Friday, 27 February 2009

O'Neill causes controversy by leaving stars at home

Aston Villa fans across the country have been sporting little red marks on their bodies for months now. This is the inevitable result of these fans waking up every morning, turning to the sports pages of the newspaper, and pinching themselves in disbelief as they still find their team sitting comfortably in the top four of the Premier League.

Villa's scintillating run of form has been dismissed by many as a "lucky streak" which will undoubtedly come to an end sooner rather than later. Those holding such an opinion will point to Villa's recent defeat at the hands of Chelsea as evidence of this theory. Despite this result, which for Villa fans will hopefully turn out to be a minor blip rather than an indicator of serious trouble at Villa Park, it's been a fantastic season so far for the club and the fans.

Given Villa's break into the top four, it's understandable that Martin O'Neill wants to do everything possible to ensure the table still looks as rosy when the end of the season comes. If Villa do manage to break the established order of English football and finish in a Champions League qualifying position, it will be an outstanding accomplishment from a young team led by an extremely talented manager.

However, some fans have been left questioning the sacrifices made in the quest for such glory. Yesterday, O'Neill decided to field an under-strength team away to CSKA Moscow in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup. The manager left eight regular first-team players out of the starting line-up, choosing instead to throw numerous reserve and young players in at the deep end.

CSKA Moscow beat Villa 2-0, a result which "disappointed" the manager. However, O'Neill refused to admit that he had made a mistake, stating that "it's important to look at the bigger picture".

If Villa qualify for the Champions League and find themselves playing in the Bernabeu or the San Siro next season, this result will no doubt fade into insignificance. However, with the talent and pace inherent in the Villa first team, some fans have been left rueing a missed opportunity.

Not many feelings in sport compare to the one experienced by fans after their team wins a trophy and a victorious run in this competition could have given the Villa players that extra level of confidence needed to ensure they keep their nerve during the season's closing stages.

UEFA Cup defeat means that the players will have fresh legs for their Premier League assault but psychology counts at least as much as physical fitness and, taking Arsenal as one example, the damage inflicted by just one negative result can be disastrous.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Kill or be killed, warns Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has warned his Manchester United team-mates to "kill or be killed" when the holders resume the defence of their Champions League crown on Tuesday.

United travel to the San Siro for a tough-looking assignment against the runaway Serie A leaders Internazionale on the back of a scruffy 2-1 win over Blackburn at Old Trafford on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League by seven points.

But domestic duties pale into insignificance alongside this mouth-watering first knockout round clash in Europe elite's club competition.

The games takes on extra spice because of Inter manager Jose Mourinho's recent assertion that his striker, Swedish man mountain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is a better player than recently-crowned World Player of the Year Ronaldo.

The pair, of course, have history.

Mourinho once implied his countryman was uneducated and branded him a "liar", while a riposte from Ronaldo suggested the former Stamford Bridge boss "never recognises when he is wrong".

Mourinho has also managed to rattle Sir Alex Ferguson, most famously when in 2004 he ran down the touchline at Old Trafford to celebrate the goal that eliminated the current World Club champions from the Champions League when he was in charge of Porto.

Ferguson has insisted Mourinho is "my old friend" but it is fair to suggest no current manager polarises opinion quite like the Nerazzuri boss - not even the great Scot himself.

Inter are nine points clear at the top of Serie A, they have reached the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia and have already won the Supercoppa Italiana, Italy's version of the Community Shield - a run of form not lost on Ronaldo.

He said: "They're a team we need to respect," he said. "They're a good side and first in Serie A so we need to be very careful."

Mourinho suffered only one defeat at the hands of Ferguson in 10 games while he was Chelsea manager and the Old Trafford boss has spoken of the need for United to "control" Inter when the two sides meet at the San Siro.

They will have to so without the suspended Nemanja Vidic for what, on paper at least, has the look of a classic.

Arteta injury dents Toffees' European dreams

Yesterday afternoon saw Everton play out a goalless, and relatively dull, draw against Newcastle. Although the Toffees were bitterly disappointed not to have picked up another three points in their quest to secure European football next season, the mood in the dressing room after the final whistle would have been ecstatic in comparison to how the players, coaching staff, and management will be feeling this morning after it was revealed that Mikel Arteta will miss the rest of the season through injury.

Everton fans have been left wondering how a seemingly innocuous fall in the opening minutes of a match could fundamentally change the course of their season. Arteta was stretchered off in visible pain after rupturing a knee ligament and his absence from Everton's midfield was notable, with the Toffees displaying their trademark resilience and determination but sorely lacking the creative spark provided by the talented Spaniard.

