4-4-2…no way, Jose!

MANCHESTER City v Chelsea  tonight…it’s “match of the season” time again! I am relishing the prospect of watching runaway leading scorers City attempt to shoot down their title rivals at The Etihad, scene of so many goal gluts this season. However, not even the most optimistic of City fans will expect a scoring spree against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. I don’t, for the simple reason that Mourinho will brazenly eat a slice of humble pie by setting up his team not to lose, rather than to win. Put it this way…if he doesn’t, I’ll readily eat the pie!

As I said in this column the other day, it’s hard to suppress a cynical smile when you hear Mourinho moaning about the opposition’s negative tactics, as he did when bemoaning Chelsea’s failure to score against West Ham. After all, this is the manager who achieved a 0-0 at Manchester United early in the season, when he did not select a single striker! This is the manager who, when 3-0 up against United at Stamford Bridge in the return meeting, brought on a third defensive midfielder. And I reckon this is the manager who, tomorrow, will almost certainly play two, possibly even three, holding midfielders and maybe three centre-backs in a bid to stifle super City’s attacking intentions.

I don’t underestimate Chelsea, or Mourinho, but the fact is that his teams are built on functionality as opposed to flair. And he does not have a single striker to compare with City’s battery of sharp-shooters, Samuel Eto’o looking the best bet, even though he is past his once-brilliant best. I think Mourinho will pack his midfield and have his men swarm all over City, like they did against Stoke in the FA Cup, in an attempt to smother the creativity of players like David Silva, Jesus Navas and Yaya Toure and, in turn, cut the supply line to deadly duo, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko.

Now, I know “football is a funny game” and that we can all be made to look foolish with our predictions – witness Wigan’s astonishing FA Cup final win against City last May – but, if Mourinho goes 4-4-2  tonight I’ll eat my old boots, as well as that humble pie! If the wily Portuguese were to use that attacking formation, it would almost surely be suicidal against this rampant City side. And Mourinho doesn’t do gung-ho. So, sit back and prepare for a fascinating contest, one that will present Manuel Pellegrini and his players with probably their toughest test to date. Bring it on!

 

Dis-United

THAT, surely, is that as far as Manchester United’s title hopes go! The 3-1 defeat at Chelsea merely confirmed my growing feeling that David Moyes not only took on a tough job when he succeeded “the master,” Sir Alex Ferguson, but a near-impossible one because of the dearth of top quality in the squad he inherited. United teams of recent years would have been snapping away at Chelsea when they went behind, giving the impression they could hit back at any moment. But not this team. At 2-0 down you felt it was all over.  Without Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front, United simply cannot pose a goal threat, certainly not against quality opposition, and they can no longer compete with the best midfields around.

Another sign of the fraying around the edges of this once all-conquering side was the irresponsibility of captain Nemanja Vidic, sent off in the closing moments for his late lunge at Eden Hazard. He now misses Wednesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg with Sunderland, a match that represents United’s one remaining realistic hope of winning silverware. How ill-disciplined was that? Vidic is no longer the commanding figure he was but, nevertheless, he remains a significant one and, if he, Rooney and Van Persie are all absent on Wednesday it can only make the job of retrieving a 2-1 deficit all the harder. I feel for Moyes, for United’s struggles are not down to him. And people should not point the finger at Ferguson and suggest he got out when the time was right. Sir Alex has recently turned 72 and he unquestionably deserves the right to spend more precious time with his family. I don’t think Moyes should be judged as United manager until the end of next season. He will have a busy summer, when he needs to bring in two or three midfielders and preside over the uncertain situation of Rooney, with rumours persisting that the 27-year-old wants a new challenge. It is never easy to bring in top players in January, largely because clubs are reluctant to release them, but if any one of Mata, at Chelsea, and Newcastle’s Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa was available, he would, in my opinion, be what United need.

I must say I was disappointed in Chelsea, daft though that might sound after such a significant 3-1 victory over the fallen champions. Put it this way, had it been United who had gone three goals up, or Manchester City, we would have seen a team going for the jugular, trying to twist the knife into their opponents and pile on the agony. What did Jose Mourinho do? With 20 minutes to go he put on another holding midfielder in John Obi Mikel! With Ramires and David Luiz, that made three holding players – and your team is winning 3-0. Mourinho had United on the ropes at that point. Why not go for the knock-out blow? But that is typical Mourinho…he always seems to err on the side of caution, rather than adventure. In those closing minutes, Luiz – a centre-back playing in midfield – actually kicked the ball out of play on two occasions, a ploy designed quite unashamedly to break up United’s rhythm. Instead, Chelsea could have been focusing on rubbing United’s noses in it by trying for a fourth goal. Having said that, there’s no denying this Chelsea team is very hard to beat and will contest the title to the death. Although they don’t have the fluency and attacking flow of Manchester City and Arsenal, they do have some superb players, and many athletic ones, notably the Brazilian Ramires who is the fittest footballer I have seen since Colin Bell, my team-mate at Manchester City 30-odd years ago. I see Chelsea fighting for the title with City and Arsenal, though I don’t expect them to provide the entertainment that the other two do.

 

 

Capital gains

Early days, I know, but could it be that we are seeing the signs of a north to south shift in the Premier League balance of power? And could it be that Arsene Wenger, in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement now the grand old man of English football management, is presiding over the second coming of his beloved Arsenal, the club he has managed for 17 years and led to three league titles, four FA Cups and 16 consecutive qualifications for the Champions League. As I ponder the latest set of results – and performances – that is the inevitable conclusion, as Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy the top three places, with Manchester City slipping out of the top four – and Manchester United nowhere, the two northern giants having lost two and three times respectively.

