The season so far: Part 1 – The Italian invasion

 

The Italian invasion of West London was greeted with a great deal of expectancy. After the Brazilian fiasco followed by the Dutch revival of last season, Stamford Bridge was buoyant after the appointment of one of the foremost tacticians of Italian football. The summer was relatively quiet with the only big money signing being Yuri Zhirkov, and Daniel Sturridge and Ross Turnbull bolstering the English options.

 

Chelsea started off with a win in the Charity shield over Manchester United on penalties. Carlo’s diamond was unleashed on an unsuspecting premier league and Chelsea romped their way past teams in the early part of the season with hardly a hiccup. The group stages of the Champions league too seemed a breeze with 4 wins and 2 draws in the group stages. They looked unbeatable at times and were ruthless in attack and miserly in defence.

 

Then came the proverbial “blip” with inconsistency raising its head. Unexpected draws at Everton, West ham, Birmingham and Hull. The turn of the year saw Chelsea sitting atop the premier league perch and looking good for their first title post Mourinho. January and then Februaury rolled on with a few mixed results but Chelsea still held the edge. Then came the heartbreak. Carlo was out thought by his former cross-town Milan rival, and predecessor, The special one. Another year gone, another year Roman has to wait for his elusive Champions League.

 

The season has almost ended and Chelsea are in it for two major titles; They currently hold a single point advantage over Manchester United going into the last day of the season and they play Portsmouth in the FA Cup final. The double is very much on the cards.

 

Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond was the story of the first half of the season when it cut through all in its path but as the season progressed, loss of form and fatigue soon caught up with the ageing Chelsea squad and led to inconsistency. Going into the business end of the season, Chelsea look to be in a fantastic position with most of their players peaking. Drogba is the joint top scorer in the league and “Super Frank” has just had another 20 goal season. Yet, Chelsea’s main man this season has been Flourent Malouda. At the beginning of the season, many were questioning the Frenchman’s value to the team and there was even the talk of an exit at the end of this season. Employed by Ancelotti in both a wide position and in a more central role, he has reveled and has contributed not just to the scoring charts but in the assists column as well. The return of Joe Cole too bolstered the options but Essien has been a big miss with everyone else who has occupied his position struggling to show any sort of consistency.

 

With both Bosingwa and Ashley Cole out for long periods, Ivanovic has stepped up to the plate and has established himself as first choice. John Terry has not been at his usual brilliant best, off field problems and losing the England captaincy might be the contributors there, but has done well enough to steer the Chelsea ship through.

 

Two games left in the season now. One’s a cup final and the other may well be called a ‘League final’. Carlo’s team have to now show that they do indeed possess the nerves of steel and the suave that have made them the top scorers in the league. It may not have been a vintage season in terms of consistency but come the end of the season, they are exactly where they wanted to be; challenging for trophies.

 

 

Cheers

A night of opportunities lost

It was another fantastic European night at Old Trafford; it had goals, red cards, heroic defending and moments of pure magic. At the end though, Bayern Munich emerged with a loss on the night but a place booked in the semi-finals.

 

The drama unfolded even before kick-off. Wayne Rooney started. Clearly, he was only half fit but Sir Alex saw it prudent to pick him over Berbatov. The decision was certainly risky but what a decision it was! Rooney’s presence seemed to galvanize United who started off with an absolute blitzkrieg that left the Germans shell-shocked.   First, it was Gibson(another surprise starter) who put his foot through a Rooney lay off and squared Hans Jorg Butt all ends up. One nil inside three minutes. Then it was Nani’s turn. Valencia shimmied and conned Badstuder and fed in a ball that was finished off by Nani with a ‘Ronaldo-esque’ backheel. Two nil in seven minutes.

 

If the Germans were rattled after the first goal, they were literally in jitters after the second. They just didn’t know what hit them. Butt made a meal of a straightforward clearance and it went straight to Carrick who skewed his shot marginally wide. Bayern were looking to get a toe hold in the game but were simply being outplayed. The much fancied duo of Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery were all but anonymous with Ribery well cornered by a combination of Rafael and Valencia. On the half hour mark, Rafael had another glorious opportunity when he ran half the length of the pitch with the ball but poor decision making meant that he could not play in either Nani or Rooney.

