Beware the Belgian’s in blue: Hazard and Fellaini dominate Premier League week 1

Premier League football is back, and with a bang. The glorious sporting drama that London 2012 had provided these shores in the weeks just prior to the nation’s true love returning had left many sceptical of football’s ability to win back our hearts, with it’s ‘overpaid’ stars in their fancy cars, endless on-field spats and numerous off-field misdemeanours. However, like the loveable rogue it is football won back our hearts in the space of a frantic August weekend, reminding us that the Olympics is merely a summer fling, whereas football is an enduring marriage. And on the theme of wedlock the opening throws of the 2012-2013 Premier League season belonged to something (relatively) old and something new, neither were borrowed but both were in blue.

The first exchanges of the season were dominated by a Belgian tour de force. First up something new, Eden Hazard. After performing a Lebron James-esque public build up and ultimate unveiling of his chosen new employers, the La Louviere born man was swiftly put on self-built pedestal. Yet, fans of Ligue 1, and Lille in particular, will tell you that Hazard was a man more than capable of fulfilling the expectations which come with being a two times winner Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year prizes. Any doubts Chelsea fans had after a rather muted introduction in the Community Shield were soon lay to rest by his Premier League bow. Hazard introduced himself emphatically to the English top flight when inside 3 minutes a sublime turn left Wigan defender Ramis with his tail between his legs before Hazard slid in Branislav Ivanovic for The Blues’ opener. He continued to cause havoc winning a penalty just four minutes later after more neat skill. Nevertheless, what was most impressive about Hazard’s performance was not actually the guile and intricate footwork he displayed in abundance, that was almost expected, instead it was his instant adaptation to the rigours of English football.

Hazard was repeatedly handed out heavy treatment from the home side but just continued to dust himself down, get up and make them look foolish once again. It is an enduring sentiment, almost cliché now, that foreign players need to be given time to adapt to the physical and frenetic style of the English game. Who can forget Dennis Bergkamp’s arduous first season, or curiously the man-mountain that was Didier Drogba shying away from the physical demands of his new surroundings in his first term at Stamford Bridge. It makes Hazard’s introduction all the more impressive and it was to get even better in front of his new supporters. The 21 year-old showed what once again, what will no doubt soon be regarded as hall mark, flashes of fast thinking and skilful play chipping in with three assists in the process. His final assist was in many ways most noteworthy. With keeper Federici out of his goal Hazard surged up field with the ball towards the Reading goal. With just a hapless defender between him and his first Premier League goal Hazard instead chose to provide a second goal in four days for Ivanovic.

It highlighted three invaluable traits, an inherent unselfishness, belief in team ethos and an unnerving streak of confidence. He could have just as easily notched that all-important first goal but with an air of “I’ll score when I want,” he was happy to supply his team-mate with the glory. They are characteristics which are generating excitable comparisons with the great Gianfranco Zola and which should serve as a stark warning to future opponents.

While Hazard was enjoying his honeymoon period in West london, his compatriot Marouane Fellaini was celebrating the fourth anniversary of his marriage on Merseyside with the Toffee’s in serious style. Everton are notoriously slow starters and an opening game against a wounded Manchester United looked ominous. But Sir Alex probably hadn’t counted on the irresistible performance that the Merseyside Afro-man was about to produce. Fellaini was simply unplayable, with echoes of Drogba in his prime, taking the ball effortlessly however it was fired at him; head, neck, chest, thigh, foot he brought the ball into his thrall on every occasion or alternatively laid it neatly to a blue shirt. And, bullying Michael Carrick into submission in the process, eventually towering over him to deservedly head in his side’s winner.

Ferguson, in typically understated fashion when referring to the opposition strength’s labelled the Moroccan born midfielder a “handful” and crudely belittled Everton’s tactics as purely lumping it up to this unmanageable magnet, obviously more to deflect criticism away from his own side rather than a sound assessment. Fellaini was much more subtle and holistic in his work than that, he provided creativity as well as an outlet for his side, often dropping in between United’s defensive and midfield lines to link up with Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman. Not to mention an incredible work rate not allowing the deep lying Paul Scholes time to dictate affairs. In fact he probably left his opposition manager with a bitter reminder of the kind of physical driving force his own side still lack.

