By Alan McGuinness… The Absence of Darren Fletcher
Scottish midfielder Fletcher has been a mainstay in the Red Devils side this season, starting with vital goals early on in the league campaign to towering performances in vital UEFA Champions League ties.
It was evident on Wednesday night in Rome there was something very much missing in the United midfield, and I believe it was Fletcher.
Not only could the Manchester club not get a hold of the ball after going 1-0 down, but when they did eventually get possession, it was often wasted with sloppy passes or simply no player made himself available.
Countless times I saw John O’Shea wave Rio Ferdinand away when he had the ball, telling him just to get rid of it up field. With no one fetching the ball from the centre backs, like Fletcher would normally do, Nemanja Vidic and Rio were forced to hit long aimless balls in the direction of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
In essence, the midfield link was missing.
A quick point too, to remember the tracking back of the Scot on that faithful night away at Arsenal, when Fletcher was sent off for tracking back and putting a tackle in.
Oh, how United would have loved someone tracking back and tackling on Samuel Eto’o last night.
No United Player Capable of Handling Lionel Messi
Messi was outstanding last night, showing how in my opinion he is a far better player than United’s Ronaldo. Even when players in white got near him, they were unable to put a decent foot in.
One wonders again if Fletcher could have made an ounce of difference.
I think not, apart maybe from tracking the Argentine star at Barcelona’s second goal.
The subheading above tells a bit of a white lie, as I do feel there was one Manchester United player capable of doing a job on Messi—Rooney. The England forward is full of energy and tenacity as well as being a player who never gives up.
Rooney was able to outmuscle Messi on numerous occasions last night as he dropped deeper and deeper looking for the ball, therefore encountering the midfield maestro.
It sounds crazy, Rooney man marking, but if anyone in a white shirt last night was capable of doing a job on the Argentine, then it was the former Everton man.
An Unsure Rio Ferdinand
Does anyone remember Rio being so shaky in recent years?
When he first signed for United, and indeed during previous spells at Leeds United and West Ham United, I wasn’t 100 percent sure of his ability at the highest level. He, however, has proved me wrong over the years, going on to be one of the world’s top defenders in what was, until last night, one of the world’s top defences.
But last night that man was missing and was replaced by the indecisive, slack, flash Ferdinand of old, and this may well because he was unsure if he was fit, unsure to which level he could take his game.
His unsure mind (clearly not 100 percent confident) was clearly visible on the park as sloppy back pass after sloppy back pass was shovelled Edwin Van Der Sar’s way.
This was added to by silly flicks in his own box because he had been caught out of position and finally his positioning for Barca’s second goal.
Should he have played?
I think not, but it is easy to say so now.
No Aggression Shown By United
United could easily have been ahead inside 10 minutes, but we all know Barca struck first. What we didn’t know was that United would have no answer. So obviously the main reason they didn’t win is because United went 1-0 down—but what about the players’ reaction to the goal?
There was sloppy nervous passing, chasing shadows, very little leadership, and no cutting edge.
The midfield three (four including Park Ji-Sung) were terrible and pretty much did nothing right for the final 80 minutes.
I only noticed one difference in the second half, and it was the introduction of Paul Scholes. The veteran immediately appeared next to the centre backs looking for the ball and quickly followed this up with a strong tackle on a Barcelona player, which earned the former England international a yellow card.
Why oh why did someone not do it earlier?
Booting players off the pitch isn’t my idea of fun or the perfect way to play, but when your team is down and out like United were on Wednesday night, it is time to pull finger and get stuck in. Well done Paul Scholes.
One solid tackle can change the momentum of a game; it makes the opposition think twice when they have the ball. Whenever United did put some pressure on Barcelona, it wasn’t long before they were passing backwards, so a bit more pressure could easily have forced some chances.
Sadly for fans of United though, their players were, it appeared, mesmerized.
Edwin Van Der Sar and Senior Players Failed to Stand Up and Be Counted
The Dutch keeper failed to hold on to anything all night and failed to inspire any confidence at all. He was beaten at his front post for the first goal, possibly not a glaring error but a situation he would have expected himself to deal with without conceding a goal.
It was a night where the old heads withered and died. With no leadership, United were awful and lacked any sense of a top football team, as 11 top class players were left to their own devices.
Their choice: to chase Barcelona’s coattails.
by Alan McGuinness… Luka Modric struck a second half winner to give Tottenham a deserved victory that deals a massive blow to Chelsea’s title hopes.
The diminutive Croatian was allowed to move into the box unmarked and strike a low shot past the despairing dive of Petr Cech.
Chelsea rallied and had a number of opportunities before full time, but they failed to beat an inspired Heurelho Gomes and missed out on a great opportunity to cut Manchester United’s lead at the top to just one point after Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were beaten 2-0 by Fulham.
