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Posts Tagged ‘ Rafa Benitez ’

A Beautiful Game No More

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In the last number of weeks, we have been treated to a flurry of high-profile football games, with clashes at the top of the Premier League, big name ties in the FA Cup and the return of the Champions League with the first knock-out round. But did any of those big games bring about a truly enjoyable and competitive game? And if not, why not?

This week’s Champions League ties saw Barcelona take on Manchester City and Bayern Munich against Arsenal. All four teams would have to be considered expansive and attacking in their play, and with both English sides at home, the onus was on them to come out and attack. In theory, we were set up for two classic encounters with sides attacking and counter-attacking constantly. Yet the City game in particular was a huge disappointment. Manuel Pellegrini’s side have averaged 3.5 goals per home game, but ceded ground to the Catalan side from the off, which must have been why Aleksandar Kolarov was picked to play from the left wing. They only looked vaguely threatening and hugely dependent on Yaya Toure to roam forward from midfield and David Silva to create the chances. In fairness, it almost came off when Silva played in Alvaro Negredo, who rounded the goalkeeper only to be driven too wide to apply the finish. By and large though, City were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, and their attacks were few and far between.

They were largely successful in containing Barcelona until their defensive unit were complicit in giving up the lead. Barca won the ball up the field, Vincent Kompany dropped too deep too fast and played on Lionel Messi, and Martin Demichelis brought him down, giving up the penalty and earning a red card, and changing the complexion of the game from then on. It’s almost impossible to play gung ho against this Barca team at the best of times, but with ten men it becomes time to batten down the hatches. It is interesting to note that it was Jesus Navas, as well as Kolarov, who got withdrawn, as he had the genuine pace that could have offered City a swift counter-attacking option.

The Arsenal game was fairly similar, in that it was changed by the red card to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but really by that time Munich had taken hold of the game. But Arsenal did come out and play hard and fast for the first fifteen minutes, making Bayern look like a ragged bunch of journeymen. This spell culminated with the penalty won and missed by Mesut Ozil, who was presented with the chance to answer the bandwagon jumpers who have blamed him for most of Arsenal’s problems of late. Unfortunately for him and that game, he missed and the belief seemed to transfer from the Arsenal players to Bayern’s almost immediately. Arsenal barely had an attack of note after that, and certainly none after the red card.

In the case of Champions League ties, the home tie is a tricky one, given the importance of away goals. Even though the crowd are roaring you on and looking to take a lead for the away leg, it may suit a lot of teams to come out with a nil-nil, knowing a score draw in the next leg would see them through. For instance, if City had registered a scoreless draw the other night, would it have seemed farfetched that they could have nodded in a couple of goals from corners or free kicks in the Camp Nou, and put the game beyond Barcelona? Down a man, it is obviously pertinent to minimise the damage, and the couple of away goals both sides gave up mean they are highly unlikely to overturn the deficit and win their ties.

Pellegrini clearly has a lot of fear when thinking of this Barcelona side. Who wouldn’t? He has seen this team first hand a little too often for his own good in the last ten years, as he managed Villareal, Real Madrid and Malaga against them in La Liga during their pomp. It is unlikely he didn’t carry battle scars from all those encounters, and they possess great weapons. But Man City went away from their own strengths in the face of all this, when really they might have been better served by trying to put them on the back foot. Going forward, Barca’s most impressive player was Dani Alves, but he was on a yellow card from early on and is not the most accomplished defender on the planet, could they not have looked to exploit him more? Fortune favours the bold, and Man City had the team that could have troubled Barca a lot more than they did.

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What made these games in particular quite dull affairs was the possession-based game plan of both winning sides. As Bayern and Barca camped out in the English sides halves for the second half of their games, who was visibly enthralled? Toni Kroos smashed in a beautiful goal from outside the box, but Bayern didn’t really carve Arsenal open. Rafinha and Alves as full backs were the most incisive players of the midweek action as they had lots of space when defenders were already sucked in, but Bayern had to resort to lumping on big centre forwards to get the second goal. Nothing wrong with it, but they weren’t exactly cutting holes in the Arsenal rearguard by passing slowly and laterally outside the box. It was dull.