You won’t find many football people who don’t admire the way Wenger’s teams play, irrespective of the fact that Arsenal have gone eight years since winning a major trophy. Regular readers of this column know that I am a confirmed fan, a long-time admirer, of the Gunners teams Wenger has produced. And the current side is shaping up to become a team that not only plays fabulous football but, also, one which has the capability to take silverware to The Emirates. After all of the close-season concerns about lack of transfer activity, and the premature furore that followed the first-day home defeat to Aston Villa, Arsenal have emerged as the stand-out team in the Premier League, executing their impressive, short-passing game with equal ease at home or away. Wenger produced a master-stroke when he signed Ozil from Real Madrid on transfer deadline day, having already secured the return of Flamini. These quality players were added to the midfield ranks that also include Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, the rejuvenated Ramsey and Arteta. What variety. So many options. Only big-spending Manchester City have such strength in depth in midfield, but they compounded their away defeat to promoted Cardiff by losing yesterday at Villa. Such inconsistency – City had thrashed derby rivals United and, then, Wigan in the Capital One Cup, last week – must be addressed if their immense potential is to be realised.

United gave manager David Moyes more cause for concern by losing to West Brom at fortress Old Trafford, where the normally impregnable walls were torn down amidst a shambolic defensive display. Moyes is a cool, determined customer who will remain calm and address his problems on the training pitch. Worryingly, though, United already appear to be patching up, trying to plug holes. I’ll say it again, the problems that were bubbling under the surface last season are popping up and giving Moyes a lot to consider. The stark fact is that he needs striker Robin Van Persie back to give him an extra goals threat and to complement Wayne Rooney, who is playing out of his skin. With such an alarming shortage of midfield creativity, Rooney looks the one player capable of making something happen. And happen it must if the title United won last season is not to slip from their grasp early in the race, for it is statistically proven that the big prize rarely is won by a team that has lost six matches. Ferguson, who amassed 13 titles, always stressed that five defeats was the limit if you had Championship aspirations. Three down and two to go – and only six games played!

Spurs and Chelsea fought a 1-1 draw at lunchtime, with Arsenal winning at Swansea in the evening kick-off, results that leave the three London clubs setting the pace and leaving the two Manchester big-hitters floundering a little. How heart-warming to see Southampton, currently sporting the most successul Academy in the top flight, sitting in fourth place. They also play a passing game that is easy on the eye.  A nod in the direction, too, of Steve Bruce, whose promoted – and unfancied – Hull City have had a wonderful start, creeping into seventh place yesterday. We now look forward to an intriguing Monday night clash of contrasting styles when unbeaten Everton, who play possession football under Roberto Martinez, entertain Newcastle, who hit more long balls last season than any other team. It should be fascinating.

 

 

 

Last day drama

The Premier League title race was decided weeks ago by Manchester United and Wigan, Reading and QPR are confirmed as the three relegated clubs – but, thankfully, we still have drama to savour in tomorrow’s fixture finale. Tottenham are hoping to pip Arsenal to fourth place and, therefore, qualification for the Champions League play-off place, while the Gunners are also involved in a race for third place with Chelsea. And that particular battle could result in a tension-filled play-off at Villa Park on May 26.

That scenario would occur if Chelsea were to draw at home to Everton 0-0 and Arsenal were to win at Newcastle 2-1, leaving both London clubs level on points, goal difference and goals scored. At least, that’s as I understand the complicated situation! The third-placed club would go into the Champions League at the Group stage, while fourth place means the qualifying competition. Mark my words, it won’t be easy for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. While I expect Arsenal to at least draw at Newcastle,  who are safe from relegation and under no great pressure to perform, and Chelsea, fresh from their Europa Cup triumph, are buoyant, I expect my former club Everton to make life very difficult at The Bridge. Look at the facts: Everton, who have lost only one more match than Manchester United, have drawn 15, making them the draw specialists of the division. The Toffees haven’t won at Chelsea since my team did so, 1-0, in my second game in charge in 1994 and I’m sure outgoing manager David Moyes would dearly love to sign off with  a similar result.

For Tottenham, their home clash with Sunderland is a must-win game. And I expect them to do so. Injury-hit Sunderland, who have secured safety by the skin of their teeth, don’t have the firepower to win at White Hart Lane, where they might do well to win a corner-kick! Tottenham, on the other hand, play their biggest match of the season, with Player of the Year (and Young Player of the Year) Gareth Bale primed to sign off his superb season in style. I just feel that it will end in bitter disappointment for Spurs, as I expect Arsenal to beat Newcastle, thus securing fourth place, at least.

 

Lampard to stay: A no-brainer

It looks as though Chelsea are to give midfielder Frank Lampard a one-year contract extension. For me, that’s a no-brainer. Lampard, at 34, still has so much to offer at the highest level, as he has demonstrated this season when going past Bobby Tambling as the Blues’ all-time record scorer. Lampard has marvellous timing, gets into the box, is a terrific finisher and provider and rarely gets injured. He looks after himself and, from what I understand, he doesn’t really want to be anywhere else. He was once voted third best midfielder in the world and that might have been a little flattering. But I would be more than pleased to have him in my team because he’s certainly still better than most.