Oh, no…not deja vu, City

I SAT, transfixed as if in a time warp, watching Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic head over his onrushing goalkeeper Joe Hart to gift Fernando Torres Chelsea’s winner at Stamford Bridge in the final minute of time added. It was a colossal, potentially catastrophic, mix-up between the two City players a mistake that had me shuddering as I relived a similar nightmarish moment from 37 years ago. On December 29, 1976, City played Liverpool, with whom they were vying for leadership of the old First Division and, subsequently, the title, just as they are this season with Chelsea. I had put City 1-0 up in a match seen as crucial to the outcome of the title race and what happened next was brought back into stunning focus by events at The Bridge on Sunday. As we battled to maintain a lead and get a win that would have been a massive boost to our title ambitions, centre-half Dave Watson sent a back header over keeper Joe Corrigan and into the net for an own goal. The match was drawn 1-1… and Liverpool went on to win the title from City by one point!

Now, I know there is an awful long way to go before this season’s outcome, but all I can say, from City’s point of view, is that I hope, come next May, they do not have cause to look back on this mad moment, having just missed out on the big prize by one point. For one point was in their grasp, and deservedly so, as the seconds ticked down on Sunday evening. The inquest into that costly clanger will be under way at City’s training ground, but the damage is done and manager Manuel Pellegrini can only hope there are no more suicidal mistakes. Frankly, City cannot afford any further lapses if they are to fulfil their potential and become champions for the second time in three seasons. For, in my opinion, they are their own worst enemies. Pellegrini’s squad is the strongest in the Premier League and the team should be in a better position in the table. However, City – described by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho after this match as “the best in the league” – keep shooting themselves in the  foot and I believe there is one particular weakness, in the holding midfield area. When City pipped Manchester United to the title two seasons ago, the key players were midfielders Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry. Having claimed the crown, City let Dutch World Cup final ace de Jong leave the club and I don’t think he has been adequately replaced, despite the signings of Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell. When Pellegrini succeeded Roberto Mancini last summer he sent England star Barry to my other former top-flight club Everton, having spent £30m on Fernandinho. The Brazilian is obviously a class act, yet I can’t help but think that, on the evidence thus far, Everton are emerging as the main beneficiary from this chain of events. Barry has been outstanding as Everton have made such an impressive start to the campaign. He hardly ever misplaces a pass – he produced a beauty on Saturday from which Leon Osman struck the clincher in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa – and I think City miss the combined influence of him and de Jong in front of their back four.

The back four? Well, there is no doubt that, in the continuing absence of injured Vincent Kompany, City have another problem. They brought in Martin Demichellis as cover for their captain and key defender and I’m not convinced he is the man for the job. It might be that Micah Richards, who can’t nail down his right-back place because of the superb form of Pablo Zabaleta, would give City a more formidable presence at the heart of defence. I know there are doubts about Richards’s discipline in that role, but he is certainly a muscular, powerful figure, brimful of energy and aggression. He is worthy of consideration while the team struggles to adjust without the massive influence of Kompany. I also believe these factors combine to give a possible explanation for the frustrating failure of the awesome Yaya Toure to dominate every match, which he is capable of doing. When Kompany is missing, too often Toure assumes a more defensive posture, playing matches where he tends to blend rather than impose. The Ivorian midfielder is one of several  magicians in the City ranks, such as David Silva, Samir Nasri and strikers Sergio Aguero  and Alvaro Negredo, players who can change a game with a touch of genius. But Pellegrini must tighten things up at the back and in midfield in order that these guys can cast their spells on the opposition, keep City’s challenge going right to the end – and avoid the prospect of arriving at the final day and looking back in dismay at “that” goal at Stamford Bridge.

At this point I must give credit to Torres, whose lung-bursting run in pursuit of Nastasic’s ill-conceived header enabled him to squeeze the ball inside the near post and complete a personal display that was further evidence of his rehabilitation under Mourinho. Like the reinstated John Terry, at centre-back, Torres appears to be thriving with the “Special One” back in control at Chelsea and he is starting to look like the devastating striker he was at Liverpool a few years ago. While on my favourite subject, strikers, let me add my voice to the TV debate between Alan Hansen and Robbie Savage at the weekend, when Savage nominated Liverpool’s Luis Suarez – what a fabulous hat-trick against West Brom – and Daniel Sturridge as his top partnership, with Hansen going for Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. My pick of the “pairs” is City’s Aguero and Silva, though I concede that Silva is not a pure striker. These two are demonstrating an increasingly-telepathic understanding and they display utter respect for each other’s abilities on the pitch. With players like these, I must stick to my prediction that City will be in the mix at the end of the season.

