Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mad To Knock Mancini

If Roberto Mancini is under pressure at Manchester City, then the world really has gone mad. For him to be thrown into a high pressure job, with expectations of improving the already reasonable performances seen under Mark Hughes, the least he deserves is till the end of next season to prove he can do that.
The amount of paper talk claiming that a defeat away to Stoke in the FA Cup leaves him on borrowed time is scandalous. Stoke are a tough nut to crack, especially at the Britannia Stadium, and Mancini is still getting used to such challenges. He is working with players left to him by Eriksson and Hughes, and while these are unmistakeably very good players, since being assembled they have rarely looked like a team. We have seen moments of individual flair, yes, but very little determination, and very little hard graft. Steven Ireland, Craig Bellamy, and Carlos Tevez should be automatic starters if Man City are to overhaul their top 4 rivals. They combine talent with a work-ethic, in such a way that the likes of Robinho and Adebayor can only dream of.
Roberto Mancini has already shown he understands what sort of players are needed to succeed in this fast-paced Premier League. His ruthless disposal of Robinho, while being an admittedly populist move, similar to Steve McClaren’s treatment of David Beckham as England manager, made perfect sense. At home, Manchester City have few problems. Last season, Robinho lit up Eastlands at times, but few other stadia. This season his enigmatic candle went out altogether, and Mancini realised this immediately.
Mancini can also not be blamed for a defence containing such mishaps as Joleon Lescott. Possibly the most expensive transfer blunder Manchester has seen since Veron, he has made nine appearances in a City shirt, and few of them impressive. Wayne Bridge is also cause for concern, and he has clearly been adversely affected by recent romantic unpleasantness, of which we need no further debate! Again, this situation will not be solved by getting rid of Mancini.
While I have advocated, and still do so, the removal of Benitez, that is a totally different situation. Giving managers time for the sake of stability is clearly not the best idea, but Mancini’s record at Inter proves that he warrants a real chance. If, at the end of next season, his side have still not cracked the top 4, after his summer of squad building, then he will have few complaints. But right now, the supporters and surrounding media are doing him few favours. Let the man do his job, and things will improve.
We’ve all seen the damage of managerial instability at Newcastle, and at Portsmouth. Chelsea are probably the only club in the country that have managed to get away with such trigger-happy running of the club, and that is tantamount to the quality of player that Mourinho attracted during his time at the club. Right now, Man City do not have enough of that type of player. In the summer it will be up to Mancini to put together such a squad, but for him to be under even the slightest pressure before he has had that chance, is enough to make you lose whatever remaining faith you have in the people pulling the strings of English football.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Has Benitez Dodged The Bullet?

The position of Rafael Benitez, as manager of Liverpool, has been the subject of constant speculation almost since that opening-day defeat at White Hart Lane. He must be thanking his lucky stars that he signed a new five-year deal less than twelve months ago!
While Liverpool currently lie in 4th position, in fulfilment of the Champions League promise Benitez made, it cannot disguise the reality of Liverpool’s complete disaster of a season. At the time of writing, Man City hold the same number of points, with two games in hand. I know who my money is on, and they don’t play in red. With Liverpool’s recent improvement in form, it may seem foolish to ask questions of Benitez. He is well within his rights to claim that his side have turned the corner. However, it should never have come to this.
By the time the final whistle blew on Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth in December, Liverpool had lost eight of eighteen league games. They were out of the League Cup, out of the Champions League, and soon to be dumped out of the FA Cup. It was never going to get much worse than that. Even Graeme Souness has managed to steer Liverpool to an FA Cup victory, and as a Newcastle fan, I can testify to his, shall we say, questionable managerial skills!
Any other club would have kicked Benitez out long ago, and while the Reds have steadily climbed the table in recent weeks, the performances have remained, at best, workmanlike. The impressive run of clean sheets has been the foundation for this, with the creatively still somewhat lacking. What was Alberto Aquilani’s £20m arrival supposed to bring? That’s right - creativity. While it is right to allow the Italian time to adapt to the English game, what Benitez needed in the summer was an immediate return on any investment made, particularly with the departure of Alonso. Perhaps wiser choices could have been made.
The defeat to Arsenal summed up the problem Liverpool have right now. While their defence is good enough to withstand many Premier League attacks, the trip to the Emirates was a step too far. Even an Arsenal side nowhere near their best was able to fight off a toothless Liverpool. Even with the solid defensive performances of Carragher & co, the Anfield outfit still did not see fit to attack Arsenal, and finish them off. Instead, pressure was invited, and the points were thrown away.
Such negativity has been the defining characteristic of Liverpool this season, and it will surely cost them their top 4 place. Benitez is a very fortunate man, not only because of the lengthy contract he signed last season, but the financial crisis that has engulfed the English game. The current fiascos surrounding Portsmouth and West Ham have deflected attention away from his ineptitude for now, but we may well see Rafa’s position under the microscope yet again by May.
Should Liverpool fall short of the top 4, his position would be untenable. A very public promise was made, if he cannot deliver this, he would be well advised to resign before the bullet finally finds its target.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Why Murray Needn't Worry