The Toffees have not been shy about their hopes for this season. They are desperate to secure a European place and David Moyes has been handed the task of balancing this ambition with the club's dream of winning the FA Cup.

This task has been made far more difficult now that Arteta, who has scored seven goals in thirty-one appearances for Everton this season, has been ruled out.

If there is one positive to be taken from yesterday's match, it is that the bones in Victor Anichebe's leg remain unbroken. Anichebe was the victim of a horrific tackle from Kevin Nolan, who later apologised to the Everton player and manager.

Anichebe limped off the pitch following the incident but was extremely lucky to be walking at all after the two-footed lunge from the Newcastle player.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Rooney return leaves Tevez twitchy

Wayne Rooney will start on Saturday against Blackburn at Old Trafford when Manchester United look to extend their Premier League lead over nearest challengers and bitter rivals Liverpool by eight points.

The England striker celebrated his return to competitive action on Wednesday from a career-first hamstring injury by scoring with his first touch in the 3-0 cakewalk against Fulham.

Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed: "Wayne Rooney will play. He has to start so we can see how far advanced he is but we think he's fine."

Rooney's inclusion does not, however, bode well for fellow striker Carlos Tevez, whose agent, Kia Joorabchian, on Friday revealed his third-party owners are now "studying other options" after Ferguson gave up first option on the 25-year-old at the end of January.

Tevez's two-year loan at Old Trafford expires at the end of the season and Real Madrid and Internazionale are understood to be considering offers in the region of £30million.

Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Rafael are also set to feature against Sam Allardyce's side, but defender John O'Shea is a minor doubt because of a heel injury.

Allardyce enjoyed Ferguson's company after the midweek win over Roy Hodgson's travel-sick side but has refuted Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger's assertion that the Premier League leaders look "untouchable". He has also ventured down the reverse psychology route by claiming there is no pressure on his players.

But the omens do not look good.

Blackburn make the 27 miles journey between the two clubs one point off the foot of the table, without any away league goals since November and without an away top-flight victory since September.

They have also dropped more away points to United than to any other club in the Premier League (36).

Giant defender Chris Samba is suspended for the game after picking up five yellow cards this season.

Edwin van der Sar will be looking to set a new European record with a 15th consecutive clean sheet, and, while Ferguson has been quick to play down suggestions that the Premier League title race is already over - despite one bookmaker paying out on bets placed on United to win the domestic crown, Carling Cup and FA Cup - this one does have the look of a home banker.

Exciting weekend ahead in Premier League

Fans of the Premier League are in for a treat this weekend, with several tantalising fixtures lying in wait for clubs at both ends of the table. The Emirates Stadium will welcome Sunderland tomorrow afternoon, with new signing Andrey Arshavin set to make his debut. Wenger has stated that the exciting Russian star will make an appearance but the manager has not revealed the extent of his inclusion.

Arsenal are keen to make Arshavin's introduction to English football as gentle as possible since he has not played a competitive match since November of last year. However, injuries to many of Arsenal's key playmakers have left Wenger with unwanted selection issues and the Arsenal boss will be hoping that the player can adapt to the rigours of the Premier League sooner rather than later.

Another clash involving two teams in the top four will make for exciting viewing tomorrow lunchtime, as Aston Villa host Chelsea. Both sides have injury problems, with Heskey and Milner struggling to prove their fitness ahead of the tie, and injuries to Alex and Carvalho may leave Chelsea's defence severely lacking, particularly since Ashley Cole is unavailable due to suspension.

The match will see Guus Hiddink take charge of his first match with the Blues and victory for the London side will see them climb above Villa in the league. However, Martin O'Neill's young side has been in top form recently and will not be afraid to take their game to a Chelsea team lacking in confidence and inspiration.

Chelsea fans will hope that Hiddink has an instant impact and most will be excited at the prospect of seeing a rejuvenated Didier Drogba, who has spoken out about the detrimental impact Scolari had at the club prior to his departure. Drogba revealed that the boss made him a scapegoat for Chelsea's poor run of form which has left them floundering in fourth position.

The striker believes that Hiddink is just the right man for Chelsea at the moment and fans will be hoping that Drogba can quickly recapture the form which made him a favourite with the Stamford Bridge faithful.

Towards the other end of the Premier League table, Hull will be hoping to reverse their poor run of form as they take on Spurs at the KC Stadium. Tottenham desperately need to improve their away form if they are to make any real impression in the league this season.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Eduardo makes fairytale comeback

The TV commentator responsible for guiding football fans through the FA Cup action at the Emirates Stadium last night was mournful of the fact that Eduardo, who made his first team comeback after suffering a horrific leg break early last year, narrowly missed out on a hat trick, something which would have made his comeback a true "fairytale". However, in reality, the striker could not really have asked for much more.

