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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mascherano dismissal paved way for Liverpool woe

I have hardly felt as low as I did on Sunday afternoon after the Man Utd v Liverpool game. Wayne Rooney said it made little difference to the game with Javier Mascherano being sent off. In other words, Man Utd would have still beaten Liverpool with eleven men. Wrong. Some have called it an 'outclass' of a performance by Utd and this Liverpool fan will hold no bias in stating right from wrong. But to say the sending off made little difference was wrong.

Chances came and went for both sides, more so Utd with Rooney onto a sweet ball and Jamie Carragher beaten only to have his effort blocked by Pepe Reina. Rooney was the cusp of Utd's chances and when he was found on the right by Paul Scholes to cross for Wes Brown to shoulder in the opening goal, that was more down to Reina's goalkeeping error than anything else. Liverpool were behind but not down, not out. The game at 1-0 going into the half time break would have poised it more for Liverpool to come at Utd. Who knows how the pressure would have turned with eleven a side.

As for Mascherano, he only has himself to blame, no one else. Constantly badgering the referee at any opportunity paid no favours for him and his challenge on Scholes was worthy of the booking. So when he comes across to yet again remonstrate with Steve Bennett, despite Xabi Alonso trying to fend him away from the referee, the writing was hugely on the wall. The question was, at that stage, had Mascherano said anything to Bennett at that time to warrant the booking? The swearing allegedly occurred throughout the game but he was not sent off then. In asking why was Fernando Torres booked, he was then shown the second yellow. So is he not allowed to speak to the referee to ask a question? For Ryan Babel claimed he said nothing to Bennett of a rude nature.

However, you can look at it from any angle, the crucial factor is whilst being on a yellow, Mascherano should have treaded much more carefully. If a protest need be made, let another do it. Frankly some of the players wanted to get on with the game to get the goal back before half time, not push the referee. Torres was being kicked at when he won the free-kick and said to the referee how it took him so long to actually make a decision, considering other moments of rough treatment. So Torres was booked for that.

Something in me says Bennett could have brought Mascherano to one side and said to him to button it, calm down and make any protests more civil OR speak to the captain. That's discretion, which I felt Bennett did not display in the moment to help alleviate the issue. Yet let's not forget Mascherano had a responsibility to himself, the team and the fans. And for one of a character worthy at the most a yellow card in any game, for one who has been instrumental in central midfield, he did let us all down.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Power of Drogba highlights Arsenal's lack of an Adams/Campbell

First of all well done to Chelsea for the win today against Arsenal. They are a battling team and when on the brink forced a victory thanks to the supreme power of Didier Drogba - a striker that I was highly rating a year before Mourinho bought him to the Premier League and has proven to be a constant scourge to Arsenal.

Today was a game that highlighted for me Arsenal's achilees heel in this developing third-generation squad. When Wenger first came to Arsenal he had Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown as centre-back options who loved a battle with a power centre-forward and often came out on top in such confrontations.

Then when Arsenal won the double in 2001/2002 and then went unbeaten two years later we also had the man-mountain Sol Campbell at the back who rarely ever lost a physical confrontation against an opposing power forward.

The defensive strength and assuredness gained from having such centre-backs in defence was the foundation for Arsene Wenger's success at Arsenal in his first and second generation teams.

Yet this third generation squad that Wenger is building to emulate these two previous Arsenal squads for me lacks a dominant centre-back who for the whole 90 minutes can win out a physical and aerial battle with a power-centre-forward of the supreme nature of a Didier Drogba.

William Gallas and Kolo Toure are excellent centre-backs but they each could do with a partner that fits the mould of an Adams, a Campbell, or a Vidic - rather than each other.

This is because for me neither Kolo Toure and William Gallas are highly dominant in aerial challenges - rather they base their centre-back play on their strengths of mobility and defensive awareness.

Chelsea looked to prey on this all day and when the heat was on at the end of the match it was the current inherent Arsenal weakness of defending the high accurate long ball that led to their downfall.