Kick off at White Hart Lane was delayed by half an hour because of a suspect package outside the ground.
By the time the game got underway, news would have undoubtedly filtered through that United were losing 1-0 to Chelsea’s closest neighbours, courtesy of a Danny Murphy penalty.
But even if it did, the news didn’t have a galvanising effect on Guus Hiddink’s team. Tottenham started better and Robbie Keane had their best opportunities during a first half in which Chelsea never got going.
Michael Ballack and Juliano Beletti—deployed on the wing by Hiddink—found things particularly difficult, losing possession and generally appearing off the pace.
Michael Essien and Nicolas Anelka had Chelsea’s only efforts of note in the first half.
Keane forced Cech into a save with a vicious half volley, and also hit two further shots at the Czech international.
Ledley King also worried Cech with a looping header, but he managed to back peddle and collect the ball.
Five minutes into the second half, Tottenham had the lead. Aaron Lennon beat Ashley Cole and whipped the ball into the box into the path of an unmarked Modric, who hit a shot past Cech and into the net.
The goal injected some long overdue urgency to Chelsea’s play, not surprising given the total lack of any beforehand.
Ricardo Quaresma crossed for Frank Lampard to head towards goal at the near post. Vedran Corluka managed to clear behind for a corner.
Didier Drogba then forced Gomes into a save, and Quaresma tried one of his trademark strikes with the outside of his boot. Gomes was able to gather the Portuguese internationals shot with relative ease.
Keane was presented with another chance when Spurs broke down the other end, but his curling effort—reminiscent of his equaliser in the 4-4 draw between these two sides last season - was wide of the post.
John Terry began to amble forward as the clock ticked towards full time, and his high ball into the box found Drogba. The Ivorian took the ball down with an adept first touch but fired wide.
Gomes has been both brilliant and bewildering in equal measure this season—it was the former he displayed with 11 minutes left to play to preserve Tottenham‘s lead.
Terry headed towards goal from a free kick but Gomes pulled off a brilliant diving save to deny the Chelsea captain.
Alex hit the bar with a header in a frantic finish to this London derby, but Tottenham clung on and sealed a deserved victory.
Guus Hiddink tastes defeat for the first time as Chelsea manager, and may have to admit defeat in this season’s title race as a result.
by Alan McGuinness…
One clear conclusion that can be drawn from the sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari after just 7 months in charge at Chelsea is that Jose Mourinho’s shadow still looms large over Stamford Bridge.
Both Scolari - and Grant before him - have failed to deliver the success the Special One brought to West London during his glorious three year reign. The pair have fallen on their swords within under a year of each other.
Kenyon et al again find themselves scouring the world for a manager brave enough to pick up the poisoned chalice that the Chelsea job seems to be becoming as another manager is booted out.
As time progresses, it is very hard to see the sacking of Mourinho in September 2007 as anything other than a mistake. No trophies have been won since Mourinho departed for pastures new, and the club has hardly been a model of stability and harmony since.
But the charismatic Portuguese boss is long gone. He is hardly likely to walk back through Chelsea’s revolving managerial door and become the latest protagonist to try his hand at delivering what Roman Abramovich craves: success and style.
Back in the salad days of Scolari’s reign it looked as if he was the man to deliver this. Portsmouth were dispatched 4-0 on the opening day of the season and both Middlesbrough and Sunderland found themselves on the end of five goal demolition jobs.
Pundits and analysts lined up to commend this new Chelsea as they racked up the points and boosted their goal difference. They were considered favourites for the title and tipped to pick up at least a trophy or two come May.
Chelsea, it seemed, were playing sexy football. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa marauded forward at every opportunity and Deco - an £8 million purchase from Barcelona in the summer - dazzled and wowed the Premier League.
But the visit of Liverpool to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, October 26th 2008, proved to be a fateful turning point.
Xabi Alonso’s goal may have had a large slice of fortune to it, but Benitez’s men fully deserved to end Chelsea’s 86 match unbeaten home record. One of the hallmarks of Jose Mourinho’s reign was gone. Chelsea winning at home was almost taken as a given - set alongside taxes and death, but this result exposed frailties and brought myriad of problems to the fore.
Matters quickly took a turn for the worse. Burnley won a penalty shootout to knock the Blues out of the Carling Cup, and Arsenal pitched up at Stamford Bridge and won 2-1 thanks to a Robin Van Persie double.
The club’s Champions League campaign also began to stutter. Roma soundly beat Terry & co 3-1 at the Stadio Olimpico and Cluj and Bordeaux both managed to hold Chelsea to draws on the road.
The lack of a cutting edge was one of the most galling aspects of Scolari’s reign at Chelsea. As the season progressed and teams began to fathom their tactics, Chelsea’s players found themselves frustrated. The bombing runs of Cole and Bosingwa became increasingly checked and a lack of width became painfully obvious.
