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Monday, October 29, 2007

Wenger-football is a class above Benitez-football

At the start of the season Liverpool were touted in the media as the team most likely to threaten the duopoly of Chelsea and Man Utd while Arsenal were almost written off with a lot of media-talk that big-spending Spurs were going to dislodge their neighbours from the top four.

Shows what the media football analysts know.

Last season Arsenal finished level on points with Liverpool with a young team that discerned football watchers knew were only heading one way: upwards. Yesterday they visited Anfield and put on a performance of total football and fighting spirit to earn a 1-1 draw which was the very least their footballing display earned. In pre-season I wrote about Wenger's Masterplan that has been three years in the making and for me was just about ready to explode. It is happening now and this is just the start.

Wenger is proven as a manager who can build a Premier League winning team. What's more he achieved it- like the most successful manager in Premier League history, Alex Ferguson - by having a philosophy of moulding his teams to play a brand of thrilling attacking football. His third generation team are showing they have got what it takes to emulate their predecessors: and I have no doubts they are here to stay and compete for the next few seasons to come.

On the other hand I'm yet to be convinced by Rafa Benitez. In my view his predominant philospohy of pragmatic defensive football with physically-strong but relatively immobile players combined with a hyper-rotation policy that obviously unsettles his players and disrupts team rhythm is not conducive for winning English Premier League titles.

Further, does he have the coaching vision and skill to maximise the development of talented young footballers? The progression of Ryan Babel will be interesting to watch in this context. Babel thinks he can be the next Thierry Henry and personally I like his pace and attacking drive. But Henry had Wenger developing him and a team almost custom-built to complement his fantastic attacking skill. Will Babel be able to progress into a player comparable to Henry while having Benitez as head coach and playing in a team that favours a pragmatic style of football?

There is no doubt that Benitez is a strong tactician. But for me his vision of football is relatively limited and he complicates things too much. The fact that it is almost impossible to predict a Liverpool XI for any match makes this point. On the other hand Wenger has a supreme vision of how football should be played and it showed yesterday by the way Arsenal passed and flowed their way across Anfield.

For me Wenger-football is a class above Benitez-football and the way Arsene shook hands with Rafa after the match I could tell he was satisfied that this is the case. On the other hand I think it is time Benitez started to revise his strategy if he wants to truly compete for the Premier League title.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lose to Arsenal and Liverpool's season is over

The start of Liverpool's season was terrific - a 6-0 thumping of Derby, top of the league, the new boy Torres looking like the top class player we all hoping he was, and all smiles that Rafa was finally going to play Gerrard in the middle of the park this season. So what has gone wrong? Is it Rafa's rotation policy? Maybe its the injuries to Agger and Alonso? Perhaps its the timing of the international breaks? Or could it be the departure of assistant manager Paco Ayesteran?

The buck, as its always done, must stop with the manager and Rafa is now under huge pressure to deliver, starting this Sunday at home to Arsenal. The Champions League campaign is all but over and even finishing in third place is scant consolation (who wants to be in the UEFA Cup!)

The fact is that Liverpool must now beat Arsenal. A defeat will almost certainly raise serious questions about Rafa's future. Who would have thought it after the glory of Istanbul in 2005!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

England will not qualify for Euro 2008 . . .

. . . well not unless Israel hold Russia to at least a draw and even then England would have to beat Croatia.

The fact is England only have themselves to blame. The away games at Croatia and Russia were always going to be tough, but England still should not have lost. The tame 0-0 draws against Macedonia and Israel are proving to be disastrous results now.

Mclaren's record is played 16, won 8, drawn 4, lost 4. That is simply not good enough and the fact is that England should never have put Sven's right hand man in sole charge in the first place. Mclaren did not come with a list of trophies to his name or even the name of a big club on his CV. England were never going to be a force to contend with under Middlesboro's ex-boss. The FA did not have the guts to clear out Sven's management team when he left and now they are paying the price.

This harks back to the those dark dark days under Graham Taylor.

What a disaster!

Monday, October 15, 2007

England one win away from qualification; England one win away from World Champions

Steve McClaren has steered England thus far through five (not four as stated by ITV teletext) consecutive 3-0 wins in the last five qualifiers. He has hard a difficult job of doing so since taking over from Sven Goran-Eriksson on the 1st August last year, dropping David Beckham from the captaincy, dropping Beckham from the squad, entering the qualifiers and emerging with a 5-0 win against Andorra at Old Trafford, unbeaten with one win out of back-to-back games against Macedonia. We were expected to find it tough in Skopje and scored the one goal to win; we were expected to quiet the Macedonians in our own backyard and settled leaving Old Trafford with a no-score draw.

We flew to Zagreb to handle Croatia, the pitch was rough in comparison to the Premier League, the climate frosty (the crowd more than the temperature), a new formation of 3-5-2, Jamie Carragher at right-back, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Gary Neville at right-wing, Scott Parker between Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard, Joe Cole left, Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch upfront. We could not perform and Croatia were settled. Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva headed in Niko Kovac's cross on the hour; Neville's back pass to Paul Robinson hit a divet on the way and skipped over the Spurs keeper's right foot to trickle in. How in heaven could anyone blame Robinson for the goal, I will never understand.

That being that, if memory serves me correctly, England were hovering in fourth place, points behind top spot and in some concern of failing to produce enough to qualify, much less top the group. It was a must to get three points off the Israelis in Tel Aviv's Ramat-Gan stadium, yet we failed again to score, much less win and the pressure began to increase. In a 4-4-2 set-up, Gerrard on the left in the absence of Joe Cole, Lampard and Owen Hargreaves centre, Rooney and Andrew Johnson upfront, Aaron Lennon was replaced by Stewart Downing, moving Gerrard right, Jermaine Defoe was given only 10mins normal time as a sub for Johnson. It wasn't good. If you want to change for an impact, give a player more than that with a sub around the 60-65 minute mark.