February 2008 is a month in football that we will all remember. On the 23rd of that month, Arsenal came up against Birmingham City in a crucial Premier League match. There were not too many talking points until Martin Taylor misjudged a tackle, leaving Eduardo with injuries too disturbing to be broadcast immediately on TV. However, over the following days, photos and videos of his injuries spread far and wide and the extent of the damage done to his leg was clear for all to see.

Many pundits doubted whether Eduardo would ever play football again and his successful comeback is a tribute to both modern medicine and the individual spirit of the striker, who showed resilience and great determination in returning from such a traumatic event. Tougher tests than Cardiff, who were completely outplayed at the Emirates last night, will soon come Arsenal's way and Eduardo will come up against defenders more familiar with his game. However, the signs are all looking good for the striker, who is only 25 years of age.

After scoring two goals and showing flashes of brilliance which made him a firm favourite with the fans prior to his injury, Eduardo described his excitement. He stated that his return had been the "best day" of his life and revealed that the experience of scoring had been "very emotional". Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger, was also keen to praise the striker, describing his mental attitude as "extremely strong".

Wenger conceded that the importance of the striker's comeback would only become clear "at the end of the season" but the potential importance of Eduardo to an Arsenal team which has been unusually static during recent weeks should not be underestimated.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Sunday best from rampant Reds

Michael Carrick had warned his Manchester United team-mates not to underestimate FA Cup fifth-round opponents Derby on Sunday.

He needn't have bothered.

Carrick was given the day off as United made sure there was to be no repeat of their Carling Cup defeat by the same side with such panache that opposing manager Nigel Clough predicted the quintuple was not beyond the realms of possibility for the World Club champions.

Sir Alex Ferguson made seven changes for the trip to the Midlands but his shadow side had barely broken sweat by the time they had gone 2-0 in front with goals from Nani and Darron Gibson. The young Irishman played with such authority that Ferguson made the unusual step of confirming he will start the Carling Cup final against Tottenham on March 1.

But at the hub of everything good about the visitors was Ryan Giggs.

The Welsh veteran turned in a midfield master class to leave him just three wins short of becoming the first player since the 19th century to collect five winners' medals in this famous old cup competition.

Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Danny Welbeck gave the scoreline an emphatic look with second-half goals but the result was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Ferguson opted not to start with a recognized centre-forward, with Wayne Rooney not risked and Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez not given the chance to get their socks dirty.

Derby did rally when Miles Addison proved United's record-breaking defence can be breached with a header on 56 minutes, but that apart there was a whiff of inevitability about the end result.

Edwin Van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic were also afforded the luxury of an afternoon off but they should return when United resume their quest for a hat-trick of Premier League title successes against Fulham at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Friday, 13 February 2009

England fans anxious prior to tough Welsh test

If Wales manage to overcome the challenge posed by a less than convincing England side tomorrow, they will be able to boast a record-equaling eighth consecutive Six Nations match victory. England fans will, of course, be hoping that this doesn't happen but the current signs don't look particularly positive.

The national team's forwards coach, John Wells, has attempted to ease the worries of anxious England fans by stating that if the team can take "the things" they are currently doing in training to the Millennium Stadium, they will be able to give Wales a "bloody good game". Ominously for England fans who are already biting their fingernails in anticipation of Joe Worsley's return, Wells continued to state (somewhat desperately) that "if we're still in it at the end, we'll win it".

The England players will hope that the management team has, behind closed doors, developed a slightly more technical and precise game plan for the match, especially given the recent form of the Welsh side. England eventually managed to overcome the Italians in their opening match of the Six Nations campaign but this Welsh side will pose very different problems for the team.

The Welsh team has an additional incentive to be victorious in tomorrow's match, given that a win would see them recording a hat-trick of Six Nations victories over their English rivals for the first time in their history and the prospect of entering the match as firm favourites has not become a daunting factor for star players including flanker, Martyn Williams.

Williams has been quoted as saying that although being favourites is a little "strange" to him personally, many of "the younger boys have had a lot of success and are wondering what all the fuss is about". The flanker is still hungry for more success, particularly since many of the experienced players remember the "bad times" and do not wish to see a return to those days.

Giggs still enjoying the ride

It came as no surprise this week when Sir Alex Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of Ryan Giggs after the veteran penned a one-year extension to take him beyond his 20th year at Manchester United.

