Rafael Benitez to Juventus: Black and White But Red All Over?

January 28, 2010

by Willie Gannon… It would seem that the soap story at Anfield has taken another twist, after Juventus confirmed that Rafael Benitez is their number one target to take over from the embattled Ciro Ferrara, and wood was definitely thrown on the fire after Rafa’s agent suggested the move could happen…

Following Juve’s 2-0 defeat to Claudio Ranieri’s Roma at the weekend, Jean Claude Blanc, Juventus’ President, is expected to wield the axe on Ferrara. Pressure has been mounting on the Italian after Juve made an embarrassing early exit from the Champions League and the loss to Roma seems to be the final straw for the club.

The ironic thing is that Ranieri was sacked from Juve so Ferrara could be brought in, while their chief target Benitez also oversaw an embarrassing exit for this seasons Champions League for Liverpool.

At Liverpool, pressure has been mounting following the worst run of results at the club in decades. Only seven wins in their last 22 games, early exits for the Champions League, the Carling Cup, and the FA Cup, added to a title bid that was over by October mean that Rafa’s job is on the line.

He has made a guarantee to the clubs fans that he will deliver fourth place at the least, and his job now depends on that promise.

The news that Juve are interested in the Spaniard will be music to some fans ears but will be the a real needle in the eye for the many Rafaelites who have backed their manager through thick and thin.

His agents ill judged comments will come as a real blow to those who have been most vocal in their support.

“Benitez to Juventus? In football you never know,” Quillon said. “Right now, that hypothesis is not correct because he is a very important figure (at Anfield). The idols of the fans are Gerrard, Torres, and Benitez. “I don’t know what will happen in four to five months. In football everything changes quickly, but the basic principle is that Rafa still has a four-year contract.”

The move will be financed by John Elkan, Juve’s vice president, and heir to the Fiat empire. He believes that Rafa would be interested in the terms they could offer him, £3million a year after tax. As it stands, Rafa receives the same amount from Liverpool but has to pay 50 percent of it through tax, leaving him with £1.5million.

Could Rafa be tempted by Juve’s offer? Most definitely. Juventus are one of the few clubs that can compete in Europe as well as domestically and the financial package would be very lucrative to say the least.

It is, however unlikely that Benitez will leave before the summer, but with fourth place looking increasingly impossible, the news that Juve have offered Giovani Trappatoni a six month deal to look after the team until their target arrives may suggest that a deal for a new manager is in the pipework.

Is it Rafa? Remains to be seen…

Dimitar Berbaflop To Be Sold As United Gear Up To Rebuild Flagging Squad

January 11, 2010

by Willie Gannon… Dimitar Berbatov, Luis Nani, Luis Anderson, Nemanja Vidic, and Michael Carrick will head a sensational clear-out of Manchester United as Alex Ferguson wields the axe on some of his under-performing stars at the end of the season.

After 18 months of inconsistent and indifferent performances, Dimitar Berbatov looks to be on top of Fergie’s list as United gear up for a summer clear-out.

The reason for the clearout is two-fold , on one side it will see the club look to reduce its increasing wage bill, while on the other it will see Fergie remove the dead wood from his squad.

While the Red Devils may still reside in second place in the English Premier League, and are in the semifinals of the League Cup, and are in the knockout stages of the Champions League, their form has been below what is expected of a Manchester United team.

Over the past six months the United boss has come to believe that his squad is short of his required standard, and has now signalled for the first time that he is planning a mass overhaul.

In 2005 Ferguson sold or moved on 16 players as he rebuilt his squad for the Champions League assault, it paid dividends in 2008. Last season United was well beaten by Barcelona in Rome as the Spanish giants easily brushed United aside.

Many players were given a second chance but after a misfiring first half of the season it appears that Ferguson has drawn a line in the sand for many of his supposed stars.

Back in 2005, United only received £40m for the 16 players who left the club, this time around they will be looking to receive substantially more than that figure the Glazers (team owners) deal will an increasing debt.

The 2008 season was United’s most successful season of all time, Champions League winners, Premier League winners, League Cup winners, and beaten semifinalists in the FA Cup, and yet their debt in that single still rose above the prize money the club brought in, hence the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for a world record £80m and the refusal to re-sign Carlos Tevez.

Ferguson will probably move for David Villa or go back for Karim Benzema who has yet to make the break through at Real Madrid, but either bid would have to be financed part of the way by the sale of United’s biggest flop.

Dimitar Berbatov has scored just 20 goals in 66 appearances for United and has struggled with the expectancy of playing for such a prestigious club. While some players, like Wayne Rooney, have thrived under the added pressure, Berbatov has been a shadow of the player who was allowed to play his own game at Tottenham.

After the Leeds defeat, which seems to be the straw that broke the camels back for Fergie, the riot act was read to many players, but Berbatov was singled out for particularly failing to shine over the course of the last year.

A United insider said: “The four midfield players got a lot of criticism after the Leeds game, but the biggest under-performer was Berbatov.

“People say he’s got a great touch, and that isn’t in doubt, but this game is also about hunger and work rate.

“To put it bluntly, Berbatov doesn’t run around enough for this United team – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the people that matter most.”

Nani is also on the way out the door at Old Trafford, having come in in 2007 for £17m, the Portuguese has done little to impress and has gone backwards since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid after leaving the winger with a clear run at a permanent place in the team.

United has already offered Nani more than £14m for Benfica’s winger De Maria, but the offer was shot down as it was considered “not enough” by the Portuguese giants.

Anderson was substituted after impersonating a footballer and failing to make an impact against Leeds, and is another who is under severe pressure after United paid Porto £18m for his services in 2007, also.