Andy Murray recently suffered the biggest disappointment so far of his short career. While defeat to Roger Federer in a grand slam is nothing new to him, never before has he come so close. Unlike the US Open in 2008, Murray actually gave a performance to be proud of, despite the repetition of the straight sets scoreline. For long periods he stood toe to toe with whom many regard as the world’s greatest ever tennis player, in Roger Federer. At one point in the third set, 5-2 up, it looked like the momentum had swung Murray’s way, and a fightback looked on the cards. Unfortunately however, Roger’s abundance of experience shone through, as he artfully picked the locks of the Scot’s defences.

Murray’s progress through the Australian Open came as a pleasant surprise to his many detractors. Some claimed that he possessed a defensive and reactive style of tennis, which was ill-fitting with his ambition to be up with the very best in the world. One example of such a trait has been his tendency to stay behind the baseline for the majority of points, allowing his opponent to force the initiative at key points in the match. In the 2009 Grand Slams, this weakness was brutally underlined by the game’s power players. Roddick, Cillic, Verdasco, and Gonzalez, all walked away having blown Murray off the court. Granted, on each occasion the victor played out of their skin, but each time, the Scot seemed too passive to really pose many questions of his own. He is yet to beat a big hitter at his own game.

However, so far in 2010, we have seen him come out of his shell somewhat. In reaching the final in Melbourne, some big threats were neutralised. 6 ft 9 John Isner was dispatched in round four, with Murray coping well with his booming serve, followed by the defeat of Rafael Nadal in the last eight. In many ways it was difficult to judge Murray’s progress on this match alone, as the Spaniard’s well-publicised knee injury once again came to the fore, forcing an early retirement. In Murray’s defence though, Nadal appeared to be close to his best in the first two sets, before his injury became apparent, and during this 2 hours of tennis, we saw a new Andy Murray. One that stepped into the net, dealt ferocious groundstrokes, and was not afraid to take on a player who 12 months ago seemed unstoppable. While Nadal is certainly not the same player since his injury last year, for the British number one to ruthlessly expose his shortcomings in such a big tournament was crucial in illustrating his new found confidence. It was perhaps fitting that to reach the final, Murray had to beat the man that halted his 2009 US Open progress, in Marin Cillic. Eventually, Murray prevailed in four sets, showing again how much work on his technique had been put in over the winter break.

And so, came the biggest test of his career; a match-up with a player at the peak of his powers, or anyone else’s powers. A match that would be the true gauge of his world standing. It is perhaps not surprising that Murray retreated into his shell slightly. He must have wished he could just sit back and enjoy the show that Federer put on, but the Scot was braver than that. The opening exchanges were perhaps proof enough that Federer would need to be at his best to lift the trophy. At 2-0 up in the first set, many onlookers in Melbourne probably anticipated a stroll in the park for the Swiss legend. And while the straight-sets scoreline probably suggests that to be the case, it would be an inaccurate assumption. For in response to this opening blow from Federer, Murray immediately hit back with his own break of serve. Possibly the serve was a key weakness in Murray’s game. At best, his first serve throughout the final can be described as hit and miss. This gave Federer cheap points at key moments. Frustratingly, in the rallies, Murray showed his real class, at times moving his opponent expertly around the court. However, his first serve, as proven by the stats, lacked accuracy, and with Federer in such an unforgiving mood, this will always prove to be an important flaw.

While Murray is without a Grand Slam to his name, there will always be doubters of his genuine quality. It is true that he is the only remaining player in the top five without one of these holy grails. However, the moment he faces an opponent other than Federer in a final, mark my words, we will have a British champion. Perhaps even the Fed knows that anything less than his imperious best would have seen Murray walk away victorious in current form. A backhanded compliment maybe, but it is testament to the fact that Andy Murray is on his way to the top. The clay court season may prove too big an obstacle at this stage in his career, but it is a challenge he will be more than happy to take on. If he continues with his more aggressive tactics throughout this year, then either Wimbledon or America will see his promise of success promise come to fruition.