Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Trials of Torres

Who would want to be Fernando Torres right now? The Spaniard is somewhat of a lost sheep right about now;in a self-defeating slump. I am no psychiatric professional, but his confidence seems stuck in an irreversible decline, despite his relatively healthy goals telly of 14 goals in 34 appearances. When you consider the fact that he is playing in front of the creative genius of Hazard, Mata, Oscar, and Lampard, that haul looks less impressive.

What's worse, is that Demba Ba has hit the ground running, with three goals in four appearances. It's more than that though. Since Ba's arrival, the Senagalese goal machine has started in a 5-1 win, a 4-0 win, and yesterday's 2-2 draw at home to Southampton. In that home draw, Ba scored a wonderful goal. In the one match Torres started, Chelsea looked toothless, and slumped to a 2-0 home defeat in the Capital One Cup to Swansea.

When Torres was brought on last night to replace Lampard, in an attempt to break the Saints down, the outcome never looked in doubt. In Chelsea's final attack, he had the ball in a promising position to the right of the penalty area. Lacking any of the purpose that would frighten a defence, or force them to scramble for their solitary point, he floated a non-cross beyond the back post. Goal kick. Game over. Chelsea career over?

I am not for one minute suggesting that Torres should be sold at this time. That would leave Demba Ba as the club's sole striker with any real pedigree. But if I was Chelsea manager, I would feel that no matter what my personal allegiance to the player (and Benitez has plenty dating back to his time at Liverpool) the club as a whole must come first. At least one more striker should be bought this transfer window, whether Benitez or Abramovich is responsible for this. It is no point having the midfield riches they do, without enough people to finish off those moves.

As the boss said in his post-match assessment, his side must be more clinical. As Torres was only on the pitch for around 15 minutes, it is harsh to assume that those words are directed at him alone. In fact, Ba himself should have made sure of the points with a wayward finish of his own. However, he is, in general, coming up with the goods consistently. He did so for Newcastle, and he is showing signs of continuing that at Chelsea.

Back to Torres though. The most likely course of action, for my money (and Roman's) is that there will be little further strengthening. Mr Torres will have game time. Chelsea fans need to set aside their opinions of their expensive misfit signing, and their misfit manager. The frosty atmosphere that permeates Stamford Bridge is not benefiting any member of the Chelsea squad, and the player that needs their support most is Fernando Torres.

Sometimes I wonder whether those who booed Torres' introduction last night want him to fail. Whether they would rather he missed three open goals, and Chelsea lose a game instead of winning. The club must come first, and players are more likely to give their best playing in a happy positive atmosphere. If they can't get that in front of their own fans, then that is a sad indictment of what should be a thrilling club to watch.

Monday, 7 January 2013

FA Cup analysis

The problem a lot of sports journalists must face is the pressure of knowing everything that’s happening all the time. When it comes to reporting on action, this undoubtedly leads to commenting on matches that you haven’t seen, relying on second-hand accounts. In this piece, there will be no stooping to that level, as praise the Lord I had a Saturday off from my part-time job for the first time in many weeks.

My FA Cup odyssey began with the visit of Newcastle to Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium. After last year’s round four upset thanks to a Mike Williamson own-goal, the travelling support was understandably nervous. Myself being a Newcastle fan, I too approached this match from my armchair with a certain trepidation.

Needless to say, the match did nothing to lift my Toon-related spirits. Brighton were first to every ball, and didn’t even play their best football. Two-nil was a scoreline that flattered Newcastle, and Pardew was spot on when he hinted that many of his side shouldn’t have been on the pitch. Of course, Shola Ameobi sorted that one out for himself by getting sent off – rather unlucky to be shown red of course.

As for Pardew’s immediate future, one can only hope that the board show patience. Here is the side that could have been pieced together from those absent at the weekend. Krul, Simpson, Taylor, Collocini, Taylor, Ben Arfa, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas, Cisse, Vuckic (not even mentioning the departed Ba). When you add Sylvan Marveaux into that mix, who was restricted to appearing from the bench after a hectic Christmas period, you can plainly see that Pardew had very little to work with. Of course, that doesn’t excuse the lack of motivation on display, but after such a dispiriting run of late, confidence is not easy to come by.

To lift the spirits I decided to check in on Demba Ba’s new club Chelsea, and their trip to Southampton. The match took a similar narrative to the recent Capital One Cup victory over Leeds, where a 1-0 deficit turned to a 5-1 tonking quite quickly. The likes of Hazard, Mata, Oscar, and Lampard, look tailor made for Ba to continue his incredible goalscoring achievements since coming to England, and his two goals got him off to the ideal start at his new club. Southampton weren’t exactly awful, but Chelsea in that mood will give anybody a game.

