Thursday, 30 April 2009

Regrets, I've had a few…

Sir Alex Ferguson's football prediction that a 1-0 first-leg win may be enough to secure Manchester United a place in the Champions League final in Rome on May 27 could yet prove prophetic.

But given the profligacy shown by his players in the first half at Old Trafford, when it appeared Arsenal were there for the taking, he may just question whether the door is still ajar for Arsene Wenger's men to reverse the deficit and consider an end-of-season trip to the Eternal City.

Odd-job man John O'Shea finally returned some confidence and authority to his game to become the unlikely hero with an early goal in an opening period in which the visitors seemed content to retreat behind the half-way line.

United sizzled with enterprise and endeavour but passed up countless opportunities to further embarrass the north Londoners. Cristiano Ronaldo saw Manuel Almunia make a potentially-decisive save from his close-range header when it appeared easier to score, while fans' favourite Carlos Tevez was also denied by the inspired goalkeeper.

Tevez, whose future at Old Trafford remains a thorny subject, would later blot his copybook with a show of petulance when he got the hook in favour of Dimitar Berbatov.

Cries of 'Fergie, sign him up' reverberated around the stadium and it will be interesting to see which of the pair the Scot goes with in the return at the Emirates.

Ronaldo went close in the second half with a stunning long-range effort and Ryan Giggs, making his 800th club appearance, was denied a goal to remember when he was controversially adjudged offside.

It could have been a lot worse for the Gunners and Wenger promised we would see "a different Arsenal team" next week, while Ferguson insisted United would not be fazed by their slender lead.

"We played at a good high tempo and maybe we should have scored four goals but before the game I wanted to win without losing a goal," he said.

"We know we can go there and score and that is the big problem Arsenal have."

Man Utd: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand (Evans 87), Vidic, Evra, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Giggs 66), Ronaldo, Tevez (Berbatov 66), Rooney.

Subs Not Used: Foster, Park, Scholes, Rafael Da Silva.

Booked: Tevez.

Goals: O'Shea 18.

Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Silvestre, Gibbs, Song, Diaby, Walcott (Bendtner 70), Fabregas, Nasri, Adebayor (Eduardo 82).

Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Denilson, Ramsey, Djourou, Eboue.

Att: 74,733

Ref: Claus Bo Larsen (Denmark).

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Messi not the only star set to shine in semi-final clash

The intense debate surrounding precisely how a Chelsea side stripped of a natural left-back will cope with Barcelona winger, Lionel Messi, in tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg, is becoming farcical.

I refer to Lionel Messi as "Barcelona winger" rather than the laughably over-used descriptions of "genius" and "footballing wizard" because that is precisely what he is. He is a very talented winger, that's for sure, but (and this may surprise you if you've been reading the papers this week) he is actually a real human being. He doesn't have magical powers. I know this is shocking but let's be honest, Messi is a 21-year-old kid who is the star attraction at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

How Chelsea fare in Barcelona tonight does not depend upon their ability to keep the winger quiet. Messi only has such an impact because he is surrounded by a team which sticks religiously to an attacking philosophy (although, if Chelsea do have anything to worry about it's that Pep Guardiola has brought a disciplined defensive edge to a side previously undone by individual egos). Throw Messi in the Bolton starting line-up and the likelihood is that he wouldn't be able to display the kind of performances which have made him superhuman in the eyes of the media.

For Chelsea to succeed against Barcelona, they will need to focus upon the overall philosophy of the Spanish side, rather than concentrating upon the individual cogs that make it work. The entire Chelsea back line will have a job to do tonight, not just Jose Bosingwa, who has been handed the task of keeping Messi quiet. After all, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry can't exactly be ignored. Furthermore, the interplay between midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi will need to be quashed, and the attacking threat of right-back, Dani Alves, must be diminished.

For all Barcelona's talent, and, let's be clear about this, talent is something the side does not lack, Chelsea will provide them with a stern test. Chelsea have players worth boasting about themselves and one player springs to mind instantly in this context: Didier Drogba. The forward has experienced mixed fortunes against Barcelona, with a magnificent equaliser in the 2006/2007 competition a perfect way to exact revenge for his sending off the year before.

