Monday, 9 August 2010

Defining Weeks Approach For Roy's Reds

The Premiership campaign is rightfully regarded as the ultimate long haul, particularly when compared to the relative short hops that make up some of its European counterparts (most of which enjoy the much-vaunted Christmas break). As such, any suggestion that the opening weeks of the new season, thankfully about to break upon us (depending on the location from which you are consuming this prose of course), represent an exceptionally pivotal period in the medium-term fortunes of one's chosen club could be regarded as foolhardy or ill-thought through. However, for Merseyside's much-maligned Red contingent, the next month or so really has the potential to set the scene for Liverpool's attempts to heave themselves from the dirge that was 2009/10 and back into England's elite.

Great changes are afoot at the head of the club, and their significance simply cannot go underestimated. A rare moment of bright thinking was evident in the decision to axe the cold Benitez at the beginning of June, and he was replaced by everyone's favourite gangster-impersonator, Roy Hodgson, inside a month. Hodgson's miraculous exploits as Fulham boss have received more than enough column inches, but nevertheless it is extremely difficult to begrudge the London-born adventurer his first (and most likely single) stint at one of England's most prestigious names - even for a lifelong Red Devil like yours truly. Roy's endeavours at Anfield are unlikely to be of the fantastical quality of those on the banks of the Thames, and certainly should not need to be, but some saintliness may yet be required; this will concern his patience.

Swirling around the club - if the news outlets are to be believed - at the time of writing are several consortia, all with the goal of buying out Liverpool's hated American owners (are there any other sort in English football at present). It would appear that the outfit headed by Yahya Kirdi, a Canadian-based Syrian, is in pole position and plans to tie up the deal by the start of Liverpool's domestic campaign on Sunday afternoon. This clearly leaves plenty of time for Chinese tycoon Kenny Huang, and to a lesser extent the third-placed Sahara Group of India, to jostle behind Kirdi, casting in promise and counter-promise, in the run up to the big day.

What is most important here is not the identity of the bidder, nor which succeeds; it seems moderately likely that Kirdi's consortium will win the day. No, it is the timing which fascinates most. Hodgson himself has suggested that any transfer funds potentially available to him would not manifest themselves in time for well-considered player recruitment ahead of the transfer deadline on September 1st. This would lead to the possibly damaging situation of Hodgson having a hole slowly burning in his pocket until January, while the gossip columns feed off Liverpool's increased spending power and existing squad members begin to feel the squeeze. There are plenty of players in the squad who have a great deal to prove in the coming campaign, even with some of the deadwood having been chopped away already, and the availability of resource to strengthen a squad under heavy pressure from the get-go is sure to make the likes of Babel, Aquilani and Insua look nervously over their shoulders, straight into the sage eyes of the plotting Hodgson.

Such an explosive situation could be afforded an early spark or two by the opening fixtures of the season, and the fixture computer seems to have it in for the Merseysiders this time around. The Reds face Arsenal first up, before visiting Man City eight days later and their arch-rivals United three games later. In 6 league games against these opponents last season, Liverpool secured 5 points from a possible 18, and only 1 from 9 available in 2010. Moreover, Liverpool's clash with City is sandwiched by a tricky looking Europa League play-off with Turkish side Trabzonspor. The Turks finished fifth in the Super Lig last season and won two domestic cup competitions; the tie also sees Liverpool travel to Turkey for the second leg just three days after facing City and less than 48 hours before a clash with promoted West Brom at Anfield.

