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Friday, 30 April 2010

Canales Scores, Prepares For Season On Bench

Enjoy it Sergio. You won't see one for a while.

When he signed his contract with Real Madrid, Sergio Canales probably expected to be arriving at the club this summer to a dressing room of galacticos fresh from a glorious Champions League final victory in their own stadium. In light of that, he probably then expected to be loaned straight back to Racing. However, the reality has proved somewhat different and in actual fact, two players who went the other way through the Bernabau’s ever-revolving doors – Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder – will be the ones gracing Madrid's turf on May 22nd. Moreover, Marca has reported that Real won’t be sending Canales out on loan in 2010/11.

The thing about Canales is that his most recent wonder goal, against Villareal last Saturday, was his first since the middle of January – the first time most of us had heard of him. That’s 21 matches without a peep. The timing of Real’s latest outburst therefore is no doubt designed to remind everyone exactly who Canales is and where he’s going in July. It almost seemed that they’d forgotten about him in the interim, because he wasn’t in the news.

I get the impression that Real are like the mate in the pub who doesn’t really like football, but tries to join in with all the chat anyway. The kind of person that thought Nayim would be a good buy because he once scored from the halfway line. The kind of English person that buys a Brazil shirt every four years. The kind of person that spends £4m on a 19-year old because he scored a couple of goals and Sid Lowe consequently talked about him on Football Weekly.

Real are very keen on you if you’ve got a reputation, whether as a wonderkid or a 42-goal winger. They don’t tend to put in the hard yards, in general, when developing players. In fact, they basically go against the over-riding rule of football that EVERYONE knows: 11 amazing players do not an amazing team become. Doesn’t everyone know that? Throwing money at World Players of the Year season after season might enable you to open up a 25-point gap on the team below you, as it has this season, but it counts for very little when that team (Valencia) are third in the league rather than second. Barcelona, for obvious reasons, are the exception.

It’s all a bit sad, really. In the same way that your mate in the pub stuck to his guns in 2002 and maintained that signing El-Hadji Diouf was a great idea, so Madrid are equally unequivocal. Their desire for success will lead them to up their pursuit of Franck Ribery, Wayne Rooney and David Villa in the summer – players that everyone knows about already and will just join a long list of attacking options including – and then limiting – young Canales. This policy might be enough to suppress the domestic league, but it won’t deliver the trophy they crave. So far, all the galacticos have delivered Madrid in this iteration is an embarrassing exit from Spain’s domestic cup and a humbling at the hands of Lyon in the Champions’ League. Whether they win La Liga this season or not, they will still have to suffer the ignominy of watching their final – including their former players – while stuck in their seats. Rob MacDonald

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Liverpool's Lose-Lose Situation

Partisan Alert: Full-time Liverpool fan Alex Bingle gives his views on whether or not he can bring himself to be a part-time Chelsea fan ahead of their meeting at Anfield on Sunday. May contain language United fans find offensive.

I had a flashback last night. It’s late on at the Bernabeu, a tense stalemate in the Champions League. Fabio Aurelio places the ball before whipping in a fierce left-footed cross into a packed penalty area. And who’s there to meet the ball? The smallest man on the pitch, Yossi Benayoun, heading the ball past Spain’s number one goalkeeper to put Liverpool 1-0 up.

Dream on Scouser! You didn’t even get through the group stage”.

Just over 12 months ago, this was reality as Liverpool eased past Real Madrid into the last 8 of Europe’s elite competition. How times have changed. A completely different reality has come to pass as we await another nervy Anfield night in Europe’s “second rate” competition against Madrid’s “second rate” team. Don’t get me wrong, Atletico have some decent players and you could easily say Simao and Aguero are world class and very worthy opponents. But if you had said to me back in September: “Oi Scouser! Come May, your team are gonna be playing in the Europa League and be seventh in the league behind City, Villa and even Spurs…ha!”, I would have laughed you down.

But who’s laughing now? With depressing familiarity, it’s the same group who taunted me throughout childhood every Monday morning when I trudged into school: Man Utd fans (kids at the time too, obviously). They have finally caught up in the League Championship count and have a chance of overtaking our “magnificent 18” this year. And yet, Liverpool could have a major say in the whole matter as we play host to Chelsea on Sunday. Do we roll over, let Chelsea win and keep United at bay for another season? Or do we go out with pride, beat Chelsea, keep our faint hopes of Champions League qualification alive and potentially hand United the initiative in the title chase.

When asked by United fans, my gut reaction is to say that I hope we lose and gift Chelsea the league. Rather them than Utd right? ABMU! Very much like in 1995 against Blackburn, when Redknapp curled in a sublime free kick and the whole of Anfield as one shouted “What are you doing?!!!”, a winner on Sunday may meet with a similar reaction.

