What a strange weekend of football. On Sunday there were two surreal matches, one in England, and one in Italy. In England, Liverpool hosted Chelsea, and in Italy, Lazio played host to Inter. In both matches the home fans wanted their team to loss, although both got their wish, there was only one where the team agreed with the fans.

Lazio’s fans may have jeered and booed whenever their team attacked or the keeper made a save, they were determined that Roma were not going to win the league, and so happily favoured an Inter win over their team, but there was a difference to what was happening in Liverpool – the players still tried.

From the moment the Liverpool Chelsea match kicked off the viewers were treated to a limp, lifeless and really shameful performance from Liverpool. They wouldn’t make any tackles, stood off the Chelsea players, inviting them to attack, and refused to go at anything other than a jog. Chelsea fared little better, looking as nervous as they had in losing to Spurs a few weeks earlier. They were there for the taking, and until Steven Gerrard gave them an opening goal Liverpool could have easily sprung into action and had them. If they wanted too – clearly they didn’t.

Obviously Liverpool fans will protest that their was nothing sinister or underhanded in Gerrards pass to Drogba. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the truth is would he have been that reckless, careless and irresponsible, had he been concentrating? If he cared? I doubt it. It was the attitude of the players that was alarming.

There can be two things drawn from this. Either they, like the fans, did not want to allow United to win a 19th league title, or they were determined to get rid of the manager. Both are favourite now, so which ever it was they will get their wish. Rafa should be on his way, probably to Juventus, and Chelsea have one hand on the league.

Whoever takes over at Liverpool next year should be alarmed and disgusted by the unprofessionalism of the players, and the loss of integrity they’ve given to the game. They’ve done themselves, their club and the game a disservice. unfortunately I doubt they realise and sadly I don’t think they even care.


At Last Spurs Rise


Each year I predict that Spurs would be the team to crack the top four, and while many have opined that Arsenal would be the team to lose out at the expense of their North London rivals, I always felt it would be Liverpool losing out. Now finally that looks to be on the cards.

Last season Liverpool pushed United to the title. Much was expected of them this season. Many, admittedly within the camp and their fan base, felt this would be there year. That proved to be far from the truth. What we have seen this season is that Liverpools title challenge last season was a once off surprise and not the dawning of a new period of success. They are a team with not enough quality and over reliant on the little that they do have. While many would suggest that Rafa is a genius, this stems solely from the Champions League success of his first season. A success born from an inherited squad. It’s what has happened since that has been the problem. They have stagnated as a top four club and this seasons decline has been a long time coming. It’s fine to turn up for a couple of big games a season but it’s the 30 odd other games that win you titles.

By contrast Spurs have been on the verge of breaking into the top 4 for years. That they haven’t has been mostly down to their form against the big teams where they have flattered to deceive time and again. Not so now. This last week they have beaten both Arsenal and Chelsea and travel to United on Saturday to try to make it 3 in a row. It’s a remarkable record at the business end of the season. While they have steadily build their squad they have had to compete with the shift in power that has seen Manchester City splash the cash to compete for 4th place. In the penultimate weekend these two will battle it out for what should be a winner takes all 4th place play off.

The number of English, and British players, in the Spurs squad must be a factor in their rise. King, Dawson, Jenas, Defoe, Crouch and Bale, supplemented by some foreign flair and experience is a better recipe than Rafa’s bit part foreign mercenaries.It’s meant that there is less time needed for players to adapt and get to grips with both the team and the league. The relatively smaller squad to that of United and Chelsea has meant that they’ve had to persist with the likes of Gomez in goal, who had a nightmare start to his career at Spurs, and Roman Pav has had to remain with them, and is now coming good.

With the right investment, and there is little room for error, they can sustain their push next season. They’ll have to find a blueprint that would take them to the next level and not follow Liverpool path. Next seasons race for 4th, with Spurs, City, Liverpool, Villa and Everton all comepeting promises to be one of the most intense yet.

The Case of Berbatov


Ask  any top footballer and chances are you’ll be told that Dimitar Berbatov is a great footballer. Ask any Spurs fan and they’ll probably tell you he’s a prat (anyone who leaves usually is) but they’ll say he was a world class forward. Ask a United fan and you’ll get differing views. So what do we make of the enigmatic Bulgarian?

As much as United have failed to see the best of him, or anywhere near the best of him, there is little doubt that he is a great forward. But why have United not seen this? In Germany he was impressive. At Spurs he was magical. At United he’s been a 30m flop. And is that the reason? £31m is closer to the exact figure and it made him United’s most expensive player. That comes with a lot of expectation. Expectation is just that – it is not always delivered. At Spurs he formed a dangerous partnership with Robbie Keane. They both left Spurs and have not been as dangerous since. Was the partnership one made in heaven? The stats sure make it look so. They formed the perfect foil, Berbatov the energy conserving, wonderful touch player, with keane the energetic, unorthodox forward. They both like to come deep, but in different ways. keane hurries back, rushing at the defence to regain possession. Berbatov waits in open space and looks to unlock defenses. They both scored goals too.

