Time To Right The Wrongs For Sir Alex

When Manchester United lost to Newcastle at the weekend, Sir Alex refuted the suggestions of a panic situation in the Manchester United camp. And on the face of it, the denial seems to be justified. After all, they are just 3 points off the pace in the league, still in the thick of the two-horse race for the Premier League title. But deep down Sir Alex knows that the situation is not what it should have been.

Last season, when Manchester United won the record 19th title, everyone agreed to an extent that this title was not won because of Manchester United being stronger or better, but because of the challenging teams not being up to the mark. Back then, Manchester City were not as experienced, Chelsea were going through an extremely bad patch and Arsenal were in shambles as usual. The shortcomings of their squad were rather cruelly highlighted in the Champions League final at Wembley where they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona. It was clearly evident that midfield reinforcements were required post Paul Scholes’ retirement. Somehow, Sir Alex chose not to invest in the midfield position and decided to go the Wenger way of promoting youth. A choice not turning out to be a wise one at the moment.

After Paul Scholes’ retirement and Darren Fletcher’s forced exile from football, Sir Alex opted for the central midfield pairing of Tom Cleverly and Anderson. Although the pair worked well in the opening matches, injuries have caused a rather precarious midfielder shortage at the club, a situation which ideally should have been handled in the summer transfer window itself. Had United completed the signings of a proper central midfielder and a defensive midfielder instead of signing a winger and a defender, their position might have been much stronger.

The winter transfer window presents the perfect opportunity for Sir Alex, to correct these mistakes. First and foremost United need to buy a proper defensive midfielder. Carrick’s failed auditions in this position should signal a move for Danielle De Rossi. Although people may argue that Phil Jones seems more than capable of playing as a central midfielder, he is first and foremost a central defender and should be seen as a long term replacement for Rio Ferdinand rather than Roy Keane’s reincarnation. Central Attacking midfield is a position where United can afford to risk not buying a player. With Tom Cleverly returning from injury, this position can be taken care of. Also Wayne Rooney may also enjoy playing in this position as it will allow him a greater chance to roam across the pitch and pick holes in opposition defence. Next up, a left back. Patrice Evra has been distinctly average for a couple of seasons now and his deputies, Da Silva twins are more often than not in the treatment room. United needs to buy a good solid left back and ask Patrice Evra to move on. Leighton Baines, anyone.

Recent return of Paul Scholes to the squad can at best be described as a move to paper over the cracks. He still has the awareness and vision, if not the legs to compete at the highest level. He managed to complete 71 passes while playing just 35 minutes during his return to the pitch against Manchester City, i.e. more passes than any other player on the pitch during the entire game. But if he found it hard to complete 90 minutes during the last season, it is debatable how he could cope with it this time around.

At the time of writing this article Sir Alex has rejected the idea of signing any player during the winter transfer window, a decision which might backfire in case of any further injuries to Phil Jones or Carrick. The squad is threadbare at the moment and Paul Scholes will certainly not solve the problem. Maybe Sneijder or De Rossi will.

 

The Convenience Of Neglecting Stoke

Every year the most interesting discussions about the Premier League revolve around the Champions League Places, the relegation battle and Liverpool’s continued failures to reaffirm their status as one of Premier League favourites. Amongst all these discussions, it is sometimes safely assumed that the mid table will most surely be filled by the Aston Villas, Fulhams and Evertons of the league. And more often than not, this used to be a correct prediction as well. But this year, a cursory look at the mid table will suggest a significant change in the proceedings. Stoke City are sitting 8th in the table, just a point behind 7th placed Newcastle and 4 points above 9th placed Norwich City.

When Stoke got promoted to the Premier League in 2008-09 season, every football pundit tipped them to be relegated in their first season back in top flight. Three years past, Stoke are sitting comfortably in mid table and are in the last 32 of the Europa League. Over these three years Stoke’s style of play has evolved from being brutally physical to being reliant on wing play and using set pieces wisely. Agreed that their style of play is still overly physical, especially while at set pieces, no one can argue that the other facets of their game have improved considerably. But while opposition managers can continue to harp on them for  using rugby tactics, it can be simply nullified by countering that it is a style of play nonetheless. It is clear that Tony Pulis and his squad realises that they cannot play the game with as much technical astuteness as say Arsenal or Tottenham, so,  they have mastered their very own style, of dominating aerial battles and sharp counter attacks.