There is a trend in football now, largely thanks to the successes of Barcelona in the last decade, to play possession-based attacking games. Hog the ball, wear down your opponent, wait for your moment when the concentration levels drop, then pounce.  This has seen the rise of the offensive full-back, who is seemingly the player with the most space available to them. In turn, it now seems the centre-back is the new full-back, as the wider areas are closed down and the middle is where the space lies, so if you are lucky enough to have a centre-back with good ball skills they can drive forward and pick a pass, allowing your team to recycle possession effectively. But it is this type of dominant attacking that is making games less open. Opponents are generally pinned back and have to play with a defensive mind-set. There have been examples of teams capable of getting results with strong counter-attacking, such as Gareth Bale’s Spurs (no offense, AVB) and Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan team. These sides were able to take advantage of the major weakness of teams like Barca and Bayern, which is the defensive side of the game. Inter were able to knock out Barcelona and eventually win the Champions League by attacking when the moment was right, and defending solidly otherwise. But teams down the bottom of the league rarely have the speed of thought found in that Inter team’s Samuel Eto’o or Wesley Sneijder, nor the clinical finishing of Diego Milito. Thus, they spend the whole game defending and more or less awaiting the inevitable.

Even away from the elite teams in Europe, this trend can still be the case. The Europa League game between Swansea and Napoli had a similar plot. Swansea were always going to enforce their possession game too, but with all due respect they are not at the same standard as Barca or Bayern. The Napoli line-up was also one that boasted great talent, particularly going forward with the tremendous Gonzalo Higuain and the high profile Marek Hamsik, as well as winger Lorenzo Insigne who has played for Italy and Jose Callejon, who came through the ranks for Real Madrid before making a summer move to Naples. Add in counter-attacking away-leg specialist Rafa Benitez (see; any successful Liverpool European tie during his reign), and this should have been a rip-roaring tie with back and forth attacks. Unfortunately, not the case. Swansea played well but didn’t create too many clear chances, while Napoli were quite poor and resigned themselves to defending from early on.

Liverpool have played Arsenal twice in the last few weeks, with the first game a one-sided slaughter as Liverpool exposed Arsenal’s defence repeatedly in the first twenty minutes. The game was over after those early exchanges, and the second game could have gone the same way, with Daniel Sturridge having two great chances early on. Admittedly, the FA Cup game was a much more competitive game than any of the others mentioned, particularly in the second half. But it still wasn’t an end to end kind of game, as Liverpool dominated possession while pushing for an equaliser. The dross served up in the Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture was perhaps explainable by the frailty of both sides. Arsenal were just coming off the hiding at Liverpool, while United have struggled all year as a particular game plan and style remains unclear.

This is not to say anything is wrong with being a strong defensive side. Some of the best games in history have been based on a strong defensive effort defying a ferocious attack, like the Italian win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. There is certainly an art to defending, and it seems to evade the Pep Guardiola inspired teams like Munich and Barcelona. But if opposing teams are unwilling or unable to launch attacks and get at their back four, they will continue to get steamrollered. A fascinating encounter (not unlikely after the first leg results) would be a two-legged affair between these two teams down the Champions League line. None of the other games mentioned were uninteresting in their own right, but a tie between Bayern Munich and Barcelona might give us the furious, frenetic end to end game we’d all love to see.

Images courtesy of uefa.com, uefa.com/AFP/Getty Images

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Away Teams to Perform This Weekend

Gareth Bale Aston Villa v Tottenham HotspurI allowed myself to be convinced by someone (who shall remain nameless but is my only brother) that Liverpool would win against Stoke on Stephen’s Day. I assure you I will not be listening to his dilettantish advice again and to make up for this pathetic blip, I have picked out some value bets and moulded them together to form another beautiful big odds accumulator.

At this stage, everybody is getting sick of the Benitez’s boo boys at Stamford Bridge. Obviously Roberto di Matteo was harshly treated but is it Rafa’s fault that the club is being run by a megalomaniac? I for one am glad that he has reformed the Chelsea side, David Luiz’s move away from the back four can only be positive and his footballing ability is slowly being nurtured in a defensive midfield role. He was quite impressive in his suffocation of Wes Hoolahan against Norwich and I think he could have a similar effect on the lively Steven Pienaar this weekend when his side face Everton. Strong at the back and equally impressive up front recently, Chelsea should record an away victory and are priced at 6/4 to do so.