Next was the eastern Pyrenees, bordering between France and Spain, to meet Andorra in the Estadi OlĂ­mpico de Montjuic in Barcelona. Potentially our worst match for a first half that brought jeers, sneers upon the starting XI, the bench and McClaren. Rooney was being targeted for provocation, earned himself a booking and a suspension for the next qualifier. The second half brought more life from England, Gerrard scoring twice before Defoe's introduction on the hour brought more chances, one of which was goal-bound before debut David Nugent made sure. In Tallinn, England score three again via a Joe Cole volley from a Crouch flick, a Crouch header and a Michael Owen header from Beckham's crosses, back in the side. We still had more work to do.

New Wembley, first qualifier, Israel the guests. This time Tal Ben Haim was not as formidable a defender as he was in Tel Aviv. Captain Youssi Benayoun was their main threat with his work rate, but England had brought new flavour. Injuries dictated selection to a degree, with Emile Heskey coming in to provide strength and pace in partnership with Owen, while Lampard's absence meant Gerrard linked up with Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. Knowing each other good from the younger England years, their fluidity through communication and understanding found them both interchanging between holding back and attacking. Shaun Wright-Phillips side-footed from J Cole's cross, Barry's firm pass was gathered and hit on the turn by Owen and Barry again provided the corner for Micah Richards to head in his first international goal.

Wembley again, this time the Russians were in town, our first encounter. Heskey started again and again he provided openings with his strength and pace. Barry started too after Israel and his corner went over Terry for Owen to gather and score. Russia's Konstantin Zhyrianov was harshly judged to have handballed on his way to scoring, we were fortunate. Heskey's flick-on found Owen in space and he deposited no.2. Ferdinand stepped up in attack and with Owen finding him, the Man Utd defender dinked then shot for no.3. Then on Saturday Estonia visited Wembley and England notced a five consecutive 3-0 victory courtesy of Wright-Phillips, a deflected Rooney effort and a superb own goal by Taavi Rahn with a header from outside the box.

As a result, with our next match importantly against the Russians in Moscow on Wednesday than anyone else, and they having a game in hand, England are now one win away from qualification and second in the table a point behind Croatia. Russia are third with eighteen points. Can we get three points on Wednesday, with the Macedonians holding Croatia in November, leaving us to continue a winning Wembley streak in our final game with the Croatians? Anything is possible, particularly now. Rooney and Lampard have returned to fitness, Micah Richards has slotted in well. We are looking good, overall.

However I must add that the jeers or boos when Lampard was brought on for Owen on 80mins have brought some confusion and undoubtedly disgust in its aftermath. The point to establish thoroughly is whether it was aimed at Lampard directly or at the change for a striker when Crouch and Defoe were on the bench. If it is at Lampard, I would like to know why, other than he is a Chelsea player or if people are disgruntled with his England performances recently. I interpret it was at the change, as it pushed Lampard wide right, Barry left, Gerrard central, Rooney up alone with J Cole and SWP either side. We know Rooney does not enjoy the lone striker role but instead dropping back to pick up and go, or pick up, give and then go. Rooney likes to be in the thick of the attack as quick as possible so leaving him alone either means he is not there to pass to or he remains isolated and potentially bored. Wide right is not Lampard's good position either.

Maybe the fans felt another striker with Rooney would be more ideal, for the second half petered on with little for excitement other than Gerrard's great chance to score but inexplicably passing weakly to J Cole when in a better position to advance and strike. Giving Crouch or Defoe a run out for 10mins+ seemed a better idea than introducing another midfielder.

Rugby World Cup

I have followed England through the Women's World Cup and also through the Rugby one. Devastated after the South Africa defeat, we went on to win our games including the quarter-final against main threat Australia (just), and then France who had to get over the All Blacks (just) to the semi-final. It deserves a mention here as England went ahead early through Josh Lewsey but the French hit back with Lionel Beauxis' two penalties to bring half time at 5-6 to France. France went further ahead as Beauxis scored another penalty before Jonny Wilkinson scored one of his own to keep England a point behind at 8-9. Wave after wave of French pressure built up as England kept backs to the wall and refused to be scored over anymore.

Time was increasingly running out and by the time five minutes remained between France and the finals, England brought out some resolve from nowhere to take the lead. Jason Robinson went on another mazy run and was improperly tackled, which induced another penalty for Wilkinson to score, putting England 11-9 in front. With two minutes remaining the French appeared to have been deflated at such an effort being demoted by Wilkinson's latest penalty. The fight in them looked subdued, even more so with victory sealed as the ball was thrown to Wilkinson for him to initiate a drop-kick for three more points, ending the match 14-9 to England, ending another France defeat in the semi-finals from 2003 and bringing England to face the Springboks on Sunday. Superb display of grit, determination and heart from the players, which I think deserves the trophy.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Stop rotating Rafa!

Despite what he says about the big players not playing well, the fact is that no one will play well if they don't get the chance to play consistently.
Benitez is fast becoming the ultimate tinkerman and Liverpool are paying the price. I cannot understand why Torres was left out against Portsmouth and Birmingham only to play 90 mins against Reading in the Carling Cup. These so called big players need to playing week in week out and it a myth that players cannot play 60 games per season. Last season we were all moaning at Benitez for consistently playing Gerrard on the right of midfield; he seems to have learned his lesson this season but now we're seeing everyone else moved about.

Liverpool have a great great chance of winning some silverware this season but only if Rafa stops rotating!


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