The Brazilian international feels he has not been given enough chances to impress in his favorite position as an attacking midfielder.

He said: “If I said I’m not disappointed in things I’d be lying.

“Of course I’m disappointed because a player of my ability, who is used to playing at attacking role and scoring goals like I did at Porto, then it makes me sad.

“I have only scored one goal for the club, but I can’t be dispirited.

“My first goal has to be to get back to the condition I was in at Porto and to get a run of games like I did there.

“Then I want to start scoring goals and deciding games because that’s important for my career.”

The word on the street in Manchester is that Anderson has used up all of his lives with Fergie and that the Scot wants to move him on as soon as possible. Earlier this year, Ferguson called the Brazilian to task over his fondness for the nightlife in Manchester amongst the growing Brazilian population.

Soon after, Anderson’s form improved but he has been very poor this year, and also appears to be a player who is missing the off-field influence of Ronaldo.

Outside the club, Nani, Anderson, and Ronaldo were all friends who frequented each others company on a regular basis.

In midfield, Michael Carrick’s poor form and Owen Hargreaves injury problems are also problems that Ferguson has to contend with, while Darron Gibson is showing little of the potential he has promised over the last couple of years.

Only Darren Fletcher has reached the heights expected of him, and it now says much of United’s problems that the Scot is easily its best midfielder and a player the first team cannot do without.

One player who is a surprise on Ferguson’s list is Nemanja Vidic. Last season, prior to the Champions League final, he appeared to have his head turned by Barcelona after a move to Spain was offered to the Serbian.

However, following many conversations with Ferguson, Vidic decided to redouble his efforts and stay with United.

His form has been hampered by injury this season, but when available he has been well below par, causing many to question the Serbian’s future. His cause has not been aided by the continued absence of Rio Ferdinand.

The English international has missed most of the season through a back injury, but Ferguson also has major worries about the celebrity lifestyle he leads off the pitch.

Following Vidic’s withdrawal from the Leeds game through injury, Ferguson was said to be furious with his defender.

The Serbian has been chased by Real Madrid and Barcelona, who are looking to take advantage of Manchester United’s reluctancy to double Vidic’s wages to £100,000 per week.

It would seem that this move has been driven by the boardroom as such a rise would increase United’s wage bill by £2.5m a year before bonuses, and the name of the game in the current climate is to reduce the annual wage spend.

With the player nearing 30 and looking to secure his long term future, it may seem a wise move by Ferguson to allow him to move to Spain now as they could command at least £20m to £25m for his signature.

Elsewhere, United also looks to be on the verge of losing Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar, and Gary Neville, as the four player are all near retirement age.

So when it is all added together it looks like next summer could be a very busy one for the Old Trafford club.

They have four important players on the verge of retirement, a striker who is misfiring, a couple of midfielders who are not improving, and a duo of defenders who look to have played their last season together.

And with the club struggling with their growing debt and looking to refinance it in any way possible, it could be a very busy transfer window at Old Trafford.

Just don’t mention Ferguson retiring too…

Ten Football Predictions for 2010

January 5, 2010

by Willie Gannon… The last year was a memorable one. Barcelona won the Champions League with the kind of display associated with Holland in the ’70s. Real Madrid took their spending to £1 billion while Liverpool went backwards.

1) Liverpool and Rafael Benitez will part ways.

Life at Liverpool has never been a bed of roses for Senor Benitez. Ever since the clubs American owners took over in October 2006, there has been rumors of a new manager coming in.

Liverpool’s worst start to a season in decades has shown Benitez’s failings in the transfer market to everyone. Having taken over the worst Liverpool team in decades in 2004, the Spaniard has created the worst Liverpool squad of all time.

Time for Rafa is running out and even if Liverpool finish fourth, as expected, there could be a parting of the waves.

2) David Moyes to Celtic, Mark Hughes to Everton.

David Moyes has achieved everything he is going to achieve at Everton. He has hit the ceiling, there is no where else to go.

The club simply do not have the money to progress any further and Moyes himself will never be fashionable enough to manage one of the big five clubs, despite his sterling record at Goodison.

Celtic are in turmoil under Tony Mowbray, and the former WBA manager is on his last legs at Celtic Park. Should Moyes take over, he will get the chance to win trophies and play in Europe regularly.

While the initial move to Celtic may look a step backwards, it is in truth a step sideways. Celtic are a huge club and success in Scotland would open the door to managing someone like Spurs or Aston Villa should their managers move on.

The obvious manager to take over is Mark Hughes. Having seen his star rise when he was given the City job, it would be a massive step down to manage anyone outside the Premier League’s big clubs.

3) Thierry Henry will serve a one-game suspension for his infamous hand ball.

The “Hand of Frog” incident may have blown over for the time being but it has not yet disappeared.

With Ireland refusing to accept the FIFA Fair Play award recently, FIFA will be embarrassed into action.

They have already said they will look at the incident in 2010 with a view to retrospective punishment.

Expect FIFA to fudge this, too. Henry will, in all probability, be given a one-game suspension during the World Cup as a penalty for the handball as Sepp Blatter looks to make himself and his organisation look progressive rather than the bunch of idiots they usually come across as.

4) Portsmouth, Hull, and West Ham to be relegated.

Sorry Brian…

Portsmouth have no money to pay the wages of their players. There will be a clear-out of available employees in January and those that are left will have to pick up the pieces of a demoralised squad.

Hull just don’t have the strikers. Unless Phil Browne really works some magic in January then the Tigers will go down battling.

West Ham are in as just a precarious position as Pompey. Their Icelandic owners have ordered Gianfranco Zola to bring in at least £10m for “them” this season. That will mean the sale of the clubs best two players at the very least.