Maybe Barcelona fans should be the ones worrying about individual stars in the side their team will face tonight. After all, if Drogba manages to find the back of the net tonight, he will become the only footballer ever to have scored in six consecutive Champions League matches.

Drogba's importance to Chelsea cannot be underestimated. His presence is felt not only on the pitch, where his physical dominance more often than not causes defenders real trouble, but also off the pitch. Drogba has the ability to fire up the Chelsea faithful with a single gesture and this charisma, something which Guus Hiddink recently spoke of, is as important as his goalscoring ability.

Bear in mind that I haven't yet mentioned Frank Lampard, who was unlucky not to have been recognised by the PFA Player of the Year shortlist this season, or Michael Essien, who many Chelsea fans regard as one of the best footballers in the world, and it seems clear that tonight's match is far from a foregone conclusion. Football betting on this one is likely to favour the Spanish side but rule out Chelsea at your peril.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Hiddink on the attack

Guus Hiddink will instruct his Chelsea players to go for the jugular when they travel to Spain for a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final first-leg clash on Tuesday against warm football favourites Barcelona.

The Dutchman does not subscribe to the theory that Pep Guardiola's Primera Liga title-chasers are untouchable and is convinced they are vulnerable when put under pressure.

Hiddink's optimism should be admired given that such a huge emphasis has been placed on how Chelsea can even begin to shackle flying winger Lionel Messi in the absence of suspended first-choice left-back Ashley Cole.

Jose Bosingwa, the club's right-back who has only 58 minutes of first-team football behind him in the past five weeks, will switch flanks to put the brakes on the Argentina superstar, not that Hiddink is getting too wrapped up in delivering a blueprint for success.

The Russia coach says he has already played out Tuesday's showdown in his head and is adamant that Chelsea must not sit back and invite Barcelona on.

"It's not chess," he said. "With that, you have systems to attack or defend. Football is more complicated than that.

"We should not go there and drop back, wait and wait until the storm is coming.

"We must take what is in our team and do some harm as well. That is always our intention in big games. If we wait, we will have problems."

Chelsea have never beaten Barcelona at the Nou Camp in Europe's premier club competition but they have scored five goals on their last four visits and their last two trips there have resulted in draws.

If Hiddink watched Barca eke out a late 2-2 draw against Valencia on Saturday and witnessed how David Villa left Carlos Puyol in knots, then his plan to go on the offensive could reap dividends.

Ferguson driven by European dream

The sun was still piercing through the crowds at Old Trafford long after Manchester United had completed a shock 5-2 comeback win against Tottenham when Sir Alex Ferguson turned his thoughts to the Champions League.

Europe's premier club competition remains the benchmark, according to the game's longest-serving manager, and the chance to lock horns again with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger on Wednesday guarantees extra spice to an already intriguing semi-final two-legged tie. Cordial relations may have resumed between the pair but when Ferguson and Wenger come together there are usually fireworks.

Ferguson also enters into the unknown because United have never faced Premier League opposition in a two-legged match. He is also driven by a disappointment that United have not won the competition more than twice (1999, 2008) since the official inauguration of the tournament in 1992/93.

"It's not easy winning a European Cup. Christ, it took me 13 years to win one, then another nine to win it again," the United manager said. "We've had good teams throughout that time, but it's just not an easy thing to do. What I've always said, though, is that a club like Manchester United should have done better in European competitions."

Real Madrid are the most successful side overall in Europe with nine triumphs, followed by seven for AC Milan, five for bitter rivals Liverpool and four each for Bayern Munich and Ajax. United have triumphed in the competition three times overall but it irks Ferguson that they are not in that top bracket of past winners.

He added: "That's what's driving me at the moment. Winning in Moscow [against Chelsea in 2008] gave me more satisfaction than winning the title last year. I'm not saying we should be up there with Real Madrid – they won a lot of their titles before the rest of Europe was really focused – but there's no reason why a club like this shouldn't be in the next band. We've still got ground to make up on the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich, as well as Milan and Liverpool."

