This weekend marks the English FA Cup’s fourth round games. Two of the 16 ties are local derbies, Chelsea '03 travel to Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United travel to Anfield to face Liverpool. While both games are interesting in their own right, there is the added factor of two highly charged sub plots. John Terry faces Anton Ferdinand and United and Patrice Evra face Liverpool, the first time Chelsea '03 and Liverpool have faced the same opponents since charges of racism were leveled at Terry and Luis Suarez. Liverpool, luckily for now, are spared the in-depth coverage of Suarez coming up against Evra, his eight game suspension putting the meeting on hold. However, there will be no such hiding place for Terry and all eyes will be on him when he walks through the line to shake hands with the QPR players. The two games will make for compelling viewing.
QPR’s Joey Barton, who nowadays seems to be known more for receiving red cards and his Twitter posts than his playing ability, did not hold back in tweeting his criticism of his former manager Neil Warnock. Barton is one of those rare footballers, he is educated and articulate, but his comments about Warnock lacked class. Love him or hate him, Warnock is a dedicated football man, who has put in his time and despite his propensity to make some outlandish comments, he is a respected manager. Barton has earned no such respect.
Neil Lennon was on the verge of losing his job in October as Celtic trailed Kilmarnock by three goals at Rugby Park. His team fell 15 points behind bitter rivals Rangers in the title race all be it with two games in hand. Celtic came back to draw 3-3 with Killie and then went on to win 13 and draw one of their next 14 games. A hard fought win at St. Mirren last weekend coupled with Rangers home draw against Aberdeen saw Lennon and Celtic extend their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League to four points. That is an incredible 19 point turn around, and if Celtic go on to win the league it will be one of the most stunning comebacks in football history.
Aberdeen drew at Ibrox 1-1 to take two points off the defending champions Rangers. Gers’ fans have complained that Aberdeen only try against their club. Nonsense. Aberdeen have not won at Rangers in 21 years, a run of 40 games without a victory, but why let the facts get in the way of the story. That is a motto that also seems to apply to the Scottish media which has abdicated its responsibility in its lack of coverage of Rangers’ financial collapse. It as if they are in denial about the biggest story in Scottish sports history.
Liverpool turned in yet another poor performance against Bolton at the Reebok. The 1-3 loss was deserved and heaped more media pressure on manager Kenny Dalglish. The Scot’s reign was fast descending into the Roy Hodgson era part II until Liverpool’s victory over Man City ’08 in the Carling Cup semi-final second leg. The majority of Liverpool fans will not turn on their all-time hero, and if Liverpool beat Cardiff City in next month’s final at Wembley he will only enhance his hero status. But, will the club’s American owners be satisfied with a League Cup victory to show for their huge investment?
The African Cup of Nations is well under way in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. It was not long ago that the tournament was considered an event that would help to identify the sport’s next great talent. That is no longer the case. For some reason the Cup of Nations has lost its luster. There are still some big name players representing their countries, but the likes of Didier Drogba are no longer considered the fresh faced talent of the African continent. And without three time defending champion Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa, the tournament lacks some of its historically top teams. It will still throw up some entertaining football, but maybe the time has come to make the cup a quadrennial event like the European Championships.
It was a good week for the credibility of US Soccer and MLS in the Premier League. Robbie Keane scored twice for Aston Villa against Wolves to prove he has lost none of his ability to score against poor teams in his time in L.A. Tim Ream agreed terms with Bolton Wanderers. Landon Donovan turned in another decent performance for Everton although he could only help his team to a 1-1 draw against Blackburn. Clint Dempsey scored a hat-trick against Newcastle United to remind some of the top clubs that he may be one of the most underrated players in the league. Dempsey has finally earned the respect of the average football fan in England and he would not be out of place in the home dressing room at White Hart Lane, Anfield or even Old Trafford.
