvvvvvv.....Svetoslav Todorov scores for Portsmouth!!.....for the first time since May 2003 when he got a hat-trick at Bradford."

[at the end]: "What a crucial moment for Portsmouth, for the roars that signal the referee's whistle and Harry Redknapp's return to Fratton Park as manager is greeted with a valuable, valuable victory."

RedsMan MOTM: Lomano LuaLua

After succumbing to Spurs on Monday, this was the type of effort Redknapp wanted displayed at home, at least, to bring some relief to the club. This was their 3rd win of the season, and their defeat record is equal to that of Everton, the difference being 2 places between 18th and 16th respectively. If Redknapp can keep the defence filled with Linvoy Primus, Andy O'Brien and Dejan Stefanovic throughout the season, they can have some kind of backbone to stabilise the wound of conceding. One bright spark is to recall Lauren Robert, for love him or hate him, he has a tasty left-foot on him and skill and can be the difference in a game if you can employ him usefully enough.

Another spark is Lomano LuaLua, robbing Neil Clement he ran on to square for Todorov to chip delicately over the keeper. I'm not sure about Todorov but Redknapp is familiar with him from West Ham and with Vincent Pericard injured, the Bulgarian Redknapp moved from West Ham to Portsmouth back in 2002 could revitalise not only his season, but that of Portsmouth and the manager. His goals aided Portsmouth's promotion in 2002 and they could well start to aid them now.

West Ham United 2 Newcastle United 4 - And for Owen's next (hat) trick.....

Simon Brotherton: "And [Newcastle] could wrap it up now....with Faye....and a chance for the hat-trick for Owen....Owen's hat-trick and the easiest goal of the three. Finally Newcastle put the game to bed."

Alan Pardew [post-match interview]: "We've controlled this game from start to finish almost.....we've shot ourselves in the foot with mistakes that have been costly today....but I couldn't fault my team's application to the game."

RedsMan MOTM: Michael Owen

I disagree with Alan Pardew, and therefore agree with Alan Shearer. It didn't look as if West Ham had such control, and by their defending of the goals, they had control only when going forward. Pardew mentioned West Ham's wonderful excellent play against Everton on Wednesday and again I didn't see that. Against Newcastle, typically Matthew Etherington and Marlon Harewood make 100m sprints in attack, but defensively West Ham were scattered. Shearer receives the ball and threads for Owen on the left, who finishes with his left. West Ham came back when a ball into the box was met by Titus Bramble but richoceted off Nolberto Solano and past Shay Given. Yet West Ham failed again to mark Owen and he rose to a floated ball for it to come off his shoulder and in. Owen returned the compliment to Shearer and fed him in the 2nd half neatly for the captain to score, only for Shola Ameobi afterwards to bizarrely give away a penalty with a slack hand to ball in the box. Harewood coolly dispatched the spot kick.

But deep into injury time found Roy Carroll pushing up to add to the numbers and suddenly Newcastle looked to break out. The ball was sent long down the right, Amdy Faye picked it up and with Owen frantically hailing a taxi on the left, the Senegalese midfielder found him with a perfect ball, Carroll by now had made his position way over to the right and therefore left space for Owen to gather with his left and finish with his right. I wonder if Newcastle are better off when Owen returns from injury. Statistics prove they certainly benefit more from his presence than his absence.

Wigan Athletic 3 Charlton Athletic 0 - And for Camara's next (hat) trick.....

Tony Gubba: "And it is the hat-trick and Camara has done it....and it's the 1st time Wigan have ever scored 3 goals in the Premiership and Charlton are battered and beaten."

RedsMan MOTM: Henri Camara

Wigan endured Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United consecutively but not in that order. It's a line-up of fixtures that gives cause for big concerns and Paul Jewell came out fo them like a wounded hero, cut, bruised, defeated but nonetheless spirited and defiant and prepared to go through it all again with valour. It's what he would expect from his players too and being their first time ever in the top flight, it has been a baptism that they still look comfortable from. They had 8 wins and 2 losses out of 11 before the five consecutive defeats but they didn't look like it against Charlton. How Harry Redknapp could do with Henri Camara again. How Jewell would fight to keep him.

Ten minutes in, Lee McCulloch picked up the throw in the box and turned to rifle a fierce volley that smacked the crossbar, Camara steadied himself to half-volley the rebound in. Charlton had a good chance in Darren Bent to score but was denied by Mike Pollitt. Wigan held well until the 2nd half, where they went better. Jason Roberts headed on a high ball and Herman Hreidarsson hesitated too long for Camara to come in and slightly steer the ball past the advancing Dean Kiely. Then after the hour, Camara was free to run on and then tap into an empty net when Kiely misses the ball. Charlton was another team who looked to add to a home win, against Sunderland, but at the JJB stadium they were lacklustre. Very. And they have Arsenal next.

Middlesbrough 3 Spurs 3 - Very entertaining game for neutrals

RedsMan MOTM: Aiyegbeni Yabuku

Superb game that had goals aplenty. A ball into the Boro box was challenged by Mark Schwarzer and Ahmed Mido, the ball spills and Robbie Keane is exactly that, keenly onto the ball to put it in. The Irishman is playing instinctively similar to Jermaine Defoe, why the England striker is being kept out. Boro equalise when James Morrison delivers a cross, Paul Saltieri watches Yakubu, leaves him, Lee Young-Pyo watches the Nigerian, leaves him, so by the time the ball comes across via a header, Yakubu smacks in a volley unmarked. Then Morrison goes on a run, no one shuts him down and within 30 yards he hits a fierce shot past Paul Robinson.

In the 2nd half, Boro concede a free-kick, from which Spurs fluff the set-up but get another chance as Yakubu brings down Edgar Davids. As he did expertly against Man United at Old Trafford, Jermaine Jenas stepped up with a dinky hop and unleashed a curled effort away from Schwarzer's outstretched right hand and in. Yet Boro gained the lead again through Franck Queudrue's header, judged to have rightly gone over the line, and then relinquished it when a corner for Spurs was met with a fine header by Mido. Morrison was rendered unconscious when Keane's right boot connected with his face, and worringly it looked serious but eventually the player was stretchered off and came to in the dressing room, with a black eye.