Friday, 24 April 2009

Minnows should qualify for UEFA Cup for the good of English football

It's all too easy to adopt an attitude of arrogance and snobbery when thinking about the prospect of a team such as West Ham or Fulham qualifying for next season's UEFA Cup competition. Traditionally unpredictable sides, both of which have extensive experience of flirting with relegation and the upper echelons of the mini-league that forms under the top four of English football, West Ham and Fulham are entering the final stages of the Premier League campaign optimistic of European qualification.

Perhaps the prospect of Fulham entertaining some of Europe's top football talent is one which embarasses some football pundits. The idea of Andy Johnson taking on some of the top defences in the world is one which many may laugh at. However, is it not more embarassing having to sit through the performances displayed by Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup this season, after manager, Martin O'Neill, decided that the competition was an unwanted distraction for his players who were desperate to qualify for the Champions League next year (a plan which has obviously backfired in hideous fashion for the talented manager and his current crop of youngsters).

There are several teams currently competing for a UEFA Cup spot, including Fulham, West Ham, Tottenham and, to a lesser extent, Manchester City. Wigan are also in with an outside chance but horrendous form would have to be shown by the sides sitting above them for Steve Bruce's men to qualify.

Tottenham fans will be desperate for their side to qualify, particularly since they started the Premier League campaign in such dire form. However, why is this? They surely know that the UEFA Cup won't be high on Harry Redknapp's priority list, something the manager himself was quick to point out earlier this week when he described the competition as a mere "distraction". Redknapp pointed out that "pride wants you to get there" but this admission has done little to detract from the feeling that the sides which are conventionally seen as UEFA Cup contenders don't actually care about the competition.

Compare this attitude to that of Roy Hodgson or Gianfranco Zola. Both managers know what their teams can achieve and recognise that their sides have the ambition to take on even the top sides in Europe. Zola has been a revelation since arriving at Upton Park and European qualification would be nothing short of what the football legend deserves.

Whilst the first team players currently at West Ham and Fulham may not have the wealth of experience that the players lining up week in, week out for Villa and Spurs do, this issue is beside the point, given that the managers of the latter two would probably have no intention of playing these individuals in the competition.

Fulham and West Ham may find competing in Europe a tough task and they may not progress very far. However, this is nothing for English football fans to be embarassed about. Watching an English team show ambition, hunger, and determination, rather than taking what should be regarded as an important European competition for granted, should fill us all with significantly more national pride.

So, this weekend, don't be surprised if West Ham show the grit and determination needed to overcome a tough Chelsea side revitalised under Guus Hiddink, and don't waste your next football bet backing Harry Redknapp's men to get something from Old Trafford. After all, there's really nothing for Spurs to play for, is there?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Lee intervenes in touchline saga

It was curious that Rafael Benitez decided to shun the limelight just when the world was waiting for his latest retort in response to a stinging rebuke from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson last Friday.

The feeding frenzy that has enveloped the warring managers has become as fascinating as the spat itself, so it came as something of a let down when assistant manager Sammy Lee stepped in to diffuse the situation ahead of Liverpool's Premier League game against Arsenal at Anfield on Tuesday.

Ferguson chose his FA Cup semi-final press conference to let fly with a withering attack on his Anfield counterpart, branding him arrogant, lacking in humility and showing "absolute contempt" for Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce over a 'game over' touchline gesture the Spaniard made immediately after Fernando Torres' second goal during Liverpool's 4-0 drubbing of the Ewood Park club 10 days ago.

The Scot was unrepentant when he appeared before the press on Tuesday, adding "they [Liverpool] are hurt by it [Benitez's gesture]".

Lee attempted to draw a line under the matter when he argued: "It's not for us to talk about other football clubs. We very rarely do. We try to concentrate on what's going on here and let the game take its course."

Curiously, Lee, Allardyce's former assistant at Bolton, said his former Reebok Stadium colleague had not even raised the subject when the pair enjoyed a post-match drink on Merseyside.

