Premiership Roundup – Moyes, Mourinho and the Relegation Battle

Four men who totally, definitely, completely supported David Moyes until the moment he was sacked
Four men who totally, definitely, completely supported David Moyes until the moment he was sacked

Moyes Sacked by United

It was somewhat fitting that David Moyes’ final match in charge of Manchester United – yes, he was sacked this week, if you had not heard then I apologize for not breaking the news to you more gently –  was against his former club Everton, who appear to have taken a big step forward under the guidance of Roberto Martinez, while the Red Devils have gone from Champions to also-rans in the season after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.  As had been the case on ten other occasions this season, Moyes oversaw a Premiership defeat for his last game, as Everton kept up their challenge for fourth place with a 2-0 victory and that scoreline was kind to the visitors, who were completely outplayed.  By Monday, the rumor was that David Moyes was going to be fired and that came to pass by the following morning, a strange decision to take with only four matches remaining in the season and nothing to gain from a change of manager, other than a symbolic move that they could not even wait until the summer to get rid of the Scot.  The only other explanation for the timing of the move would be if they wanted to have the opportunity to assess the interim manager’s suitability in the long-term, and the man in that position is Ryan Giggs, someone who has shown himself to be comfortable filling someone else’s shoes in the past (just ask his brother…). Alongside Giggs in the dugout this weekend for the visit of Norwich will be three other alums from the class of 1992, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, so their success as players is likely to buy them good will with the fans who doubtlessly will be relieved that a change has been made.  As for Moyes, his ability as a manager has not vanished due to one poor campaign – he had several of them at Everton as well, but managed to bounce back on each occasion and eventually got them back to the top third of the table on a regular basis – and he will likely turn up at Newcastle United by the beginning of next season, unless Spurs decide to make him the next coach they sack after 18 months in charge.

Mourinho Loses At Home

Despite their 3-1 victory over West Brom on Monday evening, Manchester CIty’s title hopes were dealt a blow last weekend when Sunderland beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, marking the first time that Jose Mourinho had lost a home Premier League match in his 78th such fixture.  The reason that loss affected City’s hopes of finishing first is that now the Blues are five points behind Liverpool – who held off a spirited second-half performance by Norwich at Carrow Road to beat the Canaries 3-2 last Sunday – and, with Mourinho’s men playing their Champions League semi-final either side of this Sunday’s trip to Anfield, the Portuguese manager has said he might put out a weakened team in order to increase their chances of progressing to the final of the European competition.  While I take anything that Mourinho says with a grain of salt (I’m not convinced that he has given up on Chelsea’s hopes on winning the Premiership yet and would not be surprised to see him put out a very strong team against Liverpool), one thing he was correct about was that referee Mike Dean had a poor performance in the Blues’ defeat by Sunderland.  Samuel Eto’o had opened the scoring for the hosts in the 12th minute, only for the advantage to be wiped out six minutes later by Connor Wickham’s third goal in a week and the match remaining at 1-1 until the 82nd minute, when Fabio Borini – on loan from Liverpool – converted a penalty that was awarded for a foul on Jozy Altidore by César Azpilicueta.  That was one big decision that Dean got wrong – contact was minimal at best and Altidore was already on his way down when the Chelsea defender touched him – but the other favored the Blues, as the referee and his assistants failed to spot Ramires hitting Sebastian Larsson in the face with his elbow, a foul that has seen the Brazilian midfielder retroactively punished and suspended for the rest of the Premier League season.