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 2 - Chelsea's first double over the Gunners for decades

RedsMan MOTM: Joe Cole

Chelsea came at Arsenal in the first 20mins and the Gunners back four looked very edgy. But despite the pressure Arsenal almost scored when Thierry Henry fashioned a great chance opening and instead of getting to curl the ball, aimed it straight and it came off the far post. Didier Drogba was happy to insert his usual strong sturdy self on the defence and proved to be something of a handful on the attack. He set up Arjen Robben on 38mins on the left, the Arsenal defence too open, the Dutchman sprinting on to slot in under Jens Lehmann. Robin Van Persie was unfortunate to not have his goal allowed through offside, which seemed dubious when he appeared level with William Gallas with Henry being offside but not interfering. Perhaps an over zealous linesman. Impressively for Arsenal was Kolo Toure making bursting runs on the right but not supported enough by Freddie Ljungberg. Chelsea registered their second courtesy of poor hesitation by Lauren which allowed Joe Cole to rob him and outmuscle him, turning past Sol Campbell and hitting a low left-foot effort to come off the post and in.

Arsenal gave a heartening response to Chelsea and considerably they could have gone down through further chances. At times they struggled somewhat to contain Chelsea's attack but responded with a taste of their own football to trouble the Blues, sadly to no avail. Their first home defeat this season, their sixth so far, their third consecutive one for the first time since March 1995 and their third consecutive league game without scoring, amazing facts when you consider they scored for fun seasons back. Too much talk on being out of the title race, they and any other team are out when it is mathematically impossible. Today was crucial to Chelsea as they aimed to restore their 9-pt lead at the top and when you have John Terry behind you, the skipper typifies the cause and hardly has an off-day. Something Arsenal are still missing in Patrick Vieira's absence. Henry took a little while to acclimatise to the game.

For a game like this, I felt it was more appropriate for Robert Pires to feature from the start. Ljungberg wasn't impressive enough from the start and what Arsenal needed was their midfield to dig in and keep some influence in the middle to frustrate Chelsea and break down their wings. Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas are not strong enough central midfielders yet and with Gilberto Silva missing, it was asking quite a task from them against rugged Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. Perhaps Arsene Wenger could have done better with Pires instead of Ljungberg but still the central midfield would have been asked many questions.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bayern, Liverpool and Barcelona to progress according to my Champions League predictions

The Champions League second round draw produced a list of matches that is simply fantastic. Here is my verdict on who will prevail:

Chelsea v Barcelona: This promises to be a phemomenal encounter. Chelsea will badly miss the suspended Essien in both legs as they attempt to shut down the on-fire Barcelona attacking machine. Ronaldindho and Eto'o are guaranteed to make an impact, and I doubt if Chelsea can retaliate in kind. The second leg will be in a seething Nou Camp who won't have forgot last season's shenanigans. Barcelona victory.

PSV v Lyon: Guus Hiddink is a better coach than Gerard Houllier. But Lyon have better players and a fluid attacking team-style that is one of the purest in world football. I'm a big fan of PSV's Jefferson Farfan but I think he will lose out to the still unbeaten French champs. Lyon victory.

Bayern Munich v AC Milan: Visiting Munich in mid February is one of the toughest challenges in football- on a par with visiting the great Kiev of the nineties in early December. Bayern are acclimatised to the ultra-freeze conditions and will also be well-rested after a long winter break. They are 100% in their fantastic new stadium and I see them gaining a first leg lead that will not be overcome by Milan who are increasingly leaking goals. Munich victory.

Real Madrid v Arsenal: As a Gunner I hestitate to call this match. If both teams are at their best it will be an amazing attacking football encounter that must be watched by all. Present-form Arsenal will struggle. But an Ashley-Cole-plus Arsenal can make all the difference. Can't wait to see it!

Ajax v Internazionale: Adriano, Martins, Figo, Stankovic, Veron, Zanetti and Cordoba managed by motivated Mancini will easily overcome Ajax's lightweight youngsters. Inter victory.

Werder Bremen v Juventus: Vieira has lifted Juve who looked terrible against Liverpool in Turin last March. Emerson, Vieira, Nedved, and Camoronese boss the midfield in matches against lesser opposition and Bremen will fall into this category. Klasnic/Klose partnership is potent but Bremen are not sound defensively and I expect Ibrahimovich and Trez to fire Juve into the quarters. Juventus victory.

Rangers v Villarreal: Oh boy, Riquelme is on fire and is now one of the top ten best players in world football. Villarreal are improving after a slow start to the season and their passing game is one of the best in Europe. Really like Sorin's committed midfield running. I expect Rangers to fight hard and keep the game in the balance after the first leg at Ibrox. But the technical quality of Villarreal should be enough for them to prevail over two legs. Villarreal victory.

Benfica v Liverpool: By match-time Karagounis, Simao (if he hasn't been sold), and Miccoli will be available to strengthen the attacking potential and experience of the team that knocked out Man Utd. Koeman also knocked Arsenal out of group stage football a few years back when with Ajax, so it is clear that he has a proven good knowledge of how to tackle English teams. I expect Benfica's technical flair game to cause Liverpool a real scare in the Estadio de Luz. But Liverpool will roar back at Anfield and continue their remarkable run in Champs League competition. Liverpool victory.

Real Madrid challenge is the psychological boost that Arsenal needed

In Highbury's final season the likes of Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul (injury permitting) and Carlos will finally pay a visit. It's a fitting farewell for the great stadium.

I have been waiting for this draw for the past seven years or so. For me, they are THE name in European football and I've always wanted to see Wenger test his superlative attacking team against the self-proclaimed Galacticos.

Vieira left a season to soon because he would love to be Captain of an Arsenal team going to the Bernabeu. And although it would be better to have him with us next February, we can still go there with confidence.

Ashley Cole should - hopefully!- have recovered from his foot injury and therefore Arsenal can finally field their most experienced defence of Lauren/Toure/Campbell/Cole. A strong, weak-link-free defence is something that Arsenal have badly missed so far this season.

The Henry/RVP partnership- injury permitting- would have had further match development. Henry has lacked a partner away on Europe for the past few seasons and this has been a key factor in allowing teams to pressure and dominate us; as we have been unable to construct consistent viable attacks that is the hall-mark of our game. RVP's presence should significantly aid Henry and the midfield possession game, with benefits for the whole team.

Hleb would also have had more match development and he can be our wild card. The Estadio Santiago Bernabeu (what a name!) has a big pitch, and I fancy it will suit the expansive, roving style of our Belarussian magician.

The team desperately needed something positive to focus on after a rocky start to this season, and it has been provided by yesterday's Champions League second round draw. I expect to see the mental edge in the team's performance rise in the next couple of months as the players prepare for the Madrid test- and therefore also see a return of the true Arsenal that everyone has been accustomed too in the past few years.

The excellent Wenger also deserves the privilege of taking his team to the great Bernabeu, and I'm sure he'll meticulously use the next two months to ensure Arsenal are at their best when it comes to big match-time.