Then, in a staunch defence of Benitez, added: "This is not Britain's Got Talent; you don't win anything for being popular, but our manager is not arrogant. He is astute, learned, educated and his attention to detail is fantastic. We are all a bit sensitive to criticism but he knows what he is doing, why he is doing it and who he is gesticulating at!"

It is safe to assume Benitez will return to face the cameras if he, and Liverpool, have the last laugh in a compelling Premier League title race.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Chelsea set for FA Cup Final clash with Everton

This weekend's FA Cup semi-final action was criticised by football pundits for being largely uneventful and something of a let-down. However, Chelsea and Everton fans haven't been complaining after their sides knocked out Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.

The managers in charge of the losing teams have, somewhat predictably, been quick to place the blame on the poor quality of the Wembley pitch, with Sir Alex Ferguson in particular blasting the on-field conditions.

However, for the two managers who will be proudly leading their sides out on to the Wembley pitch at the end of May, the quality of the surface was not a huge concern. Guus Hiddink managed to mastermind yet another important Chelsea victory and the Blues' fans were once again left ecstatic after their team fought back from a goal down to overcome the challenge posed by an Arsenal side left crippled by some questionable decisions from Arsene Wenger.

Wenger, for reasons best known to himself, decided to leave midfield ace Arshavin on the bench for the large part of the match. When the talented Russian star was introduced, he barely had time to adjust to the pace and tempo of the game.

Taking off Adebayor and Robin van Persie, both of whom had performed below the high standard expected of top Premier League players but still displayed touches of class the side needed to turn the game on its head, are decisions which the Arsenal boss may now regret. Quite why Wenger decided to bring on Bendtner, a player who consistently disappoints, is a mystery.

However, Arsene Wenger cannot take all the blame for a Chelsea victory which was ultimately well-deserved. Didier Drogba was a handful throughout the game and Mikael Silvestre simply couldn't cope with his physical presence and technical ability.

Lukasz Fabianski proved to be a poor replacement for Manuel Almunia in goal and Abou Diaby once again showed why most football fans (including ardent Arsenal followers) laugh in disbelief when the midfielder is compared to legend of the game, Patrick Vieira.

Combine this lack of quality from Arsenal with combative midfield displays from Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, who both made up for the relatively poor performance displayed by Michael Ballack, and the result was a Chelsea win that will fill them with confidence ahead of a clash against Everton in the FA Cup final.

David Moyes should be congratulated for the role he had to play in his team's victory over United. Moyes started the mind games early by making comments about the choice of match referee and it is likely that his comments were ringing in the ears of Mike Riley when he decided to turn down a relatively strong penalty claim for United during the match on Sunday.

Either way, Everton deserved to win and Manchester United, and in particular Ferguson, deserved to lose. Ferguson's team selection smacked of arrogance and contempt, two characteristics the United boss slammed Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, for apparently possessing just last week.

Manchester United may be champions of England, Europe, and even the world, but taking the FA Cup for granted in the manner suggested by Sunday's team sheet is quite frankly unforgivable. To blame the team selection on the physical condition of the Wembley pitch, as Ferguson did after the match, is also laughable in the extreme.

So, Everton and Chelsea will meet at the end of May to battle it out in the quest to achieve glory in this famous cup competition. Chelsea are sure to be football favourites to win this one, but with David Moyes in charge of the opposition, Guus Hiddink will need to warn his men not to take anything for granted.

Ferguson and Allardyce round on Benitez

Some might call it mischief-making, others a gamble, but few would argue Sir Alex Ferguson's tirade at Rafa Benitez on Friday has added extra spice to an-already fascinating Premier League title race and simmering tension between the two managers.

What was more intriguing was that Ferguson was not alone in expressing his indignation for the Liverpool manager. Sam Allardyce, whose Blackburn side were on the receiving end of a 4-0 hammering by Benitez's Liverpool last weekend, also waded in with accusations of "disrespectful" and "quite humiliating" behaviour by the Spaniard in front of a rival manager.

The pair were pointing to an open-arm gesture made by Benitez in reaction ­to Fernando Torres' 33rd-minute header, as if to suggest "that's it, game over, job done".