Given the frenetic start to the season, Roy will be grateful that his current roster appears fairly settled and in slightly better shape than those who disappointed under Benitez in finishing seventh last time out. Troublesome Spaniard Albert Riera has been jettisoned, with Milan Jovanovic coming in on a free transfer (a deal ironically initiated by Benitez in a surprising appreciation of good value). Yossi Benayoun was sold to Chelsea, with the consistent Israeli being replaced with another free transfer in the form of the gifted playmaker Joe Cole, who has reportedly looked sharp in pre-season. These moves give Liverpool's front line a more direct aspect, although it remains to be seen if either will be able to force themselves ahead of the ever-dependable Dutch workhorse Dirk Kuyt. Roy still lacks potent youth in the most advanced positions, and neither Jovanovic nor Cole will do much to lower the team's average age. But more is expected of David N'Gog, who fired the Reds past Rabotnicki in the Europa League, and of course the infuriating Ryan Babel.

In defence Liverpool should remain solid; they claim to possess the league's top stopper in Jose Reina, although this is certainly a matter of opinion, and the centre-backs remain, with the addition of the versatile and promising Danny Wilson, who was snapped up from Rangers by Hodgson on July 21. Wilson has drawn comparisons with Alan Hansen, and at just 18 looks like a marvellous investment who could, alongside Dan Agger, form the heart of the back four for many years. In midfield, the seemingly Inter-bound Javier Mascherano may be replaced by Juve's Danish holding midfielder Christian Poulsen, while Hodgson also seems to be toying with a deeper role for the talismanic Gerrard. There is no question that Gerrard can excel in this position, in the same way that Paul Scholes does for Manchester United, but with added drive owing to his fewer years.

Most Liverpool fans, I imagine, would simply have been happy to start the season in the knowledge that Fernando Torres would be putting on the famous Nine again. With this commitment secured just last week, many minds were set at ease, and the Spanish hit-man would surely receive the largest cheer, drowning out any mutterings about his World Cup failings, of all the returning players if he made the squad for this Sunday's curtain-raiser. But this rapturous welcome will soon give way to a whole host of questions, the answers to which have barely been hinted at here. Liverpool have a daunting array of obstacles to overcome if they are even to remain ahead of Moyes' boys, and only then can they make eyes at the logjam that threatens to develop in front of them, where City's overspilling coffers, a Drogba-powered Chelsea and a fired-up United, fronted by a smiling Mexican, all stand in their path.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Capello's Headaches Only Just Beginning

Casual followers of the England football team and their quest for global glory might have you believe that the passing of Sunday May 30th also indicated the end of the unenviable difficulties faced by the supreme leader, Fabio Capello. Yesterday saw the completion of the pre-selection encounters, which were navigated without any serious injury alarms, with Capello's declaration that he had now finalised the make-up of the 23-strong squad that will depart for the Rainbow Nation later this week following closely behind. However, those with their attention firmly focused on the constant rumblings and murmurings emanating from the England camp and its hangers-on know full well that the many problems besetting the Italian coach are only now thrusting themselves into the spotlight.

The most pressing concern, of course, must be whether Capello is set to cut the right players from his initial 30. Put another way, there are far more than 7 players who have shown themselves to be wholly undeserving of a place on the grandest stage. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the defence and midfield as entire units have been spectacularly poor during the preparatory fixtures, though I do not include the goalkeepers in this, as the almost inevitable selection of all three appears to have given them a confidence that is sorely lacking in even the cream of the outfield crop. Lampard and Gerrard have put in reasonable performances, without threatening to come close to the standards expected at their respective clubs, but the supporting cast have been sloppy in possession and unimaginative in their creation. James Milner looked particularly out of sorts against Mexico, while Michael Carrick and Tom Huddlestone passed in a fashion more befitting of David Brent than David Beckham.

In defence, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry looked nervous in a rare appearance together at the heart of the back four against Japan, while Ledley King was average at best against the Mexican livewires, even if he did not deserve all of the criticism heaped upon his shoulders in the post-match analysis. It would be extremely harsh on Michael Dawson if he were not handed a place on the plane, as his failure to appear so far has merely highlighted how much England could do with his committed displays and calmness on the ball. Leighton Baines was awful against Mexico, Glen Johnson almost as poor against Japan, with Ashley Cole's contribution yesterday providing welcome respite.