It is hard to argue that Stoke’s current position in the Premier League is a misleading statistic. Under Tony Pulis, the club has gone from strength to strength each season, reaching the FA cup final in 2010-11 season and qualifying for the Europa League in the same year. This season, the squad is even stronger with shrewd signings of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Jonathan Woodgate, while retaining the usual suspects Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Matthew Etherington and Rory Delap.

This season, Stoke have held Chelsea and Manchester United to draws at home, while defeating Liverpool and Tottenham at home as well. Their away form has not been as good as their home form, but that can be attributed to the fatigue caused by midweek Europa games as well. Still with the position that they are in the Premier League and Europa League, they would be more than satisfied with what they have achieved so far.

When Andy Gray said last year that Barcelona would suffer on a cold night at the Britannia, he was laughed and ridiculed. A year later, Stoke are getting ready to invite Barcelona’s challengers Valencia to the Britannia stadium. Is it the same as facing Barcelona? No. But is it a step in the right direction? Probably yes.

Comparing The Bench Strength Of the Top 6 Premier League Clubs

As the Premier League heads into the busy festive period, all the teams in the league are scheduled to play almost twice every week. Although this can be a treat for the fans, it is more often than not, a headache for most managers due to injury and exhaustion concerns. Couple this busy festive period with the impending African Cup of Nations, and the need for a strong squad is felt more than ever. A good bench can save the managers of this dilemma, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

As six teams: Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, battle it out for the League title and Champions League spots, let’s take a look at the bench strength of these teams.

Manchester City
Manchester City

Bench: Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson/Nigel De Jong, Alexander Kolarov, Kolo Toure, James Milner

Manchester City, the firm favourites for the title, boasts of a bench which has players which can walk into the starting 11 of any other Premier League team. Such has been the amount of investment in the squad that City will have no problems heading into the tight fixture list. Strong competition for places can be a double edged sword as, though it can bring the best out of players to push their claim for a starting 11 spot, it can also lead to dissatisfaction due to lack of playing time. However, with the success that City is enjoying, it will be foolish to jump ships at this juncture.

Manchester United
Manchester United

Bench: Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji Sung/Ashley Young, Fabio/Rafael

Pretty much like Manchester City, Manchester United also boasts of a world class bench. However, lack of playing time is not a concern for these players as Sir Alex has been rampant this season with his rotation policy, even rotating his goalkeepers at times. United also won’t have problems with the African Cup of Nations as they will only lose Antonio Valencia from their starting 11. United traditionally have always performed better after the Christmas interval, and with the bench strength that they have, it is hard to argue against the idea of them not doing it again.

Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur

Bench: Niko Krankjar, Steven Piennar, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Sebastian Bassong, Sandro/Tom Huddlestone

Tottenham have arguably the weakest bench among the top four at the moment, but with the motivation of pushing for a third place, the players coming off the bench are also putting in better than decent performances. Spurs have effective backups for all the positions on the pitch, but lack a game changer in their ranks, unlike City and United.

Chelsea
Chelsea

Bench: Fernando Torres, Florent Malouda, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz/Paulo Ferreira, John Obi Mikel

Similar to United, Chelsea also have a strong rotation policy but that seems to have been dumped at the moment due to the tough times that the club faced in the recent weeks. Chelsea have a host of top class players to choose from the bench, capable of making an impact whenever they are on the pitch. They are lucky not to be facing an injury crisis at present and are only poised to lose Mikel to the African Cup of Nations.

Arsenal
Arsenal

Bench: Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun, Ignasi Miquel, Tomas Rosicky/Emmanuel Frimpong/Francis Coquelin

Arsenal are currently serving their customary defensive injury crisis that hits them at this point of time every season. With all four full backs out, Arsene Wenger is having to field four central defenders at the back four. They are also likely to be hit hard by the AFCON as they will lose Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho during this period. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Park Chu Young and Ryo Miyaichi are most likely to be introduced to the bench in the coming weeks.