Allardyce was visibly upset at his press conference having studied the footage again – and Ferguson could not hold back when pressed on the subject, accusing Benitez of "arrogance" and showing "contempt".

First, he let rip at Benitez for his ill-advised barb that Everton, United's FA Cup semi-final opponents at Wembley on Sunday, are a "small club".

Ferguson said: "Everton are a big club, not a small one which Benitez arrogantly said. But arrogance is one thing."

Then, he added: "You cannot forgive contempt, which is what he showed Sam Allardyce last weekend.

"In my experience no Liverpool manager has ever done that. It was beyond the pale."

Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have both tried, but few managers have quite managed to rattle Ferguson like Benitez has recently.

Their strained relationship dates back to Benitez's extraordinary presentation of "facts" about the United manager, who he has also described as "nervous", and the Spaniard has refused to back down while his team have maintained their impressive assault on the title race.

Ferguson has never needed a second invitation to defend his club and players, so it's a safe football bet that this latest outburst should ensure a compelling end to the season.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Who should win the PFA Player of the Year award?

This week, the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year was revealed and, in all honesty, it contained very few surprises. Manchester United dominate the list with defenders, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, keeping midfield legend Ryan Giggs company in a line-up which also boasts Cristiano Ronaldo, Edwin van der Sar, and Steven Gerrard (the only non-United player to merit inclusion).

The shortlist may have provided shocking reading had the voting not occurred prior to the beginning of United's alarming dip in form, which saw Vidic turn from hero to zero within the space of one match and Edwin van der Sar put in some uncharactertistic performances that really made him look his age.

So, who deserves to win this award? Well, firstly, let's rule out Cristiano Ronaldo. It's fair to say that he has scored some important, and spectacular, goals this season (last night's screamer against FC Porto is a fine example) but his effort levels have been questioned this season and he has gone missing on the pitch far too often during United's Premier League campaign. It seems that his mind is elsewhere and the young star should perhaps spend more time pondering his team play than he seems to spend thinking about what hair gel to use.

Ryan Giggs hasn't suffered from such problems. As ever, the dedicated professional's work ethic has been exceptional. However, handing him the award at this stage in his career would smack of nostalgia (he has never won before) and this is something that football should avoid at all costs.

Edwin van der Sar has, on the whole, been magnificent between the sticks for the Red Devils but United's impressive run of clean sheets seen in the league earlier this season had a lot to do with the resilience of the back four. Rewarding van der Sar for this run of form may therefore be detracting from what was a fine spell for the defensive unit as a whole.

So, that leaves Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard. Ferdinand has had his moments of brilliance this season and he has truly led from the back. However, in my opinion, Steven Gerrard deserves the award. He has single-handedly dragged Liverpool through matches at times, as he has in many other seasons, and the club's rise to the pinnacle of the league has been largely thanks to his talent, work ethic, and leadership on the pitch.

He is one of those players who defenders really can't afford to lose track of at any point during a game. It took a monumental effort from Chelsea midfield star, Michael Essien, to keep him quiet during the Champions League match at Anfield and the fact that tactical genius, Guus Hiddink, believed the Liverpool captain was worth man-marking proves how valuable Gerrard is as a midfield force.

If Gerrard does win the award, it is likely that Ferguson will have some complaints to make but this shouldn't detract from the fact that Liverpool's influential captain deserves recognition for his talent.

Whilst we're discussing awards, my football prediction for the winner of the PFA young player of the year award is Manchester City's talented youngster, Stephen Ireland.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Carroll confident of Magpies safety

For the large majority of Newcastle's clash against Stoke on Saturday, it seemed like the unbelievable was becoming more and more likely. Newcastle have been flirting with the relegation zone for most of the season but few have dared to believe until fairly recently that the club could start the next footballing year in the Championship.

The old 'too good to go down' saying is a dangerous one but most people took it for granted that the Magpies have enough class, history, and talent to compete with the best in the Premier League. However, the club's rapid decline has led some to believe that there is no hope left for Alan Shearer's men and a result against Stoke was desperately needed.