The poor fare on show last week has opened the door to Capello's fringe players, and I would suggest that Capello's selection ought to reflect this in all departments, apart from at the head of the team. Darren Bent continues to prove that he cannot translate his Premiership exploits into international stardom, so the four forwards are pretty much nailed on. Only one of Lennon and Walcott will be picked, most likely the former after some toothless displays from the latter. Expect to see Joe Cole and Adam Johnson sneak into the 23, if only because they offer a rather more cultured brand of playmaking than the often predictable running of the aforementioned London-based fliers. Shaun Wright-Phillips is also likely to be dropped after a poor season, though he was lively enough against the Japanese.

England's struggles in the middle of the park against livelier opponents also served to remind observers of the one major injury doubt plaguing Capello's mind, the ever-impressive Gareth Barry. The 29 year old has matured into one of the most important players in the England squad, benefitting hugely from the glass knees of Owen Hargreaves and forcing himself onto the England teamsheet at every opportunity. The England boss has confessed that the City man is a crucial member of the side, with his nature as a true box-to-box player blessed with a certain versatility and a dynamic left foot elevating him far above the likes of Carrick and Huddlestone, who, though better passes and strikers of the ball, are too often one-dimensional in their play and lack the pace to worry the more technical midfielders that the top international opponents can boast. His failure to recover from ankle ligament damage (Capello has said that he must be fit for Algeria and Slovenia if he is to be selected) could prove terminal to England's chances of making the latter stages of the tournament.

Capello's final problem lies rather further east than our considerations thus far, in the minds of the Inter Milan president, Massimo Moratti. Stripped of the Nerazzurri's prize asset - the Special One having taken his prodigious talent to the Bernabeu - Moratti has decided that the newly-crowned European champions need the greatest footballing mind available for the defence of their Treble. With Pep Guardiola unlikely to turn his back on the dream job of managing the marvellous Catalans, who have recently added the brilliant hitman David Villa to their title-winning squad, Capello is seen as the man for the post, and a less-than-impressive start to the tournament could see the pressure to ditch England and head back to Italy mount. It would be a considerable surprise if the mind-games do not increase in their frequency and intensity as the World Cup gets underway, particularly if we consider the possible benefits to Italy's own chances in their own title defence. The Italians are currently enjoying their usual role as dark horses, despite their 2006 triumph.

Capello has an opportunity to send some of these many issues into retreat with a bold and imaginative announcement on Tuesday, and England must hope that as few of his remaining dilemmas as possible are not of his own making. Inter's interest will not go away, regardless of Capello's proclamations of dedication to his adopted cause, but the dearth of confidence on the pitch is a problem that the hugely-respected chief can, and must, rectify if the golden generation is to finally gleam as all are sure it can.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Diamond In The Rough Gives Redknapp Plenty To Ponder

Ask any Portsmouth fan to nominate their low points from the current campaign, and the list would most likely fill a tome the size of a standard Tolstoy novel. A list of positives, on the other hand, could be detailed on one hand with three digits to spare: a run to the FA Cup semi-final (which has included a victory over hated Southampton), and the consistently fine form of midfielder Jamie O'Hara, on loan from this weekend's cup opponents Tottenham Hotspur. However, with the season drawing to a conclusion and Pompey all but certain to slip into the Championship, O'Hara will no doubt be allowing his thoughts to wander to his future, particularly with his absence from Portsmouth's biggest game of the season guaranteed by the terms of the loan.

Regular first-team football - not that Portsmouth could lay claim to any sort of regularity this season - has seen the young Englishman blossom into an all-action player capable of being classified using that most wonderful of descriptions, the 'complete midfielder'. Tenacious in his defensive play and with an engine more suited to an endurance racer than a 23 year old sportsman, O'Hara also possesses a dreamy left foot that provides deliveries capable of arousing the admiration of some of the league's premier left-footed players (Aston Villa's Stewart Downing and Man City's Adam Johnson are those that I primarily have in mind). Surprisingly, O'Hara has only contributed 4 assists in the league this season - to go with his 2 strikes - but in this regard he is still Portsmouth's most productive player in the current campaign.