In an ideal world, there will be some divine intervention earlier in the day at the Stadium of Light, meaning we can beat Chelsea without fear of handing United the advantage. Please God, anything…a dodgy penalty decision, a couple of red cards (both for Neville, if possible), hey…maybe even a beach ball?

But, if you ask me what I honestly want to happen on Sunday, I want us to beat Chelsea. I want to see the fighting spirit of Stevie and Carra that has typified many a Liverpool performance over the last five years but has been sadly lacking this year. If we lose on Sunday with little more than a whimper, I will be disappointed and angry to say the least, never mind the bitter consolation that the league title will be all but beyond United.

My sentiments are divided over Europe too. Who would begrudge Fulham victory if an all-English Europa League final does materialise? No one could claim that they don’t deserve it. They’ve been better than Liverpool and that’s a fact. The Liverpool fans would applaud Fulham and show the same pride we want to see from the players against Chelsea on Sunday.

I want to be able to hold my head high as a Liverpool fan this summer when I swap my red shirt for my England jersey. Maybe we will finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. We might even have a European trophy. It’s been a bad season and it has not been good enough by the standards we set last year. Even if we do celebrate European glory in Hamburg, the Bernabeu will remain a distant memory.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Foot And Mouth

Sometimes, in certain situations, with certain people, you just have to sit back, take your hat off and admire. I caught myself doing exactly that today when I read Jose Mourinho’s comments in the build up to tonight’s Champions League clash at the Nou Camp. He’s at it again. Every word that passes this man’s lips are studied. Here’s a snippet from the professional flame fanner: "It is not a dream for Barca, it is obsession. The obsession is reaching the final in Madrid. It's one thing to follow a dream, it's another to have an obsession. For Barca it is an obsession.” Mourinho knows full well that he throwing cats among pigeons with such a comment. He has made a career out of it. That and being a bloody good manager. And then he reaches for another bag of cats: "The only thing I told my players was that I wanted them to support the work of the referee and if the Barcelona players want to do the same, it will be easy for the referee." Classic Jose. A clear dig at the perceived theatrics of the Barca players designed not only to infuriate them but to sow the slightest seed of doubt in the referee’s mind. And off he goes, pigeons everywhere, knowing his work is done.

Meanwhile, one man uncharacteristically not in English headlines this week has been the maestro, Lionel Messi. Another man whose unique skills deserve to be admired. Whereas Mourinho seeks to dominate proceedings off the pitch, it is the Argentine whom, along with Xavi, is the one most likely to carve open even the most obstinate Inter defence. They will be marked men of course, and in the form of Lucio, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso, their task may well prove thankless once more. But remembering the build up to the Arsenal game, the one in which Messi left all and sundry with jaws dropped down to their feet, the mercurial one was hardly mentioned. Four goals later and he was being revered as a talent to compare with Maradona. Again, I speak in English terms here. In Spain, they already knew the boy’s worth. But it is a very English phenomenon to only entertain thoughts of a player’s greatness if they pull a big performance out against Premier League opposition.

Back to tonight, and in essence, we see a tête-à-tête between Mourinho and Messi to determine who is to be the most revered come the season’s end. It is Mourinho’s great skill that he consistently manages to be more talked about than his players. This is a product of his vanity but at the same time a product of his canniness to appreciate that with the heat on him, his charges can bask in relative obscurity and therefore operate in a less tense atmosphere. If he wins the European Cup this year with Inter, Mourinho will join such illustrious company as Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough and Arrigo Sacchi, to have won it twice.

Messi, on the other hand, has the perfect platform to prove his greatness credentials against Inter. At 3-1 down, against a side so well-drilled, he will have his work cut out. He will have to create space against a side that doesn’t give any. He will be kicked. His shirt will be pulled. But a Messi-inspired Barca win, taking them back the final, would go a long way to silencing any detractors there may be out there to his claims to greatness. Of course, there are plenty of others who could have a say in tonight’s events, but you just get the feeling that the battle will come down to a straight fight between two of the season’s irresistible forces: one man’s mouth against another’s twinkling feet. Adam Bushby

Monday, 26 April 2010

Being Crap Bankrupts Hull; Burnley Knew All Along

"I earn more than you, and you, and you, and you..."

The identity of the Premier League’s relegated teams is all but decided. Barring a miracle, Hull will join Burnley and Portsmouth in the Championship when the new season kicks off in August. Assuming, that is, they still have a club. While Brian Laws is still looking for Burnley’s wheels, last seen falling off back around Christmas time, they are all he has been charged with finding. Hull, meanwhile, are searching for a solution to liabilities believed to be as much as £35m, while continuing to operate. Of the two sides for whom relegation is confirmed, Hull resemble the stricken south coast club far more than their prudent Northern counterparts.