With his team treading water expect Gianfranco Zola to be linked with the Napoli job…

5) Liverpool will sell Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard

Even if Rafa does somehow manage to avoid the sack at Liverpool, he will have to sell to rebuild the squad.

As it is Liverpool only have three players that any other team would covet. The two aforementioned players and Pepe Reina.

They could accrue almost £130m for the trio if they get what they want for the players. That money will give the manager the money to rebuild the team.

In a worse case scenario RBS will force the sale to claw back some of the £290m still owed to them.

6) Jose Mourinho will replace Alex Ferguson at Manchester United

Fergie does not have long left.

United will not win the title this year and the Glazer’s are now facing that massive debt growing again. Two seasons ago, Manchester United had their most successful season of all time, having won the EPL and the Champions League, and their debt still grew…

Imagine what will happen in a season without a trophy?

It is a step the Glazer’s cannot take or afford. They will try to get Fergie to resign this summer and will have the best manager available lined up, Jose.

With Wayne Rooney having won the Golden Boot for the Premier League as well as the World Cup, Mourinho will possess the best forward in the world.

7) Arsenal will win nothing this year.

Having seen the Gunners tackle the first part of the season, I have come to the conclusion that they are about three to four players short of winning the league.

Their over dependence on Cesc Fabregas means they will be relatively easy to neutralise as the Champions League gets into the knockout stages.

8) Cesc Fabregas will join Barcelona in July.

Having sat on the bench through most of the World Cup, Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas will be itching to set foot on a pitch.

The upcoming Presidential elections at Barcelona are ominous for the Gunners, as Fabregas’ signature is promise numero uno for the candidates.

9) Rafael Benitez will take over at Real Madrid.

Free from Liverpool, the Spanish giants will move to sack Pellegrino and replace him with Rafa.

10) Chelsea, Newcastle, and Leeds will win their leagues, while The Penioners will get to the Champions League Final.

The Premier League is Chelsea’s to lose. Has been since day one. The African Nations will give some of their players time to reflect on what is needed to win the title, while one or two additions will give their squad the chance to rest as the knockout stages come thick and fast.

If United or Arsenal get to the final, Chelsea will win. If Barca or Real get to the final, they will probably lose.

And just for good luck…

Brazil to beat Italy in the World Cup final.

Any other predictions?

Arsene Wenger: “Eight Teams Can Win The League.” Too Much Christmas Sherry?

December 17, 2009

by Willie Gannon…  Le Prof can be a great man for a quote.  All too often he is a concise mind when it comes to football as we know and love it. Yet sometimes he can come out with some real clangers. Yesterday he claimed that “eight teams could win the league.” A case of too much Christmas sherry?

Before we go any further let us read what Arsene said.

Wenger said: “It’s the most open race I have known since I’ve been here. Instead of having four teams, I believe you can have six, seven or even eight teams who can cause a surprise. I believe they can all win it.

“I’ve been deeply convinced since the beginning of the season that we can win it. But it will depend on mental strength and how much we can improve in each game.”

So there you have it in black-and-white, but it is possibly Red all over.

Apart from it coming across as something of a brain-fart, I think you have to read into the comments a little further.

Of course Wenger is wrong to suggest that eight teams could win the league, not a snowballs chance in hell of the likes of the Spurs winning the title.

If you take him literally, lets look at who he could think the eight contenders are.

Chelsea and United, easy start.

Arsenal, ok…em where do we go from here?

I mean if Arsene actually thinks the likes of Villa, City, Tottenham, or Liverpool—never mind that unknown elusive eighth team—have a chance of winning the league, then he has a screw loose.

But Wenger’s comments were not directed towards eight potential challengers. I believe they were part of the old boys club that is made of managers, and the comments were directed towards protecting Rafael Benitez.

The Spaniard is under intense pressure after the clubs worst run in over 50 years, and in seeing that Rafa is not a threat for this year, Wenger has held out the “Olive branch.”

In the aftermath of Arsenal’s victory over Liverpool at Anfield, Wenger had this to say in the press conference.

“Liverpool are a good side and when they find their confidence they can beat anyone in the league.”

He added: “They have Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard back, Alberto Aquilani will get fitter and many teams will drop points at Anfield.

“They played in the first half with an impressive level of performance.”

It was scant consolation for Rafa after the defeat, but it was a comment that Wenger did not need to make, and it was a real show of support for the beleaguered Liverpool boss.

So maybe Wenger wasn’t on the Christmas sherry, but he still made that silly comment about eight teams being in with a chance.  We’ll forgive him this time, even if it was a honourable attempt at defending the indefensible.

Time Running Out For Rafael Benitez at Liverpool

December 14, 2009

by Willie Gannon… There is no shame in losing to Arsenal, but the manner in which the Gunners beat Liverpool will give Rafael Benitez nightmares as he faces up to their umpteenth false dawn this year and what to do next.

Despite his promises this week that this game was the real start to Liverpool’s season, it has turned out to be another week in which the Reds were pushed aside by a team with a superior work ethic and a better grasp on what is needed to win a match.

This current incarnation of the once great club are a shadow of the ideals and beliefs that Bill Shankley brought to the club 50 years ago.

It is fitting that the anniversary of his arrival is celebrated on Wednesday, as it will give a stark reminder to all who wear the famous red kit what is expected of them. But, most importantly, it will give the manager a real look at what is expected of him.

There have always been questions asked of Benitez during his five years in charge, and while the wily Spaniard is quick to remind fans that he has improved upon the mess that was careening out of control under Gerard Houillier, Benitez always shies away from where the real comparisons lie, with the likes of Shankley, Joe Fagan, Bob Paisley, and even Kenny Dalglish.