WHAT a monumental win for Gus Poyet and his Sunderland team in the Wear-Tyne derby! Defeat is tough to take in a big-city derby, and the pain for Newcastle this week will be severe. But it would have been so much worse for the Black Cats had they had their tails tweaked by their arch rivals and been left with just one point from nine matches. Only once in Premier League history has a team with one point from a possible 24, which was Sunderland’s situation going into the match, escaped the drop. That was in 1998/99 when Southampton won their last three matches to stay up. This 2-1 success lifted Sunderland  off the foot of the table, above Crystal Palace, and it gives Poyet something to build on. Having brought in one or two players who he believes can do him a job, like Bardsley and Colback, Poyet now needs to work on developing a new-found spirit. Certainly, in O’Shea  and Cuellar, two vastly experienced players, I believe Sunderland have much more stability at the back than Palace, who face an increasingly difficult fight to survive in the wake of Ian Holloway’s decision to quit. Four times Palace have gone into the Premier League and four times they have been relegated straight away. It’s going to be a helluva task to avoid a fifth first-time demotion. Holloway brought in 14 players in the summer and gave up the struggle to integrate them. I did warn at the start of the season how tricky it would be for Palace to adjust to the extra demands of the big-time and I did so bearing the scars of my harsh experience at Manchester City. We barnstormed through two divisions in two seasons to get into the Premier League and I knew that too many of the players who got us there would not be up to the challenge of keeping us there. Looking at the Palace squad that won promotion, I sensed they faced similar problems to mine in 2000-2001.

FINALLY a word of congratulation to League One Bristol City on their 4-2 win at Carlisle, their first league win since March. What a huge boost for Sean O’Driscoll and his players, who were relegated last season. And what a relief to get that monkey off their backs. City were my second-last club as a player, from 1977-1980 and I have nothing but good memories of Ashton Gate, the city and its people. As a member of the League Managers’ Association Performance of the Week panel, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Barry Fry and Dave “Harry” Bassett, I give my vote to The Robins.

 

 

 

No way, Jose?

What an intriguing situation we have in the Premier League with the Big Three under new management next season. David Moyes, at champions Manchester United, Manuel Pellegrini, with runners up Manchester City and Jose Mourinho back at Chelsea…it’s going to be fascinating to see how they all take to their new roles. Certainly, each one of them has a massive job on his hands, and each has his own different challenge. But, perhaps the trickiest task is Mourinho’s because he attempts to deny that old football adage: Never go back.

The self-styled Special One swept into English football like a whirlwind in his first spell at Stamford Bridge. Having announced himself as a super confident extrovert by dancing down the Old Trafford touchline under Sir Alex Ferguson’s nose after his Porto team knocked United out of the Champions League, Mourinho went on to take Chelsea to unprecented levels of success, cleaning up all of the domestic trophies, before going on to further success with Inter Milan and then hitting the buffers at Real Madrid, where he couldn’t fulfill the obligation on every manager at the Bernabeu and conquer Europe, as well as dislodge Barcelona from top honcho status. The image that characterised Mourinho’s trophy-laden times at Porto, Chelsea and Inter was of a man who was cocky, chirpy and, at times, downright arrogant. Yet that picture was too often replaced last season by a sullen expression, Mourinho often sideways on in the dugout, as if detached from his team.
Mourinho’s return to the Premier League will be wonderful for the English Press, the football-loving public and, in particular, the Chelsea fans, who see him as the returning prodigal son…but he will fit that description only if he rediscovers the twinkle in the eye that so characterised his first stint at the club. He recently talked about his ‘need to be loved’ which is all very well, a natural human emotion – but not necessarily one which you should be proclaiming as a football manager. I can’t imagine the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson ever publicly talking in such terms! So, we need to see Mourinho shake off the surly image that soured his last season at Real and replace it with the bounce and ebullience that he will need if he is to belie the widely-held theory that you should never go back. Famous examples of men who tried, and failed, to replicate earlier successes are my old Everton team-mate Howard Kendall, who twice went back to Goodison, where he had won the European Cup-winners’ Cup, league title and League Cup in the mid-80s, Kenny Dalglish, whose recent return to Liverpool was shortlived, and Kevin Keegan, who must wish he hadn’t gone back to Newcastle, where he was such a hero as player then manager first time around. If Mourinho is to avoid similar embarrassment he must quickly put his problems at Real – where he fell out with captain Iker Casillas and several other big names – and renew the bond he had with the Blues stars during his first period at the Bridge.
Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Mancini’s successor at City, has a clearly defined priority: He simply has to reunite a dressing-room packed with superstars that was clearly disunited last season.  I have previously stated my sympathy for Mancini, axed after delivering the Premier League title and FA Cup in the two previous seasons. However, it has become increasingly clear since the Italian’s exit that he ‘lost’ too many of his players, notable examples being keeper Joe Hart, skipper Vincent Kompany, midfielder Samir Nasri and striker Carlos Tevez. With the unity gone, so was the collective will to push on and retain the title. I mean this in no way as a criticism of United, but City have more outstanding individual players than their arch rivals and, as such, should not have conceded their title so tamely. City’s Middle Eastern owners expect nothing but the best after splashing hundreds of millions of pounds over the past four years, and that means conquering Europe. First, though, for Pellegrini comes the challenge of re-establishing team harmony, harnessing the huge bank of talent at his disposal and mounting a serious title challenge. The Chilean’s man-management skills will be of paramount importance.
Pellegrini and Mourinho know that they face a huge task to dislodge United, whose 13th title success was an enormous tribute to the retired Ferguson, who won the crown with weeks to spare and, as I say, with a team which, individually, was inferior to City’s. A key to United’s triumph was the never-say-die, keep-going-to-the-final-whistle spirit fostered so passionately by Ferguson throughout his twenty-six and a half years in charge. United’s mental strength is unrivalled in the Premier League and David Moyes must ensure that it remains so. Moyes will also know that his first buy is so important, his statement signing that is going to improve a team which has just won the title at a canter. At Everton, David was shopping in the bargain basement. At United, he will be spending big in Harrods. There is talk of Cristiano Ronaldo returning from Real Madrid. Now, wouldn’t that be a stunning statement of intent by Moyes?