If you measure success, as most of us should, by still having a club to support every Saturday, Burnley are a magnificent example. They have a salary cap, for a start. It is £15,000 a week. And while those wages don’t necessarily get you a squad of internationals, it certainly secures the future of the club should you relinquish a lucrative place in the Premier League. It removes the likelihood of the dreaded fire-sale decimating your squad. It certainly doesn’t mean that you end up spending 80% of your turnover merely on paying players, like Hull City.

The differences in the running of the two clubs are staggering and Hull’s re-appointment of Adam Pearson may have come too late to save them this time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t present when the euphoria of another season in the Premier League led to a slew of signings on lucrative contracts as Hull aimed to become ‘established’ in the top tier. This yielded, as has been widely reported, the accumulation of seven strikers at the club, collecting a total of £200,000 a week in wages while returning only nine goals. Burnley’s record signing, Steven Fletcher, scored eight in the league and has 12 in all competitions. He cost £3m and, remember, collects no more than £15,000 a week. Meanwhile, Hull signed the mercenary, Amr Zaki, and continue to pay injury-prone and therefore un-saleable asset Jimmy Bullard £45,000 a week, with no relegation clause to reduce his wage. Phil Brown still has a year on his equally lucrative contract and all he’s doing is sitting in his garden topping up that implausible tan. Iain Dowie, now that I come to think of it, was rumoured to be on a £1mn bonus if he kept Hull up. Ludicrous figures, especially from a club that came so close to extinction in 2001.

But if Burnley are such a fantastic example, is it true to say that promoted or smaller clubs will never be able to compete if they run a tight ship? Yes, mostly. The Premier League’s behemoths make the summit an impossible dream, though with great power also comes great debt. In theory though, lower down the league, a year of top-flight football with the insurance of two years’ parachute payments should enable clubs like Burnley to fund more lucrative contracts and build a better squad. In practice, there is too much money elsewhere in the Premier League for the parachute payments to be enough to tempt clubs into gambling and players into signing. The only club – in recent times – that has made the journey from lower-league football to the Premier League and survived is Fulham, who have done so because Mohamed al-Fayed has spent a fortune on them. Even then, they’ve been perilously close to going down a few times. Birmingham appear to have a trough of money from an investor to spend in the summer, but they, West Brom and Wolves have traditionally been serial relegation fodder following promotion.

Therefore, in a hammer blow to the ‘romance’ of football, Burnley have been destined to go down from the start, all because the club is run responsibly. Such operating, however, has enabled them to invest in a £15m redevelopment of Turf Moor, whose new features – upon completion in 2011 – will net the club an extra £1m a year. A solid foundation but again, one suspects, not enough to make waves in the Premier League. In football nowadays, you can’t succeed if you’re just using your own money. The more catastrophic effects, as we should expect to see in the next few years, will come as clubs continue to gamble on success using someone else’s. Rob MacDonald

Friday, 23 April 2010

Volcanic Ash Nearly Out Of Europe

Elite footballers and comfort zones aren’t often separated. But then, huge volcanoes in Iceland don’t normally erupt and ground the continent’s air traffic for a week. As evidenced by the embarrassing media circus that followed Liverpool, Fulham, Barcelona and, to a lesser extent, Lyon around Europe this week tweeting about whether or not they were getting enough sleep, the clubs’ preparations for significant European fixtures were somewhat out of the ordinary.

The whole thing was a bit like a student challenge. You have to get hundreds of miles across Europe, but you can’t use planes. Liverpool, you must travel 1,200 miles, Lyon 700 miles, Fulham 600 and Barcelona 450. You can use coaches and trains, even where it would be quicker to walk (the 0.8 miles from Euston to Kings Cross, LIVERPOOL), because, lest we forget, you are not students but elite footballers. HEY – Liverpool. Get off that plane in Bordeaux. That’s not in the rules. GET OFF.

Fine, I hope you lose.

Elite footballers, as the press reminded those who dared to suggest that sitting on a coach for two days could hamper performance levels, remain professional. And remain professional they did, but still, no team that travelled in Europe this week won a game. Only one of them scored in the 360 minutes of football played.

Now, it’s not exclusively the fault of volcanic ash, but the disruption didn’t help. Admittedly, Barcelona were undone by Mourinho’s Inter in ways we pointed out on Wednesday. Fulham actually got a really good result, even if by all accounts they essentially parked the bus they arrived on in front of goal after losing Zamora. But Liverpool… well, sometimes it looks as if crossing the halfway line is a journey too far for a result, let alone going all the way to Madrid, let alone doing so on a coach. Still, they only lost 1-0. Lyon, while also only losing by an odd goal, failed to score against 10 men – in fact Bayern dominated throughout – and conceded when they were a player up on the hosts. There were definitely some weary performances.

In fixtures where the second leg is far more important – so much so that ludicrously, the six UEFA Cup/Europa League semi-final first leg games over the past three seasons have produced a total of only six goals – perhaps analysing the result is a bit futile. It’s only half time, after all. You would still back all four who were on the road this week to qualify, especially if Ribery is suspended for Bayern.