When Phillippe Senderos first came into the Arsenal side he looked like he could take on the mantle of Tony Adams. But he got a tough early education at the hands of the amazing Drogba and presently does not appear to have progressed enough to be the answer.

Hopefully Arsene Wenger, who is a highly analyical guy and is looking to build his most perfect team will replicate this summer what he did in the summer of 2001 and buy a centre-back of the pure power and dominance of a young Sol Campbell.

I have one defender in mind: Micah Richards. He is not the finished article but his potential is superb and I think he would be fantastic in an Arsenal shirt. Also in our ranks is Johan Djourou who I think has a lot of potential- but it has benn difficult to gauge his progress this season due to a loan spell at Birmingham and a long injury lay-off.

Any other centre-back's come to your mind? Or is this an over-reaction and should Wenger stay solid with the combination of Kolo and Gallas for the next couple of seasons?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Keane and Berbatov are a superb combination

I rank Tottenham in my top three Premier League teams to watch in terms of excitement and good football. They play an open attacking style of football that is good to watch led by two 27 year old forwards who individually possess excellent natural footballing ability and together are finding a great harmony: Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov.

I have thought of Robbie Keane as a stand-out player ever since he broke through with Wolves as a teenager. At that time he seemed to possess a supremely natural talent with a football a lot like Paul Gascoigne. And that fantastic natural ability with a football is still at the core of his game. For me if he was Brazilian he would get more attention for his game because his instinctive flicks, imagination and shooting ability around the box is worthy of the land of Pele.

At last Keane is now starting every single league game under Juande Ramos after being subject to the strict rotation policy of Martin Jol. And the consistency of starts is enhancing the consistency of his play - this is definitely his stand-out season for Tottenham capped yesterday by his superb curling effort from 20 yards in the 88th minute to bring about a 4-4 draw against Chelsea in the Premier League match of the season so far. That was his 22nd goal in all competitions this season.

Alongside him in the Tottenham shirt is Dimitar Berbatov. This guy is a fantastic footballer. He has superb touch, balance, mobility, composure and football intelligence. His finishing from close and long range is excellent, he's a great header of the ball and possesses a winner's mentality. Again this is a player I liked before his Tottenham days, having seen him at Bayer Leverkusen and being astounded by a goal he scored for them in the Champs League against Roma. Check it out below if you haven't seen it - it is quintessential Berbatov.

Berbatov is not only a great player to watch but he is productive - just like last season he has already scored twenty plus goals this season. The play and the stats don't lie - Berbatov is a player to be reckoned with and I rate him alongside Mikel Arteta of Everton as the best player to watch outside the so-called 'big four' clubs.

The great thing about the Keane/Berbatov combination is that they are both intelligent and skilful enough to know how to combine as a pair as well as play individually. The fact that Ramos goes with them just about every match and that both have remained injury free are also important factors in what appears to be a natural affinity to link-up as an effective partnership.

Tottenham are an exciting and attractive team to watch with these two in the team. The big question is whether they can keep hold of Berbatov in the summer. For the sake of watching the increasing development of the excellent Keane/Berbatov combination it would be good to see the Bulgarian international stay at White Hart Lane.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Van Persie and Walcott = much need added firepower

Arsenal have stagnated in the league in the last month. In the course of a season it was bound to happen to this young squad that they would hit a sticky patch. Ironically it came in a run of matches that in relative terms aren't the most severe - Birmingham and Wigan away sandwiched between a home game against Aston Villa. Three consecutive draws is no embarrasment - but in the context of a title race it is substandard form.

For me the Eduardo injury in the opening couple of minutes of the Birmingham match cast a unique black cloud over that match and it seemed darkly appropriate that it then ended with a last minute debatable penalty decision costing the team two points and halting their momentum. However, if the fates looked to be badly against us in Birmingham, the same can't be said in the folowing league matches against Villa and Wigan where the team were flat and it was clear that there was a lack of freshness in performance, imagination and most importantly options.