These two Belgians in blue are shining stars in what is undoubtedly a golden generation of players for their country. It was a Belgian, Vincent Kompany, who lifted the Premier League trophy last season not to mention being an exemplary defensive stalwart in his side’s glorious campaign. Arsenal too, have now looked to a Belgian to lead them on the pitch. A 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Netherlands in the derby of the low countries was a significant statement ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign. But amongst qualifying for Brazil 2014 there is much Premier League action to be played and fans of Everton and Chelsea will be hoping like this nation’s love of football, their Belgian stars contribution will be unwavering despite a few distractions.

Beckham’s Olympic Omission: A victory for sport over celebrity

The nation is aghast, shocked, horrified even. How could Stuart Pearce be so heartless, so disrespectful? How on god’s green earth could he not select David Beckham for the Team GB football squad. From housewives, to young girls and from journalists to ex-pro’s many of the British population could not fathom how such a decision had been made. Yet, more concerning were the reasons given for their dismay.

Much reaction was based around the notion of the LA Galaxy star’s contribution to the Olympic bidding process and his admirable work as an ambassador for the games. Many others smugly wished The Olympic organisers “good luck selling tickets now Beckham’s not playing.” Worryingly, very few people bemoaned this decision based on any kind of football or sporting reason. It seems when our beloved Becks is involved even some of the most robust alpha males and intelligent football commentators are deduced to possessing the rationale of a lovestruck teenage girl. Have we really become a nation that values celebrity and status over current sporting contributions. Is Team GB simply a PR stunt or are we going to actually treat the tournament with the respect all other nations bestow upon it?

Of course this is a first for our shores and undoubtedly the one-off nature of the Olympic football team has clearly left many not really caring about it’s progress, instead seeing it as quirky bit of midsummer entertainment. Understandable perhaps, however in Beckham’s case this process has been going on for four years. Ever since his lucrative move to the MLS the former Real Madrid and Manchester United stars career has been reduced to a list of publicity stunts and token gestures. In March 2008 Beckham received his 100th cap for England nine months after his transfer to LA Galaxy. In that time Beckham managed just seven appearances for the MLS side and hadn’t played since October. Yet, inexplicably Beckham was named in the England squad for a friendly against France before ultimately being picked for the match.

Fabio Capello “I couldn’t make him come all the way from the USA and not play him.”

Even the experienced and authoritarian Italian was powerless to Beckham’s celebrity charm, he had been engulfed by his new homeland’s obsession with the boy from the east-end of London. The MLS is a young league and the standard remains considerably less than the majority of Europe’s top-flight leagues. Moreover, Beckham had barely featured. Yet, he was given special treatment, he’d made a longer journey than his compatriots who were operating at a much higher level of football and so of course deserved to play. His 100th cap had been a gesture of appreciation, almost sycophantic, not a step towards developing our national team in preparation for South Africa 2010.

While we were boosting the ego of a once great footballer the likes of Spain and Germany were investing in the future, developing strong youthful sides, based on substance not status. The results of our respective nation’s performances in that tournament speak for themselves. People may argue Beckham’s service to his country meant he deserved his landmark moment. But I would argue the nation is much more deserving of a progressive rather than regressive national side, than Beckham is of a landmark he himself put in jeopardy by valuing the glitz, glamour and money of Hollywood over elite European football.

However the notion of double standards persists four years on with tweets like the one from television pundit Robbie Savage being a common theme:

“Why was Beckham on the shortlist in the first place, then not pick him? Disgrace!”

What of the other 11 players on the shortlist that will not be selected for the final squad, is it a disgrace that they too will not be selected for the games? Or is the fact they are not on first name terms with Prince William or that they don’t look as good in a pair of Calvin Klein’s mean they are more expendable. The fact is it doesn’t and probably all of those eleven will have a greater claim to a place based on football reasons alone. When picking a football team, Beckham is just another player, nothing more. If this is a case of Beckham’s ambassadorial activities not getting the reward they deserve, then it’s also a disgrace Seb Coe isn’t being lined up for another stab at the 1500m after all his efforts. Not quite the same I know, but you get the gist.