Newcastle didn't manage to grab the three points they needed to start to ease the fears of the anxious fans but one player, Andy Carroll, believes that the manner in which the team earned a draw late in the game could be just the thing to kick-start a much-needed revival.

The club has been criticised this season by fans and pundits alike for failing to keep faith with youngsters. The importance of young players cannot be underestimated in the Premier League. Everton and West Ham have relied heavily upon young blood this season and Manchester United would be languishing in third position in the Premier League if they didn't have the skills of a certain 17-year-old at their disposal.

Alan Shearer was keen to change this approach and so decided to put his faith in Carroll, a player who will be regarded as a hero alongside his manager if Newcastle do stay up this season.

The young player scored the equaliser for Newcastle and revealed after the match that the team "needed a break" and this break came in the form of his late goal. Carroll continued to state that the team is now confident that they can "get out of trouble" but the 20-year-old also recognises that the upcoming game against Spurs will be extremely tough.

The Premier League has been revitalised this season, with shocks and surprises coming at both ends of the table. Whilst Manchester United look to have sealed their position at the top of the league, nothing has yet been decided and football betting remains split as to who will be crowned champions and who will spend next season in the Championship.

Rare rebuke hits Ronaldo hard

Public criticism of his own players is rare, so the warning from Sir Alex Ferguson to Cristiano Ronaldo that he should cut out the histrionics should be adhered to.

The Portugal international has played the victim's card too many times for his manager's liking this season and Ferguson has ordered his star winger to stop the regular shows of petulance and play-acting.

The former Sporting Lisbon star scored a remarkable 42 goals in all competitions last season as United collected the Premier League and Champions League double, but a perceived lack of commitment and tiresome speculation about his future with the world club champions has cast a long shadow over Ronaldo this campaign.

There was audible dissent from the Old Trafford faithful against Aston Villa and FC Porto when Ronaldo was at fault for giving the ball away in the lead-up to goals and made no effort to retrieve the situations.

Ferguson protects his players like Tuesday follows Monday, so this rare public rebuke would suggest Ronaldo is no longer untouchable.

"I don't accept that he will give goals away because of the player he is," said Ferguson. "I speak to him about it. I don't accept that from anyone. In European football, if you give the ball away it takes a long time to get it back."

Ronaldo's argument that he does not get enough protection from referees also does not wash when you consider it was only recently that he admitted he would expect the same rough-house treatment from defenders in another league.Link

The 24-year-old will return to his homeland on Wednesday when United look to become the first English side to win at the Estadio do Dragao and keep alive their hopes of retaining their European crown. Football betting is currently split as to whether United will achieve their goal.

Ferguson does not subscribe to Ronaldo's theory that he gets kicked more than most and has warned the World Player of the Year he must stop challenging match officials.

"It's just a frustration that he feels he doesn't get the decision and he gets upset about it," added Ferguson. "I think, obviously, he doesn't enjoy that and he knows he's letting himself down more than anything. He holds his hands up. I have had to remind him about that but I'm not getting into what has been said."

Friday, 10 April 2009

Chelsea seal shock win at Anfield

Liverpool's recent run of form, which has seen them overcome opponents including Real Madrid and Manchester United with ease, gave Chelsea fans reason to worry before kick-off at Anfield this week in what was a crucial match for the London side hoping to banish the Champions League disappointment of last year by progressing to the semi-finals of the competition. 

Only a few minutes into the match, it seemed that Chelsea's worst nightmares were going to come true, when Liverpool went ahead. However, far from any kind of nightmarish situation becoming a reality, the wildest dreams of even the most hardcore Chelsea fan could not have come close to matching the 3-1 score line which was recorded after ninety minutes. 

Liverpool now have it all to do when the two teams meet at Stamford Bridge next week and, despite the team's fans doing all they can to conjure up memories of Istanbul and the miracle comeback that saw them clinch the Champions League after most people had written off their chances, Chelsea fans must be feeling quietly confident that they can progress to the semi-final without exerting too much effort. 