In truth, Benitez does not meet these comparisons well, despite the fact that some may point to him having a better win percentage over his first 200 games.

The real comparison is not done on games, it is done on trophies, and more importantly, league trophies.

During his six seasons with the club Benitez has bought poorly.

His transfer dealing has been poor by any ones comparison. Benitez again points to the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea having bigger purses than the Anfield club, but it is a type of smokescreen.

Liverpool have never been the biggest spending club in the league over their long and brilliant history, and while their rivals may have spent more, yes in Chelsea’s case, no in United’s and Arsenal’s, Liverpool are still one of the biggest spending teams in the league.

So, with intelligent purchases they would be title challengers every year. Last year they eventually fulfilled that promise, but fell short at the final hurdle.

That good form was expected to continue again this year, but there was one striking difference. Rafa had sold Xabi Alonso.

Surely the loss of one player would not make that much of a difference?

Yes it did.

Without the Spaniard to pull the strings, the shallow depth of the Liverpool midfield was exposed. Lucas Leivia was pushed in to replace the Real Madrid bound Alonso, and for the most part, was found out of his depth.

Benitez moved to repair the situation, but instead of going for a player like Wesley Sneijder, or Daniele De Rossi, or even Lee Catermole, he chose to sign the injured team mate of De Rossi, Alberto Aquilani.

The Italian midfielder was out after an operation on a damaged ankle, and would miss the first 10 games of the season.

While all like-minded football people questioned this signing, Rafa claimed it was for the good of the team, and he was a signing for the future.

But he missed one clear point that every manager goes by: The future is now.

It is no good in signing the likes of Alberto Aquilani for next season if the manager gets sacked this term for his team’s poor run or if the team suffer.

Without a focal point in midfield, Liverpool have crashed out of the Champions League before the knockout stage, and had given up the ghost on their Premiership ambitions before November.

As there was no one in the middle pulling the strings, other players were expected to do extra work to compensate for Alonso’s loss and Lucas’ failings.

And then the injuries began to mount up, and further cruelly exposed the frailties of the Liverpool squad.

While Liverpool’s first team can be a match for any side on their day through their work and endeavour, their reserves are far from the required quality.

Add this lack of real quality to little or no cover in key positions, such as centre forward, looks like a damning indictment on a manager who has been at the club since 2004.

To not have a squad after five seasons and spending £200 odd million is bad enough. To only have David Ngog as back up to Fernando Torres is unforgivable.

But again, Rafa has come up with the excuses—injuries, debt, bad luck… It is funny to hear that last year’s last minute winners were the work of a good team, but that this year’s last minute defeats are the work of bad luck.

That injuries that have crippled his team only exposes his poor squad and bad buys.

To hear Benitez belittle a club legend like Graeme Souness for offering an opinion as a pundit is strange to say the least, “there be but for the grace of God go I” as the old saying goes.

“I worry,” Souness says, “that any day soon we are going to look at the team and say, ‘that’s not Liverpool.’ Those are not the standards we have to come to expect. And then you think of the bankers, and the financial problems of the club, and you wonder where it’s going to end.”

Rafa’s response, “There is always criticism, but I don’t listen. I turn off the volume on the TV. Both have fantastic records as managers…” with a sly smile.

Why even respond? All it results in is making the manager look petty, was Souness not one of the best players ever to put on a pair of boots in England? Has he not managed across two continents? Won leagues with different teams? He might not have been as successful at Liverpool as one would have hoped but he suffered the same slings and arrows as Rafa. He deserves his opinion.

Liverpool’s defeat to Arsenal today was again worrying. In nine matches against top half opposition Liverpool have only won once this season—against Manchester United.

Every time questions are asked of their defence and their midfield they buckle under the mounting pressure.

Make no mistake, Liverpool may sit in seventh, level on points with Birmingham, but this is a crisis in a club that expects so much more.

The two goals today can be traced to Glen Johnson’s poor defending. The first, his own goal, can be credited to poor technique. He was facing the wrong way for Arshavin’s wonder strike.

At £18 million, the signing of Johnson from Portsmouth is questionable, especially considering the lack of finances at Anfield at the moment. While it may have been an honourable attempt to infuse the first team with some English blood, the money spent on an average right full who is a poor defender has to be queried.

Even Steven Gerrard is beginning to look like a player who is fatigued from having to carry so much extra weight, and it is sad to hear Liverpool fans calling on the captaincy to be taken from his legendary arm because of a few poor performances by his own high standards.

So where do Liverpool go from here?

Quite frankly, the club is a mess at the moment. The manager is beginning to resemble a boxer who is entering the last few rounds of an extremely brutal battle. Every choice is being questioned as never before, not just by pundits like Souness, but by his very own fans who have backed him throughout.

Players like Gerrard and Carragher are as honest as the day is long, but even they are suffering under the glare of this unknown pressure. Alberto Aquilani is half fit, Fernando Torres loves the club like his own family, but the phenom has many admirers both home and abroad.

In short, Rafael Benitez has to get it right. Now, starting with Wigan on Wednesday. The footballing Gods will be looking down upon the celebration for one of their own before the match, and if Liverpool fail to get all three points they will be angry indeed.

If I do not win the title (EPL), I’m sure I’d be so disappointed, I would have this feeling (of failure).” Rafael Benitez Nov. 18 2009

Embarrassing Early Exits By Liverpool and Juventus In Champions League

December 10, 2009

by Willie Gannon… This year’s Champions League was hailed as the most predictable of all time. But as we stand, before the year turns, some of the game’s biggest names have crashed and burned and exited the competition in embarrassing fashion. Liverpool and Juventus are easily the two most prominent clubs to bite the dust.