If they don’t, you can guarantee that no one will use the ‘ready-made excuse’ about the travel disruptions. But they should. Sitting on a coach for long periods is horrendous, as almost every lower-league and amateur footballer can testify. Most professional clubs who make long journeys to Torquay or Carlisle or other crumbling footballing outposts like Anfield tend not to perform remarkably well. Mind you, try and imagine sitting on a coach with your workmates for 1,200 miles. Maybe the professionals dealt with it rather well. Rob MacDonald

Thursday, 22 April 2010

It’d Be Ruud Not To… Mention Van Nistelrooy

With English eyes trained firmly on both the amazing race that was Liverpool getting to the Vicente Calderon stadium and Fulham’s spontaneous warm-up session on the autobahn, one man who could have a huge bearing on the destination of this season’s Europa League slipped under the radar. Eighteen months ago, Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s career was hanging in the balance. Out of favour at Real Madrid, the winter transfer window should have seen English clubs queueing up to get the Dutchman’s signature. But where Premier League sides have missed a trick, Hamburg have profited.

The man who has scored more than anyone else bar Raul in European competition (an incredible 62 goals in 90 games) was shunted off to supposed obscurity in Germany in January. Anonymity, however, is one charge that cannot be levelled at a man with the scoring calibre of Van Nistelrooy. A career total of 331 in 528 and hugely successful stints at Old Trafford and the Bernabeu point to a striker who doesn’t just score goals; he scores them with a regularity few can match. Oh how Liverpool, shorn of the delectable talents of Fernando Torres, could do with the big Dutchman leading their attack against Atletico Madrid tonight. And lest we forget, Van Nistelrooy was available on a free transfer. What was Benitez thinking by instead going to the other Madrid club and shelling out £1.5m on Maxi Rodriguez when it had been putting away chances that has been the problem at Anfield all season? Hell, what was every other Premier League manager thinking by turning down the opportunity to sign such a prolific marksman? Much has been made of how a Rooney-less United resembles a blunt instrument. Van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford? Stranger things have happened, Signing him half way through the season could have genuinely reinvigorated United but then again Sir Alex is never one to forget a feud. Imagine him then at the Emirates. One feels he could have made a major impact in the absence of Robin Van Persie. Or Villa, replacing the hapless Emile Heskey and partnering John Carew? You get the picture.

And so Van Nistelrooy lines up against Fulham tonight with four goals in eight Bundesliga games and another couple in Europe. The German media swooned when the Dutchman announced his arrival in Germany by scoring twice on his debut against Stuttgart. This was a well taken brace too, proving that age has not lessened Van Nistelrooy’s instincts in front of goal. As the man himself admits, Hamburg could only be a step down from the bright lights and big egos of Real and United. But at 33 years of age and with ambition still to burn, Van Nistelrooy remains fuelled by a burning desire to succeed and that means getting his current club to a final taking place at their home ground in May: ‘I want to get my game back on track. I've got a feeling I'm not finished,’ he has said in the build up to the first leg of the semi-final tonight. With this mindset, a hunger to propel himself into the Dutch World Cup squad and his predatory eye for goal still intact, it would be hard to bet against van Nistelrooy one day taking his place at the summit of the all-time European competition scorer’s table. Adam Bushby

Get Your Tweets Out For The Lads

Bushby and MacDonald have embraced the future. Sat here in the office, grinning like idiots because we have just set up a Twitter account. So feel free to follow the idiots. (In all probability, you will go on our Twitter page to be redirected back here. True to form, we haven't really thought this through).

Click Here

Get Jimbo On The BBC

As responsible human beings, it is our obligation to back James Richardson as Adrian Chiles' replacement on Match of the Day 2. As if it wasn't bad enough that the BBC preferred Chiles to Jimbo in the first place, now that he's flounced off to ITV, they're in real danger of making the same mistake again. Remember Football Italia? Listen to the Guardian's podcast? Feel sorry for former Setanta employees? Enough said.

Jimbo is class. And most importantly, he's not Colin Murray. OR TIM LOVEJOY.

AC Jimbo. Change we can believe in.

Click Here

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Inter Industry Stifles Barcelona

So it wasn't goalless after all. Jose Mourinho added another notch to his tactical bedpost with only his third career victory over Barcelona, but his Serie A side did it by applying a bit of traditional Italian resilience to their interpretation of the existing Barcelona blueprint.

The formations were identical. Barca saw Xavi tuck in behind their expected front three and Busquets and Keita used as holding midfielders. Inter lined up as they had at Stamford Bridge, surprisingly so, with Sneijder playing behind Milito while Pandev and Eto'o supported wide. Bold, even at the San Siro and especially by Mourinho's standards.

But it was not principally among these two front fours that the first leg of this semi final was decided. The deployment and mentality of the teams off the ball, as well as their ability to actually defend, held the key.