Liverpool
Liverpool

Bench: Andy Carroll, Jamie Carragher, Jonjo Shelvey/Jay Spearing, Dirk Kuyt/Maxi Rodriguez, Martin Kelly

Liverpool too have a strong enough bench but are a little inexperienced when compared to their rivals in this regard. With Lucas Leiva injured for the rest of the season and Luis Suarez set to serve his 8 match ban, Kenny Dalglish will be forced to rotate his central midfielders and strikers, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem as Dalglish would most probably use Jordan Henderson and Craig Bellamy in these positions.

P.S. – The list above does not take into consideration the goalkeepers of respective teams and lists only the most probable bench line-ups.

Why David Villa’s Injury Can Be A Blessing In Disguise For Spanish Strikers

David Villa and Barcelona suffered a major setback at the Club World Cup in Japan this week when the striker suffered a broken leg that can keep him out of action for a minimum of five months. Although the striker is expected to recover before Euro 2012, but doubts will still remain regarding his match fitness.

Any injury is sad, but this one can prove to be a blessing in disguise for the other Spanish strikers who now have to force themselves into Vincent Del Bosque’s reckoning for a starting place at the Euros. Before Fernando Torres’ woeful loss of form, the front of Spain’s 4-4-1-1 would usually be made up of Villa and Torres. However, because of Torres’ failure to recapture his goalscoring mojo, Del Bosque has made changes to his plans by moving Villa in the middle, flanked by two attacking midfielders or wingers.  Now with David Villa seemingly out of the equation, the central striking position is up for grabs. Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente, Roberto Soldado and Pedro are the players who will be licking their lips at this chance.

Torres-Llorente-Soldado-Pedro
Torres-Llorente-Soldado-Pedro

Amongst the four names mentioned above, Fernando Torres remains the most high profile name and will probably make the cut, but seriously needs to start putting in more effort to get over his lack of confidence. The Chelsea striker has struggled to get going at Stamford Bridge since his mega money move from Liverpool, and has now fallen down the pecking order under Didier Drogba. If Torres wants the starting spot at the Euros he needs to make the most of the chances that come his way at Chelsea.

Fernando Llorente is not a player in the typical Spanish tiki-taka mould, but adds a different sort of attacking threat to Spain’s play when “Plan A” fails. Llorente is more like a typical English centre forward, able to bully the defenders with his height and strength advantage. The Athletic Bilbao striker will definitely be on the flight to Polkraine, but is more likely to appear as a substitute rather than a starter.

Roberto Soldado has been banging in the goals this season at Valencia, but has failed to reproduce that form at the international level whenever he has had the chances. If Del Bosque picks players based on form, Soldado has to be the first player on the list. Meanwhile, Pedro has also been going on quietly at Barcelona. He has seen his playing time reduced due to the arrivals of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. Pedro would certainly like to have that changed if he wants to go to the Euros and is certainly a handy option to have because of his work rate and technical ability.

All these players will probably make the cut along with David Villa himself, but have a mountain to climb if they want to nail down the starting berth at the Euros. If Villa regains his fitness and form before the tournament, their chances get reduced considerably, but his injury has also opened a window of hope that they will exploit to the maximum.

Premier League : Top Ten Unsung Heroes

10.) Ramires – All stories surrounding Chelsea’s season so far have been around Villas Boas, their defense, Daniel Sturridge, Torres v/s Drogba and Frank Lampard. Amongst all this, the contributions of Ramires have rather gone unnoticed. Ramires is the epitome of a Box-To-Box midfielder as his athletic forward runs have caused problems for all Premier League defenders, creating space for Juan Mata to flourish.

09.) Charlie Adam – Luis Suarez continues to be Liverpool’s most charismatic player both on and off the pitch. So much has been said about the Uruguayan, that it has completely lifted the spotlight off Charlie Adam. Goals may have dried up recently for the Scotsman, but it is his intelligent distribution in midfield that keeps Liverpool’s play ticking through the 90 minutes.

08.) Yohan Cabaye – Cabaye covered 10.3 kms during his match against Chelsea, and this is a common feature if you happen to follow Newcastle’s statistics. His distribution and set play deliveries have started many a Newcastle attacks this season and his partnership with Cheikh Tiote in the middle lays the platform for a solid midfield. Too bad though, Tiote gets all the credit.