In the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid, Chelsea earned a credible 0-0 draw at the Calderon as they were able to hold the leaders of La Liga at bay, despite losing both Petr Cech and John Terry to injuries during the match.  After the encounter, Atletico boss Diego Simeone complained about the negative tactics adopted by the Blues saying, “It’s very difficult to play a football match when only one team wants to play, very difficult.  A match is about two teams playing. This match was only one team playing and another team not.” Oh no, wait, sorry, that was a quote from Mourinho after West Ham held Chelsea to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge in January – I guess in the last three months he has decided that football matches do not necessarily have to involve two teams adopting attacking tactics.  However it was achieved, the stalemate means that the 2012 European Cup winners will be the slight favorites to progress heading into the second leg at Stamford Bridge, though they must be careful as a score draw would see Atletico advance on away goals.  In the other tie, Real Madrid beat the reigning champions, Bayern Munich, 1-0 (also in Madrid, which was the epicenter of European football this season) and the Germans were lucky it was not a heavier defeat as Cristiano Ronaldo uncharacteristically missed a golden opportunity to add a second shortly after Karim Benzema had opened the scoring.  Bayern are very unlikely to keep Real at bay in the second leg, especially as Ronaldo’s recovery from an injury will be further advanced and Gareth Bale will be available to start after having flu-like symptoms prior to the first leg, so in order to make their third consecutive final, Munich will need to score at least three at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday. Continue reading

Premiership Midweek Roundup and Weekend Preview

Jason Puncheon - he shoots when he wants
Jason Puncheon – he shoots when he wants

Midweek Roundup

Even though there were only three fixtures played in the Premiership in midweek, the results still managed to cause a significant shift in the balance of power in the race for both the title and the final Champions League place.  On Tuesday night, Arsenal lifted themselves back into fourth by coming from behind to beat West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates, with two goals from Lukas Podolski and a well-taken finish from Olivier Giroud canceling out Matt Jarvis’ 40th minute opener for the visitors.  Things got better for the Gunners the next night, when Crystal Palace surprised Everton – who were on a run of seven consecutive league victories – and defeated them 3-2 at Goodison Park, leaving the Toffees a point behind Arsenal, with just four matches remaining.  The opening goal for Palace was scored by Jason Puncheon – his fourth goal in the last three matches – and the fact that, despite his excellent form and productivity, he does not even seem to be in England reckoning is bizarre, especially considering Andros Townsend, who has not played particularly well since October, could still end up on the plane to Brazil.  Perhaps Roy Hodson is mindful of the fact that in six of the last ten tournaments they have qualified for, England have been knocked out on penalties and cannot get this miss by Puncheon out of his head from earlier in the season.  Regardless of that failure from 12 yards, Jason Puncheon is Crystal Palace’s top scorer in the league season and many of his goals have been crucial in ensuring that the south London club will almost certainly avoid relegation from the Premiership for the first time in five attempts.  As for Everton, they now need to win all of their remaining matches – two of which are against the Manchester teams – and hope that Arsenal slip up during their much easier run-in, otherwise the Gunners will qualify for the Champions League for the 17th consecutive year.

The other game in midweek was Sunderland’s visit to Manchester City, who were hoping to brush off their defeat at Liverpool last Sunday that meant they no longer had their title fate in their own hands.  Things started well for Manuel Pelligrini’s side, as they scored within the first two minutes through Fernandinho, but any expected thrashing never came and the Black Cats – who are rooted to the bottom of the table and look likely to be playing Championship football next season – had several chances to equalize during the first half.  At the other end, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo – who have scored 52 goals between them this campaign, but neither has found the net since the end of January at Tottenham – were far from their best and Sunderland fully deserved to draw level when they did finally break through, thanks to Connor Wickham in the 73rd minute.  Ten minutes later, things got worse for City as Wickham provided the finish to a quick counter-attack and it looked as though City would be beaten at home for just the second time in the Premiership this season.  However, two minutes from time a shot from Samir Nasri squirmed through Vito Mannone’s grasp and the goalkeeper was slow in reacting as the ball slowly rolled over the line and, moments later, the French midfielder had a great chance to win the match for Pellgirini’s men, but he put the ball over from 12 yards out.  The draw means that not only are Manchester City now reliant on Liverpool dropping three points, they also need Chelsea to fail to win at least one of their final four matches if they are to have any chance of winning back the title they won so dramatically in 2012.   Continue reading

English Football Roundup – Liverpool One Step Closer To The Title

Shankly_GatesBefore I get into a roundup of the weekend’s football in England and a preview of the midweek fixture, a short note to honor the memory of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster – which occurred on 15th April 1989 – as well as the 3 spectators who died a year ago at the Boston Marathon.  Such tragedies put the importance of sport into perspective and while us fans do truly care whether our teams win or lose, that pales into insignificance in comparison to those two events, which took place 24 years apart.  In the case of Liverpool, it would take the most hard-hearted of supporter of an opposing club to not be able to find some part of you rooting for them to win the Premier League this year – especially as it is Steven Gerrard’s last, best shot at winning the title, a local boy who defines the club and whose 10-year-old cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough.