Group A saw Juventus crash out on the last day as Ciro Ferrara’s men succumbed to Bayern Munich in the Stadio Olimpico. Juve only needed one point, against a Bayern side who are struggling on the domestic front this year, to progress to the next round.

Juventus took the lead in the 18th minute through David Trezeguet, and then decided to turn off as if the match was over.

Goalkeeper Hans Jorg Butt equalized for Bayern from the penalty spot, the third time he has scored against Juve in his career.

That spiked Mark van Bommell into action, and he dictated the match until his eventual substitution, but the damage had already been done before Tymoshchuk made it an unbelievable 4-1 on the night.

Ferrara, a phenomenal defender in his day and a real leader of men, will almost certainly be sacked after this embarrassing exit.

Group B went right down to the wire with three teams capable of qualification. But it was Manchester United who decided the fate of the group in every aspect.

Having guaranteed entry into the next round, United travelled to Wolfsburg without 15 first team squad members through injury and illness, to face the German Champions who needed to win to go through.

Even Alex Ferguson admitted that the task might be too much for his “experimental” side. But a Michael Owen hat trick later and a full strength Wolfsburg were limping out of the competition as CSKA Moscow pulled off a fantastic result by beating Besiktas 2-1 in Turkey to take second.

Group C pretty much went as planned with Real Madrid going through in first place as AC Milan finished as runners-up. Poor old Marseille can count themselves as being very unlucky to have ended up in a group with such heavyweights.

Group D was carved up between Chelsea and FC Porto. However, one of the biggest surprises of this years tournament saw Atletico Madrid collapse in incredible fashion.

The team who finished fourth in Spain last year were tipped by many to be the ones to watch this year, but they did not win a game and exited with only three draws to their name.

Group E produced perhaps the biggest shock of this year’s Champions League. Liverpool FC, who have won the cup on five previous occasions, and one of the pre-tournament favourites crashed out with two games left to play.

Their performances throughout were dismal at best, and were very hard to take for fans of the club, especially when you consider that they were red hot favourites to progress after being drawn in what was perceived as an easy group.

Fiorentina securing first spot on the last day as they beat the Reds 2-1 at Anfield after coming from behind, while Lyon went through in second place.

Group F was always going to be between Barcelona and Inter Milan, but it went right down to the final game as Jose Mourinho’s men vanquished Rubin Kazan 2-0 at home to progress. Before the last game both teams were level on points so it was a real cup final for both teams.

However, Dynamo Kiev surprisingly finished at the bottom of the group and as such don’t have the parachute of the Europa League to fall back on.

Group G looked a tight group on paper. Sevilla, Stuttgart, and Rangers were expected to battle it out while lowly Unirea Urziceni thanked the Gods for participating with such well known teams.

As it was, Unirea eliminated Rangers with a brilliant 4-1 win at Ibrox that will live long in the nightmares of Gers fans. The Glasgow side then went on to only take two points from their six games and the gulf between Europe and Scotland never looked bigger.

Group H was Arsenal’s to lose right from the start, with Standard Liege, AZ Alkmaar, and Olympiakos fighting for that runners up spot.

AZ Alkmaar’s collapse as Dutch champions has been one of the most dramatic in some time. Without the influence of ex-manager Louis van Gaal, the loss of Dick Scheringa has been catastrophic for the club, who may never compete in Europe’s premier trophy again.

Twilight at Anfield: Is Alberto Aquilani a Vampire?

December 8, 2009

by Willie Gannon… Alberto Aquilani is expected to make his first start of the season against Fiorentina on Wednesday. Pale with the dark features of a Carpathian prince, the Italian has yet to play a match during the day…

Liverpool’s new number four, has only played three appearances in the famous red shirt this season, all in evening kick-off games.

So far it would seem that Rafa is reluctant to give his new signing a game during the day, so it begs the question, is Alberto a vampire?

His debut was in the Carling Cup defeat to Arsenal, before he made his league debut in the 2-2 draw with Birmingham. And then two weeks later he came on as a last minute substitute against Debrechen in the Champions League.

Aquilani signed for Liverpool as a £20 million replacement for Xabi Alonso in August. However, the midfielder had an injured ankle and the early prognosis was that he needed a number of months to recover.

That recovery period has seen Liverpool’s title challenge evaporate before November as well as the club being eliminated from the Champions League at the Group stage for the first time in years.

Liverpool fans have been waiting for this game for some time, as the big money signing is expected to have a massive influence on the team over the next few seasons.

As with any new player that has been out for some time, a certain anticipation has been built up, some of it unrealistic, some of it not.

He is a very different player to Alonso, and it is very unlikely that Rafa sees Aquilani as the answer to Liverpool’s midfield problems.

If anything it could be Steven Gerrard who moves back in place of Lucas while Aquilani moves into that hole behind Torres, when available.

As for what kind of player Aquilani is?

He is a creative type midfielder, not great in the tackle, doesn’t score that many goals, can get up and down easily, has a languid style similar to Berbatov’s, has an eye for a pass in the final third, and is somewhat injury prone.

Obviously there is more to him than one measly paragraph, but you get the picture.

Liverpool and Rafa need Aquilani to hit the ground running. Signing an injured player has cost Liverpool much this season, and the managers wisdom has been questioned in the corridors of power at Anfield.

As of this moment he has yet to play match for Liverpool during the day. His pale gaunt features hide the intense intelligence of a man focused on one goal, getting out of the crypt of the reserves and into the bright lights of the first team.