Thankfully, one man truly deserving of a chance to shine on the international stage has been selected, Ryan Giggs. The Welsh wizard is the most decorated footballer in the history of the English game and is still making a significant contribution at the elite level of European football. Craig Bellamy is another deprived of an opportunity to perform in an international tournament in the past and who is still plying his trade in one of the best leagues in the world. While Micah Richards is fresh from winning the Premiership and is an England prospect for whom experience of tournament football will be invaluable for his future development. There is absolutely no argument on a purely football basis for Beckham to have been selected above these players.

It is important to note that this article is not anti-Beckham. At his peak the former Manchester United winger was a special player and his contribution and devotion to the cause of his national side was truly admirable. He has been very dignified in his response to his omission and will undoubtedly continue to offer great support and service to the games, which should be applauded.

However, as a country we must make strides to devalue the importance of reputation, past contributions and social status and instead celebrate substantive and progressive sporting decisions as, in a football sense at least, it is contributing to our downfall as the gap widens between other major nations and ourselves. Hopefully Stuart Pearce’s decision is a step in the right direction and sends out a message to competitors that for Great Britain London 2012 isn’t just an international PR stunt. For fundamentally this is a sporting event and as former England star John Barnes rightly says:

“The Olympics is about winning. You’re belittling the Olympic ideal if you choose someone just to put on a spectacle.”

Originally published June 30, 2012 via footandball.com

‘No trophies please, we’re English’: Time for a new outlook

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Rewind 22 years, England are competing in the World Cup in Italy. Their participation follows a disastrous Euro 88 in which a team considered one of the tournament heavyweights lost all three group games generating frustration and anger form fans back home. Consequently, with past failures considered, England presented a capable if not wholly fancied team at Italia ‘90. The tournament began ominously for Bobby Robson’s men with Gazzetta dello Sport leading with the headline:

‘No football please, we’re English’

In response to a drab opening draw against the Republic of Ireland. However, Robson was unafraid to banish the stalwart England formation of 4-4-2 and instead introduced a sweeper system featuring wing-backs as his team began to play with a degree of sophistication, style and an abundance of adventure.

A solid team with sprinkles of world-class talent progressed all the way to the semi-finals, a penalty shoot-out (what else) away from the final. It signified the national team’s greatest achievement since the glory of 1966 and was accomplished with attacking vigour and incredible drama. Subsequently, England returned home to a heroes welcome from 300,000 fans at Luton Airport, a greeting fit for winners.

It is easy to make comparisons with England’s squad for and build up to Italia ’90 with that of the same pre-cursors to Polkraine 2012. After half a decade of belief and purporting that England were in the midst of a ‘golden generation’ of players, failure at Germany 2006 and more notably an inept display at South Africa 2010 left none still believing such a myth as public anger, frustration and disillusionment resurfaced once more.

Just like 22 years previous England once again arrived at a major tournament capable but wholly un-fancied. Like the squad of 1990 a sprinkling of world class players on top of a solid yet unspectacular base. However, it as this point where the comparisons cease. While the squad of 1990 showed adventure and tactical flexibility this England team possessed an almost wholly negative approach regardless of the class of oppositon and an out-dated and rigid adherence to a 4-4-2 formation. For a country that bares three lions on it’s chest and so often in the past has attempted to conjure images of bravery and the courageous lionhearted spirit of the national side our exit was truly embarrassing.

England were cautious in all three of the group games conceding possession freely to in the case of Sweden and Ukraine in particular, undoubtedly lesser teams. However, what followed against Italy wasn’t negative, it was much worse, it was cowardly, arguably the most pusillanimous exit of any major football nation in years. An initial 20-minute flurry aside England simply refused to even attempt to play football against a very beatable Italian side, which had been less than impressive in the group stages. A game billed as a completely even contest was turned into a nigh-on 100-minute game of attack versus defence.

Pirlo was indeed impressive and a true football great, but I would argue that Steven Gerrard could have done an equally good job had he been given complete freedom to exercise his passing range. Pirlo simply operated unchallenged, as did the whole of the Italian midfield and until they reached England’s 18-yard box. This was a knockout game between two (on paper) even sets of players, yet it turned into the equivalent of a football minnow trying to secure a revenue boosting replay in an FA Cup third round. Losing is hard to swallow, but losing the way England did in Kiev is just completely indigestible. How depressing that the Gazzeto dello Sport’s 1990 headline now holds more resonance than ever.