Wenger will relish the prospect of the Real Madrid test. Defeating the NINE TIME winners of the European Cup/Champs League is the type of challenge that Wenger is in the game for. Moreover, it is much more do-able a test than visiting ultra-icy Munich in mid-February and taking on a feisty and well-rested Bayern team (expect them to roll-over the unfortunate Milan).

Crucially, the team will need to have increased their collective confidence before playing Madrid. So between now and then it would be great to have had a good run of wins and performances, the significant return of Cole to the defence (I wish he was available tomorrow!), and maybe a nice signing or two. These factors will create the maximum positive conditions for the 'A' game Arsenal to be on show at the Bernabeu come Tueday 21 February 2006, and then at Highbury on Wednesday 8 March 2006.

Defeating the Galacticos will be history-making for AFC… its an awesome prospect!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Salary Cap – a practical solution to the financial chasm threatening football

"the majority is fighting with spears, while the greedy few have the financial equivalent of nuclear warheads……." (Sepp Blatter).

Blatter’s verbal volley against the increasing financial gulf in English football has been greeted with widespread approval. Malcolm Clarke, who chairs the Football Supporters Federation, an organisation representing 130,000 fans, said, "Most supporters would find his remarks did strike a cord. The vast majority will say, good on Mr Blatter. If you went round the majority of pub going fans before a game and asked whether the top players are paid too much, whether agents are paid too much, whether tickets are too expensive, and whether Mr Abramovich is a force for good or bad, most people would agree with Mr Blatter." Mr. Clarke’s view is also shared by influential figures of the media. The peerless sports journalist Hugh McLlvanney wrote, "nobody can honestly question the destructive possibilities inherent in the unprecedented inequalities now disfiguring football."

The Facts

The ‘advent’ of Roman Abramovich has been the catalyst for this development. His unprecedented investment in Chelsea Football Club has bought a team of machine like efficiency, so good that certain bookmakers were prepared to pay-out on punters who had backed them for the title, only five weeks into the current season.

Analysis of Chelsea’s financial figures from last year illustrates the financial impact of Abramovich. His outlay has been staggering. In the 2003/2004 season, the club spent £175M on new players and more than doubled its annual pay roll to £115M. To put this into context, second place on the payroll list was Manchester United with £77M, while at the other end of the scale, the lowest spenders, West Bromich Albion, spent just £11.5M. In total, wages took up about 76% of Chelsea’s total income last year, beyond what is considered prudent in any business, even football. Overall, Chelsea made a record pre-tax loss of £88M. For almost any other British club such financial imbalance would be fatal. However, Chelsea had Mr Abramovich to underpin the club’s finances with a loan of £115M. Without his cash, Chelsea’s auditors, KPMG, would not have been able to sign off the business as a going concern.

This unprecedented level of investment has lead to an unprecedented lack of competition in the Premier League as Chelsea continue to dominate. To return to Blatter’s comments, "what is interesting about a League whose Champions can be predicted with confidence after about 5 games?"

Is intervention necessary?

Many commentators advocate a non-intervention approach, leaving football to market forces. Unfortunately football does not work like other markets. Entertainment is its principle selling point, and if this is in short supply, the market will inevitably dwindle. As Advocate General Lenz noted in his opinion on the Bosman case, if the League is clearly dominated by one team, the necessary tension is absent and the interest of spectators will thus probably lapse within a foreseeable period. It would seem that this slide is already in process, with this season’s spectator figures already down significantly on last season’s. Worse still, in the distance, looms the spectre of broadcasting rights re-negotiations in 2007 and the likelihood that the present lack of competition, in association with the European Union’s anti-monopoly intervention, will lower the amount of revenue to be gained from broadcasting rights and correspondingly available to be re-distributed amongst the clubs. While a significant downturn in this revenue would devastate the majority of Premier League clubs, it would be unlikely to make any serious inroads into Chelsea’s financial position, balanced as it is by a billionaire with near limitless funds. The prestige and other attractions associated with success ensures football’s ‘tycoons’ such as Abramovich at Chelsea, Morati at Inter and the late Jack Walker at Blackburn are prepared to bankroll, otherwise non-viable commercial entities. The outlook is therefore bleak, with no immediate prospect of the gap contracting.

The two forms of salary?

Although recent press debate has focussed on one form of salary cap, the hard cap it is important to recognise that a soft cap solution is also available and is in many ways preferable to its better known cousin.

The Hard Cap

This is essentially a uniformed ceiling for wage spending for every club and would represent a radical departure from the status quo. Wage capacity would become less important, increasing potential competition, while (in theory) restraining costs. A more open competition may in turn, attract increased broadcasting revenues, which, if re-distributed fairly, could narrow the gap further.

Sounds ideal? Unfortunately the reality is far from it. Several critical flaws mar the hard cap solution. In fact its greatest strength; potential wage spending equality is also its greatest weakness. No doubt the richer clubs, particularly those who have worked hard on and off the pitch to achieve financial success, would reject any proposal that the financial failures languishing below them, suddenly be granted the right to compete on an equal footing.

Another problem would be implementation, which would inevitably be a practical nightmare. One can envisage the top clubs, which are subject to numerous, existing, long-term contracts, finding it very difficult to reform their wage structures to conform to a new regime. A consequence of such reform would be forced sales and termination of contracts creating an artificially flooded market, also unfairly benefiting poorer clubs.

One must also consider the fact that, in a footballing climate where the Champions League has become the pre-eminent competition in club football, it is unlikely clubs would welcome a measure, which, unless introduced on a European wide basis, could have a significant effect on their ability to compete at that level. The Champions League is too significant, both financially and otherwise, to it’s English participants, for them to allow such an inequality to arise, especially considering that the ability of English clubs to pay high wages is currently one of their main advantages over the majority of their European competitors.

Even if a situation arose whereby the salary cap was implemented on a European wide basis, it would be impossible to factor currency fluctuations into the equation. There are clearly great economic designations between different countries and leagues in Europe. The economy in which Locomotive Moscow operates is very different to that in which AC Milan operates. £100, 000 is worth a lot more in Moscow than it would in Milan. Thus a cap set to Milan’s wage bill will be meaningless to Moscow and the opposite unfair on a team which comes from an area where the cost of living is expensive.

A final and perhaps most obvious flaw with the hard cap is the question of the level at which it would be set. If set at the level of the highest spender than the caps will have no effect. If at the lowest, the larger teams will be badly affected and have to sell players.

The Soft Cap

The second form of salary cap and that, which has not featured extensively in the public debate, is the soft cap. This is a relative limit on permissible salary payments, usually expressed as a percentage of the club’s total income.