While Barca's response to losing the ball is to win it back as if their lives depend on it, Inter were quite prepared to soak up pressure. After all, it can take seconds to score a goal. Whether you've spent the previous ten minutes knocking around one-touch passes with gay abandon or kicking Messi and hoofing the ball over the halfway line is probably not a discussion that concerns Mourinho.

Inter's positional discipline won out over Barcelona's free spirits. Off the ball, they didn't panic during Barcelona's 65% of the possession, but were solid, organised and crucially, not afraid to put a foot in where many would be spellbound. On the break, they attacked in numbers, at pace and made a mockery of Barcelona's back four. Or at least two of them.

Having been guilty of some impossibly inept defending in the lead up to Barca's goal, Maicon improved. Meanwhile, having been guilty of getting sucked in towards the ball for Inter's first, Dani Alves was notably absent again as Sneijder nodded the ball across goal for Milito to score the third. With Barca's full-backs so often caught high up the pitch, Sneijder knew that a ball behind Barca's centre-backs would rarely be covered. In the event, most were uncharacteristically overhit, but when the space was exploited, Inter threatened. In the context of the game in general, strong, powerful strikers in advanced wide positions are not opposition that Barca's full backs are used to dealing with, especially with Sneijder enjoying sufficient freedom to roam and gang up on them with his forwards.

Maicon and Zanetti, the former's abberation aside, were committed first to defending, while Barcelona's pair are not defenders. Inter played on this and didn't allow Alves or Maxwell to escape their defensive duties, negating their exuberance going forward, while Mourinho had the luxury of knowing that while Maicon galloped upfield, Zanetti was unlikely to venture far beyond the halfway line. The Argentine even perpetrated that rarest of tricks – a perfectly-timed tackle on Lionel Messi.

This, amid other things going wrong for Barcelona on the night seemed to send Andy Gray into patronising overdrive. Not once was Xavi referred to without the prefix 'little', nor were we spoiled for references to the 'little genius'. With Ibrahimovic also playing like he was 5' 2 and Pedro completing the attacking quartet, size was not on Barca's side. Inter, by contrast, can hardly be described as diminutive, as their defending at times testified. Despite this excellent performance, however, they may have to stand even taller in the Nou Camp. Rob MacDonald

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Tale of Two Centre Backs

John Terry has become the human equivalent of Millwall FC. ‘No-one likes me and I don’t care,’ he pouts. There’s a reason why people don’t like you John. If you pardon my asterisks, it’s because you consistently and unashamedly act like a f****** c***. And if we take the person as institution metaphor a step further, it appears Terry has also become the human equivalent of the Conservative Party with his contemptuous ‘born to rule’ mentality which sneerily puts down any attempt to question his form by kissing his badge or taking off his beloved blue shirt to emphasise the word ‘captain’ adorning his bicep. All of this superficial preening merely serves to underline that attitude is everything to England’s JT. It is everything and ultimately it leaves him with nothing. Because it is this stinking attitude that means that when Terry clatters his England teammate James Milner with a horribly late tackle in the FA Cup semi final, rather than check to see if his supposed pal is ok, he is instead right in the ref’s face presumably asking ‘what the fuck is that for?’ It is this attitude that has him mouthing ‘twice I got the ball’ after being sent off against Spurs when twice he didn’t get the ball.

After the furore over his personal life and the fallout over losing his England captaincy, you would have thought he’d have had the good sense to shut his mouth and get his head down. As unlikeable as John Terry is, I would have had a grudging respect if he’d have shown any sort of humility, held his hands up, let it be known he was in the wrong and got on with playing football. But where he dips his wick has no bearing on his abilities on the field I hear you say. Well my argument is that in Terry’s case, it does. He is ruled by an overbearing juvenile ego where he seems to have to constantly prove himself as a man. Off the pitch this means shagging Wayne Bridge’s ex. On the pitch, it means tearing into tackles when a little contemplation wouldn’t go amiss and generally engaging mouth before brain when dealing with referees.

Quite how being the fourth best centre back on the field at White Hart Lane on Saturday evening gives Terry the ammunition to be anything but sheepish is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, you have Michael Dawson who has grown in stature this season to finally live up to the billing that made him such an exciting prospect all those years ago at Nottingham Forest. One of my housemates is a Spurs fan and more so than the other two I live with (Wigan and York City fans), he has been waxing lyrical about Dawson to anyone and everyone who will listen. I was at White Hart Lane for the Spurs Blackburn game a month or so ago and when he wasn’t being completely commanding and looking every inch the international centre back, Dawson was spraying 50-yard passes straight onto Gareth Bale’s left foot. He looked very good indeed.