Adebayor, Cesc and Hleb have shouldered the attacking burden of the team in the last couple of months due to injuries to van Persie, Rosicky, Eduardo, Diaby and the African Nations Cup plus suspension ruling out Eboue. And against Wigan this trio looked to be physically tolling and playing on memory rather than relying on physical and mental sharpness (Walcott would have been perfect for the Wigan match as his pace, current confidence and relative freshness could have made a big difference... what a mistake it was to play him in that Colorado Rapid exhibition match just a couple of days before where he sustained a knee injury).

In this context and with a big couple of months coming up it is great to see the super-skilled forward who started the season in fantastic form, Robin van Persie, set for a starting place for the Middlesbrough match today, with Walcott waiting in the wings as a super-sub option. Their freshness, firepower and attacking options will be a big boost for the team and particularly Adebayor, Cesc and Hleb.

For me it is also good to see Eboue come back - his finishing pass or shot leaves a lot to be desired but he does have exellent running power and an ability to make openings with his inside and outside dribbles down the right. And looking into the near future, fingers will be crossed hoping that the underrated and experinced Tomas Rosicky can come back in time for the run of powerhouse matches Arsenal have lined up at the end of this month/start of next month.

Arsenal need options at this time. We need van persie, Walcott, Eboue and Rosicky to be available so to add to the variations and firepower that Wenger can choose from while alleviating the pressure on Hleb, Cesc and the Ade to be the primary producers of goals and assists every match - a pressure that had been looking to weigh heavy in recent matches.

Having TW, RVP and Ebu all back for today's match is therefore great for me to see. And if they can help contribute to three much needed points against Boro - with van Persie getting a full 90 minutes under his belt - this will be perfect.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Champions League & UEFA Cup last eight draws

[Firstly, non-football related news. I'm passing our congratulations for a thorough job done by West Yorkshire Police and the community of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, for their part in the searching and eventual discovery of the missing nine-year-old schoolgirl Shannon Matthews. She was found earlier today in a house in Batley Carr, north of Dewsbury, hidden inside the bottom of a divan bed (I imagine one of those beds with sliding doors where you can store items in a capacity at the base of the bed). A man has been arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, and I pass our well wishes to the Matthews for the return of their daughter. Good news.]

I hoped to avoid Arsenal, Man Utd, and Chelsea for the quarter-finals next month until such time as it would be unavoidable but nonetheless, in a season with four English sides amongst the last eight, two of them at least had to be paired. Arsenal will face off with Liverpool at The Emirates to begin with, AS Roma have another chance with Man Utd at the Stadio Olimpico, Chelsea go away to the Sukru Saracoglu stadium for Fenerbahce and Barcelona will be hosted by Schalke 04 in the previous Word Cup city of Gelsenkirchen at the Veltins Arena. The winners from the all-England tie will face Chelsea or Fenerbahce in the semi-finals.

The UEFA Cup hopes are all British with Rangers faced with Bolton's victors, Sporting Lisbon, starting at Ibrox. Bayer Leverkusen host Zenit St Petersburg at the BayArena, Bayern Munich welcome Michael Laudrup's Getafe at The Allianz Arena, with Everton's conquerors Fiorentina facing PSV at the Artemio Franchi stadium.

Arsenal's form all season has overall been superb both in the league and the Champions League with only two defeats so far this season as opposed to Liverpool's five. Both coaches are confident of their side's ability come the day, and for me football can be readable or unpredictable. Game on!!

For Roma to get Man Utd again, and again beginning at home at the same stage as last season, people are looking for lightning to strike twice. How strong are Roma? They made good work of Real Madrid while Utd simply have good form in Christiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to spearhead their cause. It's another tough eye-catching tie.

Some have already labelled Chelsea's draw with Fenerbahce as game done. Surely those with knowledge in the game know there is no such thing. Olympiakos held Chelsea and for Fenerbahce to compel a team like Sevilla to elimination, having beaten them at home, to discount them would be foolish.