He needs to do it, Rafa needs him to do it, and Liverpool’s fans need him to do it. The match against Fiorentina is dead rubber, and is the ideal match to get someone match fit without having too much on the line.

It will move him closer to the first team in a major way, and the next step is for Rafa to start playing him during the day.

Just don’t ask him to cross the ball…

After Chelsea, How Far Are Arsenal from Challenging for the Title?

December 2, 2009

by Willie Gannon… Arsene Wenger must be wondering what to do next after Didier Drogba and Chelsea produced a masterclass in efficiency, intelligence, and ruthlessness at the Emirates as they ripped Arsenal to shreds and, in effect, ended the Gunners already slim chances of becoming champions.

Just like last season, the Gunners’ stab at the title has come un-done before December, and now Wenger and many of the Arsenal team must sit down and, like last season after  Chelsea destroyed the Gunners 4-1, begin the recriminations.

As ever with Arsenal, there are more questions than answers. And as ever in football, the manager has to do most of the answering.

Arsenal are now in danger of going five seasons without a trophy. The buck has to stop with Wenger.

While Arsenal may not spent as much as their nearest rivals, they are still an incredibly rich team, and have the fourth highest wage bill in the EPL. Their choice to spend more on wages than transfers has been a wise move, as it has enabled the Gunners to out-bid rival teams for up and coming youngsters.

The Gunners’ policy of signing young superstars from around the world has seen them create a young exciting team, but it has come at a cost.
1) It sends a message out to fans and rival clubs that Arsenal are a selling club.
2) They rarely sign experienced players.
Wenger is central to this policy at the club, and the fault at not replacing experienced players like Flamini and Adebayor with similar players, falls to him, and him alone.

The Gunners have the potential to challenge for the league, but they are at least four players short of a Championship winning team, and, unfortunately, those four positions are the most important.

Arsenal have a weak spine.

It leaves them weak against teams like Chelsea. You may say that they won’t face teams of that stature every week, but that’s not the point. The Blues are the best team in the league at the moment and currently set the standard, and that is what you should aspire to.

The position of goalkeeper was always going to come back and haunt Wenger this year. His confidence in Almunia is admirable, but the Spaniard is far from being the ideal in his position. He has been with Arsenal since 2004 and has never been regarded as being good enough for a title challenging team. It is worth noting that Arsenal have not won a trophy since before Almunia signed, not that it was his fault.

Wenger’s signings as backup have been poor, especially when you consider that far better ‘keepers have been available over the last five years. So Wenger must be questioned on why he has stuck with a goalie, that would only be regarded as backup quality by their title rivals, for five years.

Defence is also somewhat of a problem. In Sagna and Clichy, Arsenal possess two of the best full-backs in the league, but there is little in the way of cover.

Arsenal’s problem area at the back is in central defence. Thomas Vermaelan has come in from Ajax, and has done ok so far. He has scored a couple of goals, which is always nice, but his main job is to keep them out. The Gunners have so far conceded 18 goals in only 13 games, so the signing might be as good as once thought.

He does, however, look better than William Gallas. The ex-Chelsea squad member has become an Arsenal first team player, and is irreplaceable when compared to the reserves at the Emirates. But his character has always been questioned, and he is not a player who takes responsibility for either his or his teammaters games.

To progress, he must be replaced in the first team, as a backup player he would be superb, but he is not made of the stuff of a title winning centre half.

Johan Djourou, Phillipe Sanderos, and Mikael Silvestre should all be moved on sooner rather than later. They are good enough to play in the Europa League, but not at a team with Arsenal’s ambitions.

Midfield is an awkward one. On his day, Cesc Fabregas is the best midfielder in the world, but he needs good support; he can’t do it by himself. Fabregas is the kind of player that makes others play, rather than him driving the team on, so good support is essential.

Alex Song is regarded by many as being an “invisible wall,” but going forward he offers almost nothing and becomes invisible himself when the Gunners attain the ball. However, a player of his ability is needed in the side as Fabregas’ strengths are not defensive.

When you look at the players who could partner Song and Fabregas in the middle, the list is full of superb footballers. Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Denilson, Aaron Ramsey, and a few more spring to mind, all are exquisite players, and not one of them could even tackle a good dinner.

Point being that Wenger has gone with Denilson lately because he is the most balanced midfielder Arsenal possess and he must play Song because Fabregas isn’t too hot in a battle either, so straight away Arsenal are lacking.

The easiest way out of this midfield conundrum that Wenger has gotten himself into is to replace Song with a more experienced more balanced player. A player who could contribute going forward as well as aiding Fabregas in his defensive duties.

The balance that such a player would give Arsenal cannot be underestimated, it would ease the pressure on Fabregas to produce, and would give Wenger far more options than the one or two that he currently has.

It is little wonder that Wenger tried to sign Xabi Alonso two years ago, only for the board to refuse to go to Liverpool’s asking price of £15 million, from their original bid of £13 million.

The forward line is another area where Arsenal lack real quality. Robin van Persie is a sublime player, but he is somewhat injury prone and only averages around 25 EPL appearances a season. His backup of Niclas Bendtner and Eduardo are good squad players but lack the presence or quality that a title chasing team require.

Wenger’s refusal to replace Emmanual Adebayor has now come back to haunt him. By placing all his eggs in one basket with Van Persie, he has committed a cardinal sin.

The Dutchman will now almost definitely miss the rest of the season, and now Arsenal look like they have no goals in them.

Gunners fans may point to the fact that 17 outfield players have scored this year, but Van Persie is the focal point of that attack, and his running off the ball creates as many chances for his team mates as his actual assists. Neither Eduardo or Bendtner have the nous or intelligence to even come near the Dutchman’s skills.