One would - perhaps not unreasonably - expect Harry Redknapp to be rubbing his hands in gleeful anticipation at being able to include O'Hara in his Spurs squad in the near future. After all, while Redknapp is blessed with numerous talented midfielders, none can boast the mix of characteristics enjoyed by the Portsmouth star. Bentley, Modric, Huddlestone and Kranjcar are all capable of a pinpoint delivery and a 30 yard screamer, while Palacios is one of the Premier League's finest exponents of tough tackling and breaking up opposition attacks. Of these though, only Palacios could legitimately be described as approaching the status of the complete midfielder, and his work rarely includes assaulting the opposition goal in any case. Forgotten man Jermaine Jenas - currently keeping Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King company at the physio's - is well past his days of aspiring to be North London's answer to Steven Gerrard.

Strangely, however, wily Redknapp appears to have other ideas. The Spurs boss has not exactly been shouting O'Hara's praises from the rooftop, and recently irritated the youngster by refusing Portsmouth permission to include him in their threadbare squad for the weekend's FA Cup clash. This latter was perhaps in response to O'Hara's (possibly unwise) statement that he would not be supporting Tottenham in their quarter-final against Fulham, as he wished to prolong his own run in the competition; nevertheless, it would take a brave man to back Portsmouth against the top-four chasers even with O'Hara in the side, and the experience of a major semi-final could only be beneficial to the player's growth, so the harm in permitting his involvement would probably not be significant.

One must hope that both parties are able to see past these petty squabbles, as Harry's injury-prone midfield would certainly benefit from the presence of O'Hara. This would be an even more pertinent issue if European football was added to the fixture list when hostilities resume in August. The current campaign has proved that the young midfielder can impose himself on matches at the top level, and any short-sightedness on Redknapp's part would no doubt be swiftly punished by a Premier League rival. There will be no shortage of offers when O'Hara's loan expires next month, but the jugdment of the Tottenham management would require serious questioning if any were allowed to make headway.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Hull's Desperate Act Destined To Doom Troubled Tigers

If ever confirmation were needed that Hull's hasty managerial change was a recognition of their impending relegation, it arrived during Saturday's edition of erstwhile highlights programme, Match of the Day. Iain Dowie's first appearance of the season as a post-match interviewee was accompanied by the highly-revealing label of 'Football Management Consultant', which to the mind of your wondering blogger was setting a precedent in its use.

Is this to mean that the humble and occasionally heroic 'Caretaker Manager' is no more? I very much doubt that, and would be disappointed if such a situation came to pass. Rather, the classification of Dowie as a 'Football Management Consultant' seems, to me at least, to indicate an exercise in damage limitation and, without question, costcutting. Put simply, Iain Dowie's task is not that of Avram Grant, who will be inspiring his noble and wronged warriors to a series of mighty yet futile triumphs in order to show football's colossal audience that Portsmouth are more than a laughing stock; it is to ease Hull back into Championship life with as little gut-wrenching upheaval as possible.

Dowie should by now be acutely aware of how to work to a strict budget, having helmed Oldham, QPR and Coventry City in a management career that has rarely approached anything resembling glamour. As such, he could well be a useful cog in the refinancing machine that will be kicking in over the close season - chairman Adam Pearson this week suggested that the wage bill will have to be halved (as a first measure) in the event of relegation. Salary considerations have been, I would suggest, uppermost in the thought process of the Hull board when implementing the change in management; with Hull's higher earners likely to be moved on once the drop is concerned, the presence of Dowie, who has spent much of his recent career in the Championship (as well as being part of the management team at Newcastle at the end of last season when the Magpies suffered a similar situation to that now facing Hull), ought to help convince those whose wages are a more significant drain on the salary budget that they would be best served elsewhere.