 

Then in the 41st minute, United were at it again. Fletcher played a fantastic cross-field ball into Valencia who squared it to Nani, who unleashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. Three nil and seemingly, game over. Just before half time however, Olic pulled one back for Bayern when he took advantage of some slack defending and beat Van Der Sar. Three one at the break.

 

The second half started with Gomez coming on for the ineffective Muller. Bayern started the stronger and clearly, the goal had galvanized them. Then in the 50th minute, Rafael pegged back Ribery and the referee awarded a free kick. Initially, the referee did not appear to show any indication of reaching into his pocket but a swarm of Bayern players surrounded him, and he soon showed Rafael a second yellow which meant that United had to play the best part of the half, a man down. United were now effectively playing with nine and a half men with Rooney looking increasingly like a passenger. He was taken off in the second half and was substituted by the returning O’Shea.

 

Bayern were now firmly in the ascendancy and were putting more pressure on United. United held on till the 74th minute. That was when a moment of absolute magic put United out. Ribery took a corner which he clipped to the edge of the box towards a waiting Robben. The Dutchman showed fantastic technique and finesse to guide a brilliant volley into the corner of the net. Three two, on the night; Four four on aggregate; Advantage Bayern.

 

Bayern then controlled most of the game, playing it about at will. United did bring on Berbatov and Giggs for Carrick and Gibson but it was too little, too late. Three two at the end. Bayern through on the away goals rule and they now go on to face Lyon in the semi-finals.

 

The game was a fantastic mix of beautiful attacking football and shrewd tactical calculations. Bayern read the situation wonderfully after the sending off and played to the hilt. Nani and Valencia both had stellar games with the former showing his full array of tricks and flicks. After the sending off, he looked United’s main threat and at times, Bayern had 5 men on him. Fletcher ran his socks off, as usual, and the defence held up pretty admirably, apart from a couple of moments of slacking off, which in the end proved costly.

 

One can’t help but think that Sir Alex’s quite evident lack of faith in Berbatov may in part have been the deciding factor. Starting with a half-fit Rooney might well have paid off with the start United got but bringing on O’Shea and not Berbatov for Rooney probably was where he missed a trick. Sure, O’Shea came in to shore the defence up and shut up shop but he could have come on for the pretty woeful Michael Carrick. Both Valencia and Nani were constant outlets throughout the game but in the latter stages, there was no central lynchpin for them to really play their game. Even with 10 men, United attacked but somehow had to check back on breaks because of the lack of a central figure.

 

In all, it was a night of missed opportunities. Sir Alex will be fuming, more at the manner of the defeat(over the 3 legs) than the match result in itself. A couple of moments of bad defending over the 2 legs (Olic, the beneficiary on both occasions) will certainly be infuriating. For the second time in a week, united slacked off from being in a position of strength and Bayern made them pay. Another  European season of ‘what if?’ has just ended. The Premier League awaits.

Europe tonight: A preview

Yesterday is history now. Once the dust settled in Spain and Russia, two of the four semi-finalists of the UEFA Champions League 2009-’10 have been identified. It will be a clash of Italian guile and steel against the Spanish flow and beauty.

 

A couple of massive matches tonight.

First, the battle for France, with Bordeaux taking on Lyon. On paper, it looks to be Lyon’s for the taking. Having lost their crown to Bordeaux last season, Lyon were very much the wounded animal in the first leg and ran out comfortable 3-1 winners. Bordeaux though, will be buoyed by the away goal and its more than likely that Blanc will instill confidence in his charges and a mouthwatering clash may well be on the cards; Lyon out to prove that they are still top dogs in France, and Bordeaux looking to show the world that last season was no fluke.

 

Old Trafford, the theatre of dreams. The big question tonight will certainly be one of whether the dream for the club from Manchester will continue or will it be a resurgent Bayern who will quash the dream. Their talisman, Wayne Rooney, who has been nothing short of sensational this term and has more than once been the spark that has really galvanized Manchester United’s quest for glory this season. With Wazza on the bench (at best), United look to have their task cut out. With Berbatov leading the line over the weekend against Chelsea, the cutting edge did indeed seem to be missing. For all of his touch, suave and panache, Berbatov has been found wanting on occasion. United’s backline looks to be coming good but an ageing Neville could be exposed. John O’Shea is fit again, but having not played a competitive game since September ’09, it remains to be seen if he will be risked in such a massive game.