The soft cap’s ‘relative’ element makes it a less radical departure from the status quo than the hard cap. While the soft cap restrains the negative effects of tycoon investment, it represents a fairer option for those clubs, which have worked hard to achieve their existing wage spending capacity. Efficiency and prudence would be rewarded, while financial mis-management, and unrealistic spending punished. Under the soft cap, it would be difficult to envisage a boom bust scenario, such as was experienced by Leeds United FC in the 2003/4 season.

Critics of the soft cap argue that all it does is crystallise relative strengths and weaknesses, which would otherwise fluctuate. In response, while the so called fluctuation in fortunes under a soft cap may not be as dramatic as it has been in recent years, the balance of power will inevitably shift over time. Even before the Abramovich era, Arsenal, despite lesser resources then their main competitor Manchester United, broke the latter’s dominance to rise to a position of pre-eminence, until Chelsea’s freakish financial capacity began to have its inevitable impact.

Another criticism is that without the ability to attract and reward new capital, any industry is doomed to fail and the football industry is no different. Again the critic is guilty of short-termism. While investment rewards may not be as immediate under the soft cap system, careful investment in a club’s infrastructure, stadium, youth development and supporters’ organisations in combination with prudent financial management and effective brand marketing, could over time produce substantial reward.

Is the salary cap legal under European Competition Law?

Article 81 (1) EC prohibits,

" All agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which may affect trade between member states and which have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the common market…"

As an effective horizontal agreement between competitors as to how much they will spend on a key service, salary caps are prima-facie in breach of this rule and will therefore be void and un-enforceable as between parties, unless it can be justified under the conditions set out in Article 81 (3).

While it would be impossible for the majority of industries to provide such justification, the football industry is in a sense exceptional and as such, deserves special treatment as the Court of Justice recognised in Bosman and more recently in the ENIC case, which concerned the legality of UEFA’s rule preventing ownership of more than one club within its jurisdiction- like salary caps, prima facie a breach of Article 81.

In obiter, the Court chose to quote from Wouters to explain its reasoning,

"not every argument between Undertakings or any decision of an Association of Undertakings which restricts the freedom of action of the parties or one of them necessarily falls within the prohibition laid down in Article 81 (1) of the Treaty…….account must first be taken of the overall context of which the decision of the Association of Undertakings was taken or produces its effects. More particularly account must be taken of its objectives. "

Following this logic, the ratio of the ENIC case was whether the consequential effects of the "one club only rule" were inherent to the pursuit of the very existence of credible pan European football competitions. In the Court’s eyes, the rule was inherent to this goal and therefore couldn’t be considered a restriction of competion. It was necessary as, "The public’s perception that the underlying sporting competion is fair and honest is an essential precondition to keep…interest and marketability"


Thus essentially, the issue is reduced to a question of proportionality- is the salary cap/ restriction reasonably related to a legitimate objective and proportionate to that end? This was the ratio of the Bosman case, where the previous transfer rules were held to be illegal, because it was considered that there were less restrictive means of achieving its goals.

Previous analysis on this issue with regards to salary caps has all taken place in the pre-Abramovich era and thus tended to focus on the continued financial viability of smaller clubs as a possible justification for its introduction. This argument has always suffered the battering ram of proportionality, because it could be coherently argued that more effective distribution of income would be a more proportionate method of keeping the smaller clubs afloat.

Post Abramovich, the goalposts have clearly moved and with them the probable justification for a salary cap. Now financial viability is simply part of a larger, competitive balance justification. While it is likely that more effective re-distribution of income would once again be forwarded as a more proportionate means of dealing with the problem, in a market where one competitor has the benefit of an unprecedented financial backing to the extent that it does not need to be commercially viable, it is unlikely that a fairer redistribution of income would make the slightest bit of difference and in fact, by probably reducing the income of Chelsea’s main competitors, could even have the effect of exaggerating their dominance. This represents a case in point of how football is different from the majority of other industries. In few other industries would an £88 million loss would be acceptable. In terms of his interest in Chelsea, Abramovich is a Medici like patron, whose motivation is not financial profit but profit in other spheres.

Other legal obstacles

Even if the salary cap were deemed to be a proportionate response to the problems faced by football, it would further have to overcome the common law doctrine of restraint of trade and European law of free movement of persons, the rule under which Bosman succeeded in challenging the transfer rules. Dealing first with the former, those seeking to challenge the salary cap would simply have to identify it as a restriction on trade. If they were successful the onus would then shift upon the defendant to demonstrate that the restriction is reasonable. Thus we are returned to the question of whether it was a restriction reasonably related to a legitimate objective and proportionate to that end and I would suggest that if a salary cap can be successfully justified for the purpose of Article 81, it would likewise be justified under the doctrine of restraint of trade.

Likewise the second potential obstacle: the free-movement of persons rules. The majority of analysis on the issue of salary caps does not really consider this subject, having made the assumption that a salary cap is not a restriction on the free movement of a player. What about a situation where a club makes an offer to a player, but is forced to retract on this offer to avoid breaching the terms of the salary cap. In this scenario the salary cap would represent a fundamental restriction on the right under Article 39 (3) to accept an offer of employment actually made. This is a situation, which one can easily imagine clubs in opposition to the salary cap seeking to contrive. However, as we have already seen in his opinion on the Bosman ruling, Advocate General Lens recognised that certain restrictions agreed under the auspices of a sports governing body are lawful if they are necessary to ensure by means of specific measures that certain balances preserve between the clubs. Thus once again, the test is proving that the salary cap is a restriction reasonably related to a legitimate objective and proportionate to that end and once again I believe that if the salary cap passed the Article 81 Test, it would pass this test also.

In conclusion, while it is clear that action needs to be taken in order to restrict the anti- competitive impact of tycoon investment on top flight football and it is also clear that a soft cap would be an would be the most appropriate method of restriction, it remains to be seen whether the European Court of Justice would accept its implementation. While it has recently shown a certain degree of leniency over sporting restrictions, as its approach to sport has fluctuated in the past, so it may continue to fluctuate in the future and as such, it is impossible, even with the most detailed legal analysis, to anticipate fully the outcome of any challenge to a soft cap restriction.

One thing we can be sure of however is that if a restriction were to be implemented, if would be vigorously challenged, particularly by those on whom it has the greatest impact. Do the prevailing football authorities have the stomach for such a fight?

Alistair Maiden

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Weekend Premiership review

Birmingham 1 Fulham 0 - Victory eventually from the brink of a stalemate

Tony Gubba: "Pennant!.......just on as a substitute with the first decent strike of the game.....and we've had 56 mins. And that was virtually the first time either keeper has had to make a save."