Hence, the difference in responses to their exit now and 22 years ago. England’s return from their Krakow base was muted to say the least, no swathes of fans greeted them at the airport to recognise their efforts. Both squads we’re unfancied and both ultimately came home pot less but significantly messrs. Gascoigne, Platt and Lineker et al. won hearts and minds if not the World Cup. Hearts and minds, hearts and minds.

This should be England’s focus going forward, afterall only one team can win the trophy and right now England realistically are no where near that eventuality. Especially when considering almost all our hopes for the future, and in particular Brazil 2014, appear to be pinned on a twenty-year old Jack Wilshere who, although shows great promise, has barely played a full season of top-flight football and has been injured for the past 12 months. Throw into the mix that only Brazil, Argentina and Spain have won world cups outside their own continents and that no side outside of South America has been victorious in a World cup there, and our nations chances become even slimmer.

Therefore why don’t free ourselves from limiting chains of expectation of winning and instead devote ourselves to developing an attractive, adventurous and progressive style of football. Make the expectancy be that we go out to win every game not through negative containment but through assertive attacking and progressive possession. A commitment to an exciting football philosophy is much less restraining than a win by any means necessary mentality. It is that very mindset which has contributed to our inability to create the copious amount of talent that Spain and Germany currently have at their disposal.

We must instil in our youth that the way the game is played is just as important as the end result. Former Notts County manager Jimmy Sirrel would argue “the best team always wins and the rest is just gossip,” and in many ways that is true, just ask Chelsea, history remembers winners. However, it is a double-edged sword, which England must both live and die by. If somehow their (unnecessarily) negative tactics had delivered success we would have been rapturous, but equally when such tactics fail, and more often than not they do, England should be rightly lambasted for playing the game in such a gutless way.

It is time to develop a more palatable football philosophy, we will not win at Brazil 2014, if indeed we qualify, and nor will another 30 teams competing. Thus, instead, let’s stand out from the other 30 failures another way by being remembered fondly for the way we play. International success is a more distant dream than ever, the gap between ourselves and our competitors is growing not declining. If we can’t be successful then let’s at least be proud. Let the headline read “We’re English, we play for hearts and minds.”

Originally published 30 June, 2012 via footballspeak.com

Didier Drogba: It’s better to burn out than to fade away

The Champions League final was very much a tale of two strikers, on one side Mario Gomez serial squanderer of chances on the night and the touch of an old 50 pence piece, on the other Didier Drogba, scorer of his only chance and possessor of ice cold nerve in slotting away the victory sealing penalty. The big occasion requires a big man, a decisive mind, a sense of self-assurance. Gomez appeared to be none of these, Drogba embodied them. Drogba continued his incredible run of scoring in cup finals, eight out of nine for the West London club, seven of them resulting in victory. Three premier league titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups were eclipsed by Chelsea’s first ever European Cup success. We now know that decisive kick will be the Ivorian’s self-imposed ending to his Chelsea career, and a better ending he could not have scripted himself.

For people who have consistently performed in the upper echelons of their field the decision to bow out, or more importantly knowing when to, is ultimately a difficult one. Few are presented with the opportunity to depart on a career high and even when they are few take it. Therefore, Drogba should be applauded for his decision to exit the stage, no more so than by the Stamford Bridge faithful. Drogba would have left a legend regardless, however now will almost take on an air of immortality in the clubs history. He came; he saw and after eight years he finally conquered but things could have easily been much different.

After his first season at the club, despite helping to secure a Carling Cup and Chelsea’s first title for over fifty years, Drogba was a figure of embarrassment for many of his own fans. Drogba’s injury feigning theatrics were booed by his own supporters and many called for him to be sold. Luckily for Drogba, and Chelsea, Jose Mourinho was at hand, realising that his talents as a line leading striker were potentially unmanageable for opposition defences and that his unique skill-set was not available anywhere else on the market. A quiet word in Drogba’s ear aided in toning the down the acrobatic simulations although, Barcelona will tell you they never truly went away. But then again the words pot, kettle and black come rushing to mind at the thought of Barca’s gripes.