At United Berbatov arrived when Tevez and Rooney were the front two. Clearly from where the season went Berbatov was bought to play with Rooney and Tevez was moved on. Many United fans use this as the reason for Berbatov’s unpopularity. They would rather have Tevez. Yet Fergie wanted and got Berbatov to play with Rooney.

After a season of bedding in much was expected of Berbatov this year. It hasn’t happened. It’s even got to a stage that United prefer to play with just Rooney upfront and Berbatov sits on the bench. In truth he is not a player in decline, but one who isn’t suited to United. United players are full of energy and work rate. Berbatov isn’t. They style and system is not suited to him and it’s Rooney that is the focal point of play, as it should be. Berbatov was an idea that looked good but just hasn’t worked. What this has meant is that he hasn’t had the game time to be effective or to adapt and fit in with the United way. He starts, sits on the bench for a few weeks, then plays again. He needs to be playing week in and week out, and maybe if he had been United would be seeing a different Berbatov, the Spurs version. But with things so tight at the top, in terms of domestic and Europe, United don’t have the luxury of sticking with a learning player.

So Berbatov may be shipped off, at a loss, next season. Don’t be surprised if wherever he finds himself next season we see goals and energy from the forward. Maybe he’ll still be at United. Maybe he’ll be able to play in their system. Maybe he’ll be a success. Maybe.

pic from teamtalk.com

What Now for Liverpool?


A few months ago, before the current season started, it seemed you couldn’t pick up a newspaper, football magazine, or watch any interview with Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher or Rafa Benitez, and not be told that this is the season, this is when Liverpool finely end their long wait to add to their 18 league titles. Much of this was based on their strong performance last season, when they finished 2nd, only losing 2 games but drawing way to many. The Liverpool gang felt that this was progress rather than the height that the team could achieve.

We’re now about to enter December and Liverpool, laying in 7th position in the league, have just been dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage, with a game to play. Benitez now says the goal is to finish in the top 4 and qualify for next years Champions League. It didn’t take long for their season to implode and their goals to shift. League Champions before the season started – hoping for 4th place 3 months in.

Liverpool are currently in a run of form that is comparable with a relegation battling team and not a title chasing one. They’ve won 2 of their last 10 games, one against bitter rivals Manchester United, that can be contributed to derby fervour and not an upturn in form, and the other, a rather pathetic 1-0 win, against Debrecen, a performance which hardly suggested that they were worth more than their 3rd place finish. Finishing 3rd means a place in the Europa League, scant consolation for their failures.

The truth is, as many ex Liverpool players have said before, had Rafa been at United, Chelsea or Arsenal, or indeed at any other team, he would be out of a job right now. He’s bought terribly, always has an excuse for his failures, and is living off the legend of his debut season. However the financial troubles that Liverpool find themselves in means that they have no choice but to stick with Rafa. Firing their manager would be to expensive  and losing out on Champions League money means that they are worse off then they already are. No, Liverpool have no choice but to pretend to the world that they are happy with Rafa.

So where to now? As Rafa has stated they have to try and finish 4th to get back into the Champions League next season. While a top 4 position has always been taken for granted by Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool, who have pretty much owned the Champions League positions over the years, this season is perhaps the worst time for Liverpool to go through bad times, with Man City, Spurs and Aston Villa all putting pressure on the big 4. Rafa has built a team that revolves around Torres and Gerrard and the team seems unable to cope without the star duo. The rest of the world knows this, even if Liverpool fans are blind to it, and with the two of them going through poor form and injury at the same time there has been no chance for Liverpool.

Liverpool fans object to the idea that their team is a two man team and point the accusation to United with Ronaldo, yet a Ronaldoless United are slugging it out with Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the table, and qualified for the knock out stage of the Champions League with two games to spare. United are not as fluent as they were with Ronaldo, any team that losses the best player in the world would be, yet they have adapted their game to a life without him. Liverpool have no plan B. Without Gerrard and Torres they are leaderless and rudderless – and the fault their lies with their manager. Rafa and Liverpool have got what they deserve and how they respond will speak volumes about their character and the true worth of their manager.

