Has Mike Ashley puts the Toon up for sale & is Zola too much of a nice guy?

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “We never won a tackle and you have to hand it to Liverpool. ‘They deserved the victory. When you have bad days, the big thing is to get something from them but we conceded two goals that were absolute shockers. People will say that it is some Conference team defending when they see us on television. It was shocking stuff. The first was a really scabby goal to lose and the second was a shocker.” – Sir Alex Ferguson.

Runner-up: “Steve [Clarke] is deeply hurt and upset by Chelsea’s stance. Basically, they are treating him with utter contempt. He has been nothing but loyal to the club, even when he was marginalised under Avram Grant. What is the reward for 21 years of loyalty? It’s having it thrown back in Steve’s face. All he wants to do is further his career working alongside a friend he has known for over 10 years but Chelsea seem determined to punish him for that. He has two years on his contract which is worth £1.2m but Chelsea want four times that before they’ll even let him speak to West Ham. Yet they’ve sorted out the likes of Shevchenko, Crespo and Veron almost at the drop of the hat — players who’ve contributed next to nothing to Chelsea — but they won’t do anything for somebody who has served the club loyally through thick and thin.” – ” a friend of Steve Clarke”, as reported in the News of the World.

Today’s overview: How much worse can things get for Newcastle fans? Having seen their team lose at home to minnows Hull on Saturday, both Daniel King and Rob Beasley report so-called EXCLUSIVES saying that Mike Ashley is willing to walk away from the Toon provided he is paid.

Reaction to Chelsea’s win over Manchester City is a central topic this Sunday. For Paul Wilson, while “these are still early days for City… Chelsea are the finished article and they looked it too.” Robinho is put in his place by David Walsh (“Robinho may become a very fine Premier League player in time but he wasn’t that yesterday”) while if there will soon be a separate entrance for Jewish supporters at Manchester City, or if they will be allowed in at all?

Many are still offering reaction to West Ham’s appointment of Gianfranco Zola. Anna Kessel sat down with Zola to get the inside track, and Graeme Le Saux warns people not to be hoodwinked by Zola’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image. Nevertheless

Next on the agenda is analysis of the England national team. Paul Wilson (“but for some unfathomable refereeing decisions England might have won by five or six goals against nine men”), Joe Lovejoy (“For the first time since Capello’s appointment, England resembled the real deal”), Almost everything went right for England on the night”), Nick Townsend (“To turn the old sporting adage on its head, you don’t become a good team overnight, do you?”) and Gabriele Marcotti (“You cannot help but feel that some kind of breakthrough was achieved, at least psychologically”) all offer their views.

In the best of the rest, Kevin Mitchell questions the loyalty of footballers, citing Dimitar Berbatov as exhibit A, Andy Hunter uses events at Anfield yesterday to claim the “Premier League doomsday is not far off,”and Joe Nocera wonders why so many Americans are looking to get involved in the Premier League.

The Mail on Sunday deliver an EXCLUSIVE, Daniel King reporting that Mike Ashley has secretly put Newcastle up for sale. “Mike Ashley will put Newcastle United officially up for sale after the most tumultuous fortnight in the club’s history ended yesterday in fan protests and a dismal home defeat… Chinese property billionaire Xu Rongmao, thought to have big plans to expand St James’ Park and redevelop the surrounding area, is understood to want Keegan as part of his management team. But despite the fans’ ongoing devotion to the man they call the Messiah, the other group interested in buying the club may be of more interest. Sources claim a group of North-East businessmen with financial muscle to raise the money to buy Ashley out plan to sell on a significant block of shares to supporters.”

Following in suit, the NOTW’s Rob Beasley also claims an EXCLUSIVE, claiming “Mike Ashley is ready to tell Newcastle fans baying for his blood: Give me £1,000 each and you can run the club yourselves.”

Following yesterday’s match, Paul Wilson contrasts Manchester City and Chelsea in the Observer. “These are still early days for City; the best you could say is that they are a work in progress and looked it. Chelsea are the finished article and they looked it too. This was probably their best performance of the season, just when they needed it to be. City did not play badly and look certain to be both improved and entertaining this season, but this was a result to put top-four talk into perspective. It ain’t easy. City have lost two of their first four games. Unless the wheels fall off at Liverpool, Arsenal or even United in the coming months, they could already have left it too late.”