I get the sense that Rafa Benitez is slowly winning over his new fanbase. Far from strangling his team’s attacking style, what is now emerging is controlled aggression. A solid base to work from, with Luiz further up the pitch to limit his mistakes, is leading to success, bar the fluke defeat at home to QPR.  With such an array of attacking talent, even the most defensive tacticians around would succeed, as the individual flair on show is second to none. With Ba now perhaps overthrowing the meek and inconsistent Torres as Chelsea’s focal point, we may see an even more ruthless Chelsea as the season wears on. I for one would love to see them make a concerted effort to at least make the top two. Don’t rule out a surprise title challenge.

To complete the trio of viewing, West Ham hosted Man United. In the happiest of homecomings, JC twice assisted another JC as two goal-bound headers threatened to end Man United’s league and cup double dreams at the first hurdle. Sam Allardyce’s side were their usual mischevious selves, as they caused many problems to the ailing United defence.
Then Robin Van Persie happened.

A wonderful pass from Ryan Giggs found Van Persie with a bit of space, and in the blink of an eye, another late show from the Red Devils had come to pass. Even the ITV commentary team seemed lost for words as the inevitable dagger to West Ham hearts was drawn. I am no fan of Manchester United, but their powers of recovery are outstanding, and they play brilliant football.

I have always been one to advocate the leakiest of defences, as long as enough goals are scored to paper over the cracks, as it makes for fantastic viewing. That’s why I would make an awful manager, as I would not have the same deadly frontline as Sir Alex does. No wonder he refuses to quit – he must be having the time of his life.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Premier League Mid-term Report

With 19 or 20 games under the belt of most Premier League teams, now is a good time to give them their mid-term report. I was tempted to do in this in some sort of red squiggly pen, but the internet has enough unreadable things on it already.

Arsenal – Like most recent seasons, the Gunners and Arsene Wenger have regularly seemed on the verge of crisis, yet remain fifth in the table, only three points behind their similarly crisis-friendly North London rivals Spurs. Santi Cazorla has lit up their season at times, while Theo Walcott’s demands for game time in a striking role have been accepted, with the 23-year-old ending his year with a stunning hat-trick against Newcastle. Overall, it’s the same old story – steamrolling (mostly) the smaller teams, while being punished for defensive flaws by the top sides. Grade – B

Aston Villa - Paul Lambert’s arrival from Norwich was heralded as a brave step forward from the dour McLeish era, with many fans and pundits predicting a return to the top 10 for the Villains. However, with few big names remaining, the squad has become an uncomfortable mix of unproven foreigners and youngsters, who lack in confidence at times, despite possessing undoubted ability, as shown in the 3-1 win at Liverpool. Darren Bent has been frozen out as Lambert looks to create a team that works for each other – Bent being seen as a bit of a goal-hanger. With three heavy defeats to end the year however – 15 goals conceded to none scored – fans may begin to question the manager’s methods as they end the year perilously close to the relegation places. Grade – D

Chelsea  - Starting the season as European Champions yet trying to make up for a disappointing sixth place last time out? Just a wee bit of pressure for Roberto Di Matteo to start the season with – pressure that eventually told as a damaging 3-0 defeat to Juventus all but sealed the Blues’ Champions League fate and the end of his own managerial tenure. Cue all out Chelsea chaos as Abramovich chose the fan-splitting Rafa Benitez as his replacement. Two straight 0-0 home draws didn’t exactly help the Spaniard’s cause, but four straight wins to round the year off, including a 8-0 thrashing of Aston Villa have raised hopes of a top two, or even a title challenge. Grade – B

Everton – There is a valid argument to state that had Nikica Jelavic been at Everton from the start of last season then Everton would’ve been top 4 certainties. This season is the acid test for that – but for a few too many draws they would be a lot higher than sixth. Some excellent performances, including an early victory over Man United, have led Everton into a higher position than they usually are at this time of year. A repeat of their customary New Year surge up the table will see Champions League football at Goodison Park next season. Grade – B plus

Fulham – Martin Jol led Fulham to ninth place last season. It is a position he would bite your hand off for now. A string of bad results have seen Fulham drop down the table to the fringes of the relegation battle, despite the marquee signing of Berbatov and a thumping opening 5-0 victory over Norwich. Demotion would be a huge surprise, even now, but a return to winning ways in 2013 is imperative. Grade – C

Liverpool – Anfield seems a much happier place these days, yet if the season ended today sitting in ninth place, Liverpool would have gone backwards from last year. Results do not tell the whole story – many games have been dominated with a lack of cutting edge – but the team does seem upwardly mobile, and Rodgers has Liverpool playing his brand of football. With more firepower to help out Luis Suarez in January the Reds can expect to return to Europe next year. Grade – B