This was exacerbated by a key ingredient that was missing from Scolari’s Brazilian blend - the fabled Plan B. If the passing game didn’t work, there weren’t any other options. Mourinho’s Chelsea could mix it up, they were equally adept on the ground as they were in the air. But Scolari was reluctant to play Didier Drogba, and often instead chose to bring him on as a substitute. As a result he has so far only contributed a solitary league goal to Chelsea’s title tilt.
Without his presence on the pitch the long ball was never an option. Instead, his colleagues persisted with a style of play that was blunt against resolute defences.
Scolari’s record against the rest of the ‘Big Four’ hardly made for pleasant reading and no doubt worked against him when the decision on his position was made. In all he faced his closest rivals five times and picked up just one point, that coming in a 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United in September. The last two encounters with this group were particularly abject. Against both Manchester United (3-0) and Liverpool (2-0) Chelsea looked a pathetic shadow of their past glories, barely able to muster a shot on target and test the goal keeper, let alone score a goal.
As these problems began to manifest themselves, the unrest in the dressing room grew. John Terry and Frank Lampard flagged up the lack of intensity in training in a meeting with Scolari. Used to the more sedate pace of international management, Scolari seemed unable to keep up with the rigorous pace at club level.
Gradually, the disquiet amongst the fans also grew. Glowing platitudes and eulogies gave way to exasperated tirades at what a once great footballing force had become. Some sections of the Stamford Bridge crowd chanted that Scolari didn’t know what he was doing during last week’s 0-0 against Hull and the final whistle brought a chorus of boos.
However it would be unfair to totally lay the blame at the feet of Scolari. He inherited an ageing squad that was much the same as it was under Mourinho. It needed a youthful shot in the arm. Robinho was widely expected to arrive, but no one saw the drama of last summer’s transfer deadline day coming. If Robinho was currently wearing a darker shade of blue things could be very different.
The Brazilian was also not backed in the January transfer window as he thought he might have been. The credit crunch has hit everyone hard, even Roman Abramovich. As the Russian stock market took a pounding, so did his assets. This had a knock on effect for Scolari. He found his room for manoeuvre severely limited. Ricardo Quaresma was the only major signing last month, and even he only came in on loan until the end of the season.
The worst economic crisis in decades has claimed many revered financial institutions, and it has now played a part (albeit indirectly) in the downfall of one of world football’s most respected figures.
The ruthlessness of the decision will surprise many, and some will lament the lack of time given to managers in the increasingly unforgiving and cut throat world of the Premier League. The Chelsea board clearly feel as if the rot had to be stopped - even if it will take their total severance pay paid to managers since Roman Abramovich took over to around £40 million.
In the end, the So-So One failed both because of factors within and beyond his means of control. He was a dignified and likeable addition to the English game, but crucially he lacked a steel and ruthlessness that characterises the most important and long lasting group of characters in the Premier League: the winners.
A late Fernando Torres double saw off a poor Chelsea side and kept Liverpool on the heels of league leaders Manchester United.
The Spanish striker struck twice in quick succession after Frank Lampard was harshly sent off for Chelsea.
But the sending off didn’t mask Chelsea’s ineffective performance - they had only a solitary shot on target throughout the whole match.
They had most of the game’s early possession but it was the hosts who had the most significant efforts on target in a first period that failed to sparkle.
Xabi Alonso forced Cech into a brilliant save with his powerful effort after 12 minutes. Six minutes later he was again called into action, this time by Javier Mascherano. The Argentine’s effort was parried away by the Czech stopper.
Mascherano found himself in the referee’s notebook just a minute later after a series of niggly fouls.
Ashley Cole then became Chelsea’s first recipient of a yellow card after bringing down Dirk Kuyt.
Cech was again called into action just after 25 minutes, smothering a Steven Gerrard shot with Kuyt close by.
John Terry then did well to block a Torres shot on goal.
At the other end of the pitch Chelsea were creating very little, with Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka unable to keep a hold of the ball, let alone fashion any clear cut openings.
Brazilian defender Alex had Chelsea’s most significant effort of the first half, sending a header over Pepe Reina’s goal from a Frank Lampard corner.
Albert Reira’s 42nd minute shot almost broke the deadlock when it hit Ashley Cole from Cech’s parry, but thankfully for the England man the ball rolled wide of the post.
The red attacking tide continued into the second half. Kuyt sent the ball wide of the post and Alex - who was one Chelsea’s only stand out performers - blocked a Torres shot.
Then on the hour mark Lampard received a straight red card for a studs up, sliding tackle on Xabi Alonso. The tackle seemed fair enough with the England midfielder appearing to win the ball. But to the astonishment of the Chelsea players, referee Mike Riley reached into his pocket and produce a red card.
The bemused expression on Frank Lampard’s face said it all.