The Sunday Times’ David Walsh looks at how Robinho got on in his Eastlands debut. “Robinho may become a very fine Premier League player in time but he wasn’t that yesterday. He gave the ball away too often and we are talking about straightforward passes missing the target. He wasn’t a patch on Frank Lampard, who was the game’s best player and by quite some distance. To every good Chelsea move, he was centra: the choice of his pass, the timing, the accuracy, the weight, he had it all and it was a joy to watch. What the other Chelsea players love about Lampard is that he never takes a fraction more time to make the than is necessary.”

Sunday Times) awkward ‘Jewish’ questions at the Manchester City owners. “I wonder if there will soon be a separate entrance for Jewish supporters at Manchester City, or if they will be allowed in at all? The club’s new owners wish the team to play exhibition matches and hold training sessions in Abu Dhabi, but it is expected that not all of the players will be invited to attend. Tal Ben Haim is an Israeli national and therefore not allowed to enter the horrible little country, so it is almost certain he will be left behind. If this is indeed the case, will Manchester City be kicked out of the league? They should be. Not so long ago Ben Haim was left behind when the club he then played for, Bolton, decided to rake in the money by playing in some Third World antiSemitic desert boghole.”

In the Observer, Anna Kessel sat down with Gianfranco Zola to discuss his week. Zola: “The bigger the job the more responsibility and attention you get, so every mistake is going to be in the spotlight, but I’m not afraid of making mistakes. I became a better footballer by missing penalties and crying after that. It’s all part of the process of becoming better. I like a challenge, it’s something that gives me a spark.”

Writing for the Sunday Telegraph, Graeme Le Saux warns people not to be hoodwinked by Gianfranco Zola’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image. “Rather than adopt the hairdryer approach of some managers, Franco will win people’s respect with his charm and his manner, and that is no less effective. Franco is a man players will not want to let down. He will offer them responsibility and they will be desperate not to disappoint. He is such an honest, genuine man that his new charges will give their all for him. There is a view among Chelsea fans of Franco as the Knight of Stamford Bridge, a hero as pure as the driven snow. But the fact that he is one of the game’s nice guys does not mean he is not a bloody-minded winner.”

It is moot point whether nice guys ever come first as managers. There is one boss of whom you often hear stories about being disliked by players: he is one of the best and longest-serving in the Premier League. Zola picked Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri as examples of coaches who have influenced him, and both were seen as lovable figures but too soft-edged to win the biggest prizes. Yet the first one Zola mentioned was Arrigo Sacchi, an authoritarian who revolutionised the Italian game through his singular vision. ‘If it’s going to be necessary to become a little bit nasty, I’ll be nasty, that’s not a problem at all. Trust me, I can be nasty if I want,’ Zola said. ‘I’m willing to do everything I need to do to make this a job well done.'”

Paul Wilson (Observer) looks back on England’s win in Croatia to celebrate Fabio Capello’s ability to galvanise England just as all hope appeared to be lost. “Never mind the crispness and decisiveness of Theo Walcott’s finishing or the suspicion that but for some unfathomable refereeing decisions England might have won by five or six goals against nine men. The Croatian media were certainly astonished. The three lions were back in place of the three pussycats by Thursday morning, and a headline reading: ‘Hats Off To Mister Capello’ hinted, ever so politely, that only outside help had enabled England to achieve such a sensational result.”

The Sunday Times’ Joe Lovejoy also finds himself applauding England’s midweek travails. “For the first time since Capello’s appointment, England resembled the real deal, at last playing to their potential, with the whole actually amounting to the sum of its constituent parts. Had they played like this under McClaren, not only would they have qualified for the Euros, they would have rivalled Spain for the title. Ah, but consistency, there’s the rub. Can they do it again and again, starting with the back-to-back matches against Kazakhstan and Belarus next month? The players, heartened by their progress over the past week or so, believe it is possible. To that end, Capello has changed the personnel, the tactics and the approach of all those concerned. It is interesting, and significant, to note that of the starting XI beaten at home by Croatia last November, there were just three survivors in Zagreb: Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole.”

“Almost everything went right for England on the night, from the lucky deflection that set up Walcott’s first goal, to the dismissal of Robert Kovac (admittedly a benefit to the team that cost poor Joe Cole a hideous gash on his head), to the rapidity with which Slaven Bilic’s players degenerated under pressure into an unnerved and squalid rabble. But England were undeniably brilliant in applying that pressure and thoroughly deserve all the glowing tributes paid to them. Transmuted from the base metal of recent performances by that old alchemist self-belief, they played with a marvellous competitive zest that threatened from the outset to break the opposition. And throughout the ranks there was individual excellence. Walcott’s feats earned his headlines, underlining the truism that any forward as fast as he is will be a nightmare for the best of defenders. But the havoc wreaked owed at least as much to Wayne Rooney, who was more accomplished and creative than he has been in his country’s shirt in four years, and Emile Heskey, too, exerted substantial influence. Nobody failed to be a credit to himself and to his manager. Of course, Capello still has problems to face and, bizarrely, one of his most taxing conundrums will concern how to raise standards yet higher by reinvolving Steven Gerrard.”