 

Ferdinand and Vidic look to be recapturing the old magic but its early days yet. The midfield is likely to have Nani and Valencia on the flanks with Scholes, Park and Fletcher in the middle.  Sir Alex, over the past couple of seasons has been known to favor the 4-5-1 in the big games but always had either Rooney  or Ronaldo leading the line. It will be interesting to see if Sir Alex opts for a bolder 4-4-2 approach with either Macheda or Diouf alongside Berbatov. However, this appears most unlikely with a 4-4-1-1 with either Giggs or Park supporting Berbatov, looking the most likely option.

 

On the other hand, Bayern will be full of confidence after a fantastic week which saw them do a “99” on United and regained top spot in the Bundesliga with a win over Schalke. With Robben back In their ranks, their wings look formidable. With a plethora of options up front, Van Gaal looks to have a plan for every situation. Add to that, the return to fitness of Van Buyten, and Bayern look to be at full strength and at their peak.

 

With United seemingly struggling and Bayern in full force, Bayern look to be the favorites, regardless of what Van Gaal says. Trust Sir Alex to pull the rabbit out of the hat though. One thing is for certain, another glorious European night awaits at Old Trafford tonight.

 

 

Cheers

 

The Treble – A Decade On

It’s been ten and a half seasons since the glorious treble of 1998-99 and so far the season hasn’t quite gone according to plan. On the face of it, the season so far doesn’t look too bad; Only 2 points behind Chelsea in the Premier League with half the season to go; Into the knockout stages of the Champions League (albeit, a daunting meeting with AC Milan lies in wait); The semi finals of the FA Cup (against Manchester City and with the blues hungry for any silverware that they can lay their hands on, and Sir Alex insisting on playing a youthful squad,  it does not look too rosy) and of course, the defeat at the battle of the Roses (listless display; no excuses there whatsoever). So what then has been the difference between that all conquering team and this team of “superstars”? My findings:

Leading from the front

The front three this season have scored 28 goals between them (Rooney 15, Berbatov 6 and Owen 7) so far, while in the treble season, Yorke had 29, Cole had 24 and Ole had 18 at the end of the season. Add to this Sheringham’s 5 and that’s a total of a whopping 76 goals between the front four. SAF had three top strikers, any two of whom he could start with in any match and an impact sub in Sheringham. In comparison, his team today has 2 top strikers and Owen, the supposed impact sub as the third striker. Agreed that United’s style of play has changed and that there is a different system employed but whatever the system is, goals are goals; and goals must be scored.

Down the flanks

In David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomquist, Manchester United had three fantastic exponents of wing play. All three were excellent on the flanks and all the three of them could cross the ball. Set pieces too were more than taken care of. In comparison, today’s squad has one ONE genuine winger in Antonio Valencia, with Nani flattering to deceive, Tosic deemed not good enough , Gabriel Obertan, who is one for the future but is certainly by no means the finished product and Park Ji Sung, who is not an out and out winger. Clearly, this has had a bearing on the team. Even if the crosses do come in, the natural poacher is not quite there in the box.

The false Nine

With the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, it was well and truly established that Sir Alex had also converted to the philosophy of the ‘false nine’. Until then, there was at least one out and out Number 9 but since the departure of Louis Saha, there has been no real pivotal figure up front, who could be called on to play route one when required. And with Berbatov not quite having the desired impact, and with the departure of Ronaldo, there appears to be no alternate route this season. In the treble season, there were both Yorke and Cole alternating as the front man with the other dropping off.

The waning of eighteen

If anyone watches the highlights of the treble winning season, one thing will scream out; Paul Scholes. If his long rangers were absolute belters, his toe pokes from knock downs inside the box were equally important. He was always in the periphery of the box and joined in the attack with aplomb. With the passing of the years, his dynamism has also been impacted and although his range of passing remains as good as ever, there is no doubting the fact that he is no longer at the height of his powers and that he can no longer produce stellar performances week-in week-out, as he has admitted himself at times.

Oh! Sweet Sixteen

If there was one man the United faithful would love to see at the heart of the midfield even today, it has to be the skipper. Chants of ‘there is only one Keano’ still echo inside the theatre of dreams. Such is the impact of the man. When he was driving United, it was rest assured no one could afford to slack off, even for a minute. That was the stature of the man and the respect that he commanded. More than anything else, it was the winning mentality that was instilled in the team that made him the legend he is today. While United today do have a box to box midfielder in the rejuvenated Darren Fletcher, its Keano’s drive and ambition that they lack. The only one in the current team that comes close to that is a certain Wazza but there can be no comparison really on the influence wielded.