It hasn’t been a flash in the pan either. Imperious for the majority of the season, Dawson seems to have come of age, especially in the two games that could define Spurs’ season and particularly against Chelsea when he effectively snuffed out the threat posed by one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, encapsulated by that perfect sliding tackle in the final ten minutes on Drogba. Surely the form of Terry has now become a worry to Fabio Capello as the ancient wisdom of automatically pairing he with Rio Ferdinand seems more and more to be based on flawed logic. ‘He’s committed and brave,’ say Chelsea fans. ‘He puts his body on the line,’ they crow. Yeah well he also has a dreadful temperament. He has been undone by pace all season. He is a one man harassment law case when he gets within five yards of a referee. And although I suppose Algeria fans won't be chanting 'John Terry, your mum's a thief' at him in Cape Town, you've still got to worry about him in South Africa against the likes of Messi, Villa, Torres. Only one of Dawson and Terry appears to be getting on the plane to South Africa it seems and as time passes it is looking increasingly like it will end up being the wrong one. Adam Bushby

Welcome Return of the Derby Match

Blood. Thunder. Hammers. Tongs. Kitchen sinks. This season, verve and fervency have returned to Premier League derbies and, if anything, have been its only saving grace. The year as a whole has provided upsets as the rule rather than the exception and the title will certainly not go to a team that has played consistently fantastic football, regardless of who finishes top in May.

The Manchester derby at Old Trafford last September was probably the game of the season so far, though the Carling Cup semi-final encounters didn’t disappoint either. An influx of money and quality players has started to turn Ferguson’s Sauron-esque gaze away from Anfield and back towards Eastlands. Even under Sven, City were still the Premier League’s wry smile. Get some money, achieve a bit, but get thumped 8-1 by Boro’ on the last day. Beat United, home and away, but not cause too many ripples because United win the title and all is well with the world. ‘You enjoy your little victories, City’, gloated United fans, ‘because we will win the war’.

This time, however, the whole war will be condensed into 90 minutes and City have the monopoly on weapons. Ferguson reserves plenty of ire for his city rivals at the best of times, but will feel it all the more intensely now United’s season could meet its end at the hands of a club dormant for so long and a striker he chose not to retain. What probably nags at Ferguson is that deep down, he expected this to be his most glorious of years, the year in which he finally eclipsed Liverpool’s haul of titles; the year he won a league even without Cristiano Ronaldo. What he won’t have entertained is the locals not only getting ideas above their station, but finishing the season there too. This was never supposed to be City’s season of self-affirmation and their increasing belief will only be boosted by the evaporation of United’s, who have plenty to prove. With three classics already this season, my money is definitely on a fourth. Manchester derbies are back with a vengeance.

The North London equivalent between Arsenal and Spurs offered another notable encounter this week. While Harry Redknapp’s expensively-assembled side would ordinarily expect to dismantle a team worth £40m less, the importance of psychological hoodoos in football are not to be underestimated. They are certainly not to be discounted on the back of a dispiriting FA Cup semi-final defeat to the Premier League’s bottom club. Nevertheless, Tottenham roused themselves and ended Arsenal’s 11-year run as well as the Gunners’ title hopes. What’s more, it was a good game of football. Good games are not normally synonymous with local derbies (just ask the Old Firm), as pundits tend to prefer allusions to ‘commitment’ and ‘passion’ as bywords for players diving into challenges because they know the fans are really into it. For reference, see the first North London derby of the season which, aside from two Arsenal goals in eleven seconds, didn’t offer much.

Merseyside derbies, too, while not benefiting from a shot in the arm like those down the M62, or from a record finally coming to an end like in the capital, still boast two top-half teams. This season’s incarnations are notable for Liverpool delivering two performances the likes of which most people expected to see on a more frequent basis when tipping them for the title. A fairly dour performance nevertheless ground out a 2-0 win at Goodison, while a significantly more inspiring display saw Liverpool win the Anfield return 1-0, despite being reduced to 10 after half an hour. In the latter game, challenges were flying in all over the pitch, much to Andy Gray’s delight.

Derbies involving the league’s more successful clubs are starting to stand out on the fixture list again, even for those of us that strive to resist the pull of the often-lukewarm ‘Super Sunday’. City and Tottenham are closer than ever to the league’s biggest four and though their traditional city rivals continue to cling to Chelsea’s coat tails at the top, local bragging rights might be the only prize left on offer. Expect the word ‘pulsating’ to be overused this Saturday lunchtime; Hope for more of the same next season. Rob MacDonald

*This article was originally posted on Friday April 16, before the Manchester derby

Monday, 12 April 2010

Go Fourth and Multiply

The term ‘kingmakers’ has been frequently used in the last couple of weeks, mainly in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats and Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs, having lost the FA Cup semi-final to Portsmouth yesterday (and with it the chance to deny Ancelotti his first trophy with Chelsea) now play the Premier League’s current top three in quick succession. However, much like the Lib Dems, they may have relinquished the incentive to a side in blue who have enjoyed a week boasting a couple of very slick performances.