07.) Aaron Lennon – Tottenham are the best counter attacking unit in the Premier League at the moment owing to their lightning fast wingers: Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Bale’s performance against Inter Milan in last season’s Champions League still hovers in the minds of the fans and media alike, and this results in him getting all the attention. Lennon’s surging forward runs however, are still struggling to find suitors.

06.) Chris Smalling – Phil Jones is Manchester United’s darling at the moment, as Sir Alex continues on his mission to make a John O’Shea out of him. Jones’ attack mindedness shifts the focus from Chris Smalling who continues to be quietly efficient in his defensive roles. Aside from the horror show against Basel, the 21 year old has put in solid, if unspectacular, performances so far this season.

05.) Wes Brown – Sunderland’s season hasn’t so far picked up pace as expected. Seb Larrson’s world class set plays have been the only source of respite for the Sunderland fans but if an observer shifts focus to their defense it isn’t very difficult to pick out the best player of the lot. Wes Brown was shown the exit door from United as he fell down the pecking order, but his performances this season have given enough evidence that he is at least better than Johnny Evans.

04.) Laurent Koscielny – There is a sea of difference between what a player Lauren Koscielny was and what he is now, in his first two seasons at Arsenal. The Frenchman was perhaps the only defender who could have held his head high, especially after the treatment Arsenal received in the early part of the season. Thomas Vermaelen is unequivocally regarded as Arsenal’s best defender, but Koscielny certainly isn’t too far off.

03.) Danny Murphy – Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele have been Fulham’s goal scoring outlets this season, but Danny Murphy’s unerring passing routine hasn’t got the credit it deserves. The former Liverpool player has put up delightful displays of long passing against Liverpool and Arsenal this season, matches in which neutrals didn’t give Fulham a chance. Like Charlie Adam and Yohan Cabaye, his performances are only spoken of when people are tired of speaking about their goal scoring heroes.

02.) Joe Allen – Till the match against Liverpool, Joe Allen had a pass success rate of 90%. Ninety percent. Agreed that Swansea’s midfield play Barcelona-esque short passes but to achieve that sort of pass completion rate is staggering. Michel Vorm has been garnering praises for Swansea this season for his goal saving heroics, but in Joe Allen, they have a player, about whom they should really be talking about.

01.) Alex Song – To summarize Alex Song’s importance to Arsenal, let’s just take a quick look at the matches that he didn’t feature in this season: Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea and Olympiakos. Arsenal lost 3 out of these four matches. So much of the spotlight is on Robin Van Persie this season, that almost the entire Arsenal first team could have been put on this list, but it is the Cameroonian who is the most vital cog in Arsenal’s midfield, but still goes unnoticed.

Crisis Averted For Chelsea, But Sterner Tests Await Villas-Boas

Chelsea somehow managed to come out unharmed from a suicidal pit that they dug for themselves. If there were doubts being raised over Chelsea’s qualification in the Champions League, they answered their critics in some fashion. Andre Villas Boas finally seems to have found a stable and working solution for his striking problems, as Didier Drogba put in a vintage performance to make sure that the fans miss him when he finally leaves at the end of the season.

  Drogs & Boas
Drogs & Boas

As relieving as the victory might have been, and Villas Boas’ post match interview clearly indicated relief, there are still some issues that need to be addressed to make sure that a stylish victory to ensure qualification is not a false bliss. Chelsea managed an extremely lucky victory this weekend against Newcastle, and although the scoreline read 3-0, it could have been very different had David Luiz been sent off in the 4th minute and Newcastle’s three shots that hit the post would have gone in. But, since no sport derives points from a case of Ifs and Buts, Chelsea’s victory can not be taken away from them. There are some definite positives and some glaring negatives that can be derived from these two victories.

Among the positives, Villas Boas has finally learnt from his mistakes and realised that the high backline that worked so well at Porto isn’t going to cut in at Chelsea, at least with the players that he has at his disposal. In both the matches Chelsea played with a deeper backline, so even though there were defensive lapses, the players did not have to make up ground to cover the attacking player. Secondly, Villas Boas finally seems to have found out the striking combination that works. Didier Drogba might leave next summer, but there is no lack of commitment from his part. Daniel Sturridge was absolutely frightening against Newcastle at the weekend, wrecking havoc every time he cut inside from the right hand side. He is definitely the future of the English national team, with the only thing that needs to be adjusted – his attitude.