Tottenham looked sensational on the break against Aston Villa on Wednesday with Gareth Bale in especially good form. They face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in the early game on Saturday and hopefully they will kick off our accumulator, we’re going to back them at evens to come out on top.  The home side have been on some sort of a road to recovery with 3 wins in their last 4 outings, having beaten QPR, Southampton and remarkably Man City. However, Tottenham have had tasted success on the road many times this season and I fancy them to overrun their hosts and they are favourably priced to do so.

To complete the accumulator I’ve picked out Southampton to pull off a draw against Stoke at the Britannia. The home side, who have not lost on their own patch yet this season, will be weakened without their suspended captain Ryan Shawcross and right-back Geoff Cameron. Their skipper has been indispensable to the team this season, essential in holding their water-tight defence together with Robert Huth. He will be sorely missed as Stoke come up against Southampton’s danger man Rickie Lambert. I fancy the away side to earn a welcome point against draw-specialists Stoke, whose defensive absentees should not be underestimated. The draw is available at 5/2 and cranks up the overall odds of our big odds Accumulator to 16/1.

Four Games That Could Earn You Big Bucks

Fernando TorresThis weekend we’re going to play by the rules. We’re going to take our beatings and learn from them as the 33/1 and 50/1 bets we previously unsuccessfully attempted are not going to be emulated. We dared to dream of getting rich quick but paid the price and so it is with a heavy heart that we desert the bet of the day which is Swansea to beat Arsenal at 4/1 (draw no bet), or 6/1 for those brave enough to back Michu, Hernandez and co. to stuff the gunners at the Emirates. Not us however, nor are we brave enough to include Swansea in our moderately big bucks accumulator this weekend. Instead we’re going to point our prayers to backing a paltry 18/1 accumulator which, for the most part, comprises of sure things.

We’re starting at the Hawthorns where West Brom face Stoke. The Baggies really should be utterly disappointed with their display on Wednesday and I fancy them to bounce back from this dismal performance. Fan favourite Shane Long is due to return to the starting eleven to bolster their attack against a team who are on the back of two successive home wins, but away form would suggest that Stoke will be on the wrong side of the result this time. West Brom are available at evens to beat the Potters who could be without their main man Peter Crouch.

Onwards and predictably upwards towards the top of the table and we’re going to back both Man City and Chelsea to win their games this weekend. There are quiet whispers of City developing their 14 game unbeaten start into an unbeaten season. Despite the fact that they haven’t been setting the world on fire, they are now looking defensively solid now and have more than enough names up front to bag them a goal or two to secure the three points against Everton, who as it turns out, were the last team to beat them at home. We’re going to conveniently ignore this stat though and back them at 1/2 to reverse that result.

Rafa Benitez is still looking for his first goal as Chelsea manager and, while he has also yet to concede a goal, the Spaniard will be hoping that his infamous number 9 can do something, anything to inspire his fellow team mates to their first win since beating Tottenham in October. I think they should be able to pull it off away to West Ham in the 12.45 kick off on Saturday. Juan Mata should start after being left on the bench against Fulham, and another big plus for the Blues is that the blunder-prone David Luiz will not be available for selection – that’s encouragement enough to back Chelsea at 5/6 to win.

The final leg of this accumulator for those of us who won’t be including the Swansea factor focuses our attention on Fulham’s home tie with Tottenham. We’re going to stick our money on a draw in a fixture which sees two sides who this season have been very effective going forward but not so much when defending.  Both sides had a good result during the weekend and even though Spurs did beat Liverpool 2-1, they were not all that convincing and I don’t feel that they will take all three points off Fulham. The draw is generally priced at 12/5.

Putting those 4 bets together still gives us decent accumulator odds of 18/1 – not the most ridiculous 18/1 bet you could have this weekend. Other bets that could be worth a gamble would be, as mentioned above, Swansea 4/1 to beat Arsenal (draw no bet) and over 2.5 goals in the Fulham match at 4/6.

That’s the Premiership accumulator for this weekend my fellow punters, maybe it’s not as adventurous as other weeks but will you really care when your 18/1 bet comes in and you’re finally able to afford that solid gold house? I think not.