Nevertheless, unlike in his first season the less gentlemanly aspects of Drogba’s game were overshadowed by his destructive goal scoring powers on the pitch. He presented the ram-rodding sharp end of Chelsea’s most successful ever spine and offered goals into the bargain, securing the Premier League’s Golden Boot on two separate occasions. The adulation of the Chelsea supporters was secured, as was every domestic trophy by 2007. Yet, European glory seemed destined to elude him and often in controversial circumstances most notably at the end of the 2008 and 2009 campaigns.

Chelsea reached the first ever Champions League final in Moscow against Manchester United. An enthralling match went all the way to penalties in which Drogba took no part after foolishly slapping Nemanja Vidic in extra-time. The Blues were defeated and potentially Drogba’s one shot at European glory had ended in shame. Imagine that had been his enduring Champions League memory or his final act in a Blue shirt.

A year later and it was poor luck rather than stupidity that would prevent Drogba from a second stab European stab at United. A last gasp goal from Andres Iniesta and questionable refereeing decisions from Tom Ovrebo saw Chelsea crash out at the semi-final stage with Drogba branding UEFA ‘a f*ckin disgrace’ on live television. How easily that could have been his and our lasting memory of Chelsea’s duels with Barcelona rather than his goal in the first leg of this year’s semi-final and his teams second leg re-enactment of ‘The Battle of Thermopylae’. On both occasion’s Chelsea were stewarded by caretaker manager’s as they are now and on both occasions the next man through the door could have seen fit to dispose of Drogba leaving such events as his final word.

Football provides us with so much but never certainty thus, that’s why it enthrals us so. Chelsea are once again at a crossroads with no guarantee that their triumph in Munich is a first or final chapter. Many questions lie unanswered; will Di-Matteo remain? Can he build on events at the Allianz? Now that all has been won does Roman Abramovich still have the hunger to invest and strive for more? Drogba knows how easily things can go against you, how quickly the football coin can flip. He has experienced the harsher side of it in the past. And what’s more uncertainty over the Chelsea’s future competitiveness ultimately meant that departing with the decisive kick in Chelsea’s most famous night is a finale to grandiose to turn down, too perfect to shun.

It is likely that any doubt in his mind on whether to stay or go was erased by the way events unfolded at The Allianz. Things could easily have been different; he could have been just another Chelsea hero. Instead, he’s Didier Drogba; ‘Chelsea’s Champions League hero’ whose Stamford Bridge career may have burnt out, but will now never fade away.

Originally published May 30, 2012 via footballspeak.com

Can City really dominate in Fergie’s time?

“We won it in Fergie Time,” was the joyous chant of Manchester City fans inside The Etihad Stadium. The incredible events that preceded such elation felt very much like the equivalent of their local neighbour’s last gasp Champions League victory in the Nou Camp. For Solskjaer and Sheringham read Dzeko and Aguero.

Yet, much more remarkable than those dramatic final minutes was the fact that City have been crowned champions during ‘Fergie’s Time’. Just 13 years ago while Ferguson was celebrating his first ever Champions League success against European giants Bayern Munich, City were competing in a League One play-off beating Gillingham on penalties.

The blue half of Manchester has spent over two years in the shadow of their red neighbours as they have witnessed them become a global sporting juggernaut, steered so masterfully by Sir Alex Ferguson. He has symbolised difference between the two rivals, dictating United’s success which City fans have swallowed for two decades. Proclamations back in 1999 that City would even threaten, let alone defeat the this Tyrant of football success responsible for inflicting so much of their pain, just over a decade later would have seen you laughed out of Manchester. Or carried out in a straight-jacket.

But, Sheik Mansour’s 2008 takeover and subsequent billion pound investment has given City an equal footing in the city they believe to be theirs.  If the FA Cup success broke the seal, then the Premiership title has left many wetting themselves with talk of a new era of unchecked domination. This is after all the age of media hyperbole, which lends itself to often hysteric proclamations, which have understandably been exacerbated by the incredible scenes on Sunday. Yet, there is one man you can be sure is remaining calm amongst talk of impending and prolonged power shifts, and that is of course Alex Ferguson.