Liverpools financial struggles means that they have to stick with Rafa but can they afford to drop any lower? How much more can their loyal fans stand? The blinkers will be off soon enough and the tide will turn. Chances are Rafa will jump before he is pushed – with excuses in hand.


pic from teamtalk.com

Embarrassing, Shameful, Cheat




Liverpool supporters are probably sick to death of the Liverpool bashing in the media over the last few weeks, but the fact is they are giving the press so much material, and can expect little else. Their form has been terrible, and apart from one match, against United, they have looked more like relegation candidates then league challengers. What that suggests is that they seem to get their spirit up for the derby and are unable to do the same for all other games, domestic or in Europe. That’s a sad indication of the control Rafa has over his misfiring team.


Last night they were lucky to get away with a point against Birmingham. That they did escape with a draw, and not their 6th league defeat of the season, owed everything to do with the bane of football – diving. When Americans think of soccer, they don’t think of the game we all know and love, they think of men falling and writhing around with exaggerated pain. They call it a sissy’s game, forgetting for convenience that their “football” is played with more pads and protection that an over cautious, paranoid, parents baby proofing house. However the fact is that diving, and theatrics, have become an embarrassment and shame of the sport, and not a way to showcase the game.


Diving is more prevalent in Spain and Italy than it is in England, but that isn’t saying much. It hasn’t so much as creeped into English football but rather immersed itself in what many see as the strongest league in the world. Make no mistake, these players aren’t being clever, but are cheating. They are conning the ref’s and are shamming and embarrassing their team, their club, their fans and the sport.


David Ngog’s goal last night was a brilliant and lethal finish. He hit that ball as sweet as he could ever hope. But his biggest contribution to his team would be by cheating and winning his team a penalty in the second half. He should be ashamed of himself but will probably be congratulated by his team mates for gaining them a point. Rafa even admitted afterwards that Ngog said he didn’t think it was a penalty. While Rafa did admit so much, and that is more than most managers would do, the game needs managers and team mates to come out against such behaviour and not defend it when it benefits them, and speak out when it goes against them. You can’t have it both ways.


Lets name and shame divers – even if they play for your team. The best players are as guilt as the less talented players in the league. When Christiano Ronaldo first game to England he was guilty of diving a lot. It was a trait he brought with him from Portugal, as was very evident when Porto played English teams in the Champions League. While Ronaldo curbed his diving as his career progressed, perhaps with prompting from his team mates and manager, his early years of falling to the ground hurt him later as defenders got away with kicking lumps out of him and ref’s letting his early reputation cloud their decisions. Before Ronaldo left for Spain he was denied many legitimate penalties with refs falsely accusing him of diving. The ground work was laid in his teens, much to his disadvantage. Another United player, and again a Portuguese player, Nani, is another who needs to stay on his feet more. Nani doesn’t actually dive in the sense that Ngog did, he tends to go to ground at the slightest bit of contact, rolling around, clutching himself, as if he’s been shot. If Nani stayed on his feet his United career would probably be more advanced then it is. Contact that actually takes him to ground will get him free kicks, going to ground to easily, and the theatrics that follow, will only harm his development and gain him an unwanted reputation.


Like Nani, Arsenals Robin van Persie is not actually a diver, per say. When contact is made he makes the most of it, ensuring that he gets a free kick or penalty. He’s more of an embellisher than a cheat. He gets fouled and then theatrically goes to ground, making sure the ref and everyone else knows that he has been fouled. While not as shameful as Ngog’s theatrics, it is again something that should be cut down. While not actually cheating a player of his skill and class has more to offer young fans then this.


Another player who’s skill and talent are supplemented by bouts of cheating is Chelsea’s Drogba. Drogba is perhaps one of the strongest players in the league, but like Nani he just needs a feather touch to go down as if he’s been shot. He then rolls around, complaining, limps when he gets up, and miraculously fully recovers once the defender has been given a card, and steps up to take the free kick. Drogba also doesn’t need a touch to go down. He’s happy to dive when he can. There’s no doubt that on form he is up there with the best in the world, but this part of his game is one that he can do without.


Ngog is in good company at Liverpool and is following the example of his captain Steven Gerrard. Liverpool fans have been very quick to chastise Ronaldo, Drogba, van Persie and co for diving, but because of the god worshipping they bestow on Gerrard they are blind to see that he is probably the worst offender in the league. Gerrard doesn’t even need the player to be close to him to put in an Olympic style dive. His reputation is well known outside of Liverpool and it is the reason why non Liverpool fans don’t speak highly of a player who on his day can be the best in the world. As captain of Liverpool Gerrard should be setting a better example, but his diving has become part of his game.


There should not be a place for diving in soccer. With most top flight games on TV and subject to scrutiny from all angles, diver will be caught out, as Ngog was last night. Ngog has not lived up to the hype that Benitez has placed on his young player, but he has now found a label that all other players and ref’s will be aware of – cheat. The shame and embarrassment must be cast out of the game. Divers must be called out – don’t let your love for a player cloud that.


pic from teamtalk.com

Spurs Not there Yet




Each English Premier League season starts with predictions of teams breaking into the elusive top four, and with it Champions League qualification, and each season seems to end the same way – with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool keeping their top four monopoly. In the last few years only Everton have managed to finish ahead of one of the top four, Liverpool, but have progressed since then.