Howard Webb is supposedly one of, if not the best, referee in England, Europe and the World. Who says so? The FA, UEFA and FIFA who all have given him high profile games such as the Champions League and World Cup Finals. Spurs fans don’t agree with that assessment, a sentiment that may be shared with many fans of other clubs, especially those who have played against his ‘favorite’ team Man United when Webb was the match official. Yes, Jermaine Defoe could have got Webb off the hook had he stuck away his great chance in time added on against Man City ’08 on Sunday. He didn’t and so Webb’s decision not to send of Mario Balotelli for his kick out at Scott Parker allowed the Italian to remain on the field, earn and then score the winning penalty. Even with a win at the City of Manchester Stadium Spurs were never likely to win the title, but Webb’s poor decision may have helped City secure it. Webb does not have a great track record where Spurs are concerned – a disallowed a goal at Liverpool ruled offside on a back pass, a penalty awarded to Man United at Old Trafford despite a great save by Hurelio Gomes and goals against United and Chelsea both disallowed when no infringements were evident even in replays. The FA would do well to avoid having Webb do a Spurs game for the next few weeks.
Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho trailed Barcelona 2-0 at half time in the second leg of their Copa Del Rey quarter-final second leg at the Camp Nou. A spirited second half comeback saw Madrid earn a creditable 2-2 draw in a performance that should have earned them a win. There was still a hint of cynical play from Madrid who had Sergio Ramos sent off, but their overall play augurs well for the title run in and any possible Champions League match up. Technically and tactically Real have closed the gap on Barca, but psychologically the edge still goes to the Catalan side.
On the day that their former manager, Harry Redknapp, and their former owner, Milan Mandaric, were giving testimony to Southwark Crown Court in their tax case Portsmouth Football Club were being issued with a winding up order by Her Majesty’s Government. If I was a betting man I would put a tenner on the two cases being related.
It was supposedly a great moment in football history when Thierry Henry came off the bench to rescue Arsenal and score the winner in their FA Cup third round clash with Leeds United. Am I the only one, and this has nothing to do with being a Spurs fan, who was galled at the sight of Henry scoring and celebrating his winner? From the minute he was named on the bench it was a given he would come on and score for the Gunners. His goal was in the script for those that believe in karma. The fact that it was Henry who scored the winner covered up the fact that it was another insipid performance by Arsenal and one that was against an average second division team. He did not come off the bench to score the winner at Old Trafford, Anfield or White Hart Lane. He came off the bench to score at home against a second division team. As a fan of MLS I found his celebration to be nauseating. Where has that passion been for the New York Red Bulls who happen to pay the Frenchman handsomely for his waning skills? The next time he pulls on a shirt for his actual club he should be unceremoniously booed.
It is a sad day for football when a club like Darlington can be close to going out of business. The club has a beautiful 25,000 seat stadium and a rich history in the northeast of England. However, it has been poorly run, fell out of the Football League and is now on the brink of extinction due to a lack of funding. This at a time, when Carlos Tevez is paid over £200,000 to do nothing, but sit at home. Football is not just about the EPL and the Champions League and a club like Darlo is a reminder of what can happen when money is not spent wisely or invested back into the game.
Kenny Dalglish will survive criticism from his doting Liverpool supporters, but if he was judged on his team’s results and his performance in the transfer market he might be under a lot of pressure. The sort of pressure Steve Bruce had at Sunderland before being fired and the sort currently being endured by Steve Kean at Blackburn Rovers. King Kenny will never be under similar pressure, but he should and could although a Carling Cup win might buy him more time and goodwill than he already has. His team have under achieved in the league and are struggling to make the Champions League, the third year in succession they will miss out. And does anyone other than Dalglish believe that Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing are better players than Joe Cole and Alberto Aquilani or Charlie Adam is better than Raul Meireles?
Norwich City and Swansea City under Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers respectively have been a breath of fresh air to the Premier League. Both teams play an open brand of football and have earned the respect of opposition and neutral supporters alike for the manner in which they have played. While the plaudits come their way Lambert and Rodgers would do well to remember that clubs such as Hull City and Blackpool have had similar starts to their top campaigns only to hit a brick wall and eventually suffer relegation. It would be great to see the Canaries and the Swans survive for another season, but there is a long way to go before they are assured of their top flight status.