It has been a landmark season for City and they thoroughly deserved to crowned Premier League Champions. However, the Red Devils have performed admirably to take them all the way to the final seconds of the season. The issue here is not money. Many will say City bought the title and to an extent they did, but to an extent everyone does, and it is a fact that’s largely irrelevant. Indeed, Manchester United’s starting XI on Sunday cost £8 million more than their neighbour’s line up.

City have been forced to spend excessively in order to accelerate their competitiveness, the modern climate of football demands it as revenue based growth has  been made impossible by the financial exclusivity that Champions League qualification and its millions has created. What is pertinent though is that City have arrived and seemingly bottomless oil barrels of cash makes them the team to beat. Yet, more than any other United team in recent history, this is one of considerable transition and yet they have still competed blow for blow.  It suggests that bold predictions are premature and that City’s mission of domestic and indeed European domination will be far from straightforward.

The likes of Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young have played their first full seasons’ at the sharp end of the Premier League. Plans to promote Tom Cleverely into senior action have been scuppered by injury and United have operated with a make-shift midfield for large parts of the season. The absence of Nemanja Vidic has been a huge blow and was ultimately telling in games against Wigan and Everton where his imperious stature and calming influence were sorely missed. As was the lack of an experienced goalkeeper since, undoubted talent though he is, David De Gea initially struggled to adapt to the rigours of Premiership life both physically and mentally. Simply put City’s squad regardless of how much it cost is superior to United’s. Therefore, United supporters can take solace from the fact that despite a season of significant change they still came within touching distance of a 20th league triumph.

United’s achievements can be put in perspective by contrasting it to events at Chelsea. Similarly to United they are negotiating a period of transition, yet despite cup success Chelsea sit 25 points adrift of the Premier League summit. Two years ago they appeared to be the team beat after a League and Cup Double. Trace time further back and their 2005 League triumph was too pinpointed as a watershed moment for the English game, the beginning of sustained period of dominance. Conversely, seven years on and United have won a further four Premier League titles, Chelsea just two. Ferguson’s managerial ability has undoubtedly been paramount in curtailing the ascendancies of not just Chelsea, but Arseanal, Blackburn and even Leeds before them. He and his teams have been a blockade to rival dominance, a barrier to the sustained superiority of other clubs.

It is evidence that money places you in a position to compete but offers no guarantee that an epoch of supremacy will be secured. Especially not while United remain under the stewardship of perhaps the greatest manager to have ever lived. The wisdom he possesses and stability he represents are still his employer’s greatest strength in the face of growing competition. Furthermore, City must fall in line with Uefa’s financial fair play regulations, a sizeable task considering City’s’ 2011 losses totalled a astounding £194.9 million and whose wage bill currently stands at £174 million.

It has been a staggering weekend of football and Mancini’s men have undoubtedly taken residence at the Premier League’s summit, but like a house buyer, until they pay the mortgage it will not exclusively be theirs. The fight from their city rivals will not cease, history alone has taught us that. And while money will certainly not be a hurdle to unimpeded ascendancy, a cunning old Glaswegian.

Originally published May 15, 2012 via backpagefootball.com

 

Guardiola’s departure: The death of Barca-mania?

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April 9, 1970 is one of the most significant dates in music history; it is the day The Beatles officially announced to the world that they were breaking up. After a seven year period of performing and recording in which they had revolutionised the world of music they called time on an era of creativity which had enthralled millions the world over. But then what has this got to do with Barcelona? What is this got to do with football? Well Pep Guardiola’s resignation in a packed Barcelona press room felt very much like the football equivalent of that seismic announcement of the Fab Four’s split.

This was not your typical managerial departure; the whole football watching world appeared to be invested, to have an opinion on its impact. Similarly to the Beatles’ the announcement came months after the decision was effectively made. Pep Guardiola has admitted that he confirmed to the club as early as December of last year that he would not be taking the option to extend his contract at the helm of the Catalan giants. People had their suspicions that his desire to continue was waning but obviously any public admission would have undermined matters on the field. Furthermore, it appears the club hierarchy were unable to come to terms with the pending loss of Guardiola, unwilling to accept that a team revered the world over would soon lose its creator, its orchestrator, it’s leader.