 

 

 

Bale hunters set their sights

There was something poignant about watching Gareth Bale seal another win for Tottenham with another fabulous strike, only to discover that Arsenal’s win at Newcastle had pipped Spurs to the Champions League fourth place, thus denying this exceptional young player the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in club football. But you can bet that there are several clubs itching to offer him that very thing. As I’ve said already in these notes, Bale is THE player in the Premier League who will be the most sought after this summer. The best teams in England, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, would all be improved with Bale in their line-up.That means Tottenham have a big decision to make if they are to keep the man around whom the team revolves. In an era of outstanding athletes on the soccer pitches of the world, Bale has emerged as an elite performer, a player who combines impressive physique with power, pace and control and a gift for scoring goals from all areas.

Players of his quality understandably expect to perform at the highest level in Europe and that means the Champions League. I mean no disrespect to Wales, the country of Bale’s birth, but he is extremely unlikely to savour the ultimate thrill of international football, competing at World Cup finals, let alone European finals, proud though I am sure he is to wear the red shirt. There have been some world-class Welsh players in the past 20 years, like goalkeeper Neville Southall, midfielders Gary Speed and Ryan Giggs and striker Mark Hughes, all of whom never savoured the big international stage. Hughes and Giggs, of course, had the consolation of many European club campaigns with Manchester United. And that is what Bale will aspire to.

So, the challenge for Tottenham supremo Daniel Levy is to keep the predators who can offer Bale the glamour of the Champions League at bay. There has been talk of a huge pay rise offer, in the region of £170,000 a week, for Bale and Spurs fans can only hope he is willing to accept and continue to be their driving force next season. If not, you can be sure Levy will demand the highest price for one of the most coveted players in the world. For example, if Cristiano Ronaldo were to leave Real Madrid, the Spaniards would almost certainly try for Bale and Levy would insist upon a fee in the region of the £80million Real paid Manchester United for Ronaldo three years ago.

 

Arsenal must pay the price

Arsenal go to Newcastle on Sunday for their final Premier League fixture, when a point will be enough to clinch Champions League qualification – and what a massively important outcome that would be for the Gunners. The word is that manager Arsene Wenger will have up to £70m to spend in the transfer market this summer, provided he maintains his annual success in qualifying for Europe’s top competition. It follows that, if Wenger spends big on top-drawer names, he will also have to pay top wages and that’s something Arsenal haven’t done. At least, not in comparison to the Manchester Uniteds, Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world. I think that is what the Gunners will have to do if they are to end their recent trophy-less seasons and take on the Big Three.