Alonso almost gave Liverpool the lead moments later, his shot struck Alex and looped over Cech but the ball hit the cross bar and Chelsea’s keeper was able to knock the ball over to safety.
Chelsea needed some fresh legs to inject some life into a limp performance and Luiz Felipe Scolari sent on Didier Drogba and Deco in an attempt to provide it. The limpness continued. Deco and Drogba continuously lost possession and Liverpool began to lay siege to their opponents goal.
Mikel deflected another Torres effort over before Kalou had Chelsea’s only effort on target - an angled shot that was comfortable for Reina.
Substitute Yossi Benayoun then had two shots as Liverpool continued to find Chelsea’s strong rearguard action tough to break down.
Two minutes from time they finally found a way through. Fabio Aurelio played in a cross from the left wing and Torres beat Alex to the ball, and Cech at his near post.
The mercurial Spaniard doubled his tally in stoppage time, profiting from some slack defending from Ashley Cole. The left back carelessly gave possession away to Benayoun and the ball found its way to Torres, who completed the simplest of finishes.
There was a sour moment in the closing stages of the game when Jose Bosingwa needlessly dug his studs into Benayoun’s back near the corner flag. The defender could well face retrospective action from the FA.
Liverpool’s hopes of a first league title since 1990 remain very much alive, while Chelsea are left to count the cost of another disappointing performance against one of the ‘Big Four’.
by Alan McGuinness…
Manchester United kickistarted their title challenge with a comprehensive 3-0 win over a very poor Chelsea side Sunday afternoon.
Chelsea showed some guile and invention in fits and starts during the first period, but fell behind when Nemanja Vidic headed in past Petr Cech.
Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov struck in the second half to compound Chelsea’s misery, and inflict further damage to their title aspirations.
Much of the talk pre-match centred on whether or not Luiz Felipe Scolari would pair Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka together in attack. Scolari opted to start Drogba up front on his own, leaving Anelka on the bench.
Both sides impressed in the early stages, Frank Lampard having the first effort at goal which was well wide.
The England midfielder was also the first player to pick up a booking, earning censure from Howard Webb after cynically taking down Cristiano Ronaldo.
Darren Fletcher gave away a free kick on the outside of the box, but Michael Ballack wasted a valuable opportunity by blasting his effort straight at the wall.
United appealed for a penalty soon afterwards, when Ashley Cole handled the ball, but the linesman correctly called the offence to be outside of the box. The resulting free kick from Ryan Giggs was hit with plenty of venom, but Cech punched the ball to safety.
The home side had every right to feel aggrieved when another penalty appeal was turned down moments later. Riccardo Carvalho tugged Ronaldo’s shirt in the box and grounded the Portuguese winger. Howard Webb saw nothing untoward, but did choose to box the duo for their altercation.
Patrice Evra and Rooney then combined to find Berbatov in space, but the striker scuffed his shot, allowing Cech to make a straightforward save.
John Terry—who was constantly reminded throughout of his penalty miss against Manchester United in Moscow by the jubilant home fans—was at his very best to deny Park Ji Sung from giving United the lead in the 42nd minute. The England captain threw himself at the Korean’s shot and kept it out.
Controversy then reared its head as the game moved towards half time.
Rooney placed the ball down for a corner and then rolled it back into play. Giggs whipped the ball in and Ronaldo stole in front of his marker to give his team the lead.Or so he thought.
The linesman raised his flag and play was called back.
United—and Rooney in particular—were seething and protested against the official’s decision vehemently. Fortunately for them, they weren’t to be denied for many moments longer.
Giggs’ retaken corner was flicked on by Berbatov and Vidic nodded the ball home.
Anelka was introduced in the second half to give the isolated Drogba some support, but the Frenchman’s introduction didn’t have the desired effect.
Indeed, Chelsea put in an even more insipid performance than they did in the first half. Drogba, in particular, had a particularly harrowing afternoon.
The Ivorian’s performance was perhaps summed up best when the ball broke to him in the box with 20 minutes left on the clock. Any sort of decent contact would have tested the hitherto unoccupied Van Der Saar. But Drogba comically swiped at the ball and it trickled harmlessly away to safety.
Either side of this piece of slapstick forward play, United added to their first half lead.
Ronaldo’s deft flick on the left wing gave Evra space to whip in a cross and Rooney managed to get his foot in front of Ashley Cole and prod the ball into the back of the net.
Then four minutes from time, Berbatov applied some gloss to the scoreline when he lost his marker Franco Di Santo—who was brought on in place of Joe Cole—and found the left corner with a well struck shot.
The victory means that United can move above both Chelsea and Liverpool if they win their two games in hand against Wigan and Bolton.
For Scolari, the comprehensive defeat raises further question marks over his side’s ability to sustain a credible title challenge this season.