RedsMan MOTM: [due to lack of first half coverage, not applicable]

Birmingham v Fulham were 'scrapping' for points, Birmingham in the literal sense of the word as they held home advantage again and wanted to bounce back from Monday. Fulham were 'sparring' for the points, and on this evidence they were only fit enough for shadow-boxing. The first half was deemed so monotonous Match Of The Day didn't feature it, so we were shown the second half. I wonder what they would have done if the second half was equal to or worse than the first. Nonetheless, Birmingham are eventually showing that they are feeling the heat of relegation and, with home support, came at Fulham much more, practically swarming them with attacks.

The main thing was they couldn't make them count, Emile Heskey getting himself in the thick of the action. Chris Coleman didn't mention the defensive frailties that led to the goal, frailties that were in abundance. Emile Heskey was hardly challenged when he nodded a high ball down into Nicky Butt's path, two defenders near Butt not reacting at all, Butt headed in. Birmingham are still in the relegation zone but this was a big boost. If they string 1-0 performances, the Brummie fans won't be arguing and I don't blame them.

MOTD showed Steve Bruce celebrating Butt's goal, with someone jumping on his back and then sliding off. Mark Lawrenson: "That's all you need, Emile Heskey jumping on your back." It was more likely Oliver Tebily, Heskey was on the pitch to assist the goal and the chap on Bruce's back was in training gear. Troubling times for those very same eyes that give football judgements!

Blackburn 3 West Ham 2 - Another Blackburn 3-goal comeback

John Roder: "Kuqi makes it 3-2 to Blackburn, and what a 2nd half we're having."

RedsMan MOTM: Lucas Neill

Weast Ham looked to put another stranglehold on an away game and after Everton had stiffled Ewood Park the Hammers looked to do the same, Craig Bellamy injured. Marlon Harewood made good his assist with his run, Bobby Zamora moved in the box and was shadowed by Stephen Reid but then Reid allowed him an inch to move and Zamora got ahead of Reid when Harewood played him in, and scored. Blackburn could have allowed West Ham to increase their lead in the 2nd half but the away side didn't step up in gear, which gave Blackburn more incentive to come forward.

As the ball came into the penalty box, David Bentley and Tomas Repka jumped for it, the ball judged to have come off Repka's left arm. Seemed on replay to be innocuous and more likely to have strucked his upper body before his arm, if at all. Nonetheless the penalty was given and Paul Dickov, back from injury, scored. Then it was more Blackburn, as Morten Gamst Pedersen crossed, the ball coming off Christian Dailly's head to Dickov, who duly scored again. West Ham came back quite easily, with Zamora returning the compliment paid earlier to him by Harewood, sending the ball across goal for Harewood to head in with a free header, despite Robbie Savge's excellent attempted save.

Now it looked to be a 2-2 finish, yet when Robbie Savage took the 2nd freekick to unfortunately come off the crossbar, Dailly cleared the ball, with Zurab Khizanishvili covering at the back against Harewood. Pace is an uneven factor and when the Georgian headed weakly towards Brad Friedel, Harewood pounced on it like a leopard after a gazelle, yet with the keeper to beat he skyed it from some 15 yards. So Blackburn took advantage of the fortune. Shefki Kuqi came on, jumped for a loose ball with Dailly, edged him to it on the ground, held off Anton Ferdinand and scored.

Now that Bellamy is likely to be out until the New Year, Dickov and Kuqi should be a regular partnership. Pedersen and David Bentley are effective on the wings but Mark Hughes won't drop Brett Emerton. Kuqi needs more of a first-team start to be more effective himself and coming off the bench often isn't helping.

Bolton 1 Aston Villa 1 - Villa get to enjoy coming to the Reebok stadium, Sam

John Murray (after Villa's equaliser): "And that might well have snatched a point for Aston Villa.....scrappy, wasn't it!?!"

RedsMan MOTM: Kevin Davies

The home side were unlucky, they attacked Villa for much of the first half, and the second, Wilfred Bouma just about tipping the ball away from an incoming and ever impressive Kevin Davies after Davies had forced a excellent save from point blank range from Thomas Sorensen. Bruno N'Gotty's header went off target and Joey O'Brien's shot was stopped by the Villa keeper. Where Arsenal failed, Villa were determined to be very dogged and plow their way to block Bolton's efforts.

As Villa made more of their time on the ball with chances, they were inferior to Bolton's continued pressure on the away goal. But it wasn't until the introduction of Portuguese Ricardo Vaz Te that Bolton gained their earned lead. He picked up the ball on the left and squared it across to El-Hadji Diouf, who used two touches to advance into the box and score in the far corner. However, this is where Bolton fell asleep. Perhaps having the majority of the attacks had taken its toll on them. Luke Moore, himself a sub 4mins before Vaz Te, jingled in the Bolton area and found Juan Pablo Angel unmarked at the far post, the Colombian making sure from some yards.

What did Villa have that Arsenal didn't? A less impressing Bolton on goal.

Charlton 2 Sunderland 0 - A correct scoreline for Addicks' fans, on paper

Ian Gwyn Hughes (after Charlton's 2nd goal): "What on earth was going on in that Sunderland defence?!!"

RedsMan MOTM: Dean Kiely

The run continues for Mick McCarthy. Despite the effort and commitment from the players, which is there almost every match now, they cannot convert their efforts into chances often enough to score regularly. When they battled at White Hart Lane they should have held for the point if they were not confident to go for the result, instead they defended but opened up for Spurs' third goal. Here, they were done by a renowned Darren Bent run of pace and finish and poor defending even by their own current standards.

Gary Breen and Nyron Nosworthy allowed a Danny Murphy ball to slither between them, releasing Bent to run on and tuck away. Charlton's 2nd goal came via new skipper Luke Young, who crossed into the box from the right for defender Stephen Caldwell to divert off the post to thwart Darren Ambrose. Julio Arca, a welcomed return, made the loose ball but allowed Young to challenge him, the ball ending up back in the box near the goal, with Breen, Caldwell and Justin Hoyte present, but Caldwell inadvertently spilled the ball for Ambrose to score very easily.

Sunderland are now too late to play defensively, they need to take risks and what they are doing is committing themselves but not to finishing off their efforts. The longer they go without making an impact, the more their confidence fails to keep them going. They scored first at Spurs and even though they went down twice they came back to draw level. John Stead is looking more a lone striker and he was on the bench. Anthony Le Tallec strives for passes and Andy Gray isn't up to Le Tallec's level, Stead should be paired with Le Tallec.

Chelsea 1 Wigan 0 - If Chelsea don't want to score, Terry does

Simon Brotherton: "And Pollitt, not for the first time today, makes himself big enough to make the save."