Arsenal is one of the best-run clubs in the world and, in Wenger, they have a manager who has consistently produced teams that play exciting, fluid football. Wenger’s teams get behind the opposition, get to the byline so often. I often think how happy I would have been to be the centre-forward. If you could put Alan Shearer in to the teams Wenger has produced, he would have smashed every scoring record. The problem has been that Wenger has lost a lot of top class players in recent years, men who have gone to other clubs where they have often doubled their wages. And, because Wenger has been unable to compete in the pay stakes, his replacements have too often not been of similar quality. I am an admirer of Wenger, who goes on producing inspirational – if not always functional – teams, despite this financial handicap and I believe that, if the board backs him with hard cash, Arsenal will be a serious threat next season. Put it this way, if they are serious about trying to lure Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United, they will have to increase their current top pay packet of £100,000 a week to £250,000. Crazy, I know. But that is football at the highest level in the modern era. It will also be interesting to see if Tottenham, who are also knocking on the door for that final Champions League place, reassess their wages policy in a bid to make the step up to the top four.

 

 

Give Brits a break

As the season nears its close we await the confirmation of another two foreigners, the Chilean Pellegrini and the Portuguese Mourinho, to take charge at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively.They will replace fellow “outsiders” Roberto Mancini and Rafa Benitez…and so the fascination for foreign coaches in the Premier League continues. Having been in football as a player and manager for the best part of 45 years, I admit to being something of a traditionalist who believes that homegrown talent should be more in evidence in the managerial ranks. However, I do concede that, now that we have so many foreign players in the Premier League, having a multi-lingual non-Brit in charge does make some sense. We British can’t deny that, historically, we have been too lazy when it comes to learning other languages. A notable exception is England boss Roy Hodgson who is trilingual, at least. Mind you, how can anyone be expected to make sense of the FA’s previous national coach appointment, Fabio Capello – the Italian who couldn’t speak English! The FA aren’t renowned for common sense decisions, but that one really did take the biscuit.

While reluctantly conceding there is some validity in having a foreigner in charge at a multi-national Premier League club, I must say I can’t see why that is necessary outside the top division, where the average percentage of non-British players is much lower. And, frankly, I can’t imagine a man coming from abroad to take a Hartlepool or Rotherham through the divisions. As I said the other day, the appointment of David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, one Scot for another, is a big fillip for British coaches and for the League Managers’ Association, who have long been campaigning for better representation for homegrown coaching talent.

 

Fairytale’s sad finale

Like every other ‘expert’ I wrongly predicted a Wigan defeat at Wembley last Saturday. Sadly, however, that fairytale was short-lived, with the shock Cup winners’ relegation from the Premier League confirmed by defeat at Arsenal last night. It is a terrible anti-climax for manager Roberto Martinez, chairman Dave Whelan and the fans but, I have to say, there was an inevitability about Wigan’s plight. As I said before the Cup final, Wigan’s Achilles heel is their defence, a weakness that Manchester City’s star-studded forward line should have been able to exploit. While I sympathise with Martinez – a lovely guy, by the way – who has a lot of injury worries, the fact is that, even with all players fit, his defence probably wasn’t sound enough. A statistic of 71 goals conceded in 37 games tells its own story. That is comfortably worse than Reading, who also went down. If you are going to ship that many goals, then you need to be prolific scorers – and Wigan are not. I think they are going to need at least two more centre-backs if they are to bounce back into the top flight next season.

Interestingly, Wigan’s final-day opponents this weekend, Aston Villa, also have serious defensive issues to address this summer, which is going to be a busy one for manager Paul Lambert. Lambert probably won’t have a big budget, but, contrary to popular opinion, his team isn’t as young as reported. And Villa’s goals-against column shows they have conceded just four less than Wigan have. That will have to be addressed if the team  - which doesn’t have as many teenagers in it as is being said – is to avoid another relegation struggle next season. If my former Everton and Manchester City centre-back Richard Dunne can make a comeback from groin trouble after missing the whole season, his presence will be a massive boost. But it tells you something when goalkeeper Brad Guzan is both the players’ player and fans’ player of the year. That in a struggling side and one which sports one of the most exciting talents around, Belgian forward Christian Benteke, who is already being eyed by some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League and Europe. With Darren Bent recently voicing his concerns about not getting into the team, I think Lambert is in for a hectic close-season, one way and another.

 

Grin and bank it

Manchester City have made a mess of their sacking of Roberto Mancini, who deserves better treatment after delivering the FA Cup and a first league title in 44 years in his three and a half years in charge. It cannot be right that the rumour mill was churning at full pelt long before he was told of his fate. I admit that, after City’s shocking cup final display against Wigan, I am not shocked by Mancini’s sacking. But I am disappointed on his behalf and I know he will be bitterly upset at losing his job. After all, he was City’s most successful manager of the past few decades.