On Sunday, Liverpool came up against one of their main title rivals and the only other team who still had destiny in their own hands in terms of topping the table this season, as Manchester City traveled to Anfield with both sides knowing that if they won all of their remaining fixtures they would finish in first place.  In recent years, such matches between the top few clubs in the country have often been disappointing as nobody wanted to lose and hugely hyped games were cagey affairs that ended up 0-0 or 1-0. However, this was not a match up of Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson’s United, or even Wenger’s Arsenal (expansive in home fixtures against Fulham or Southampton, less so in contests with other top four sides) – but rather the two most entertaining and attacking teams in the league this season.  Both Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pelligrini are fully aware that defensively their sides are not the strongest in the Premiership – highlighted by the fact that Vincent Kompany started for City, despite having broken down in training the day before the match (though given his error for the final goal, perhaps Pelligrini will wish he had not risked him in the end) – but the array of attacking talents that both clubs possess mean that their natural instinct should be to take the game to their opponents.

As has been the case at home against the other teams in the top six this season, Liverpool came out the blocks fast on Sunday and Manchester City found themselves a goal down within six minutes as Rahim Sterling got on the end of a pass from Luis Suarez, then jinked left and right a couple of times before putting the ball past Joe Hart and into the net.  Twenty minutes later, from a corner Steven Gerrard was given the freedom of the penalty area by the City defense, but his header was well saved by Hart.  However, the England goalkeeper could do nothing from the subsequent corner which was taken by the Liverpool captain and beautifully headed in by Martin Škrtel, who has made a habit of grabbing important goals this season, having previously nabbed a brace against both Arsenal and Cardiff.  In the second half, Manchester City were inspired from a surprising source: James Milner, as the substitute – who has looked like a journeyman midfielder since the age of 16 – was influential in engineering a comeback and the visitors scored twice in five minutes to draw level and momentarily silence the Anfield crowd.  Nevertheless, this was a day of poignancy and progression for the Reds and, in the 78th minute, Kompany sliced a clearance straight to Phillipe Coutinho and the Brazilian midfielder made no mistake as he dispatched the ball past Hart for the winning goal.

The only negatives for Liverpool were Jordan Henderson getting a red card in injury time for a reckless challenge on Samir Nasri, which means that the midfielder will be out for three of his team’s final four matches of the season, one of which is against Chelsea, who stayed in the title race with a narrow 1-0 victory at Swansea; and Daniel Sturridge had to be substituted in the second-half as he had a tight hamstring, which the club are doing more tests on to determine if he will miss any games.  Nevertheless, if Rodgers’ men can win their last four fixtures, they will be champions of England for the first time since 1990 – so long ago that it was a time when the back pass rule was still not in play, the Premiership had not yet been introduced, and Spurs could finish third in the league.

To be fair to Tottenham, their record against the top four this season improved at the weekend as…Everton beat Sunderland 1-0 through a Wes Brown own goal, lifting them above Arsenal in the table and thus meaning that Spurs have gained 5 points against teams that currently occupy the top 20% in the table (as opposed to just 1 when the Gunners are in fourth).  Arsene Wenger’s men will have the opportunity to move back above the Toffees on Tuesday when they host West Ham, but at the weekend they were at Wembley for their F.A. Cup semi-final against Wigan.  Although I have been ready to concede that Arsenal will end up lifting the trophy this season, they nearly came unstuck against the Latics, who took the lead in the 68th minute through a Jordi Gomez penalty and held on until eight minutes from time, when Per Metersacker – who had given aware the spot-kick – made amends with a headed equalizer.  The current F.A. Cup holders Wigan were reluctant to give up on this year’s competition and they managed to hold on to take the game to a shoot-out, but Arsenal were able to win 4-2 on penalties and stay on course for their first piece of silverware since 2005.  Their opponents on May 17th will be Hull City, who came from behind to beat League One’s Sheffield United 5-3 to make it to the first major final in the club’s history.  Should Arsenal finish fourth, then Hull will be guaranteed a Europa League place even if they were to lose to the Gunners in the final, but if Everton end up taking the last Champions League qualification place and the Gunners win the F.A. Cup, then the team who finishes seventh (most likely either Spurs or Manchester United) will also be in the Europa League next season.  So when Hull host Arsenal this weekend, their best chances of qualifying for Europe would come from losing to the Gunners, though I am sure they will be more interested in getting one more victory that would ensure they are completely safe from the threat of relegation. Continue reading