In a football age dominated by ego and crass headline makers, the Welshman remains the "true professional" first spotted by Sir Bobby Charlton at the club's Lyttleton Road training ground.

The World Cup winner recalled: "He had just been signed that morning from under the noses of Manchester City. I just thought 'that will do me'."

Giggs' appearance in the European Cup final last season took him past Charlton's club record of 758 games - and he could go on to break the 800 mark before the end of the current season.

One-club man Giggs may no longer be the first name down on Ferguson's team sheet but his value to the Premier League champions was illustrated last Sunday when he scored the only goal in the 1-0 win against in-form West Ham at Upton Park.

He may no longer be able to cut a swathe through opposition defences but his experience in a more withdrawn role stood out in the recent drubbing of fellow title-chasers Chelsea.

By the time he reaches the end of his new contract, Giggs will be 36 and the most decorated player in the club's history. But, unlike Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar, who may all retire in 18 months' time, Giggs' unyielding desire for silverware shows no sign of abating.

It was fitting then that Ferguson, who snapped up Giggs from neighbours Manchester City, should lead the tributes.

The Scot said: "His lifestyle, the way he looks after himself, and his desire always to want to win is a credit to him and an inspiration to any young kid who wants to be a professional footballer.

"He is like a young boy in the way that he plays and, although he wants to be involved in every game, he understands that using his experience when it matters is a benefit to him and the team."

Giggs will reach 788 if he plays at Derby County on Sunday, in the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition he has won four times.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Chelsea fans left reeling after goalless draw

Chelsea fans were no doubt reluctant to flick through the sports pages of the newspapers on Sunday morning after another disappointing result in the Premier League left the club in fourth position behind Aston Villa, who managed to overcome a difficult test in the form of Blackburn. The test facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon came in the form of Hull, a club which had not managed a single win in eight League matches. Sadly for fans of the Blues, the team played out a dull goalless draw, with the best chances falling to Hull in the second half.

Fans, several of whom had brought damning banners to the game, perhaps in anticipation of this unacceptable result, made their voices heard after the final whistle, with many individuals calling for Scolari to leave the club. This reaction is entirely understandable, particularly after the crushing defeat at the hands of Liverpool. Earlier today, Ralph Ellis wrote an article for Betfair about the importance of randomness in football. To be fair to the Chelsea manager, nobody could have accounted for the random nature of John Terry’s woeful miss during the game’s opening stages or the influence the woodwork had on Michael Ballack’s sublime free-kick but Ellis is far too lenient in his affirmation that Chelsea fans were harsh in their treatment of Scolari.

Some of his decisions this season have been baffling to say the least and Chelsea fans have been left feeling particularly disenchanted after the manager’s appalling treatment of Didier Drogba, a player viewed as a hero by the Stamford Bridge faithful. The Chelsea side is currently playing with no heart or desire to win and, although he is not entirely to blame for this malaise, the manager must take some responsibility for this damaging trend.

If Chelsea had traipsed back to the dressing room at half-time under the control of Jose Mourinho, with all the signs pointing to a goalless draw against the likes of Hull, you could bet your bottom dollar that the side would emerge with renewed focus and determination for the last 45 minutes. There seems to be none of this inspiration flowing from Scolari and, whilst Chelsea are obviously missing key players such as Michael Essien and Joe Cole, the real problems seem to be with the man in charge.

Beckham the great…discuss

George Best once delivered a scathing assessment of David Beckham.

"He (Beckham) cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's all right," said the Northern Ireland great.

Best made his withering attack when nominated to collect the World Player of the Year runner-up award on behalf of Beckham in 2000.

Fellow professionals of his generation still argue Best, at his peak, would have graced any era and so we assume the former Manchester United favourite was well qualified to make his facetious dig.

And while it is always dangerous to compare players from different periods, one wonders what another former England captain, Bobby Moore, would make of Beckham equalling his outfield appearances record of 108 if he plays against Spain on Wednesday.

Few would argue Beckham has been, and still is, a good player - but can we really consider him a great as this potential landmark would suggest?

Fabio Capello cast doubt on his own judgement this week when he preferred to talk about Beckham the "media star" and it is true his profile dictates the 33-year-old will always generate headlines, front and back.

Ryan Giggs asserted he wanted to be successful rather than famous when asked about his former Old Trafford team-mate's inclination to court the catwalks as part of his brand Beckham agenda.

Seasoned United fans remember Beckham fondly but it is fair to argue he is not mentioned in the same breath as, say, Eric Cantona, whose name is still chanted.