RedsMan MOTM: Mike Pollitt

It's the type of game both managers and players would be proud of. Chelsea are made aware that they will not have the run-of-the-mill games where they completely overawe the opposition every game, that there will be games where they will need to dig deep and fight to win, perhaps even to draw. And when those games come round, you want your players to make the required effort. Likewise Wigan, again their record since joining the Premiership is fantastic, great response and the wheels come off the bandwagon ridden by the media and critics when Wigan are in the top ten come May. On the budget Paul Jewel has had, Dave Whelan is not flittering money left and right so Jewel has to be resourceful, and the response from those brought in have shown excellent dividends for the club. Fourth defeat in a row, but then you consider the opposition. They next face Man Utd, Charlton, Man City and West Ham.

Chelsea attacked as you'd expect but the difference was keeper Mike Pollitt, appearing on occasion to thwart Chelsea throughout the first half. But for goodness sake how could ref Alan Wiley miss Lee McCulloch practically haul down John Terry in the box during a corner?? I'd be furious as a Chelsea fan and Terry was clearly and rightly angry with the referee. Yet if Pollitt was the difference for Wigan, Terry was for Chelsea and not for the first time. In the 2nd half another Frank Lampard corner, another tussle between McCullouch and Terry but Terry was more ingenious, got ahead of the Scotsman and headed in, albeit a great hand to the ball by Pollitt.

Liverpool 2 Middlesbrough 0 - Cagey Boro holding out until Morientes rose

Steve Wilson: "Luis Garcia - was on the end of a lovely Liverpool move here...which drew another good save from's quality stuff."

RedsMan MOTM: Steven Gerrard

Even as a Reds fan, I'm impartial but it was impressive from Liverpool. Making chances, being very creative, and were it not for some chances that should have been finished, there would have been more goals for us. Players feeding off each other's runs and movement, showing that they do understand where one another are, what they are about to do, where they will be, something that is a lot better and emphasises the good run and league position. Predominantly, Steven Gerrard is like a generator, off which several other generators are running but that in itself isn't the core of the team. Whenever they get forward, players are in better positions and aim to hold the ball more than try something less likely and give it away.

Mohamed Sissoko's booking justified, equally Michael Bates for the shove, no complaints. It was Sissoko's header back into Boro's half, Gerrard got to the bounce and went forward, Garcia took it to the right and chipped a low ball into the box, Gerrard ducked under it and Fernando Morientes was unmarked and scored. Five minutes later, Franck Queudrue aimed a ball to George Boateng, Boateng was eventually dispossessed by Sissoko, Jamie Carragher sent the ball back into Boro's defence, Queudrue's header only flicked it on towards Morientes, who again drifted off his marker and lobbed Mark Schwarzer whilst in mid-air. Sorry, Steve McClaren, clearly not off-side per the rules.

Frustration slipped in when Chris Riggott, a Liverpool target previously for Gerard Houllier, lunged in on Morientes from behind and earned his first booking, something which commentator Steve Wilson tried to play down even after the replay, when it was clearly a booking. Riggott followed that up five minutes later with a kick on Gerrard from behind, which seemed a straightforward free-kick but according to the rules it's a foul from behind that warrants a booking, being Riggott's second and he was off.

During the game came two good stops from Pepe Reina, from Mark Viduka which looked destined to go in otherwise, and the other from James Morrison's shot that fortuitously went through the keeper's legs but diverted for a corner.

Newcastle 1 Arsenal 0 - the Gunners should have faced ten men too

Guy Mowbray: "Shearer.....that's got to be a yellow card from the basis of what we've seen before, certainly can't be any better than Gilberto's rather soft 2nd yellow and he's got away with it."

RedsMan MOTM: Scott Parker

Second successive defeat for the Gunners, very uncharacteristic, a 2nd defeat is usually all they concede all season. They held the first half without a doubt, but their efforts were hampered by Gilberto Silva's first booking in the half for interfering with Shola Ameobi's advance. That was minor in comparison to the first openings of the 2nd half. 10mins in, Newcastle came the better as Arsenal seemed to take time to even warm up. Silva caught Jean-Alain Boumsong with what I'd say was a late reach for the ball and simply a freekick but Dermot Gallagher deemed it a booking and Silva was red carded, to the irritating applause by Ameobi and Amdy Faye. It's been said about this sarcastic applauding already, particularly in response to referee decisions as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney know already, and its unsporting. Faye should reflect on his silly lunge for the ball against Philippe Senderos earlier.

And then we have Alan Shearer and what I would describe as a flabbergasting decision, or lack of it. Michael Owen and Sol Campbell tussle for the ball, nothing given, Owen and Freddie Ljungberg go for the ball, it spills, Campbell chases and makes it, with Shearer instantly and inexplicably lunging in at a speed rugby forwards commit tries with. It was a red card, much less a yellow, yet the Newcastle skipper received neither!! It was astounding. Yet facing with 10-men, Arsenal held firm until some 10mins from time where Shearer was found on the left. He found Nolberto Solano on the edge of the box on the right, with Lauren having come over too much, Solano then had time and space to hit his shot past Jens Lehmann's outstretched right hand. It was only when Shearer was judged to have backed into Senderos and then slapped the ball away in frustration did he receive a booking.

Arsenal now have what will be build as 'The Big Game' at home to Chelsea next Sunday. They will need to have their same defence of Toure-Senderos-Campbell-Lauren, only Lauren's lack of concentration allowed Solano his goal otherwise he deputised well enough, but a left-footed player would be very appropriate to aid the attacks on the flank. But simply a strategic plan and more resolve from Arsenal is needed to pick up from this recent medicore performance.

Question: is it or could it be that Thierry Henry is stalling on contract talks because with Patrick Vieira gone, Pires possibly not staying, Bergkamp possibly not staying, Ljungberg out-of-sorts and possibly on the bench next season, the Frenchman sees his attacking assistants being restrictive for next season and after?

West Brom 2 Man City 0 - City lose momentum, Cole loses his cool

Dan O'Hagan: "And Cole could be in real trouble here, on a yellow card, it will be a 2nd yellow [if given]......and Andrew Cole is sent off and he can't believe it. Two cards in a matter of seconds for Andrew Cole."

RedsMan MOTM: Diomansy Kamara

City were low-key in this game, and Stuart Pearce was correct in his post-match interview when he said City got what they deserved from the game, which was nothing, not even a point. West Brom showed more incentive, initiative and drive, whilst City seemed more content to sit back and swallow up the attacks than to create any themselves. West Brom took the lead through Diomansy Kamara, receiving a Junichi Inamoto pass and running at Ben Thatcher, passed him and scored, with David James allowing too much space to the right of him for Kamara to miss. The Frenchman waged a one-man war on City and they managed to keep some shape to contain him but his runs brought in others, adding to City's compounding failure to get forward.