For the negatives, David Luiz still plays like he is being controlled using a playstation controller by a 10-year-old kid (Gary Neville said so). Frank Lampard and Mr. Chelsea – John Terry, still control the Chelsea locker room, with the latter deemed almost untouchable, however poor the performance may be. For example, against Newcastle, John Terry made a goal line clearance. As heroic as it may sound, a point can be made that his lack of positioning in the first place forced him to make the goal line clearance. A misfiring Fernando Torres is a concern as well, as Abramovich certainly did not spend 50 million pounds to keep him on the bench. Villas Boas needs to feed him some confidence and get him up, running and scoring to keep the Boss happy.

As delighted as Chelsea fans may be, because of these twin victories, they need to look no further than the weekend. Manchester City. A victory against the Citizens can certainly spur the Blues to push for the title but a defeat can be equally demoralising, especially after such a monumental week. Villas Boas and Chelsea are safe for now, but one wrong turn at this juncture can steer the club towards a downhill spiral and as everyone including Villas Boas knows, Roman doesn’t tolerate that.

Soccer Tricks For Dummies

What’s that one moment in a football match that makes you sit up and take notice. Is it a long range goal, or a team goal coming at the end of 20 odd passes. Or is it some stunning piece of skill that leaves the opposition player for dead. Or should I say a dribble. Throughout the years, the most succesful players have also been the ones who are good dribblers. After all, if you can create space for yourself by fooling your opponent and then have considerable time and space to pick a pass, you are always going to be better than the ones who can’t do it. This article focusses on the different dribbling techniques, which enable these players to be called  genius. The below techniques are one of the most basic techniques used by footballers and does not take into account bizzare trickery from the likes of Ronaldinho or Henry.

 
1.) The Stepover – This is one of the most common dribbling techniques. In fact, it is so common now that defenders aren’t even fooled by this one. Still, if done at a quick pace, can leave a defender unsure as to which way the ball is going to end up. Basically the technique involves stepping over the ball multiple times without actually touching it. Over the years, players such as Robinho and Cristiano Ronaldo have perfected the technique, causing headaches for the defenders.


2.) The Roulette – Perhaps the most difficult trick amongst all. The player performing the trick stops the ball with one foot, puts the other foot over it, turns his body a full circle against the ball and uses the placed foot to turn the ball back into his way, all this within a couple of seconds. Zinedine Zidane and Juan Roman Riquelme were the players who could do it with effortless ease, sometimes performing a double roulette in one fluid motion.


3.) The Shoulder Feint – Perhaps the easiest trick to do. Drop your shoulder to one direction pretending that you are going to go that way, and when the defender is committed to that direction, swiftly change your direction to the other. It is a simple trick used by most players with varying degree of success.


4.) The Cryuff Turn – Invented by the inventor of Total Football, the Dutch master Johann Cryuff, it is a simple but extremely effective trick. This is perhaps the only trick which can be done either while running with the ball, or while receiving it. Fake a shot, but instead of shooting the ball, turn the ball the other way using the inside of your foot.


5.)  The Nutmeg – This is one technique which looks extremely simple, but at the same time, is extremely hard to master. Timing is everything in this technique as the player has to put the ball through the opposition player’s legs.


6.) The Elastico/Flip Flap – The coolest trick of them all. This one is bound to fool the opponent. In one single motion, the player takes a faint touch to one direction, puts the foot outside the ball and drags it to the opposite side. Ronaldinho and Zidane were the ones who could do it with unerring consistency and style.

 

Honorable mentions : The Rabona, Backheel pass

Is Wayne Rooney the Answer to United’s Midfield Conundrum

Ever since Paul Scholes decided to hang up his boots, questions about his successor have surrounded Sir Alex and Manchester United. Having tried Cleverly, Anderson, Giggs, Carrick and Fletcher in central midfield, Sir Alex is clearly not very confident in the choices he has in the middle of the park.  The latest name to be used in the much talked about position is Wayne Rooney. Rooney has started three matches in central midfield in a row for United now, with United winning all three of them. But Sir Alex can not rely upon Rooney to carry on in midfield for the rest of the season as it is clearly not his most favoured position.