Sir Alex Ferguson never bought into Beckham's thirst for fame and their strained relationship led to the wily Scot sanctioning his sale to Real Madrid in 2003. It is curious Ferguson was not so agreeable when the Spanish champions came knocking again last summer for Beckham's eventual successor, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Beckham is currently enjoying a new lease of life with AC Milan and has made no secret of his desire to end his brief flirtation with America's MLS and clinch a permanent move to the San Siro to stay on the radar of Capello in the hope of playing at his fourth World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

Now the wrong side of 30, the routine pace of Serie A unquestionably suits Beckham's passing game and his recent impressive form means he merits his latest call-up.

He remains a technically accomplished footballer and well liked by the same England fans who hung an effigy of him outside a London pub on the back of his and the country's acrimonious exit from the 1998 World Cup.

But, somehow, Beckham the great does not ring true.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Rafa hamstrung by attacking options

Liverpool's Premier League title aspirations nosedived yesterday when it was revealed that skipper and talisman Steven Gerrard will be out for three weeks because of a hamstring tear.

The Anfield powerhouse cut a dejected figure when, to the delight of euphoric Everton supporters, he limped out of his side's demoralising FA Cup defeat to cross-city rivals Everton after just 16 minutes.

The 28-year-old will miss England's international friendly next Wednesday against Spain but the repercussions for Liverpool could be a lot worse.

The midfielder is now a doubt for the club's next two Premier League games against Portsmouth and Manchester City and is a genuine worry for the first leg of Liverpool's Champions League last-16 tie with Real Madrid, which is due to take place at the Bernabeu on February 25.

His absence will again raise doubts about manager Rafael Benitez's decision to allow striker Robbie Keane to re-join Tottenham on transfer-deadline day for £12million – just six months after spending £20million to prise him from White Hart Lane.

The Spaniard aimed a veiled swipe at Keane by suggesting he never delivered on the big stage at Anfield, although cyncis may argue this was a clever ploy by Benitez to deflect some of the attention off him.

The debate will rage on but the loss of Gerrard, so often the saviour, cannot be underestimated.

Of the 40 goals scored this season by Liverpool's starting line-up at Goodison Park, 23 had arrived courtesy of skipper Gerrard and principal striker Fernando Torres, who has yet to reach top gear after his recent injury lay-off.

Between them they have amassed 77 goals in 19 months as team-mates but Benitez is optimistic he has the support cast to fill the void.

"We have Kuyt, Babel, Ngog and if we need them also Nemeth or Pacheco. Nabil and Benayoun can also play as second strikers. If you need to change and to use different players we can do it," he reasoned.

The proof will come on Saturday when Liverpool will be expected to extend Portsmouth's winless run to nine games.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Rafa's roar stirs Liverpool

A defiant Rafael Benitez insisted Liverpool were still in the title race after his side ended a run of three morale-sapping draws with a stirring 2-0 won over fellow contenders Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday.

A first half that was as cagey as it was predictable burst into life two minutes from time when Spain international Fernando Torres scored twice in the space of 60 seconds to secure Liverpool a result which takes them to within two points of leaders and arch enemy Manchester United.

Frank Lampard had already departed for an early bath when Torres had fired the first of two nails into Chelsea's title coffin for a lunge at Xabi Alonso, although replays suggested the England international had played the ball first.

Defeat means Chelsea have taken only one point from a possible 15 against their 'big four' rivals this season and manager Luiz Felipe Scolari admitted his side's title hopes are now "distant".

The west Londoners are now five points adrift of Sir Alex Ferguson's side and too may times this season, against their title rivals, have looked rudderless.

Scolari brushed off talk that his job is on the line by insisting there is "no pressure" but hardened Chelsea fans will know they are fast losing ground and hope.

Not even the spectre of co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillet – who sat 12 seats apart in the directors' box – could ruin the day for Benitez, who insisted United would have a wobble before both sides reached the winning post.

United go to Upton Park next – where they have lost twice in succession in the league – to take on an in-form West Ham team unbeaten in eight away games, but are showing devastating form and can be found trading as short as 4/11 in the latest football betting odds to win their third successive crown.

Liverpool, by contrast, travel to take on free-falling Portsmouth who are on an eight-game winless run and are just a point above the relegation zone with the vultures already circling over the head of under-fire manager Tony Adams.

Liverpool have been supported in to 11/2 in the title race betting odds after their Chelsea win, but lack the experience of proven course-and-distance winners United and place too much emphasis on skipper and perennial match-winner Steven Gerrard.

The run in should be fascinating and, as Benitez roared, bring it on.