Schalke 04 have arguably the best team standing so far. Their first quarter-finals ever in the history of the club, they showed great bravery to maintain Porto, their keeper Manuel Neuer was in good form to deny Porto many times and the Germans held their nerve to come through on penalties. To outshine the Spanish side in both legs will have to be vigourous, a great feat for them, and it will also be another match to watch out for. All four matches are quite superbly and enthrallingly poised.

Rangers held off the UEFA favourites to progress in Werder Bremen to face Sporting. Sporting for me were not formidable last night against Bolton, who were minus their usual first-teamers. If Rangers were to play to their limits I think they can go through to the semi-finals. The first leg at Ibrox will be very pivotal to that objective.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Penalty strikes end UEFA hopes of last eight for Spurs and Everton

Liverpool's win on Tuesday night in the San Siro came on the back of another English win in the very same Italian garden the week before, and cemented four English teams featuring in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the very first time in the competition's history. European football for the English clubs, if not British, is looking much more progressive this season.

So turning to the UEFA Cup last night with the hopes of Spurs and Everton riding on the respective teams overturning their first leg deficit, European night came alive to our screens once again. I didn't watch Everton v Fiorentina as I felt, despite the 2-0 advantange the Italian side carried, the Toffees would show strong home form to make more of a challenge. Spurs were away to PSV and requiring one goal at the least in the Philips Stadion was more than an objective.

Both PSV and Spurs were equally matched but something in Spurs' play made me convinced they would pull the required goal and they did, albeit quite late. A Pascal Chimbonda cross from the right and a Dimitar Berbatov half-volley later with under 10mins remaining did the business. Darren Bent came on in the second half and had two good chances while the best came in the dying moments of extra-time with Steed Malbranque's half-volley being met with a timed right hand from Heurelho Gomes.

Paul Robinson saved one penalty by Danko Lazovic which meant Jermaine Jenas could have won it for Spurs but for some reason he didn't bury it, instead aiming to place a chipped ball that was comfortable at diving-level for 6ft 4in Gomes to block. Didier Zokora stepped up and I didn't feel he would be responsible enough to have the coolness to score yet I hailed for him to keep it low and very firm. He did make it firm but high into the roof of the net, which was good enough. But when Chimbonda stepped up, I definitely didn't feel confidence in him having that same coolness, reason being his manner in being subbed in the Carling Cup Final a major factor. The Frenchman's effort went wide of the goal.

Juande Ramos was edging closer to his third successive UEFA Cup final. There were good performances from individuals who showed minor errors in rare moments of the game, but overall Spurs were worthy of the victory that wasn't to be. Lee Young-Pyo was sacrificed at half time for Bent, making a 3-4-3. Sometime after, Ledley King was replaced with Aaron Lennon, Ramos shoring up the defence with Zokora partnering Jonathan Woodgate, Malbranque at left-back. After Berbatov scored, Jamie O'Hara came on for Robbie Keane, who was superb, moving to the left, Lennon moved to the right wing, Spurs going back to a strengthened 4-4-2.

I think Spurs should have used Lennon's pace down the right much more whereas he was restricted to coming inside and feeding others rather than getting round his marker and crossing near and low. In attack they passed well and were allowed to venture forward more as a result, as PSV were defensively positioned but more attack-minded. Yet Spurs could turn to the first-leg at The Lane as the point where they should have made their intent count than to lose, particularly without scoring.

I understand Everton suffered the same fate, being more the team to score, dominating, a scrappy Andy Johnson goal that was doubled when Mikel Arteta launched a sweet screamer from 25yds to level the aggregate. Yet they missed two penalties, as with Spurs, and I think they rue the chances they created but did not convert against a Fiorentina side who were quite comfortably 2nd best throughout.

Bolton play tonight at the Estadio Jose Alvalade of Sporting Lisbon, where it is 1-1 on aggregate. But I am very concerned that the likes of captain Kevin Nolan, Kevin Davies, El-Hadji Diouf, Ricardo Gardner to name a few will not be featuring. Twelve seniors are being left at home as Gary Megson instead looks further to Premiership survival than European glory. Still, with FA Cup shocks and Champions League exits for big teams, maybe the Portuguese can be hit with another Cup exit. Against all odds, maybe.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Italy wakes up to the Wenger Masterplan (and TW)

I put into words what I had been seeing Arsene Wenger develop at Arsenal for the last three years when I wrote "The Wenger Masterplan is key to the Henry question" back in June last year (Check out the article in the sidebar to the right).