Under Sir Alex, Rooney has transformed from being a child prodigy at Everton, to one of the most talented and most feared forwards in the world. And that is where he should be used

As such Rooney is not a typical number 9 in the mould of someone like Fernando Torres. He often drops deep in search for the ball and is not afraid to put in a shift every single match.  He has the ability to play quick one-twos with accompanying players,as on display in this goal.

He is also perhaps one of the top five long passers in the league at the moment. All these points suggest that he can play in central midfield and in Scholes’ position to be more specific. A player of Rooney’s calibre and commitment can certainly do so and he will do it, but shouldn’t.

One of the reasons is that it disturbs the balance of the team. No other player in the team, except Dimitar Berbatov is capable of playing as a lone frontman. However, with Sir Alex turning a blind eye towards the Bulgarian, he is left with Welbeck, Chicharito, Macheda, Owen and Mame Biram Diouf, in that order. None of these players has displayed the ability to play as a lone striker so far this season. The above point has been on display in the past three matches where United have scored just four goals with two of them being penalties and one being an own goal. Welbeck is a tireless runner but also looks a little out of ideas in tight situations. Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez has world class movement and poaching abilities but his link up play in and around the box leaves a lot to be desired. Macheda, Owen and Diouf have hardly featured this season in the league and would find their chances limited against such a stacked forward line.

The second reason being Rooney’s temperament. Although he wears his heart on his sleeve whenever he steps on the field for United, he has also had a bad behavioural streak throughout the years. It wouldn’t take much to flip his mood and Rooney in a bad frame of mind can be a menace for both the opposition and United as well. Can it turn out to be the latter, likely because over the years Rooney has shown inability to handle off field pressures and his performances have dipped whenever he has been involved in a controversy.
It can ultimately turn out to be a stop-gap solution by Sir Alex, but isn’t proving to be a master stroke at present. United probably should have signed a proper central midfielder during the summer transfer window and probably will do it during the winter window. But Sir Alex, being the keen team builder that he is should have thought and considered this situation before rolling the dice. With Wesley Sneijder looking out of reach now, it is perhaps up to Sir Alex and Rooney to sort out the situation.

With Manchester Clubs leading the pack, who will qualify for the other Champions League Places