The reinvention of Eleven

Ryan Giggs is a legend. A living legend. A playing legend. When years ago, he burst into the scene with mazy runs and blistering pace, he was hailed as a phenomenon but people seriously doubted what his contribution to the team would be once he had lost his pace. The past two seasons has been as much about the reinvention of the Welsh wizard as it has been about Ronaldo. Giggs has made the transition from an out and out winger to a playmaker capable of more than ably filling into the left midfield or up front (or even at left back on one occasion). His most sensational displays have come from the center of midfield where he has used his dribbling skills to fantastic effect. He has well and truly shown that what he has lost in pace, he has made up for in guile. Looking at him playing today, you wouldn’t guess that he is all of 36 years of age. Yet, for all his brilliance and guile, his passing into a playmaker has left a huge void on the left flank.

The riddle at the back

With a multitude of injuries and the compulsion to play midfielders at the center of defence has severely hampered Sir Alex’s tactics this season and have made United look very vulnerable. Had everyone been fit, it might have been a lot different but one can only speculate. The treble winning team had Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen at the back with a young and brilliant Gary Neville, and the ever dependable Dennis Irwin on the sides. Only one defender has been ever present this term and he has been truly outstanding. The small Frenchman has been the stand out performer on many an occasion this season and has been a constant menace to the opposition going forwards on the left flank.

All things considered though, this season still has the possibility of turning into yet another “treble” year but the possibility is quite remote. Yet, with half a season gone and United yet to peak, you do begin to wonder if they will indeed peak. One thing is for certain though; there are exciting times ahead at Old Trafford and the reaction of Sir Alex to this season’s stuttering and struggling will be intriguing to watch indeed.

 

Carlito’s way

He came under a cloud. Gave an all action performance. Endeared himself to the fans. Scored a fair amount of goals. Worked his socks off …. and two years later, went Blue. That’s Carlos Tevez for you.

His arrival in England was nothing sort of sensational. Both he and his fellow countryman, Mascherano were signed up by West Ham in what can only be called a sensational coup. In truth, it was one of the most complicated deals in the history of the game in which both players were bizarrely, not owned by a club but by a company, or in particular, one Mr. Kia Joorabchian. After a slow start to life in the Premier League, he quite came alive in the second half of the season and helped West Ham beat the drop with some sensational performances, and a particularly stunning goal against who would turn out to be his future employers. After helping West Ham to beat the drop, he did what any player in his position would have. He answered the door when Manchester United came calling.

A two year loan deal, with an option to make the deal permanent, was signed and soon Carlos Tevez was the new number 32. His first goal for United was a super one. A diving header at the near post against Chelsea. More goals followed and he, along with Wayne Rooney and a certain number 7 were the fulcrum of the United team that went on to retain their Premier league crown and also won the Champions League (in which he scored a penalty in the shoot out in the final). All was well.

Then came what could possibly be called the beginning of the end. Berbatov was signed and was put straight into the first team. At first, it wasn’t much of an impact as Ronaldo was injured and so Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov were accommodated. But soon, Ron was back and Carlos was, more often than not, relegated to the bench. His frustration was for all to see and this was compounded by the fact that Berbatov did not seem to adapt to the United playing style well either. Soon, cracks began to emerge with Carlos stating that he wasn’t too happy with the situation and who could blame him!

As the season progressed, it became evident that he would, more likely than not, be plying his trade away from the theater of Dreams very soon. His last appearance for Manchester United was the Champions league final, in which he was introduced as a second half substitute. In his last few games, he performed to the hilt, as ever, and scored a few.

Then came the announcement in the summer that Carlos Tevez had declined the offer of 25 million pounds that United were offering for his services and would be moving out. Duly, he was signed by Manchester City for around the same amount and will indeed wear the number 32 jersey.

All the noise he was making was that he had not been treated with respect, and that he was not getting enough game time, hence feeling unwanted. Fair enough, until you consider his decision to join City. Apart from Tevez, they have 6 other strikers on the payroll. Now if Mark Hughes decides to rotate his squad from time to time, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

At the end of the day, Red became blue. Tevez became a cityzen. All the best mate. Lets just hope for your and everyone else’s sake that you win at least as many, if not more trophies in your ENTIRE spell at City than your two glorious years at Man United…
Cheers