Essentially the Wenger Masterplan is to build his best ever team based on a recruitment of the best young players he can find around the world and moulding them individually and collectively into his superb vision of football which is to play pure, quick, attacking and passing football. I described that three of the four stages of the plan were well in progress the final and most exciting stage was ready to be executed- season after season of real challenge for success.

With the determined and successful Wenger at the helm I had every belief that this young third generation squad three years in the making were about to explode in the football public's conciousness.

The Wenger Masterplan was not spotted by many of the English media's so-called 'football experts' who was predicting the decline of Arsenal this season - tipping us to fall out of the top four clubs in England. The only people I came across not affiliated to Arsenal who believed they would challenge for trophies this season was Paul Jewell (now the Derby manager) Graham Taylor (former England manager and now a good radio summariser) and the excellent football writer for the Independent, James Lawton. They were notable because no one else gave Arsenal a chance.

England have since woken up during the course of the season to what Arsene Wenger has been developing and many have complimented this third generation side (although it is clear from the analysis that I read or hear that many do not seem to realise the extent of what Wenger is developing).

What was especially great about Arsenal's 2-0 win over the Champions League specialists AC Milan at the San Siro was that if they were unaware beforehand Italy have now been put on full alert to the Wenger Masterplan. The way this young third-generation Arsenal side took control of the match against their more experiened opponents and produced the supremely co-ordinated quick passing and attacking football which is the Wenger template was truly fantastic to watch.

Cesc Fabregas is the tone-setter of the team and is a big-match player. He set the excellent rhythm and absolute composure for the rest of the team to emulate (as is his trademark) and it was fitting that the 20 year old who is near to completing 200 first class games for Arsenal was the player who decided the match with a decisive dribble and finish from 30 yards into the corner of the net. The celebration says a lot about the player - the passion and the desire was evident. He is a captain in performance if not with the armband and a true Arsenal great in the making.

Theo Walcott than produced a cameo that people should remember. The 18 year old Englishman who has been the subject of unreasonable criticism from supporters in this country who seem to overlook a guy with pure talent and an obviously good mindset produced a Henry-esque sprint to beat Kakha Kaladze to a long ball in space - and then produced a magnificent Henry-esque slide-rule pass across the six-yard box for Adebayor to slot home. This follows his first two goals in the Premier League against Birmingham ten days earlier - the second a demonstration of his running prowess and finishing potential - and hopefully those TW doubters will be thinking again.

He will not produce every game - but as an 18 year old this is to be expected. For me he has superstar potential and this is the bigger picture that should be focused on.

Finally, when reading the Guardian article on the Italian press reaction to the game I enjoyed this translation of a description of Adebayor:

'the extraordinary atypical monument to modern football'.

A fantastic tribute to the Ade who has gone from strength to strength this season and played another strong match on Tuesday when Italy witnessed at first hand the continued emergence of this third-generation Wenger Arsenal squad - which Wenger has specifically designed and aimed to be the best yet.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A monumental 48hrs of Champions League football

The knock-out stages of the Champions League 2007-08. Group winners and runner-ups' settling the dust for the showdowns. And we have now taken in the demise of the campaign for four teams with home advantage in FC Porto, Sevilla, Real Madrid and the current holders in AC Milan.

No British team has played AC Milan at the San Siro and won. Now that has been broken. Arsenal went into the cauldron of Italy with having missed chance after chance at The Emirates, having not scored at all and yet having not conceded. AC held the home advantage, the crowd numbers, a formidable record against teams from this side of Europe, but one thing they did do and then relinquished was their hold on Arsenal. Both sides enjoyed periods of possession that reaped concern and openings on their oppositions' goal but for some eighty plus minutes neither could break the deadlock. Until Cesc Fabregas took on the challenge with space in front of him and went for broke.