This paved the way for West Brom's second, with Paul Robinson chasing down a Nwankwo Kanu back-heel on the left and crossing for Kevin Campbell to put away a great header, best move of the game. After that Andy Cole fouled Martin Albrechtsen for his first booking, and then quickly followed that with a jumping landing onto Kamara that looked very clumsy and he had to go.

Man Utd 1 Everton 1 - Not the kind of response expected from the Red Devils

RedsMan MOTM: Kevin Kilbane

Just finished watching the game, and while Utd made a decent defence to thwart Everton, they had leaked chances that, but for Everton's lack of finishing, they should have been punished from. They were Everton chances few and far between but on occasion Utd went forward seeking that leading goal and their ambitions were failed through sheer Everton defending, a hand or two from Richard Wright or failing to get the effort on target. As a result, Utd were open in midfield and Everton would pour forward, not merely shrinking from Utd's attacks. Alan Smith was booked and was then threatening to get another yellow before Sir Alex withdrew him for Darren Fletcher. Park Ji-Sung is for me more effective from the start and works more for the team than Christian Ronaldo, but the Korean's influence today was not as strong and he came off for the Portuguese winger.

Everton showed Utd to be in some jitters at the back, when Rio Ferdinand passed to Edwin VanDer Sar to clear, the Dutchman allowed the ball to travel near his goal and kicked it left-footed under pressure, the ball was played back in by Leo Osman and James Beattie aimed a good shot at goal, blocked by Mikael Silvestre. But then Wayne Rooney headed back into danger later on, James McFadden passed for Kevin Kilbane to go on a run, Gary Neville went with him, dragging himself out of position, and no one noticed McFadden running across into the right-back space, not even Park, whose path McFadden crossed. Kilbane then ran into four Utd players, the ball spilled to Osman and he fed McFadden, who has a nice left-foot on him, slamming a shot between post and keeper.

Utd aimed to not be dragged back by that goal and poured forward for their equaliser. Rooney remained a threat, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs creating openings, and it was these two who gained the leveller. Scholes' ball over the defence found Giggs on-side and after glimpsing at goal, Giggs looked up and touched the ball first time past Wright, good goal too. Everton had two excellent chances in the 2nd half to score. Scholes dallied on the ball and lost it, Simon Davies then went on a run with McFadden on the left, Kieron Richardson the sole Utd player in defence, Davies crossed it to McFadden, who aimed a shot that was comfortably saved by the keeper. That was a let-off. Marcus Bent came on and skillfully touched the ball past Richardson and ran down the right, only for his ball across to reach Silvestre.

This may not have been the required response but Utd remain third due to a single goal difference between them and 2nd place Liverpool. Our home record is better but Utd's away record is superior to our's. They face Wigan at home, Villa away then West Brom at home, where they could face a possible 5pts out of 9 as they have now drawn equally to that won at home.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cygan out opens up excellent prospect of Toure starting at RB

Any news that opposition teams and management will be disappointed to read is good news for me. Breaking news of Cygan's unavailabilty for an indefinite period due to an inflammation injury falls into this category.

Cygan is a major weak-point for a side looking to achieve honours. He spreads nervousness across the defence; is targeted and exploited by opponents; and sadly commits more errors and looks more nervous than any AFC player I remember seeing in my time supporting the club (even more than Stefan Malz or Igor Stepanovs!).

His inclusion at the expense of two-footed Senderos has been completely confusing. Senderos is the future of AFC, and he needs first team football for both him and AFC to improve. Unfortunately, it seems that an injury, or is it an 'injury'?!?, is what it would take for the normally logical Wenger to drop Cygan and include someone more progressive.

Arsenal's website says that Lauren looks set to be the stand-in left back at St James' Park. I would really like to see Toure move across to cover Lauren's absence at RB and analyse how he and the Senderos/Campbell CB partnership performs.

I now feel that the combination of Toure/Senderos/Campbell/Cole should be the first choice selection when everyone is fit and available because Senderos' rise and rise cannot continue to be halted by sitting on the bench. Toure is also too excellent to be left out and I believe his future presence at RB would give increased defensive resilience to the team than offered by the determined Lauren.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Essien deserves to be punished

it defies belief that the referee and the linesman didn't see essien's challenge on hamann in last night's game. it comes as no surpise however that mourinho said he didn't see it either. the fact is uefa must take action because the tackle, if you can call it a tackle, was a disgrace. essien needs to be punished because he's going to break someone's leg one day. first it was bolton's tal ben haim, then liverpool's hamann - who's next?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pires AND Ljungberg is not always the appropriate selection

If it didn’t come into Wenger's head after the Boro defeat, or press his mind after the West Brom defeat, than it must be now after the lame submssion to Bolton. Our midfield needs reinforcement. And no more still-developing youngsters; the players that come in must have good experience, size and strength.

A midfield of Pires/Fabregas/Gilberto/Ljungberg is not made for all-weather away games epitomised by Bolton away in the winter mud, wind and rain. Compared to other midfield line-ups across the country they lack size, strength and defensive tenacity. This was exploited by motivated and physically strong players like Faye, Nolan and Speed, with weather and pitch conditions that were also in their favour. This exploitation of our lightweight midfield is becoming the norm in away matches, and is the main reason why Arsenal's defence is being exposed as much as they have been this season.

I'm quite sure Wenger has pinpointed this as the main reason behind this uncharacteristic woeful away form. Post-match he said:

"The commitment of Bolton in the challenges was superiors to ours. We were beaten on pace and challenges and paid for it. It was a tentative and frail performance from us."

Vieira, Edu, Parlour, and Petit are central midfielders of the Wenger era that I would prefer to see combined together to play in the exact same conditions as the game on Saturday. They had the necessary qualities of power, presence and tenacity to really get stuck in and take control of games away from home when all the conditions were against AFC. The need for CM back-up to Fabregas and Gilberto is merely underlined by the Bolton submission.

Furthermore, Tony Adams remarked a couple of seasons back that there were some away matches where he doubted Wenger's use of both Pires AND Ljungberg away from home. His reasoning was that both are relatively lightweight players who are much better attacking than they are defending.

I agree with his reasoning for tough games like Bolton away. Parlour was excellently used as a right midfielder to give added security to the central midfield and defence; Gilberto was sometimes picked there to do a similar job in the unbeaten season; and Benitez has started to use Gerrard in this role to give added stability to the Liverpool midfield in away matches with positive effect.