The boys in blue were tremendous on Wednesday night and their performance was one of their best for many months. The team performance was a far cry from the lacklustre displays shown under previous boss, Scolari. Hiddink has revitalised the team and individual displays of brilliance were accompanied by a fine tactical overview from the boss. 

Michael Essien in particular did a fine job keeping Steven Gerrard quiet. Prior to kick-off, many pundits had billed the match as a clash between midfield stars, Gerrard and Frank Lampard. However, Lampard's play was full of uncharacteristic mistakes and the Liverpool captain was strangely subdued. 

For Chelsea, it was Essien and new star, Ivanovic, who ran the show, whilst Drogba was a constant threat in attack. If Drogba had been wearing his shooting boots, he could have hit the back of the net three or four times. 

It seems likely that Barcelona will await Chelsea in the next round after their humiliation of Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarter-final tie. The Spanish side is on fire at the moment, with Lionel Messi in particular in scintillating form. 

For this reason, Chelsea's hopes of claiming a much-desired Champions League title have been all but written off by many sectors of the sports media. However, with Hiddink in charge and the team willing to put in the hard graft needed to succeed, don't be too quick to place your football bet going against them. 

Monday, 6 April 2009

Midfield stars could decide Champions League clash

On Wednesday night, Chelsea will travel to Anfield to meet Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie. The two teams have had significant impacts upon each other's fate in this competition over recent seasons and this year is set to be no different.

Clashes over recent years have been tight and, although Chelsea emerged victorious last year, football betting on this tie is likely to be split.

Two players who could prove decisive are England stars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Both players have been instrumental to the success of their sides this season and the individual who manages to emerge victorious in this midfield battle could subsequently lead his side to glory.

John Terry has increased the hype surrounding the Liverpool captain this week, revealing his sense of dread at coming up against the in-form midfielder. Terry, who has recently been reminded of Gerrard's talent after meeting up with him on international duty, stated that he is "one of the best players in the world" and is in frightening form for his club.

The Chelsea captain did not stop there in his praise for Liverpool. He spoke of the quality that is running throughout the side and was particularly keen to praise the "spine" of the team, which Terry believes is composed of Jose Reina, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, and Fernando Torres.

However, as always, the Chelsea defender was quick to point out the quality inherent within his own side. By comparing Steven Gerrard to Frank Lampard, Terry gave the Chelsea midfielder a public backing which will boost his confidence ahead of the vital Anfield tie.

A further boost to Lampard's ego will undoubtedly arrive after he hears about Guus Hiddink's latest comments. The Chelsea boss stated after the Newcastle match that Lampard, who is apparently a "terrific character", has the talent to stop Liverpool in their tracks. The midfielder is a "box to box player and times his runs so well".

Hiddink revealed that he knew about Lampard before he arrived at Stamford Bridge but, since his arrival, his "respect has grown even more". The midfielder was instrumental in helping Chelsea to banish the woes of their recent Spurs defeat by winning at St James' Park and the manager was keen to point out how "incredible" his recent performances have been.

With Manchester United still firm favourites to retain their Premier League crown, fans of both Liverpool and Chelsea will be hoping that their respective midfield stars can provide them with the boost they need to progress to the semi-final stage of the Champions League.

Late show seals day of drama

"Never feel sorry for an opponent until you are shaking his hand," said one Manchester United supporter in the aftermath of Sunday's five-goal thriller which saw Sir Alex Ferguson's side retain pole position from Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.

Old Trafford and drama make for easy bedfellows but not even 17-year-old substitute and debutant Federico Macheda could have imagined in his wildest dreams ending a week in which he scored a hat-trick for the reserves by coming off the bench to grab a potentially decisive late winner against Aston Villa in what proved to be a see-saw encounter.

United looked on their way when Cristiano Ronaldo smashed in an early free-kick following an unfortunate James Milner backpass which Brad Friedel handled, but the manner in which Villa responded, courtesy of a John Carew equaliser and Gabriel Agbonlahor follow-up, suggested the jitters had come back to haunt the world club champions.