Why they will

  • Arsene Wenger – The Frenchman is currently his 15th year as the manager of Arsenal, securing them Champion’s League qualification in 14 consecutive seasons, a feat unachievable for most of his contemporary managers. Even though Wenger does not have the same quality of players that he has had over the years, the Frenchman has enough experience to guide the ship through.
  • Robin Van Persie – RvP, as the fans call him, has been in breathtaking form for the Gunners this season and possibly the only truly World Class player left in the squad. If Arsenal aspire to win any kind of silverware this season they need to keep Van Persie fit throughout the season, which is a big task in itself, given the injury record of the Dutchman.
  • Team spirit – Arsenal are showing signs that they are finally through the tumultuous period of negativity that encapsulated the team at the start of the season. It is said that a man comes out stronger from times of adversity and Arsenal seem to be an example of that. The team looks far more closely knit than the previous season and it seems like the players have taken it upon themselves to prove the doubters wrong.
Why they won’t
  • Inexperience – Although Arsene Wenger went against his policy to sign older and experienced players this summer, Arsenal are still far from the finished product. Of the latest recruits Andre Santos has barely played in the Champions league while he was at Fenerbahce, while similar things can be pointed out against Yossi Benayoun and Per Mertesacker. Mikel Arteta has never had any experience in the competition. The rest of the squad has matured as compared to the previous seasons but still have an element of naivety in them.
  • Lack of quality – No matter how good the manager or the team spirit is, this Arsenal team clearly lacks the quality that has been Arsenal’s symbol over the years. The team boasts of only one name that can walk into any team in the world and that person is Robin Van Persie. Rest of the players, although talented, are not in the same bracket.
Why they will
  • Experienced squad – The current Chelsea team boasts of players such as John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole etc. who can be regarded as stalwarts of the competition. Add to that list Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Alex and Essien and on paper they look like World Beaters.
  • Andre Villas Boas – Though Chelsea have faced a few torrid weeks over the past month, there can be no doubt that they are playing some of the best football in recent years. This is because of the new style of play introduced by their young manager Andre Villas-Boas. He has brought back a sort of dynamism to the Chelsea sidelines that was missing since the Mourinho era. His passion alone  is enough to spur players to perform better on the field.
  • Juan Mata – To single out one player is a bit of a hyperbole, but Juan Mata has proved to be the player that they had been missing since Gianfranco Zola. The Spaniard is capable of playing anywhere in midfield and has single handedly changed the way Chelsea pass the ball around the box. Chelsea need him to continue playing this way to ensure safe passage to the qualification round.
Why they won’t
  • Aging squad – This is somewhat contradictory to the above point, but the players pointed out above are all in their  early thirties. While there is no supplement for experience, there also isn’t one for speed. All these players have lost a yard of pace over the years and the midfield and defense looks terribly out of sorts against counter attacks. This was evident against Arsenal recently when they were defeated 5-3.
  • Fernando Torres – Roman Abramovich signed the Spaniard for 50 million pounds last season who has flattered to deceive so far. What proved to be the tipping point for Carlo Ancelotti, might prove to be the same for Villas-Boas as well.
  • Problems in defense – John Terry is susceptible to counter attacks, Bosingwa is a winger rather than a full back, Ivanovic has one customary dozing period per game, Petr Cech is no longer impenetrable, David Luiz has the style but not the game. Do I need to say more.
Why they will
  • Steven Gerrard – Liverpool’s talisman has been missing for the best part of the last one year, but is slated to make a return to the field within 2-3 week’s time. Gerrard’s presence brings a sort of flair to the midfield that is sorely missed in his absence. His ability to inspire his team to wins from unthinkable positions has contributed to cult status among the fans, who also seem to be at their best when their hero is playing for them.
  • Luis Suarez – The Uruguayan striker has arguably the best off-the-ball movement in the entire league. His ability to stretch play and drag defenders out of position has led to numerous chances for Liverpool this season. Gerrard’s return can help create a fruitful fulcrum for Liverpool ala the Torres days. If only Suarez could avoid unnecessary attention for his on field antics.
  • The Itch – Liverpool haven’t been part of the Champions League for three seasons now which is really uncharacteristic for the Merseyside club. The 2005 champions were one of the ever-present teams of the league till 2008, but have taken steps backwards since. The players and fans are desperate to return to the competition after their 3 year hiatus.
Why they won’t
  • Poor signings – While Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson all came with hefty price tags, none of them have so far fulfilled the promise that was expected of them. Andy Carroll moves like a wooden toy on the field while Henderson is being played out of position on the right flank. Frankly, more was expected of these players and they need to deliver fast.
  • Over reliance on Luis Suarez – The Uruguayan is comfortable either playing as the lone striker or as a second striker,  but  too much of Liverpool’s play seems to go through him. Mark him tightly and you have a fair chance that you can obtain a result out of the game.
  • King Kenny – Kenny Dalglish may be a legend at the club but that also has lent an air of complacency to the Scotsman’s demeanor. It is imperative that Kenny doesn’t take his position for granted and continues to better the team.
Why they will
  • Super fast football – Tottenham are arguably playing the best football in the league at the moment. The combination of quick passing and super fast wingers is proving to be too much for opposition teams to handle. Add to that the movement and guile of Rafael Van der Vaart upfront and you have a lethal mixture of pace and creativity.
  • Solid defense – For all that Spurs have going forward, the players upfront have the assurances that they have a solid defense at the back. Ledley King maybe a medical marvel but his game is good enough to add an air of calm and assurance to the Spurs rearguard. Willliam Gallas, Benoit Assou-Ekkotto and Younes Kaboul are more than able backups. Kyle Walker is one of the brightest young full backs in the game.
  • Hunger – Having tasted the sweet taste of Champions League in the previous season, the Tottenham players are eager to impress on the bigger stage once again. But they have to be cautious this time as over ambitiousness can only lead to downfall.
Why they won’t
  • Egos – Emmanuel Adebayor maybe one of the most moody players in the game, but he does have an ever-present ego. The Togolese international has had a history of tussles at his former clubs and is a whisker away from controversy all the time. Recently, Gareth Bale has also started showing Cristiano Ronaldo-esque tantrums on pitch, something never admired in the locker room.
  • Chelsea and Luka Modric – Luka Modric’s performances have attracted the likes of Chelsea, where Villas-Boas considers him as the alternative to Frank Lampard. The Blues have had a bid turned down during the summer transfer window but can certainly come knocking back during the winter. The summer saga affected the Croatian’s performance at the start of the season, something which Spurs can not afford during mid-season.
Why they can
  • Sticking to a plan – Alan Pardew has sensibly inculcated a system at Newcastle this season, that sees them play a very fluid 4-4-2 formation. Their first 11 had remained unchanged through the first 10 matches of the  season, giving them a consistency, missed by most teams.
  • Mean defense – Fabricio Coloccini and company have let in only 8 goals so far this season, lesser than top ranked Manchester City. Between the posts, Tim Krul is pulling off super human saves one after the other.
Why they won’t
  • Its just a bubble – While Newcastle deserve praise for their performance so far, even the most ardent fans will accept that it can prove no more than a bubble. The club is punching above its weight at the moment, but doesn’t have enough players of experience and quality to sustain the momentum.
  • African Cup Of Nations – The African Cup of Nations is scheduled to be held between December-January, a period when most of the teams lose their African players due to national commitments. Newcastle’s most effective players this season have been Demba Ba and Cheik Tiote, both of whom will be unavailable during this period.

