Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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Goals. Goals galore. What a feast of football the new Premier League season has already provided. We’ve had a bit of everything. From the ageing ginger maestro showing the new crop how it ought to be done to the youthful English goalkeepers beginning a battle for the national side’s number one jersey, to all three newly promoted teams notching one good win and one crushing loss. There’s been so much incident and entertainment to remind us that the new kits and faces of club football are so much more satisfying than the repeated disappointment and failure of England. However many papers were quick to latch onto the trio of 6-0 results this weekend and lead with the ominous headline “666”. The results themselves made it clear that immense gulfs in class still exist within our great league, in which teams like Blackpool cannot hope to compete with bigger clubs’ financial might. The headline prompted me to examine the true greatness of our league when such vast inequality exists and generally to think about the morality of the game in this country, especially in the light of the 2018 World Cup Bid gathering pace.
Let’s start with the good. Paul Scholes being interviewed on Football Focus on Saturday after surprisingly stealing the limelight in the opening games of the season with commanding displays showed that it is possible to still be a modest professional and family man in this mega money era. The interviewer refused to let his awkwardness at being questioned drop, either trying to paint Scholes as a saint for shunning the media or a freak for not realistically acknowledging their existence. The chaps in the studio chuckled at Scholes’ schoolboy shyness and simultaneously gushed about his legendary passing ability and awareness. Lee Dixon dismissed Arsene Wenger’s gripes about late tackling, saying that Scholes had had to learn to put his foot in when playing in the middle alongside the likes of Roy Keane. It was generally agreed that Scholes was a great and United’s worrying overreliance on him this early in the campaign was glossed over.
Also largely good was Newcastle’s 6-0 thumping of Aston Villa, showcasing the return and rehab of former bright young things like Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton as well as the emergence of the next big thing in Andy Carroll if you believe the papers, all in front of a loyal, long suffering Geordie faithful at St.James’ that deserved a reward. Let’s not mention that Villa’s shambolic defence and an awful penalty miss enabled the victory, or the ridiculous hyperbole greeting Carroll’s hat-trick in the press. In The Times the match write-up lays the comparisons to Alan Shearer on thick, all the implications suggesting an England call-up and a solution to the long term question of who partners Wayne Rooney. The praise is present throughout the press, as are the criticisms of Carlton Cole, with writers shooting down notions that Liverpool were thinking of paying handsomely for his services a few weeks ago as a lucky escape for Roy Hodgson. The fickleness apparent here after one hat-trick performance against a defence that were laying goals on a plate and a couple of non-effectual performances in an essentially unchanged, poor West Ham side shows a negative of our game. Andy Carroll has gone from unproven Championship striker to England’s next number 9 overnight and Carlton Cole has crashed and burned in a similar period. Whereas the praise heaped on Scholes is backed by medals and many minutes of evidence on the pitch Carroll’s is premature hype. The yo-yo of fortunes in the press makes it easier to see why players like Scholes, content and detached from the media bubble, are a dying breed. When Carroll’s stock falls as Cole’s has done he might well become understandably disillusioned and unloved.
You could certainly not call the Blackpool players unloved. The amazing orange fans of the seasiders were still applauding their team at the final whistle after their demolition by Arsenal at the Emirates in cruise control. I saw Blackpool beat Yeovil Town in the League 1 Play-Off Final at Wembley a few seasons back and their support that day was an eclectic, enthusiastic mass of good natured colour then too. Their rise to the top flight from that moment has been nothing short of a fairytale. In a week in which FIFA inspectors examine the potential cons of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, we can only hope that supporters across the country were as loyal and well mannered as Blackpool ones. An article in The Independent points out the black marks left by the behaviour of fans of teams like Millwall in the past, as well as other weaknesses in our supposedly “unbeatable” bid according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. We have sold out in this country, the article implies, so that we will be quite comfortable watching teams of foreigners play each other in the 2018 tournament. For a nation that boasts about being the home of football we have neglected the grass roots, our own national side and embraced excess and great waste of wealth. There is also a strong argument that whilst England might be the “easiest” place to host the tournament according to Sepp Blatter, another country would benefit more, invigorated by the investment. Another country not already saturated with football might use the tournament to develop more sustainably, with beautiful stadia and clubs as well as proper training and investment in their own youngsters.
Manchester City of course has come to symbolise all that waste and excess in football that was already lurking beneath the surface. On Monday night City’s gladiators finally clicked, delighting their giving emperor the sheikh who had made the trip to see what his drops of oily magic had achieved. Roberto Mancini spouted after that final whistle that it had been important to him to put on a show for the owner and yet he still only started with the one striker in Carlos Tevez. City’s embarrassment of riches meant a midfield packed with holding players in Barry, De Jong and Toure, forcing out exciting players like David Silva that ought to be gracing the field every week. On the plus side Adam Johnson and James Milner both sparkled, both with English blood coursing through their veins, even if it does seem tainted by their warm, greedy embrace of the millions instead of that English quality of loyalty shining through.
Despite the excess and the greed Man City’s win over Liverpool demonstrated that the fundamentals, the crowd, the goals, the colours of the game, remain what is important. The extravagance may both add and take something away from our beautiful game, but when it comes down to it the pure pleasure remains and that feeling, not the mounds of money, would make sure we hosted a fantastic World Cup.
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