Ronaldo came to the rescue with a low drive in the 80th minute to bring the home side on level terms – only for Ferguson's gamble to pay dividends when Macheda sent a sublime curling effort past the helpless Friedel in the second minute of stoppage time.

Villa were crestfallen and on another day they could have inflicted a third successive defeat on United, who were missing Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand, but Ferguson's sides down the years have proved time and again they usually go to the wire.

"Winning is the name of the game at this club," said Ferguson. "Risks are part of football and this club has been that way for a long time."

Liverpool supporters' chants of "We're going to win the league" in response to their side's late win at Fulham on Saturday could prove a tad premature.

Wayne's world requires reality check

Haunting memories of a het-up, almost psychotic, Paul Gascoigne launching into a suicidal and illogical challenge at the midriff of Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final between Tottenham and Nottingham Forest resurfaced on Wednesday when England met Ukraine in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.

Wayne Rooney, England's best player on the night, mirrored Gazza's career-defining moment of madness with an equally late and cynical tackle on Oleksandr Aliyev.

How and why the Manchester United firebrand was spared an early bath would make for a good episode of 'The X Files'.

Part of the problem is that Rooney, no longer a boy at 23, is publicly wrapped in cotton wool by his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose argument that his aggression is arguably his best attribute is as predictable as it is nonsensical.

What Ferguson says to Rooney in private is of course a different matter, although eight yellow cards and one red – against Fulham for a show of playground petulance – in all competitions already this season would suggest it goes in one ear and out of the other.

He was lucky to escape unpunished against Aalborg in the Champions League for two poor challenges and backed up his assertion that he "hates" Liverpool with arguably his worst game in United colours in the 4-1 drubbing by Rafa Benitez's men recently.

Paul Parker, who played for United for six years and won 19 England caps, playing in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany, hit the nail on the head when he said: "It frustrates me to hear his team-mates and even his manager say that that is the way he is and that you cannot take away his passion or try to change him. If you've got a wayward child, you shouldn't just accept it. You have to try to get them to control themselves and relax."

The fact that even Fabio Capello sought to justify Rooney's challenge was even more surprising when the harsh truth is that if he does not learn to tame the red mist he risks becoming an accident waiting to happen in tournament football.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Rangers right to take strong action against disgraced players

Rangers have moved quickly and decisively to strip Barry Ferguson of his captaincy and drop goalkeeper Allan McGregor after the pair's dismal behaviour whilst on international duty this week. The manager of Rangers, Walter Smith, revealed that such firm action had been taken not solely as a result of the players' initial breach of conduct (which saw them indulge in a late night drinking session) but as a result of their actions during Wednesday night's clash against Iceland.

The controversy began when it became clear that the Scottish pair had stayed up late drinking after the defeat at the hands of the Netherlands last weekend. The manager of the national team, George Burley, quite rightly decided to drop the pair to the bench for the subsequent match against Iceland.

However, rather than appearing ashamed or sorry for their behaviour, the players brought more trouble upon themselves by sitting on the bench making V-signs with their fingers. They have both been suspended for two weeks after being sent home from training earlier today and this latest controversy has put their long-term futures at the club into doubt.

This latest story is the last thing that football, as a sport, needs at the moment. High-profile footballers seem to be doing all they can to sour the reputation of the game, often appearing like pampered, spoilt little kids who think they can take the ridiculous amount of money being paid to them for granted.

Rangers are right to have taken action against the players for events which occurred whilst on international duty. Not many people in the UK, especially at the moment, believe that footballers are worthy of the wages they receive and we expect professional players to at least try to justify such financial excess by staying away from the booze and late night frolics whilst playing for their country.

Furthermore, we expect them to know that they are not above the law. If the manager drops them, they need to do all they can to prove themselves again, both on and off the pitch. The last thing they should be doing is sitting on the bench behaving like 5-year-olds.

The president of the SFA may decide to launch an investigation into the events and further Scotland players may yet become involved in this unfortunate saga. For now, Rangers must hope that new captain, David Weir, will be able to guide the club successfully for the remainder of the season but don't waste your next football bet by predicting that this kind of situation won't happen again in the near future.