English Football Roundup – United’s Miserable Season and Liverpool vs Manchester City

Robben hoodwinks five United defenders as he scores Bayern's third
Robben hoodwinks five United defenders as he scores Bayern’s third

United’s Misery

There have been several occasions where I have bemoaned the lot of being a Spurs fan – most recently this final missive on the current campaign – but this week it has been an unusually bad one to be a supporter of the most successful English team in the Premiership era: Manchester United.  On Wednesday, they were eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich and the only consolation they could take from their exit was that they had put in a good fight against a far superior team – but merely being competitive over two legs is a big drop in expectations for a club that has appeared in three of the last six finals of the competition, lifting the trophy once in that time.  There was a brief period of hope for David Moyes’ men when it looked like they might cause an upset by eliminating the current European champions, but Bayern responded with a goal by Mario Mandzukic within a minute to cancel out Patrice Evra’s stunning opening strike and the Bundelsiga winners did not look back, scoring twice more through Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben to win the tie 4-2 on aggregate.  The defeat means that United – who are seven points behind fourth place with only five matches remaining – are almost certainly going to be absent from the Champions League next season for the first time since the competition expanded to include runners-up (in 1995/6) and, for just the third time since the inception of the Premier League, they will end a campaign without lifting a trophy (it also happened in 2001/2 and 2004/5).

This Sunday, things get worse for Manchester United fans as the two teams they have the biggest rivalries with – Liverpool and Manchester City – meet at Anfield with the winners controlling their own destiny in the title race (a draw would leave City having the advantage of knowing winning their remaining matches would make them champions again, but it would also open the door for Chelsea should they slip up again).  Still I am not going to feel too much sympathy for supporters of the Red Devils – they have had 25 years of success to make them feel better – and there still is a chance that they will qualify for the Europa League by finishing in the top six, especially after their 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle at St. James’s Park last Saturday that kept them within two points of Tottenham.  In some media outlets, there has been the suggestion that Spurs and United would both rather finish seventh and thus avoid being in the Thursday Cup but, starting next year, the winners of the competition gain qualification for the Champions League and that might well be the best avenue for either side to get back into Europe’s top club tournament.  For their part, Tottenham recovered from a goal down against Sunderland on Monday to beat the Black Cats 5-1, with Christian Eriksen the star man with a goal and two assists, while Emmanuel Adebayor scored twice and saluted Tim Sherwood, who was rumored prior to the game to be a dead man walking, with a replacement set to come in this summer.

Premiership Roundup

Last weekend, the status quo was maintained in the title race as all three sides in contention with lifting the Premiership trophy in May won: City beat Southampton 4-1, propelled by two goals in injury time before the interval that effectively ended the game as a contest; Chelsea got revenge for their defeat at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season by defeating Stoke 3-0 at Stamford Bridge; and Liverpool edged West Ham in East London 2-1, thanks to two spot kicks from Steven Gerrard.  The Reds’ second penalty looked like a very poor decision since Hammers goalkeeper, Adrian, clearly played the ball when he challenged Jon Flanaghan, but West Ham’s goal should not have stood either, as Andy Carroll clearly struck Simon Mignolet in the face during the buildup.  The victory was Liverpool’s ninth successive win in the league and they will head into Sunday’s contest with Manchester City full of confidence that they can claim their first title since 1990, though Manuel Pelligrini will be able to include Sergio Aguero in his lineup once again as he returns from injury.  It is also a poignant weekend for the club as Tuesday marks the 25 year anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their life during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and all matches this weekend will kick off seven minutes later than usual, to mark the time when that match was abandoned as so many fans senselessly lost their lives.   Continue reading