A Tale of Nine Managers

The furore over Chelsea sacking Roberto Di Matteo following the club’s recent slip down the Premier League and in Europe and cemented by Tuesday night’s embarrassing defeat to Juventus was greeted with no great surprise and amazement as what was expected finally came to pass. Stan Collymore, Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand have all registered their amazement at the move, with Newcastle boss Alan Pardew branding the sacking ‘unbelievable’. BBC presenter Dan Walker probably provided the best summation of events, saying “Binning Di Matteo seems harsh, brutal, a bit daft but sadly inevitable. What Abramovich wants…”

It’s a little hard to believe when recalling that only last May Di Matteo was celebrating Chelsea’s historic Champions League triumph on a pitch in Munich. Of course of great importance now is that we are living in and moving ever increasingly into the era of not just the great players and the legendary managers who set the course for clubs, but also the owners. As football becomes a sport where money and bucket loads of it is needed to remain competitive and challenge for trophies, clubs are relying more and more on owners with plenty of cash, and, unfortunately, owners who in some cases believe they know more about football than the managers they’ve paid to do the job.

The surprise isn’t that di Matteo has been sacked. That has always been on the cards, with Chelsea it’s expected and a two-year contract proved that the faith simply wasn’t there, despite being a manager who had guided a team in disarray during the early part of the year to Champions League and FA Cup glory. No, the only surprise is that Roman Abramovich hasn’t followed his own ego and misplaced faith in his own football knowledge and simply installed himself as manager. He really calls the shots at the football club, they know it and we know it too. Why not just be open about it?

The most successful teams in football are those who have that one vital component – stability. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson often speaks about the need to build a club rather than a team, and the first thing he did upon his arrival at the club was to reorganise the club’s youth structures. Many of the players developed during this time went on to become standout players at the club – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham amongst them. And while of late Manchester United hasn’t been exactly living up to their fearsome reputation, the building is well underway again, as Sir Alex combines foreign acquisitions with homegrown talent. “The first thought for 99 percent of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win—to survive,” Sir Alex said, speaking to the Harvard Business School. “They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club—not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team.” At Barcelona, a similar approach is followed; while the managers do change somewhat often, the team ethos is what has kept the club elevated for such a long period of time – the tika taka style of play is embedded in the club from the youths to the first team.

What have Chelsea got? There is no set way they really play – managers haven’t had the time to put a stamp on the club, an established way in which they play because they simply haven’t been given a real opportunity. Managers come and go at Chelsea, each bringing their own brand of experience to the job, each bringing their own tactical ideas and player wishlists, and a gelling together of coach and club doesn’t always happen straight away. Some bad first results might have very well ended in the sacking of Sir Alex Ferguson all those years ago; if that had happened would Manchester United have enjoyed all of that success they’ve experienced over the years? Chelsea have a few trophies, some certainly very talented players, especially those brought in this past summer, and undoubtedly the money is there. But they need a manager to combine all of those positive aspects, and to do that definitively, they need time. And several of the more recent managers haven’t even had a full year at the helm. True success takes time. Where might Chelsea be if Mourinho had been left to his own devices and Abramovich had taken a back seat role consisting of signing the cheques and enjoying the success? At least that is something Manchester City are getting right – despite some pretty dismal performances over the past two Champions League seasons, Mancini has been given the owners trust along with their money and is experimenting, trying to find the Manchester City way, while building a solid base for the club in terms of the youth system. Managers need to be given time but in this day and age immediate returns on investments are expected, as manager’s terms in office are being measured in months rather than years.

It’s hard to see why any manager with any care for his reputation would come to Chelsea other than the impressive pay package coupled with the inevitable generous settlement when their tenure comes to an acrimonious end. Why would anyone come to a club as manager when they’re third in the pecking order, behind the Russian owner and senior players such as John Terry and Ashley Cole? Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail has recently revealed the conditions under which Di Matteo was forced to operate, chief amongst which was the constant and repetitive urging to play Torres, a wish on the part of the owner which impacted negatively on Di Matteo’s plans for the team, regarding proposed transfers.

Former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has already been confirmed as the ‘interim’ manager, a term which must surely fill the Spaniard with a world of confidence as he must realise the Russian oligarch trusts him at the steering wheel for just a little while as he makes his search for a more long- term sacrificial lamb.

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