Furthermore, I would suggest that we may interpret Dowie's stated aim of a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football as being part of the transition to life in a lesser tier. The eight games that remain for Hull will pass in much less time than it takes to bring football both attractive and effective to the KC Stadium. Roberto Martinez's bewilderingly inconsistent Wigan are a fine example of the trials that must be faced in pursuit of such a brand of play, while Bolton's Owen Coyle has recently admitted that results must precede - for now at least - the pleasing passing style that his previous teams have demonstrated. Intricate and vibrant passages of football will help to secure buyers for Hull's more technically gifted players (the likes of Geovanni, Jimmy Bullard and Stephen Hunt), who are unlikely to relish the hectic nature of Championship football having become accustomed to life at the top table, where guile and flamboyance are richly rewarded.

Iain Dowie, then, appears to have been charged with a sinking ship whereby the assets must be safely stowed in the lifeboats without too many being severely damaged. It must be particularly frustrating to have as one's remit a planned decline, and one would perhaps feel sorrier for him if his work was recognised with a permanent contract than if the opposite were the case, as he would have to suffer working with a team whose best players he had previously shepherded to better homes. While it could be a sensible choice for the club's board (the alternative being further disruption and confusion), such decisions are not perhaps to be expected, given that this is a club who are currently paying two managers for work that neither is really carrying out.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Fabulous Fellaini Keeps Everton Upwardly Mobile

Everton's excellent victory over Manchester City on Saturday was not the surprise result that City's recent form would suggest, as the slow trickle of stars returning from injury has renewed confidence among David Moyes' warriors. Even less of a shock was the marvellous display of Marouane Fellaini, who has started to make the £15m the Toffees shelled out for his services look like a remarkable bargain.

With the likes of Aiyegbeni Yakubu and James Vaughan recovered from long spells on the sidelines, and the loan capture of United States international forward Landon Donovan, Fellaini has been moved from the role of emergency forward to his preferred position as a holding midfielder, and is dominating the centre of the park with growing regularity. As Moyes fully appreciates, the giant Belgian has all the attributes necessary in the makeup of a box-to-box midfielder. For one, Fellaini's tough tackling and combative nature couple perfectly with the long limbs and impressive stamina in a highly destructive force that masterfully shields the injury-prone Everton back line.

Of course, a key reason for his deployment further up the field when necessary is the fact that Fellaini has the creative skills to rival his more compact team-mates. Fellaini's passing is crisp and precise, and the Belgian clearly has an eye for goal, with 12 strikes in his short career on Merseyside. The enormous afro frequently sported by Fellaini naturally makes him an obvious target for Everton's set-pieces, and the ability in the air that he is noted for makes the midfielder a daunting opponent regardless of the area of the pitch that he is occupying.

Fellaini's return in recent weeks to his favoured position in the centre of midfield should ensure that the rest of Everton's midfield continues to blossom. Indeed, the tricky and industrious artists that the Toffees can boast will need the security that Fellaini provides if they are to continue to drive Everton towards their struggling Red rivals. The ever-reliable Cahill and Osman, the increasingly-influential Steven Pienaar and the promising Diniyar Bilyaletdinov will surely feel far freer to express themselves when armed with the knowledge that behind them lies a veritable wrecking ball of a man, capable of covering several yards with one stride and robbing opposition forwards (that's you, Craig Bellamy) with a nonchalant trick or a crunching challenge.

If Everton's second half of the season is a fruitful one, it will no doubt owe just as much to the power and poise of the colossal Fellaini as to the goals of Louis Saha, the returns of key duo Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta, and the tricky running of Pienaar. It is not difficult to imagine February's Merseyside derby being decided in the engine room, and it would take a brave man to back Lucas and Mascherano against Fellaini if he maintains the performance levels that earned him the Man of the Match award against Carlos Tevez, Shay Given and Martin Petrov.