The away goal, the single goal, put big pressure on the Italian side in their own garden. I didn't see the match but Sky Sports swapped from the Man Utd v Lyon game as it finished straight to the San Siro to catch the last moments, and soon enough Theo Walcott took on the ball played down the right, making contact and skipping it past one challenge and keeping balance to then flash a low cross for Emmanuel Adebayor to finish off the Rozzoneri.

Attention turned from the San Siro to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium of Sevilla, who looked to overturn the 3-2 advantage Fenerbahce held on them. Two poor goalkeeping moments from the Turkish side's Volkan Demirel allowed shots from Dani Alves and Seydou Keita to beat him, though Brazilian Deivid de Souza picked up a corner ball to hit through a crowded Sevilla box to reduce the deficit. Sevilla made it 3-1 (5-4) when on forty minutes Freddie Kanoute chested then shot in a deflected effort. I felt Fenerbahce were to be buried yet they still came forward.

I jumped into this game from the Old Trafford one from time to time and got the feeling this was an end-to-end match. Sevilla appeared content to go forward on the counter, as if they felt confident they had the second tie in control but there was no accounting for Fenerbahce's tenacity to not give up and relentlessly they made a major breakthrough through their Brazilian again. Another set-piece, a freekick, found Deivid at the far post and his first effort came off the post and teed up for him to snap the rebound home. Five-all on aggregate and extra time brought penalties. The hero was the original 'villain' in Volkan, with three saves that brought Fenerbahce into the quarter-finals for the first time in the club's history, one more step away from matching that achieved by rivals Galatasaray in the competition.

Another night of Champions League football, another collapse of two more prominent clubs. The Bernabeu displayed Real Madrid's efforts to recover from the 2-1 defeat at AS Roma. I watched this game fully and it was another end-to-end match. Shots from both Julio Baptista and Alberto Aquilani brought high tension in the beginning stages, with Aquilani's effort being a consecutive double making Iker Casillas drop well to his left to deny, and both sides seem to fashion good attack modes and efforts towards the respective goals. I did feel that to pick one side to score was extremely difficult, nonetheless if pushed I predicted Roma would open the scoring first with Real equalising, therefore the game drawing with Roma's qualification.

But I didn't make any account of a dismissal, arguably the turning and talking point of the game. Real's central defender Pepe, who had already picked up a booking for an unwarranted challenge much earlier on, was rounded by the quick movement of Mirko Vucinic on the cusp of the touchline meeting the penalty box and then turned to impede the Montenegrin. A deliberate offence brought a second booking. It may have also brought Roma's opportunity as Real defended poorly as Max Tonetto sublimely crossed for the quick thinking and moving Rodrigo Taddei to jump ahead and nod in an equally sublime header that left virtually no chance for Casillas.

Real hit back almost instantly as Robinho and Guti combined well to feed in Rual, who turned and slotted in with precision, despite the fact he was clearly offside when he received the ball. But that sparked nothing more from Real other than possession yet no breakthrough. They had already brought on Royston Drenthe and Miguel Torres for Mahammadou Diarra and Michel Salgado respectively before the sending-off, and then Baptiste came off with five minutes remaining for Roberto Soldado, making a 3-4-2. But defensively Real didn't keep shape and two minutes into injury time Roma sealed the qualification as yet another superb cross, this time from sub Christian Panucci, met the head of another sub in Vucinic for the killing goal.

To have seen that was great entertainment for neutrals particularly, yet to then hear that Porto at the Estadio do Dragão were being held on aggregate by Schalke 04 into extra-time just begged for more viewing. From the highlights it emerged the Schalke keeper Manuel Neuer looked nervy but maintained composure to deny Porto at almost every opportunity. Jose Bosingwa tested the keeper with Lisandro Lopez ('Licha') following up as Neuer spilled the ball, Licha and Tarik Sektioui fashioned two successive efforts to further engage the German keeper and then Ricardo Quaresma's shot caught Neuer out before the ball was cleared by the defence.