Okay, he may have made mistakes in the handling of some of his players. When he had the problem with Carlos Tevez not wanting to come off the bench in the Champions League last season, he came out and said the forward would never play for the club again. That left him exposed, especially as Tevez returned to play a crucial role in the last few matches of the season as City clinched the title. He upset keeper Joe Hart with criticism after the match at Real Madrid this season, got on the wrong side of skipper Vincent Kompany and did not handle Mario Balotelli well. Balotelli, who was sold to Milan this season, caused too many problems on the pitch for too long. So, maybe Mancini’s man management wasn’t the best. But he deserved better than this.

I sympathised early this season when he stated: “There is no respect for my position.” Lack of respect is a problem in society these days, not merely a problem confined to football. And football managerial sackings simply go with the territory, especially at this “galactico” level. Increasingly, the saying amongst top-flight managers these days is: “Grin and bank it.” That’s not to say that the huge compensation pay-out Mancini will surely get lessens the blow to his pride at losing the job he loved. Ironically, Manuel Pellegrini, the man tipped to succeed Mancini, suffered the same fate at Real Madrid a few years ago. With increasing foreign ownership of clubs, the tendency to fire managers after one, two or three years is increasing. When people come with “a five-year plan” it makes me laugh. As my “uncle” Jim Royle – of the TV comedy The Royle Family – would say: “My arse!” That is why it was so refreshing to see Manchester United not only appoint a Briton in David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson but also to give him a six-year contract. United are one of only a few clubs who retain a traditional attitude to longevity and loyalty and I’m sure they will strive to give Moyes time to do the job. At the same time, I reckon Arsenal and Chelsea – though the Blues are soon to change manager themselves – will be looking at the upheaval at City and the switch over at United and thinking they have an opportunity to regain domination over their Manchester rivals.

 

 

Martinez the master

Well, what do I know! Wigan produced one of the great cup final upsets today, but it must be said Manchester City simply did not turn up. Roberto Martinez won the tactical battle, playing three centre-backs and three midfielders, his players constantly backing off and forcing City inside, where they were, frankly, hopelessly ineffective.

To succeed against three central defenders you need to switch the play and exploit the space either side of the two wide defenders. City never came to terms with the challenge, with David Silva and, in particular, Yaya Toure so disappointing. And young Callum Mcmanaman ran rings around City’s Gael Clichy. Wigan actually only had the one on-target attempt, but what a goal it was from Ben Watson. City had a few goal attempts, but they had no tempo, no desire, from the start. I hate to say it, but it was the type of performance that gets managers the sack.

Not that I think that Mancini should go, not after delivering the Cup and the league title in the previous two seasons. He said that reports that he is to be replaced are rubbish and I hope he is right. Don’t forget, people even said Sir Alex Ferguson’s job was in danger in 1995, after Blackburn pipped Manchester United to the title and my Everton team beat them in the FA Cup final! But, if I was City manager today, I would be deeply alarmed by that display.

City’s pace the key

For the sake of massive FA Cup final underdogs Wigan, I’d love to cite the “magic of the cup” and predict a victory for them against Manchester City today. But I just can’t see it happening. For me, Wigan’s defensive woes are going to cost them at Wembley this evening when their injury-hit back line is likely to face the pace and trickery of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero.

City have the best defence in the Premier League and Wigan the joint worst. In a nutshell, Wigan’s problem is that their defenders, even when the first choice men are fit, are relatively slow. And Aguero is lightning fast, a player who is a slow defender’s worst nightmare and a man who could cause mayhem in the wide open spaces of Wembley. Obviously, until we see the team sheets, nothing is certain. But Wigan boss Roberto Martinez has an awful dilemma. Namely, does he risk a player or two who is not 100 per cent when he has two Premier League matches to come, matches which will decide if the club stays in the big-time. Scharner and captain Caldwell played in midweek and neither man is the quickest. Today, there is a doubt about Caldwell’s fitness, anyway.

Martinez reverted from two centre-backs to three late last season when Wigan staged a remarkable rescue act in the relegation zone. Today, he’s short of bodies and may have to rely on a holding midfielder in front of two central defenders to try to keep City’s attackers at bay. City, on the other hand, have failed to deliver the goals that might have retained the league title, despite the presence of Aguero, Tevez and Dzecko. They’ve drawn too many games when they were well on top. I think they’ve suffered in the absence of Nigel de Jong, their holding midfielder who left last summer. As a result, Yaya Toure, such  an awesome, attacking presence last season, has been more subdued this campaign. Nevertheless, I expect City to win by 2-0, at least.

As for speculation regarding City manager Roberto Mancini, I have to say nothing surprises me. People I speak to at City say the owners are patient, people who would recognise a second-place finish in the league and an FA Cup win as a successful season. At the same time, very high demands go with the bigger jobs these days.