One-Man-Team jibes don’t suit Arsenal

Over the last few weeks, Arsenal have been on an incredible run of games, now winning 7 out of their last 8 matches in all competitions. I say its incredible because no one was giving them a chance to recover from their early season form and lack of world-class players. How they have turned the tide is a testimony to the resolve, commitment and rise of a new fighting spirit in this squad.

The media always seems to be on Arsenal’s back, finding reason after reason to launch accusations or ridicule towards the club. The latest one being, labelling Arsenal as a one man team. Much of Arsenal’s renaissance has to be attributed to Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman has been in scintillating form this season, having bagged 10 goals in the league and an additional 2 in Europe. While it is true that Arsenal depend heavily on  Van Persie  to score goals, calling Arsenal as a one man team is going too far. Van Persie has been scoring crucial goals for Arsenal this season, most notable being the brace against Sunderland, but underrated players like Arteta, Ramsey and Gervinho et al. have not been getting the attention that they deserve.

In my last post I praised Arteta for being consistent, while hoping for  Aaron Ramsey to finally deliver upon the promise, and he seems to have taken note of it : ). The Welshman has now provided two assists in the last two games both of them being of the highest quality. Elsewhere, Gervinho has suitably filled the gap left by Samir Nasri. The Ivorian is a tricky footballer to defend against because he always has a step over waiting for you. Against Chelsea, he effortlessly went past Bosingwa on multiple occasions as the Portugal international seemed confused as to when to tackle him. What this does is create space and time for the central midfielders to make late runs into the box. Also, Theo Walcott produced a good performance on the right-wing, putting in pin-point crosses  in the first half from which both Gervinho and Van Persie should have scored. Nonetheless, Walcott’s goal was just the reward that he deserved on the afternoon. The defending has always been appalling from Arsenal and will continue to be so, until Wenger changes his tactics of defending with a high backline. Against Chelsea, they were ripped apart in the opening 10 minutes because of the high backline, but were fortunate enough not to concede any goals. Only Laurent Koscielny has performed consistently at the back, and is proving to be an absolute rock at the heart of the defence. Koscielny is another player who has not been getting any attention, maybe because of the reason that he is a quiet lad and not a goal getter like Thomas Vermaelen.

One reason for Robin Van Persie’s scorching form maybe the reason that Arsenal have started playing a far more direct game as compared to the slow build up game, which was Arsenal’s trademark during the Fabregas era. This can prove to be a good platform for someone like Walcott as well, as he can be absolutely lethal with a sharp early ball played behind the defenders.

Every team has players around which the entire team is built. Manchester United had the Beckham era, the Ronaldo era and now the Rooney era. So have Arsenal had the Viera era, Henry era and the Fabregas era. Perhaps, they are now entering the Van Persie era and the Dutchman absolutely deserves the recognition. But in the process, due recognition and acclaim is also deserved by his teammates, who have shown tremendous heart to have comeback from the position they were in.