The noisy half of Manchester started an impressive eight-day spell with a 6-1 tonking of Burnley at Turf Moor, before following it up with yesterday’s 5-1 dismissal of a Birmingham shorn of Joe Hart. In their last three games, City have scored 14, conceded just two and find themselves four points ahead of Spurs, though the North London side have a game in hand. The two meet in the season’s penultimate fixture.

Could it in fact be City who are this season’s kingmakers? It’s a role they would relish, particularly if it involves delivering the knockout blow to United’s title hopes this coming weekend. The following week they travel to Arsenal, who, while buoyed by United’s stalemate with Bolton will have to consolidate against first Spurs and then Wigan before overcoming a City which will undoubtedly contain an invigorated Emmanuel Adebayor.

The Togo striker and Carlos Tevez have been irresistible recently. Add to their current form the intensity with which they have taken the fight to their former clubs in previous meetings this season and it seems that City could provide Mancini’s countryman at Stamford Bridge with a clear path to his first Premier League title long before Spurs travel to Old Trafford.

And what of Spurs? Their last Premier League result was a defeat on the road at Sunderland. A massive fixture at White Hart Lane on Wednesday looms as their players work to recover from a sapping Wembley pitch and the disappointment of losing a semi-final they were expected to win. A fully-rested Arsenal, injuries aside, are not ideal opponents for a team needing a fillip. The pressure to protect Aaron Lennon, but also to get him match fit as quickly as possible, will not lift Harry Redknapp’s mood or expression. The nagging fear that defeat in the FA Cup semi presages a similar stumbling at the final hurdle in the league will not easily be allayed. No doubt the squad’s meals will be under lock, key and 24-hour surveillance for the foreseeable future.

Both City and Spurs have huge roles to play as the season enters its final weeks, but City look best-equipped to decide not only the destiny of the title, but the destination of that final Champions League place. How the burgeoning team in blue would love to land a significant blow at the expense of the previously dominant team in red. Rob MacDonald

Friday, 9 April 2010

Heavy Betting

"Money won is twice as sweet as money earned" Paul Newman, The Color of Money

With both Bushby and MacDonald seemingly fleecing the bookies at will these days, here are 7 randomly generated and 1 very relevant fixture (York weren't available to include in an accumulator on Betfair for some reason) on which the usual £2 will be lumped.

1. Hull v Burnley
2. Barnsley v Derby
3. Brighton v Carlisle
4. Barnet v Macclesfield
5. Southampton v Charlton
6. PSG v Bordeaux
7. Real v Barca
8. Breda v Roda

And in alphabetical order (somewhat pointlessly), the contenders:

Adam: Hull, Draw, Brighton, Barnet, Southampton, Bordeaux, Draw, Breda.

Odds: 839-1.

Rob: Hull, Barnsley, Brighton, Macclesfield, Southampton, Bordeaux, Real, Draw

Odds: 1,026-1.

Arise, Sir Roy

Since the end of December 2007, the only stock to have risen higher than Roy Hodgson’s is that of Tamiflu. And, given that the majority of us didn’t die or turn into pigs, you can guarantee that will be declining soon. Hodgson’s, by contrast, shows no signs of abating.

Incredibly, Fulham are now in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup/Europa League/Spawn of Platini having played 16 games in the tournament so far and 55 in all competitions this season. Preposterously they have knocked out last year’s champions Shakhtar Donetsk, Italy’s Old Lady, Juventus, and now German champions Wolfsburg, who began the season in the Champions League. To even get to the knockouts, Fulham survived a group containing Roma, involved at Serie A’s summit this year, Basel and CSKA Sofia. They’re also safe for another year in the Premier League, sitting 12th.

Hodgson is no stranger to fantastically mind-numbing achievement, having made Switzerland the third best team in the world at one point in the mid-90s. His achievements at Fulham potentially surpass even that, though it is hard to say which is his greatest. Saving the club from relegation with 12 points from their final five games in 2008 – including that turnaround from 2-0 down at half time to win 3-2 at Eastlands – takes some beating. Subsequently leading Fulham to their highest ever finish in seventh place and European competition in 2008/09 somehow saw Sir Alex Ferguson awarded the Manager of the Year accolade for the ninth time.

Finding Brede Hangeland was a stroke of genius. Signing Mark Schwarzer was another. And how good a bit of business was Bobby Zamora for £4.8m? And who could get so much out of a seemingly past it Damien Duff? And Clint Dempsey? And flog a barely-proven Chris Smalling to United for £20m? And… you get the picture.

The only thing possibly standing between Hodgson and being named Manager of the Year is that his achievements haven’t taken place in the Premier League. On relative Premier League form alone this year, Hodgson could be pipped to the post by Alex McLeish. David Moyes is a frequent contender. Should Harry Redknapp take Spurs to fourth, he might get the nod. But no one can deny Hodgson deserves recognition for taking Fulham from relegation favourites to Europa League semi-finalists in two years. His reward would be long overdue.