One must also worry about Eduardo at this stage of the season. December is upon us and he has yet to play the full 90 minutes, which is worrying when you consider that he returned to full training last season.

On the plus side, Bendtner does have potential, he does not have the ability to become a target man in the true sense, nor does he have the speed of mind or feet to provide the kind of penetration that a player like Jermaine Defoe would provide, but he does possess a good touch and is excellent with his back to goal, and that is exactly the kind of player you would want if you wish to bring the very best from Fabregas.

In short, Arsenal are currently short four players, and given the funding available to Wenger it is hard to see him having the money to buy one never mind four of the kind of players that he needs to win the league.

Now, winning the Champions League…that’s something else entirely…

Spurs Humiliate Wigan, Gunners Title Hopes Fade, and Chelsea Roll On

November 25, 2009

by Willie Gannon… The last time we had Premiership action, it finished with a David Ngog dive. Then we were bestowed with “the hand of Gaul” as France beat Ireland in the playoffs for the World Cup. So it was with great trepidation that we went back into the full scale battle that is the EPL. Chelsea once again showed that they are the team to beat this year, Arsenal’s title credentials were left in tatters, and Liverpool continued to stumble.

Chelsea 4-0 Wolves

The Pensioners were without a number of first team players as they entertained Wolves at Stamford Bridge. If there was ever a game that was a simple paint by the numbers exercise, then this was it. Chelsea was so superior to Mick McCarthy’s side that you almost thought they were playing a different sport.

Florent Malouda got the first goal of the game after his 40 yard run to outside the Wolves box, his strike would still be travelling today if it was not for the net, it was that powerful. Michael Essien then scored a brace as Ancellotti took the shackles off the Ghanaian in Lampard’s absence. Essien is a truly phenomenal midfielder, one of the few exponents operating today that can do absolutely everything, brilliantly. Chelsea have not even seen what he is capable of bar the odd time he is allowed to play.

Joe Cole also scored his first goal this season after coming back from an awful injury. Exactly what Fabio Capello needed him to do. While the most famous teenager never to have played came on for Nicolas Anelka and looked decent, Gael Kakuta.

Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

Liverpool’s run without a win now stretched to ten games…Rafa is coming under further pressure, but at least Manchester City did not win. If that particular scenario had occured then the ground the Spaniard walks upon would have become even shakier.

Two players carried off in the first ten minutes did not help matters, but Liverpool still went on to dominate a strangely subdued City who lacked any kind of ambition.

Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal

The Black Cats have been the surprise side this season. Drawing away to United and beating Liverpool, Steve Bruce’s team were always going to be a difficult proposition for an Arsenal team missing the influential Robin van Persie. Without the Dutchman in the team it was difficult to see where the goals were going to come from.

Arsenal was pretty mute for the entire game while Sunderland were well deserving of all three points. Andy Reid received a standing ovation when he was substituted half way through the second half and one must wonder what kind of influence he might have had in Paris on Wednesday.

As it was, Darren Bent scored the solitary goal and if Arsenal fans face the truth, it pretty much ends their title challenge this year. And it will be completely over if they do not take all three points against Chelsea next week.

Tottenham Hotspur 9-1 Wigan

The surprise result of the weekend. Especially when you consider that this Wigan team have beaten both Chelsea and Aston Villa in recent weeks.

Spurs were always favourites to win this game and taking their 1-0 lead into the second half the game was poised on a knife edge. Eight second half goals battered Wigan into submission and Jermaine Defoe bagged five of those. It was a truly phenomenal performance by a team obviously enjoying life at the moment.

The result moves Spurs five points clear of Liverpool in the battle for fourth.


Hull came from two down against West Ham to lead 3-2 before succumbing to a Da Costa equalizer. The 3-3 result wasn’t really what either under pressure manager wanted, but it was a damn sight better than losing.

David Dunn scored and inspired Blackburn’s 2-0 win over Bolton at the Reebok. It was accomplished without Big Sam who had undergone a minor heart operation in the build up to the game. Get well soon.

Aston Villa had John Carew to thank as he scored four minutes from time to salvage a 1-1 draw away to Burnley . The Clarets have had a number of good results recently and Owen Coyle deserves much credit. Don’t be surprised to see him mentioned as one half of the new Scotland set up.

Birmingham beat Fulham 1-0 . Quite possibly the worst ever game in Premiership history.

Stoke continued their good start to the season with a 1-0 win over lowly Portsmouth . Due mainly to Thomas Sorenson, who has been the best ‘keeper in the EPL over the last 12 months, especially when you consider who he has to play with.

And finally…Manchester United hammered Everton 3-0 at Old Trafford . The result was never in question, but the implications of how far Everton are off the top four could could back to haunt them. Young Jack Rodwell is being chased by every manager who is half decent, and Manchester United are no exception. He could be moving to Old Trafford in January. The Red Devils application form was devastating to say the least.

10 Statements after Gameday 13.

1) The Arsenal-Chelsea match next week is a cup final for the Gunners.

2) As I’ve said before, Spurs can expose anyone. Outside the top four.

3) The Aston Villa-Spurs match next week is massive for both clubs ambitions this year.

4) The race for fourth includes: Villa, Man City, Spurs, and Liverpool. The Reds are the clear favourites but both Spurs and City will spend heavily in January if they are in good positions.

5) Who will be go first? Rafa or Hughes?

6) Gael Kakuta was the most famous footballer never to have played. He looks good.

7) England has serious problems outside their first XI.

8) Any team that buys Matthew Upson for £15 million needs their head examined.