The Independent’s Nick Townsend salutes the achievements of Capello, and asks can you turn round the fortunes of a team overnight? “Although Capello has passed his first examination, with a somewhat higher grade than most expected, he is aware that there are many more papers to sit. Defensively, England were not entirely comfortable. Wayne Rooney’s tracking back can result in dangerously positioned free-kicks, and Ashley Cole’s handling of fleet-footed attackers can be found wanting. Capello will not have been at all satisfied with the way in which England succumbed when Croatia scored. On Wednesday he mostly got it right. The question is how he will respond when he doesn’t. And that will happen. If the passage to South Africa is as smooth as some now fondly imagine, he truly would be exceptional. To turn the old sporting adage on its head, you don’t become a good team overnight, do you?”

Fabio Capello is also lauded by Gabriele Marcotti (Sunday Herald), while noting several issues still need resolution in the England national team. “You cannot help but feel that some kind of breakthrough was achieved, at least psychologically. Even against Andorra, when it took them 50 minutes to break the ice, there was a professionalism and a confidence which, in the past, too often went missing. All that said, Capello would do well not to get carried away. There are plenty of unresolved issues. Gareth Barry is a fine player, but not the defensive Claude Makelele-type watchdog Capello craves. For that, he needs Owen Hargreaves and the Manchester United midfielder is about as durable as a Faberge egg. Hargreaves becomes virtually indispensable if England are to stick with the 4-4-2 once Steven Gerrard returns. Lampard can be counted on to do part of the defensive work in this formation, Gerrard is a tougher fit, which is why Hargreaves becomes crucial. Of course, Gerrard’s return would set up the interminable debate of whether he and Lampard can co-exist in the same side. And it could force Capello into having to choose one or the other.”

Kevin Mitchell (Observer) questions the loyalty of footballers, citing Dimitar Berbatov as exhibit A. “Why, for instance, would anyone expect Berbatov to be any more committed to United than he was to CSKA Sofia (two seasons), Bayer Leverkusen (five) or Tottenham Hotspur (two)? Because, goes the argument, he will win things at Old Trafford. And what if he doesn’t? It is difficult to picture Dimi scrapping about for them in a relegation fight in the admittedly highly unlikely event of it all going horribly wrong there – or even existing in the potless nowhere world of mid-table. His commitment is ensured for as long as United are ‘the biggest club in the world’, as he described them before his encouraging debut at Anfield yesterday, for as long as they provide him with the platform to satisfy his own ambitions.”

Keeping on a negative vibe, the Observer’s Andy Hunter uses events at Anfield yesterday to claim the “Premier League doomsday is not far off.” “For at least 1,000 Liverpool supporters, and it appeared far more when they congregated next to the Kop before kick off, the biggest game in the league calendar meant another protest march and another demonstration against the unfulfilled promises and debt-ridden reality of the club’s American owners. The presence of George Gillett – and to be fair to the co-owner accused of ruling in absentia, he rarely misses a home game against Manchester United – thus ensured more eyes were trained on the directors’ box than Dimitar Berbatov when these hated rivals took to the field at Anfield. Whatever happened to just meeting in the pub? To the escapism and, perish the thought, the fun? It is, for many, long gone.”

In the IHT, Joe Nocera wonders why so many Americans are looking to get involved in the Premier League. “So why, with all the places they can put their money, have American sports moguls become fixated on the English Premier League? Partly because soccer is the most global sport with the greatest reach. Partly because they think they can make more money there than they can in U.S. leagues. But mainly because, to a surprising degree, they can act far more like old-fashioned two-fisted capitalists in England than they can in the United States. Go figure.”

Nicklas Bendtner speaks to Duncan White in the Sunday Telegraph. Bendtner: “You are going to see even more of me. I’m going to progress even more. The manager knows as well that I have plenty more to my game than has been shown. But as I said I’m sure it will come. When you see me play with my national team it’s like when I was at Birmingham. Once I get a few games going then I don’t see any problem.”

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