This season has surpassed all expectations. Fulham knocked Juventus out of Europe. JUVENTUS. That alone, for a club that has a ‘neutral end’ at its ground and Mohamed Al Fayed as chairman, should see Hodgson knighted. For now though, the odyssey continues – Fulham meet Hamburg in the semis for the right to contest the final in… er, Hamburg on May 12th. Hodgson’s stock may not have peaked just yet. Rob MacDonald

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Daylight Ribery

"Was that Ribery or Robben?"

"We can't worry too much about Ribéry and we won't," Sir Alex Ferguson asserted during today’s pre-match press conference. "We have to take care of him when he gets the ball – but he is no faster than Neville." Cue stifled laughter all round I would imagine. ‘No faster than Neville?’ Really? 35-year-old Gary Neville, Sir Alex?

Ferguson has become the undisputed king of dealing with the media throughout his 24 years at the helm at Old Trafford. Never one to suffer fools gladly, or without a four-word tirade up his sleeve to erupt in the face of any journo foolhardy enough to ask a silly question, even he must have had tongue firmly in cheek with this response.

Bayern have not failed to score in a match since way back on November 3 last year, when they fell to a 2-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena against potential semi-final opponents Bordeaux. That there are goals in this current tie is fairly obvious and that they will arrive due to a key contribution from either Frank Ribery or Arjen Robben is a wager few betting men could resist. With the latter back in the frame for a starting place tonight, Neville will either face someone who is fast or indeed, very fast. And although he dealt admirably with the advances of Ronaldinho in the preceding round, the former England right back has looked very susceptible to any sort of pace this season; in recent weeks, Ribery and Florent Malouda have both given him a torrid time.

This will be the key battleground for me tonight. If Neville drops off Ribery, then the Frenchman can exploit the United captain’s lack of pace and look to cut inside onto his favoured right foot at every opportunity. Should Neville get too tight, he is a deft touch from Ribery away from looking like a pillock and seriously exposing the rest of his own defence. Neville will certainly have to get his angles right. And although Robben has been most effective for Bayern this season coming off the right wing and using that pulverising left foot of his (case in point his marvellous finish against Fiorentina in the last 16), Van Gaal may wish to alternate him and Ribery against Neville to really test Sir Alex’s contention.

Neville as fast as Ribery – not bleeding likely. Robben? Pull the other one. Only time will tell if Robben carries a lesser sentence than Ribery. Boom Boom. Adam Bushby

Prediction - Bayern to go through

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Nitol for Tyldesley

Is the Champions League interesting again? Clive Tyldesley’s worst nightmare may yet manifest itself this week as a defence-less Arsenal take on a defence-less Barcelona – so that’s basically Messi vs Bendtner – and a Rooney-less Manchester United take on a Bayern Munich with added Robben. There may be no English team in the semis for the first time since 2003.

Arsenal’s game with Barcelona last week produced a sublime game of football. Arsenal weren’t punched, kicked or shoved off the ball, even if Fabregas did suffer from the cruncher’s calling card with a broken leg. They were comprehensively outplayed. Barcelona tonight are a different side and talk abounds over the impact Walcott made when he came on, but it is conveniently forgotten he was near anonymous again at the weekend against Wolves.

Two additional factors have been equally ignored. Firstly, while Barca’s defence is rearranged and perhaps a bit sluggish, Walcott has to decide what to do when he gets near the goal, a process that has never been his strong point. He might not even start. Secondly, Barcelona have Lionel Messi and he was quiet at the Emirates. He is rarely quiet for long.

While you can talk up Arsenal’s chances, should you so desire, with fantasies of speed and attacking panache, any assessment of Manchester United’s forthcoming fixture feels like it has to be made with a similar malaise to that sweeping over the team since they took the lead in Germany. Sluggish against Bayern, weary against Chelsea, this is not a United team solely undermined by the loss of Rooney.

United’s only ever-present, Patrice Evra, looks leggy and tired, which is not only a defensive problem as he poses a significant attacking threat. Darren Fletcher, also one of United’s most regular and influential performers could not get close to Bayern’s centre backs and van Bommel as they strode forward last week, and could not stamp his authority on Lampard and Malouda at Old Trafford. This isn’t a crisis for United, but the team aren’t enjoying the same conviction with which they brushed aside Bolton without Rooney. While they are weaker, Bayern are stronger. Two wins out of two and a returning winger bound to give United problems, whether it be Neville or Rafael. It will be tight. Tyldesley will not be sleeping easily.

A few other people having nightmares this week will be those who thought crazy topless fat men were a thing of the Premier League past. Newcastle are back in the top flight, which is good news because we’ll all need something else to laugh at when Liverpool aren’t as useless next season. Well done Chris Hughton and welcome back. Except you, Joey Barton. Rob MacDonald