A fine weekend of football and it is difficult to look beyond Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez – no prizes for guessing which manager had a good weekend. In England the relegation battle continues to intrigue and in Europe there were some potentially key results in Spain, Italy and France.
Sir Alex Ferguson
Manchester United’s manager has made some mistakes in his career but at this point in time it is hard to think of any. Almost the perfect weekend for SAF as almost every decision came off and United made a clear statement of intent with a comfortable win over Chelsea.
First off, Ferguson obeyed the laws of football and didn’t lay in to Benitez until he had secured the moral high ground – or at least had presided over a victory. To say that he has the Spaniard by the short and curlies now would be an understatement.
Eyebrows were raised with a central midfield of Giggs and Fletcher but they were both key to the victory, in particular the Welsh wizard had one of his best games in a United shirt in a long and distinguished career. Jonny Evans was superb at the back and Nemanja Vidic may well be one ofÂ his all-time great buys.
UnitedÂ now know if they win the next two games, Wigan (h), Bolton (a), they could be top by the timeÂ Liverpool next play and that could be a huge psychological blow in itself.
Villa didn’t play that well against West Brom and they were fortunate that Scott Carson gave them a goal. But, Martin O’Neill’s side are still on course to grab a Champions League spot at the end of the season. Up until they play Chelsea on February 21, there are a number of winnable games coming up with clashes against Sunderland (a), Portsmouth (a), Wigan (h) and Blackburn (a).
So far, Villa have been awfully quiet in the January transfer window which is strange as they need some attacking players to supplement the Young and Agbonlahor double act. Villa Park is an attractive proposition these days and Randy Lerner has reportedly made some cash available so one can only presume that O’Neill is going to do some late shopping.
Still no strikers and the Toffees continue to grind out wins,Â David Moyes can seemingly spot a goalscoring midfielder and on current form they will be confident ahead of two crucial matches at Anfield, – even without Fellaini (see below.)
So bad this season that his name has changed to “the much maligned Nicklas Bendtner,” the Danish striker came up trumps against Bolton and kept the Arsenal Champions League charge alive.
A glance at the Premier League table and it seems that the relegation fight starts after the Latics in seventh position. Steve Bruce’s side have won six of their last seven in the league and with no cup competitions to worry about are almost certain to stay up. Wigan’s quality means that they could still upset the United title charge on Wednesday.
Great players score important goals and the diminutive Argentinean came up with the winner at Osasuna with five minutes remaining. A draw at La Liga’s bottom side may have given the chasing pack some hope but Messi’s brilliance will keep them all hoping.
Alessandro Del Piero
The clear winners in Italy this weekend – as both AC Milan and Inter drew – were Juventus. Claudio Ranieri’s side struggled at times against Siena, but another superb free-kick from Del Piero, his sixth goal from a dead ball this season, provided the win and Juve are now four points behind Inter and are beginning to look favourites for their Champions League tie with Chelsea.
Alexandre Pato and Mirko Vucinic
David Beckham’s Serie A debut was overshadowed by two strikers who are hitting some great form and are proof, if any were needed, of the quality of the Italian league. Vucinic now has nine goals this season and both goals against the Rossoneri were fine finishes – his right foot is becoming quite deadly.
Pato is simply turning into a quite devastating striker and is surely the future of the Brazilian national team, it is no exaggeration to say that he could be the next Romario or (the original) Ronaldo. His second goal in the Stadio Olympico was a quality finish after he had out-sprinted Philippe Mexes who is no slouch.
Of course, the reason most of us tuned in last night was to see how David Beckham played and overall he did ok. But, he now seems to take up a defensive right-sided midfield position, sometimes he is so deep that he plays as an auxiliary right back. Of course, one stunning free-kick and we will all be in love with Goldenballs again but it remains questionable whether AC Milan need another ageing, slow star who prefers to pass the ball rather than take men on.
For those of us hoping that Lyon don’t reclaim the Ligue 1 title again, this could have been a seminal week of French domestic action. Lyon could only draw with Lorient at home whilst Laurent Blanc’s side blitzed PSG. Bordeaux are now just a point behind and this author for one is hoping they can wrestle the title from the perennial French champions.
Much has been made of how similar Benitez’s rant on Friday was with Kevin Keegan’s famous interview in 1996. For the former Newcastle manager, at least he had the excuse that his team was on the verge of losing the title after leading the league so long.
Rafa clearly thought on Friday that his team would go on to win at Stoke and this was the best time to come out fighting to give Liverpool the impetus for a title challenge. But, in football what happens on the pitch is the most important thing and the Reds once again illustrated why their title challenge may well falter.
In two games against Stoke this season, Liverpool have scored precisely zero goals and their lack of creativity is once again a major worry.Â (Just for comparison, Manchester United have scored six against Stoke in two games.)Â Yet again Robbie Keane was left on the bench which once again begs the question of why Benitez bought the Irishman in the first place.
Ultimately Rafa’s rant was badly timed and if you can’t beat Stoke then you don’t deserve to win the Premier League title.
Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea empire is on the decline. The fall guy in all of this is probably Luiz Felipe Scolari who became manager of the Blues at just the wrong time. Whilst they will surely grab a Champions League position this season, this could be the closest Chelsea come to challenging for the title for a very long time.
For all the money pumped into the club in recent years, a succession of managers have bought old players which at Old Trafford yesterday resembled a team who will struggle to score enough goals to win the title. Deco, Lampard and Ballack cannot all play together in the same team and for the first time since Red Rom arrived, there is no money to spend to buy themselves out of (relative) trouble.
It is incredible to think that Chelsea received 12 million pounds for Wayne Bridge and not a penny will be spent on new signings. Robinho was arguably the missing piece of the jigsaw but Abramovich was beaten to the Brazilian on the last day of the summer transfer windowÂ by the new richest owners in English football.
Even if Abramovich does stick around it seems that Chelsea no longer have the financial clout to really challenge the top teams, there may well be one last hurrah in the Champions League this season but the next few seasons will be difficult. Almost every club in England will take great delight in beating Chelsea now they are no longer so flush with cash.
Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho continues to be the elephant in the room -providing almost every incoming Chelsea manager with a difficult job.
Arguably the buy of the season, the Belgian midfielder with the great hair-do picked up his tenth booking of the season against Hull and will miss both Merseyside derbies coming up. D’oh!
The 2-2 draw at Anfield on December 13, was Hull’s last good result. Since then they have lost all three Premier League games and scored one goal in four – which came in the 5-1 defeat at Eastlands.
Spurs’ last three away games have all ended in defeat thanks to late home goals for the home side. Those three points could be absolutely massive come the end of the season – Tottenham would be eleventh if they had gained those points.
Harry Redknapp correctly laid into the players after the game, in particular the regression of Gareth Bale has been amazing to watch. One of the bright young prospects in world football struggles to defend even from the most basic positions and the fact he has still not been in a winning team in the league for Spurs in 20 games now is a damning statistic.
For a few weeks now the Spurs players have been talking about pushing up the table and challenging for a European position. Surely now they realise that they are firmly in a relegation battle, the next two games, at home to Portsmouth and then Stoke, are massive games for the club and a number of players have to stand up and be counted.
Fratton Park & Craven Cottage
In 2009, how can a Premier League ground not have under-soil heating?