If Norwich and Swansea keep up their promising run of results then Lambert and Rodgers could be up for manager of the year. Right now though, that honor belongs to Alan Pardew at Newcastle United. The dour cockney arrived on Tyneside to replace the respected Chris Hughton with little to no support from the passionate Geordie fans. Pardew made some shrewd signings, oversaw the sale of some popular and supposedly key players in Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan. The signing of Demba Ba was a master stroke and the performances of Newcastle this season have gone a long way to rehabilitating the image of the club and owner Mike Ashley for the despicable manner in which they treated Hughton. Newcastle went through a sticky patch in December and with Ba departing for the African Cup of Nations there was a sense they could implode. The impressive 3-0 win at home to Man United put the Magpies back on course and they now deservedly sit in sixth place. The signing of Papiss Demba Cisse will further strengthen the team and it is not beyond Newcastle to push for a Europa Cup spot.
This time last year many pundits in the media were telling Arsene Wenger that he needed to buy two players in the January transfer window to ensure his side would be in the title hunt in May. Wenger did not spend and a disastrous run of results stemming from the Carling Cup Final loss to Birmingham put paid to Arsenal’s title challenge. Spurs now occupy the position of outsiders in the title race and similarly to Arsenal need at least two players to continue to push Man City ’08 and Man United for the title. Harry Redknapp needs to buy a prolific or consistent goal scorer, a winger who can cover for Aaron Lennon on the right and Gareth Bale on the left, while a fit center back would not be an unwanted luxury with the likes of Ledley King and William Gallas in the squad. If Redknapp can add at least two players to his squad along with a return to fitness of Tom Huddlestone then Spurs could still be in contention come May. Even if they do not challenge the spending power of Manchester the two new signings should secure a top four finish and ensure that two of Arsenal, Chelsea ’03 and Liverpool miss out.,
Steven Gerrard signed a contract extension at Liverpool that commits his long term future to his only club and the one he supported as a boy. There is much to admire in Gerrard being a one club man in the modern game when most players are mercenaries chasing fame and fortune. Gerrard is, no doubt, well compensated for remaining at Liverpool now and a few years ago when Chelsea ’03 came calling, but he would have had no shortage of suitors had he decided to leave Anfield Road. He is not the best Liverpool player of all time as some have suggested in the past week, that title still belongs to Kenny Dalglish and as a neutral I am not even sure Gerrard is second on the list. Yes, he has a Champions League medal in his collection, but he is a few titles short of matching the likes of Ian Rush, Graeme Souness, and Kevin Keegan in the all-time stakes. And sadly for Gerrard, by committing his long term future to Liverpool he has assured he will never win a Premier League title.
Jeff Winter was an arrogant and pompous referee throughout his career in the English Premier League and one of the most disliked officials in the game. He has carried that self-importance into his career as a media personality and he can be a lightning rod for fans of all clubs when appearing on the likes of Sky Sports and Talksport. Winter is one of those football personalities we all love to hate, so it is nice to see him being taken down a peg or two. His recent anti-Catholic and anti-Celtic rant have shown Winter for what he really is, a bigot. There is no place in the game for people like him and one can only hope the media companies void his contracts.
There have been many high profile incidents in English football in recent years regarding two footed tackles and whether or not they merit a red card, a yellow card or no punishment at all. UEFA and FIFA are not needed to solve this discussion because the answer is quite simple. When a foreign player – Vincent Kompany, Ayegbeni Yakubu, Younes Kaboul, Fernando Torres - makes a two footed tackle it is a red card offence. When an English player – Glen Johnson, Paul Scoles, Wayne Rooney, Phil Neville – makes a two footed tackle it is not a red card offense.
Andre Villas Boas will not lead Chelsea ’03 to a Premier League title this season and may have to win the Champions League in order to save his job. The Portuguese coach thought his team had turned the corner with wins against Newcastle, Valencia and Man City ’08 and a very credible draw at Tottenham. The results quieted some of his critics in the media and the Stamford Bridge dressing room. A draw against Fulham and a loss against Aston Villa, both at home, have provided those critics with more ammunition that the young coach is not up to the task of managing a high profile English team. AVB has a long way to go to prove he is a realistic heir to the throne of Jose Moruinho.