Premiership Roundup – Liverpool in Poll Position

Liverpool celebrate winning the title in 1990 (Right to left, Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen and John Barnes)
Liverpool celebrate winning the title in 1990 (Right to left, Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen and John Barnes)

Title Race

Growing up in the 1980s, Liverpool were the first team I remember being dominant, as they won six of the ten league titles that decade, alongside lifting the European Cup and F.A. Cup on two occasions each, plus the League Cup four times.  Even in the years they failed to win the championship, they seemed to only just miss out, like on 26th May 1989, when they ended up second on goal difference due to Michael Thomas’ last minute strike for Arsenal in the final match of the season – a game that had been postponed in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster the month before.  However, since 1990 Liverpool have failed to add to their 18 league titles and they have not even been able to finish inside the top five in any of the last four seasons, as their days as the pre-eminent team in English football appeared to be behind them.  Nevertheless, the installation of Brendan Rodgers as manager in the summer of 2012 has proven to be a master stroke as he has transformed the Reds to the most entertaining team in the Premiership, with the results matching the style of the performances.  Last Saturday, score lines in other matches conspired to put Liverpool into an enviable position: win all of their remaining fixtures and they will be champions of England once again.

It started at Selhurst Park at 3pm (local time), where Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were unable to break down the highly organized Crystal Palace team that has been rejuvenated under Tony Pulis and the Eagles were full value for their 1-0 victory over the Blues, who had gone into the weekend as the league leaders.  Then, in the evening kick-off at the Emirates, Arsenal held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw – a result that means that the Gunners, who have struggled away from home against the top three, have gone unbeaten against that triumvirate at home – as Matthieu Flamini’s second-half goal canceled out David Silva’s toe-poked opener.  With all of their direct rivals dropping points, the onus went onto Liverpool to take advantage of the situation and move to the top of the Premiership by beating Tottenham – a task that did not prove to be too difficult as Younes Kaboul opened the scoring by putting the ball into his own net within the first 75 seconds, with Luis Suarez, Phillip Coutinho and Jordan Henderson also scoring as Rodgers side won 4-0.

As Liverpool set their sights on winning the Premier League for the first time, across Stanley Park Everton remain in the race to finish to qualify for next season’s Champions League, as they moved to within four points of fourth place Arsenal with a 3-1 victory away at Fulham, their fifth Premiership win in succession.  The Toffees have a game in hand on the Gunners and the pair meet at Goodison Park this weekend, but after that fixture, it is Arsenal who have the easier run-in.  In fact, of the top five only Chelsea do not have their fate in their own hands in terms of their various ambitions – this is how things stand heading into the final six weeks:

Liverpool – Remaining Fixtures: West Ham (A); Manchester CIty (H); Norwich (A) Chelsea (H); Crystal Palace (A); Newcastle (H). If they win them all they will finish: First

Manchester City – Remaining Fixtures: Southampton (H); Liverpool (A); Sunderland (H); West Brom (H); Crystal Palace (A); Everton (A); Aston Villa (H); West Ham (H). If they win them all they will finish: First

Chelsea – Remaining Fixtures: Stoke (H); Swansea (A); Sunderland (H); Liverpool (A); Norwich (H); Cardiff (A). If they win them all they will finish: Guaranteed at least second, if City drop five points then top (if City were to drop four points – two draws – then Chelsea would require 15 goal swing to pip them on goal difference).

Arsenal – Remaining Fixtures: Everton (A); West Ham (H); Hull (A); Newcastle (H); West Brom (H); Norwich (A). If they win them all they will finish: At least fourth.

Everton – Remaining Fixtures: Arsenal (H); Sunderland (A); Crystal Palace (H); Manchester United (H); Southampton (A); Manchester City (H); Hull (A). If the win them all they will finish: At least fourth. Continue reading