Manchester City – After the heady days of last season’s title win, the last few months has seen the Mancini bubble deflated somewhat. An early European exit may yet work in their favour in the coming months, but little of last year’s attacking verve has been shown – Balotelli being in the doghouse has certainly not helped matters. Like most title challengers, they have perfected the knack of winning while playing badly, but that cannot last forever. They can kiss goodbye to their title unless things improve, but they should secure a return to the Champions League with minimum fuss. Grade – B minus

Manchester United – For sheer entertainment, the Red Devils deserve their title back. The signing of Robin Van Persie was an absolute masterstroke, as it diverted attention away from United’s suspect defence. Or at least they hoped. To be seven points clear, blowing teams away upfront and STILL have such focus on defensive errors is testament to the unreliable David De Gea and his back line. If they sort that out, while retaining their attacking flair, the title will be sewn up by Easter. Grade – A minus

Newcastle – Eight defeats in ten games tells its own story – the Magpies are in a spot of bother. Key players such as Jonas, Cisse, Tiote Krul, and Collocini have all dipped below their potential, and with a tiny squad there is no one to replace them. Two stirring performances, including three goals each at Old Trafford and The Emirates earnt plenty of praise, but a combination of eleven goals conceded led them to no points. With January strengthening they should rise to mid-table, but the possible exit of Ba and a tight-fisted owner could hamper matters. Grade – D

QPR – Simply put, the Mark Hughes era was a disaster. Brought in to recover a poor start from Warnock, survival was only ensured on the last day of the season. Add that to the worst ever start to a Premier League season, and new manager Harry Redknapp has an impossible job, even by his standards. Eight points from safety, and with severe attitude problems throughout the squad - if I had a mortgage I would it all on the Loftus Road lads to take the drop. Grade – E

Reading – The Royals were the surprise package during their last stay in the top flight, finishing ninth in their first season. This season the gulf in class has been more apparent, despite the signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak. Five points is what seperates Reading from safety, and sadly for them, they will be heading straight back down again, despite some good performances. Grade – D.

Southampton – Nigel Adkins and his Saints look to have the best chance of the current bottom three of getting out of trouble. Some early stirring performances, particularly against Man United, gave them no reward, and having dropped 17 points from winning positions this year they might struggle to keep their heads up before long. As Blackpool will tell you, good football means nothing without points. Grade – C minus

Stoke – The Potteries are an unlikely holder of the Premier League’s last unbeaten home record – but really, it’s not too much of a surprise, considering the trouble visiting teams all have at the Britannia Stadium. The only problem is the away form which has brought them only one win. Critics are beginning to take note however of a slightly more expansive style than previous years. A top 10 finish could be on the cards, maybe even a European push if their away form picks up. Grade – B

Sunderland -  Martin O’Neill has found life a bit tougher on Wearside this season – since Gyan’s unceremonious departure goals have been hard to come by. Steven Fletcher has carried the mantle solo, and some dispiriting home performances led some to question the Lisburn man’s position as manager. Improved December performances have left the new year looking slightly rosier, but the likes of Adam Johnson need to pull their weight a bit more. Grade – C minus

Swansea – From the outside looking in, it seems like not much has changed at Swansea. Brendan Rodgers made way for Michael Laudrup, but Swansea still inhabit a comfortable mid table position, playing some nice football. Michu, arriving for £2m from Rayo Vallecano, has scored an impressive 13 goals, and Swans fans will have no complaints with how things are going. They may even look at Brendan Rogers and Liverpool and think of his departure as no big loss. Grade – B

Tottenham Hotspur – This is a team that suffered major upheaval over the summer, losing their beloved playmaker in Modric, and their beloved manager in Redknapp. Andre Villas Boas has not been universally accepted, and a tentative start didn’t help his cause. Fourth place to end the year is not to be sniffed at though, and increased fluidity in performances has been evident of late, including a wonderful win at Old Trafford. The future looks bright for White Hart Lane. Grade – B

West Brom  - Steve Clarke took charge aiming to buck the trend of great coaches who can’t make the step to the top job. After only five months, it’s fair to say that trend has been well and truly bucked. Some fantastic performances, particularly at home, led to fanciful talk of a European finish. A top ten finish is more likely, but even that would be an excellent return for a team many tipped to go down at the start of the season. Grade – A minus

West Ham – Sam Allardyce can consider his critics answered after West Ham’s opening half to the season. They’ve done all the usual things a Big Sam team does, and with Kevin Nolan as the captain they will never lie down and accept a defeat. Relegation is not even on the agenda at Upton Park, and nor should it be as they aim to move into the Olympic Stadium before long – not a home for Championship football! Grade – B

Wigan – Some things never change. One of those things is Wigan. Like every season, they go long periods of time without a win and pull one out of the bag when you least expect it. They look like staying afloat again this season, but the phrase ‘running to stand still’ can never have been so apt, as the Latics are among the bigger spenders in the division – certainly the bottom half. Grade - C