Tottenham Hotspur ended the Christmas season as the top team in London, the first time in 15 years they have held such a lofty spot at the turn of the year. Spurs fans will be ecstatic if their team is still ahead of the other London clubs come May, especially the interlopers from down the North Circular Road. Manchester will be fighting it out for the title, but the race for the final two Champions League spots will be fought out in London. One of Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea ‘03 will miss out on next year’s Champions League.
Newcastle United‘s Demba Ba is one of, if not, the signing of the season. The Senegal international forward has scored 15 goals for the Magpies, a staggering 58% of the team’s goals. Ba signed for a minimal fee from relegated West Ham United and his goals have helped promoted Newcastle to consolidate their position in the top ten of the EPL. They are 17 points clear of the relegation zone, but only three points behind Arsenal and a Europa Cup spot. A top five spot is probably beyond them especially with Ba missing the next month of the season due to his inclusion in Senegal’s African Cup of Nations squad. It would be great for football if Newcastle can stay in touch in the coming month and then beat out one of the Sky 4 to the European spot.
Steve Kean may be in over his head as a Premier League manager and he may eventually lose his job as Blackburn boss, but he does not deserve the abuse the club’s so called fans gave him at Ewood Park in their loss to Bolton. Kean handled the abuse with a touch of class. Rovers fans on the other hand showed none. It is one thing to boo the team, a manger or a player, it is another to maintain a vitriolic campaign against them. If Kean is fired I hope Blackburn are relegated. Their fans don’t deserve to be in the Premier League.
Barcelona won the FIFA Club World Cup when they beat Santos 4-0 in the final in Yokohama, Japan. Lionel Messi proved again, as if there was any doubt, that he is the best player in the world with two sublime goals in the win. Messi’s performance overshadowed that of the Brazilian starlet Neymar. His time may come, but he was in the presence of greatness as Barca sauntered to victory. Messi has had a great year – he scored in the Champions League final to outshine Wayne Rooney and Manchester United; he scored a number of goals in La Liga and the Champions League semi-final to outshine Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid; and he scored two in the World Club Final to outshine Santos and Neymar. Despite some doubts to the contrary, mostly from media pundits in England, Lionel Messi is the world’s best player.
Celtic were fined by UEFA for their fans’ illicit chanting and singing in a Europa Cup game earlier this season. They have also been charged with another offence after irate fans unfurled a banner with a foul-mouthed suggestion to UEFA in an away game at Udinese. Celtic and its fans have had a tremendous reputation around Europe for the best part of the last 40 years. The European Cup Winners Cup game at home to Rapid Vienna in 1984 and the 1980 Scottish Cup Final against Rangers the two exceptions. The club will put its house in order and Celtic will ban for life any fan who sullies the club’s good name. Fans of bitter rivals Rangers have turned the recent incidents into a point scoring contest. What is that they say about people in glass houses?
Liverpool should fire the PR rep whose idiotic idea it was to send its players out wearing a Luis Suarez tee shirt at the DW Stadium against Wigan Athletic. They should also stop manager Kenny Dalglish from making any further comment on the case. Suarez may not be a racist, but he admitted to and was found guilty of making racist remarks to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Liverpool have misjudged sentiment in the UK and around the football world and have lost the support of neutrals in the sorry saga. Suarez should take his eight game ban like a man rather than try to drag Evra’s good name through the mud.
The sacking of Antoine Kombouare as coach of Paris St. Germain is another sign of everything that is wrong with modern day football. PSG were top of Ligue 1 when Kombouare was fired. The club has had huge investment from the Middle East and the new owners, Qatar Investment Authority and their Director of Football, Leonardo did not feel the unfortunate Kombouare was the man to take the team forward. They have appointed Carlo Ancelotti as the new boss with the remit of leading the club to Champions League glory. The Italian should be well prepared for the demands of the job having worked previously for an egomaniacal club owner.