Even until the night before the press conference Barcelona officials were reported to asking Guardiola to reconsider, but as he has displayed through his teams commitment to his football philosophy, he is a man of sturdy conviction of unwaveringly coherent thought. The announcement came, an era had ended and (at least it felt as if) the party was over. Just as a great band harvest legions of fans who hang on their every move, every word, every release such is the greatness of this Barcelona team they generated comparable levels of admiration not just from the Catalan faithful but from football fans the world over. Managers, players and neutral fans alike seem to all have been speaking as one over the past four years in their unanimous praise of this majestic Catalan machine.

With such approbation clearly comes intense pressure to maintain such artistry adding to the sizeable demands Guardiola, like all great minds, placed upon himself to uphold his own lucid principles. For Guardiola Barcelona is no mere job it is a labour of love both for the way he wants the game to be played and for the club he has been at since the age of 13. External and internal demands have combined to form a pressure which was cited as no longer manageable by Guardiola. The fascination and adulation that has built around his side since 2008 served to create one of the most engaging and surreally sombre press conferences in football history.

Guardiola spoke for what felt like hours covering reasons for his departure in the same detail he undoubtedly applies to his sides match preparation. His announcement, although inevitable, was no less absorbing. Even a selection of Guardiola’s playing staff watched on reflectively and with the same respect they have held for him throughout his tenure. The press conference was concluded with a standing and tangibly emotional applause. The whole event took on more a feeling of a memorial service rather than a 41 year-old simply stating his intention to take a sabbatical from the game. Messi was reportedly too upset to attend while upon reading Cesc Fabregas’ response you would be forgiven for thinking Guardiola had died:

Although I only was with him for 1 year it felt like a lot more. For me Pep was my hero as a kid and an inspiration as a manager. Thank you for the little time we spent, I will cherish it always.

Such an appreciative and almost mournful sentiment from players, press and fans alike following Guardiola’s announcement is testament to the football majesty he has been central in creating and the grace with which he has greeted success and the rare intrusion of defeat. His stewardship is defined by a brand of football which has been as destructive as it has aesthetically striking, as fruitful as it has revolutionary. Pre-occupation with established tactical approaches and the need for physical presence have been binned.

Instead a team with no recognisable centre forward and diminutive physique have indulged in gluttonous and eye-catching possession of the ball which at has at times left all comers at their mercy. The last four years in many people’s opinion has seen the genesis of the world’s greatest ever team. Yet, while their legacy appears cemented and absolute Guardiola’s departure leaves questions over their future. Not least in the form of their mercurial talisman Lionel Messi.

Messi represented incredible yet inconsistent potential under Guardiola’s predecessor Frank Rijkard but subsequent to ‘The boy from Santpedor’s’ reign has become a football phenomenon, a 5ft 6in juggernaut mystifying all that come before him. In just four seasons under Guardiola’s guidance the boy from Rosario has scored an astonishing 201 goals helping Barcelona to 13 trophies. Of course his talent is undeniable but yet under different coaches at international level he has been unable to display it with such prowess. Equally, Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona’s passing carousel have taken their game to unbelievable new heights compared to their performances under Rijkard.

Tito Villanova is no doubt respected but will the players be able to follow his principles as stringently as they did Guardiola’s? In their eyes will he simply be Guardiola-Lite? Will relentless yet beautiful building blocks of tika-taka passing remain a hall mark of Barca’s game or will they become disjointed through the absence of the reassuring sight of their revered conductor in the Nou Camp dug out? Will Villanova’s Barcelona be able to continue to mesmerise, innovate and evolve in the way Guardiola’s continually did or will his team simply be an attempt at the continuation of a now established method?

Inevitably only time will tell but such an emotive response on that now famous football date April 28, 2012 seemed to illustrate a feeling both from within and without Barcelona that the most special of football eras may have been concluded. This particular brand of Barca-mania for which we must be thankful to have witnessed may well have ceased to be. Like the Beatles without Lennon wouldn’t, Barcelona without Guardiola just won’t feel the same.