Neuer was inexplicably on hand to deny Porto yet again as Sektioui was dead certain to score a yard or two from goal with a header but the keeper stood up and then opened to block with his left leg. Porto keeper Helton Arruda clearly handled outside the area when caught out but it went unnoticed, however Porto eventually suffered a setback as a dismissal did happen with Jorge Fucile red-carded for a tackle on Levan Kobiashvili. It didn't deter them, Luis Oscar Gonzalez ('Lucho') chipped into the box for Licha to gather and then turn swiftly to deposit a sweet effort over Neuer into the top corner.

Quaresma curled a freekick just wide with the outside of his right foot but then had a gilt-edge opportunity in extra-time to end matters being one-on-one with Neuer, only for the keeper to again spread himself and block. I sensed Porto would regret not finishing their chances, another home side going out in front of their fans. Penalties followed and Neuer produced two saves, the second a great right-hand claw as he dived to his left to deny Licha.

Four strong sides in the competition eliminated at home, where you would expect they would progress with the home advantage, particularly AC Milan and Real Madrid. For AC, they followed other previous winners since 2004 in winning the cup and then bowing out at this stage the following season. Porto, Liverpool and Barcelona experienced the same fate. For Real, it is their fourth consecutive season of elimination from the competition at the knock-out stage.

For their conquerors, Arsenal made history and again disposed of a strong side, arguably the best in Europe all round, the current holders and seven-times winners. This could be their final, recalling their battle with Real Madrid in 2006 that signified their quarter-final spot. For Fenerbahce, their first outing amongst the last eight, well earned. For AS Roma, a chance of revenge perhaps if they were to meet Manchester United again, for they now carry the Italian interest into the quarter-finals. And Schalke 04, sixth in the Bundesliga currently, holding out the 2004 winners, the club that Jose 'The Special One' Mourinho built up, to qualify for the last eight for the first time ever.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Butt, Barton, Smith is a dismal selection for Newcastle

This has been a terrible season for Newcastle. They started off not playing that great but were picking up wins at a regular enough pace to push them up in the top half of the table. But I think the turning point of the season into a spiral of desperate, dismal football was the home match against Liverpool in mid-November where they lost 3-0 and it was a scoreline that flattered them. That was the day Allardyce was a doomed man at St James' and in early January was replaced by the legend of Newcastle, Kevin Keegan.

Yet as we enter March, Newcastle are winless under Keegan and as they stand-still in the table they are slowly but surely being caught up by relegation candidates. In other words Newcastle are being sucked into a relegation fight and have absolutely no momentum behind them to aid them in this battle.

For me there has been a lot of focus in the media on the lack of quality in Newcastle's defence as the main reason behind their terrible season. However, for me the main problem with Newcastle is the selection of Butt, Barton and Smith as three central midfielders.

They are three players who have a real lack of quality and attempt to make up for it by using aggressive tackling and competiveness that often crosses the line. In the Premier League alone Butt has ten yellow cards to his name; Smith has 8 yellows and one red, and Barton who has been injured for half the season has three yellows and a vicious streak as Ousmane Dabo can account for. Joey Barton and Alan Smith were bought by Sam Allardyce for a total of £11.8 million - and that alone is an indictment on Allardyce's short reign at Newcastle. 33 year old Nicky Butt is quite a bit past his prime and is now a very average Premier League midfield player. All three often play the game with a snarl on their face and its not great to see.

According to Soccernet's stats none of these three players have any assists to their name. This highlights the main thing I notice when watching these three players perform - a lack of creativity and footballing intelligence to generate quality football at Premier League level. For me they don't represent the attacking Newcastle that the Toon fans want to see and the fact that the three have also represented England is somewhat a reflection on the limitations on the England national team in the last decade.

As long as Keegan persits on playing all these three players in the same team I fear for Newcastle - they are not good enough in the crucial central area of the pitch to take good control of the game, create chances and get a goal or two. Whatever happens to Newcastle this season it has to be the case that for the good of their club Butt, Barton and Smith are not included in the same starting XI at the start of next season.


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