I would like to see a similar-type player in the squad that could be utilised in the same way on the right of midfield. An excellent contributor to EFT, GunnerPete, called for Eboue to be used in this way before the Bolton game fearing the worst about Ljungberg's suitability for the game. I'd like to see him play this role tomorrow in the low-key Ajax match and analyse his fit for the role.

With every away defeat to lesser opposition it becomes even more acute that the squad needs extra midfielders with the necessary experience and physical presence for matches like Bolton away. Mourinho stated last week that he is not buying in January, so the door is open for Wenger to take advantage and bolster the midfield area for what will be a crucial second half to the season.

St Andrews crisis as police arrest Gascoigne

Bruce under immense pressure

In the bottom half of the Premiership table, Newcastle and Aston Villa experience a slight slump in performances with both managers said to be under threat of their positions. Portsmouth are technically without a manager, their chairman has aimed to settle affairs with Southampton to no avail over Harry Redknapp, which could leave Redknapp in limbo for the remainder of the football season. Charlton have hit a slump that has seen them slide to 12th with their 5th consecutive league defeat, their 6th consecutive defeat. West Brom, Fulham and Blackburn Rovers are failing to keep a grip on any good run of form with erractic results. Sunderland display commitment but cannot gain a lead in their games and even if they do, they cannot hold it. Everton have had more poor results than good but now seem better favourites to emerge further up the table.

That leaves Birmingham City. Steve Bruce was at Crystal Palace for 5 months from June 2001 when Birmigham co-owner David Sullivan offered him the managerial position at St Andrews, Bruce taking charge there in December 2001. He was inspirational enough to take the club into the Premiership in the play-offs against Norwich at the end of that season, 2001-02. They have hardly looked back since. Yet this time last season, 14 games in, Birmingham had drawn 7, won 2, lost 5. After last night's game, their 6th league defeat out of the last 7, it is now drawn 3, won 2, lost 9 so far. They remain in the League Cup after a draw with Millwall and penalties, the south-east London side are currently bottom with 3 wins and 8 draws out of 22. And to top it all, last night saw three players go off with injuries in Martin Taylor, Mario Melchiot and Muzzy Izzet.

Last night Birmingham gained the lead through a superb through ball by David Dunn for Emile Heskey, who pasted Roy Carroll and finished with his left, good goal. Then they came under pressure and could not block out Bobby Zamora, who jingled his way through skillfully to hit an effort under Nico Vaesen. Impressive left winger Matthew Etherington sprinted past Birmingham defenders to cut the ball back, which suspiciously seemed to have just gone over the line but Birmingham players didn't appeal and the ball was allowed to go right cross to Marlon Harewood, who had time to set up a strike high into the goal. In the second half Birmingham came out for an equaliser and could have done better with Dunn striking a half-volley that hit the far post, Nicky Butt could have done better with control, then Heskey put the ball in the net with his right hand, was booked for it and then embarassingly made a face of injustice. Matthew Upson could have clearly scored but skyed his effort from 7-8 yards.

Birmingham have good attacked-minded midfielders and wingers, if they could get Heskey playing much better without the use of his hand alongside Mikael Forssell, they can score more. It is defensively where they need to improve, made all the more important with Taylor and Melchiot injured. Bruce does not deserve to go at all, so before such consideration the club should wait until the end of the season. 14 games so far, it is too early to call on where this club will be come May. They have Man Utd at home in the League Cup in 2 weeks time, between now and then they face another home match against Fulham and they are then away the following weekend to Man City, two matches to try to shore up their defence. Brum fans are going to have to be very patient for the forthcoming fortnight, at least.

Paul Gascoigne

Paul Gascoigne at Conference side Kettering Town as manager. I wondered if he was appointed just because he was Paul Gascoigne. An ambition to be a manager has to start somewhere, goes the cliche, but Gascoigne's reputation precedes him almost as much as Graham Rix's, particularly for alcohol consumption. I wouldn't include alcohol in this article but it's a factor amongst others that needs to be considered when offering a contract to anyone. That being that, he was appointed as manager and Kettering came to 2 each of wins, draws and losses under him. Over a month later, Gascoigne is sacked for his conduct, chairman Imraan Ladak claiming he was influenced through alcohol before, during and after games.

My view is that while Gascoigne has his opinion, in contrast to that of Mr Ladak, and possibly the board, dirty linen are being aired and should remain in the washing machine. Internally. Ladak states Gascoigne made a statement regarding the club which put matters under threat, and so Ladak decided he would go public with a statement of his own to balance that of Gascoigne's. But after having sacked the manager, something which I would expect to be as amicable as possible, if the manager decides to go public, that is his perogative.

As a chairman, my business is the concerns of the club and a sacked manager is not a concern. Where I wish not to make the matter public, despite what the manager says, I'll state so. Anyone asking questions of any response, my response is 'No comment.' I will not be brought into a public exchange or slanging match because one party goes public. Further, Ladak stating that Gascoigne had a drinking problem, was under the influence around the times of kick-offs, adds more of a stain to the club's affairs. Any reason other than a lack of responsive results under Gascoigne's management should have been kept internally.

Why? Because if there were concerns in the interest of the club, any suspicions or statements alleged to be of fact regarding conduct will go to dampen what could potentially or possibly be a very good managerial career elsewhere. Had Gascoigne been under the influence of alcohol before, during and after games yet Kettering topped the Conference North league with wins since his appointment, would he be sacked? Only if his behaviour as a result of that influence was to the degree of making a scene of himself, yes. Otherwise, no. But if his behaviour was substantially effected by such influence, then Gascoigne has only himself to blame, though I cannnot help but feel his appointment was made as a matter of drawing public attention.

Gascoigne is currently held in a police station on an allegation of assault by a photographer, said to have happened while Gascoigne was on his way from attending a charity event in Liverpool. He states that the Kettering Town fans are completely behind him and that he will attend their away game to Alfreton Town to give support, refusing to accept his dismissal and therefore intending to attend the match in a managerial capacity. Going to the match, and future Kettering Town matches under that impression, is something that could be difficult as a result of his arrest. While the former Newcastle, Spurs, Everton, and Lazio player has passion in his veins, he'd be advised to remain away from Kettering Town Football Club, home and away.

Kevin Wilson was moved aside for Gascoigne, refused an offer of the position as director of football as a result and is now reinstated for three years. He had steered Kettering Town to the top four in the league and further in the FA Cup since 2002 before his departure. I wonder who out of Wilson and the club are more fortunate of his availability for the reinstatement.



Locations of visitors to this page