Originally published 3 May, 2012 via backpagefootball.com

Relegation cloud forms over Villa Park

While the country remains in a state of drought (officially at least) the rain continues to pour over Villa Park. Defeat at home to Bolton on Wednesday night signified the moment that Aston Villa’s arid form culminated in officially being a member of the relegation dogfight club.

Unlike Tyler Durden’s famous underground gild the first rule of this club is you do talk about relegation, a lot. It is a prospect that is now undoubtedly the focus of every Villa fan’s thoughts and conversations with West Midland’s biggest club lying just three points above the drop zone with only three games remaining. Villa have one just one of their last ten league games drawing five scoring just eight goals. The last ten games represent Villa’s season in a nutshell.

The appointment of Alex McLeish in the summer was both a controversial and curious one. Appointing the manager of your fiercest rivals is guard for fans to digest at the best of times but when it follows a season where the man in question led his team to relegation it becomes a pill all the more toxic to swallow. Of course McLeish delivered the blue half of Birmingham with the Carling Cup but knockout football is a peculiar beast where lesser outfits can prosper either through a fortunate passage or just through plain defying of the odds in one-off games. For these reasons it must be treated with caution when judging a manager’s ability whereas league standings provide a much more reliable source of information.

The curious nature of McLeish’s appointment suggests he may simply have been the only manager willing to work with such barren resources. The Villains have had an extensive injury list this season and have had to turn to youth, in some cases not yet ready for full throttle Premiership action in order to plug gaps in the team. Despite Gerard Houllier somehow convincing Randy Lerner to part with £24million for Darren Bent in January 2011 the summer of 2010 appears to be a watershed moment in Villa’s recent history.

After three seasons of significant investment and subsequent flirting with Champions League qualification only to be found wanting it appeared Randy Lerner no longer viewed such ambitions as financially viable or indeed sustainable. O’Neill resigned over this admission of defeat and a talented squad was subsequently cherry picked by the leagues bigger clubs. It is a lesson that Newcastle and Spurs may learn this summer; fail to get Champions League football and the talented squad of nearly men will be easy pickings for top four vultures. The ease with which allowed this process play out smacked of an almost blatant admission that Villa now saw mid-table stability as the total of their ambitions and ones they felt Alex McLeish was able to sustain.

Nevertheless, McLeish’s links with the Birmingham meant that before a ball was even kicked fans wanted him out regardless of budgetary constraints out of his control. This was arguably exacerbated by an inevitably uninspiring summer transfer folly which saw Charles N’Zogbia as the only notable addition. The Frenchman has not helped McLeish’s cause producing a string of under-whelming performances as he cements his place in the category of players frustratingly incapable of capitalising on abundant natural talent. McLeish was disliked, distrusted and by some even hated purely based on his previous employers. Yet, worryingly such anger at this affiliation with their second city rivals has been heightened and even superseded by the football he has fostered on the pitch.

McLeish’s employs a brutally negative brand of football varying this season from the turgid to downright inept. Villa operate with an incredibly solitary one up front relying on unashamedly direct and long balls to feed him rather than any form of progressive passing play. A fact highlighted by an almost embarrassing 53% pass completion rate against relegation threatened Bolton. To his credit Darren Bent performed this isolated role admirably and his injury along with the loss of skipper Stylian Petrov through illness have sparked Villa’s fall from morose mid-table mediocrity into the three fixture shoot-out for survival.

With the loss of their most experienced midfielder and only established striker Villa have been foolish to continue with such a negative approach. Furthermore, for some fans such an approach sits uneasy even when producing moderately successful results and is deemed downright unforgivable when results are poor. When once asked about how to silence disgruntled fans, Brian Clough simply replied “win.” There is no greater truism in football. Deliver success an fans will almost conveniently forget their various gripes (including rival affiliations), but lose and the supporters memory is all too sharp and groans of discontent become ever more amplified. It is a fact Alex McLeish is learning with every defeat with every position slipped in the table.

As the rain continues to pour, Villa fans will be hoping they are not washed away from a league in which they have occupied residency since it’s formation in 1992. For Alex McLeish however the tide looks to be too strong and even Premier League survival may not be enough to save him.

Originally published April 28, 2012 via Backpagefootball.com