9) Ruud van Nistelrooy, available in January. But where will he go? Back to United? Liverpool? Spurs, if they sell Keane? Arsenal?

10) Who will win the World Cup? Some might say that France’s name is on the cup after Wednesday…

The Great Debate: Should FIFA Allow Ireland vs France To Be Replayed?

November 21, 2009

by Barney Corkhill… Controversy, cheating, and conspiracy.

These have been the three buzzwords this week in football’s latest soap opera as Thierry Henry’s “Hand of Frog” put France through to the World Cup in South Africa at the expense of Ireland.

Twenty-three years after Diego Maradona made enemies with every person in England with his infamous “Hand of God”, Henry seems to have done the same with the Irish.

With the ball bouncing out of play, Henry clearly used his hand to claw it back in, before poking it across the goal to William Gallas, who headed in from a yard out.

Much to anger and astonishment of the Irish, however, the referee didn’t blow for a handball, instead awarding the goal to the French.

Understandably, everyone involved not wearing a blue shirt was incensed, and the fallout has made the back pages of newspapers all over the world.

The most recent news is that FIFA, football’s governing body, has rejected Ireland’s appeal for a replay of the match.

But should they have let another match take place?

First, I will look at the argument from the side of the Irish.

Not only did Gallas’ goal rob Ireland of a place in the World Cup for the first time since 2002, but it also robbed them of history and an awful lot of money.

The price of a World Cup campaign to the economy has been quoted as being as high as £1-2 billion, money Ireland will now have to go without. Undoubtedly, Henry’s handball is the most expensive in history.

To go out in such circumstances is incredibly galling, particularly considering they had put in so much effort just to get to that stage.

But should the size of the implications of the result have any impact on FIFA’s decision? No, I don’t think they should.

A game of football is a game of football, and controversial things happen all the time. FIFA can’t sanction a replay because then it’d be one rule for matches with a lot at stake and another for the “less important” matches.

I remember having a similar feeling at the end of the Tottenham vs Manchester United game a few years ago. In that match, you will remember, Pedro Mendes had a shot from the halfway line which clearly crossed the line after Roy Carroll’s mistake.

The referee and linesman, however, insisted that it hadn’t, and Spurs were robbed of a goal.

I distinctly remember feeling a massive sense of injustice for Tottenham at the end of that game, and I strongly believed that it should have been replayed. The match was much less important than Ireland and France’s World Cup qualifier, but FIFA has to treat them both the same.

The laws of the game are the laws of the game, be it at Sunday league level, Premier League level or international level.

Did England get a replay against Argentina for Maradona’s handball? No. Unless FIFA want to set a new precedent that they will follow thereafter, they have to abide by their rules.

Under the circumstances, then, the match couldn’t have been replayed, and FIFA made the only reasonable decision. I do, however, think that a change of rules should be thought about.

A post-match panel of officials could look at any controversial decisions and decide what action should be taken. Whether this action could be extended as far as a replay in extreme circumstances is up for debate.

What it could include, though, is a citing system similar to that in rugby, where a player can be penalised after the match for incidents the referee has missed or misjudged the seriousness of.

Would this be applicable to Thierry Henry though?

Well, to answer that it must be established whether he handled the ball on purpose.

Henry has since admitted the ball hit his hand, although he insists it was accidental, and has apologised and even said a rematch would be the fairest option.

But replays suggest he did handle the ball on purpose.

When it first strikes his arm, it looks like a natural reflex action, but then he seems to scoop the ball back into play with his hand.

He knew he was cheating at the time, but I don’t think he was thinking of the consequences of his actions or the major ramifications they would have.

He instinctively tried to keep the ball in play and create a chance for his team. Yes, this is technically cheating, but it is no worse than diving or any other form of bending the rules for your own gain.

Henry is unfortunate that his actions have been magnified due to the importance of the game, and I don’t think he would have been cited had the system been in play.

Should he have owned up? In a perfect world, yes, but he can’t be expected to. Incidents like Paolo Di Canio catching the ball because the opposition goalkeeper was injured are heart-warming moments, but they are most certainly the exception to the rule.

So is Henry a cheat? I suppose that, by the letter of the law, he did cheat, but I would have done the same and so, I’m sure, would most of the Irish bemoaning the hand of Henry.

The match, it must be remembered, was as important to France as it was to Ireland. If you had a chance to slightly bend the rules if it meant going to the World Cup finals, would you do it? I know I would.

On that point, would Ireland be so accepting of a replay if it was Robbie Keane who handled and they who had progressed?

The incident also opened up the seemingly endless video technology debate, which I will be discussing in a future article.

It also caused several members of the Ireland set-up to question whether FIFA favour the bigger, more glamorous nations, an argument spurred on by the seeding of the qualifying teams.

This ensured the likes of Portugal and France wouldn’t meet each other, instead getting potentially easier ties.

Viewers in neutral countries would rather see Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry than Richard Dunne and Damien Duff, that is a fact, but favouritism cannot be spawned from greed and potential money-making.

Whether or not FIFA planned, or rather expected the bigger teams to go through will be cause for argument until the World Cup kicks-off, but for now, the Irish just have to lick their wounds and get on with it.

I sympathise with them, I really do. I can imagine the whole country is printing off pictures of Henry to stick on their dartboards, and I would be doing the same if England were in their position, but I don’t blame Henry for doing what he did and I certainly don’t blame FIFA for not allowing a replay.

In fact, the only people that can be held responsible are the officials. Ireland were just unlucky that they were stuck with a referee and linesman who, like Robbie Keane and co., won’t be making the trip to South Africa.

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