This season sees the best chance yet of an outside team cracking the top four, with Manchester City’s buying power and Spurs progression under Harry Redknapp putting pressure on the top four. Added to this has been the big fours inconsistency, with United, Arsenal and Chelsea having lost 2 of their opening 11 games, and Liverpool’s nightmare start seeing them go down in 5 of theirs. Last season Liverpool finished 2nd with only 2 loses. City have had their best start to a season and currently occupy 4th position, at the expense of Liverpool. Although they have drawn their last 4 games City have only lost once, the least in the league. Their money is buying a good team, and with more to spend in January there’s every chance that they can crack a top 4 finish, and progress from there.


The same can’t be said for Spurs. Each season begins with Spurs as the side predicted to compete for 4th place, and with the exception of one season, when they finished 5th, they have been unable to sustain a real push. Redknapp has done wonders with the struggling team that he took over last year, but with the players at his disposal it would only take the right man to turn them into a competitive outfit. The start that Spurs made to this season filled all at White Heart Lane with optimism. They even led the table for a while. However they have been shown up in their games against United, where they were well beaten by 10 men, and against Chelsea and Arsenal, both who thrashed them. Their opening day win against Liverpool suggested that they had potential to last the pace, however it now seems that was more about where Liverpool are this season then how much Spurs have improved.


Spurs have improved under Redknapp and are enjoying a good start to the season, however when they’ve really been tested, against United, Arsenal and Chelsea, they have been truly out classed. Rather than competing with the top four, it is perhaps more realistic to say that Spurs have moved ahead of the chasing pack, the likes of Everton and Aston Villa, made the gulf in class between them and the top four is as far away as ever. Spurs will be competitive but their fans shouldn’t be looking at a top 4 finish but rather at a Europa League place. However City fans may be able to dream of a top 4 finish, especially with Liverpool’s struggles, but for Spurs that’s still more of an ambitious dream then a realistic goal. Still, a cup run may be within them.


pic from teamtalk.com

When Passion and Will Beat Skill




Obviously Liverpool fans will disagree with me, they wouldn’t be fans if they didn’t, but the Liverpool first 11 is no where near as good as the Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal first 11’s. They’d compete with the City and Spurs 11 though. And that’s why Liverpool won’t win the league this season – they aren’t good enough.


However on any given day, on once off occasions, derby games, cup ties and backs to the wall stuff, good enough doesn’t always win – the team that wants it most does, the team with more passion and will on the day wins. That’s what happened this past Sunday.


Liverpool, having gone on a 4 game losing streak, were looking at there worst run in over 50 years if they had lost to United. Rafa may have got his tactics and team selections wrong on a number of occasions so far this season, but the team he put out on Sunday was the right one. They not only wanted a win more, they needed one. The chances are that, media speculation aside, Rafa would not have lost his job had Liverpool lost again, however with the turmoil that is the Liverpool board room, you couldn’t count that out. The players played for their manager that day, but more so they played for their club and its fans.


The much maligned Lucas is a great example of this. The Brazilian midfielder gets more stick and criticism from his own fans then he does elsewhere. Many can’t fathom why Rafa keeps picking him. His general displays suggest he isn’t good enough to play for Liverpool, but then again you don’t win a Brazilian player of the year award without knowing how to play. He’s constant fouling saw him lucky to escape unpunished by a referee who let the occasion get the better of him, but his break up play, passing, positioning and bossing of the midfield shone through. He stood out against more talented players like Scholes and Carrick, and Mascherano beside him. With summer signing Alberto Aquilani nearing fitness Lucas playing time may be limited in the coming months, but on this day he stood above others.


Like Lucas, Jamie Carragher has come in for criticism this season. His form has been shaky and not up to his usual standards, but when his team needed him the most, he delivered. Like Lucas he got away with a few key fouls that could have changed things, but again, like Lucas, there was no denying the passion, will and want to win in Carragher.


United simply were beaten by a team that wanted it more on the day. That’s not saying United didn’t want the win, of course they did, but with Liverpool having their backs to the wall and being written off by all, one team just played with more will.


In Gerrard and Torres Liverpool have two world class players, who on their day can be the best in the world, but they don’t have the players to compete with United, Chelsea and Arsenal for the title. But sometimes, on certain days, that doesn’t matter. Sunday was one of those days. Passion and will, commitment and want, sometimes overcome skill.


pic from teamtalk.com