Category Archives: Champions League

Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

tim-sherwood-449897

Even Tim Sherwood can’t believe he has a job before these five guys.

Tim Sherwood is now in charge of former European Champions Aston Villa.  Tim Sherwood.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Now look at these guys who aren’t working.

I'm sure that scarf is hanging above Juande's mantle...

I’m sure that scarf is hanging above Juande’s mantle…

Juande Ramos
Age: 60
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2006 & 2007 UEFA Cups, 2007 Copa del Rey with Sevilla; 2007 League Cup with Tottenham Hotspur

If there is a manager who personifies the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” epithet, it’s Juande Ramos.  Any other manager would have been lauded for his accomplishments.  But unfortunately, the Spaniard made his mistakes under two of the footballing world’s most intense spotlights.

Ramos’ career started well.  After almost a decade of managing lower-level clubs, he took over a second division Rayo Vallecano in 1998 and led them straight into promotion… and kept them there. He did even better with a newly-promoted Real Betis, steering them to a decent sixth place.  But a switch to Espanyol the next season ended badly;  Ramos was fired after only six matches with the club sitting in 19th.   He then did a season at Málaga, before joining the club that would make his reputation.

Sevilla was a consistent mid-table side when Ramos arrived in 2005; he took the Andalusians and made them winners.  They only improved by a single place in their first season, but with eight more points, they only barely missed out on a Champions League spot due to their inferior head-to-head record against Osasuna.  More importantly, they won the UEFA Cup, beating teams like Lille, Zenit St. Petersburg (who were semi-finalists the year before), and Schalke before demolishing Steve MacLaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0.  After beating Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, they finished the next season on a mega-high, retaining the UEFA Cup by beating Ramos’ old side, Espanyol.   Los Rojiblancos then ended at a very strong third place, falling only two points short of giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (Barça won the title on GD), and challenging the Big Two’s league hegemony.  The annus mirabilis ended by beating surprise finalists Getafe to win the Copa del Rey, Sevilla’s first in almost 60 years.

After Tottenham sacked Martin Jol in October 2007, Juande Ramos slipped into place in North London, having faced Spurs in the UEFA Cup semi-final just five months before.  The club fell to 11th, after finishing fifth the previous season: not a great return.  But Spurs took two significant scalps, beating the hated Arsenal and then Chelsea in their march to win the League Cup.   The semi-final was their first derby win in nine years; as was the trophy that followed.  But after making a hash of the summer transfer market, two points in their first eight games left Spurs in dead last… and that was it for Ramos.

Not that it mattered.  Six weeks later, Ramos was the head coach of the world’s biggest club.   Real Madrid went on an incredible run, winning all but one of 18 games (the single stumble was a draw) and pulling themselves back into the title race.  But then Madrid lost 2-6 against Barcelona and proceeded to lose their last four after that.  The Catalans had the title and Ramos’ contract was not renewed.   After that, he pulled a Brian Clough in Moscow, lasting only six weeks at CSKA, before spending four years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.   He left in the spring after eastern Ukraine blew up.

Ramos is a winner… you can’t say otherwise.  But his rough ride by the English media may have tarnished his reputation, despite a trophy.

claudio-ranieri_1384968cClaudio Ranieri
Age: 63
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1996 Coppa Italia with Fiorentina, 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia

Perhaps the opposite of Juande Ramos is The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri.   After 11 top-flight clubs, and one disasterous stint on a national team, Ranieri is an example of someone who’s acquired new positions on his past successes, but has never been able to replicate them.

Like so many young managers, Ranieri first garnered attention by leading a club through to promotion. He did it in successive seasons with Cagliari, taking them from Serie C1 to the top flight.  But when they finished just above the drop zone in 1991, he jumped ship to Napoli.  Here again was the same pattern: a great initial season followed by decline.  The southerners finished in fourth in 1992, and then 11th the next season; so back down to the lower leagues he went, taking over at Fiorentina and getting them promoted.    He secured their place in Serie A, and then brought them to fourth the next year.  More importantly, he won the 1996 Coppa Italia… their first trophy in 21 years.  But even that has a mental asterisk after it: La Viola didn’t face top-flight opposition until the semi-final against Inter, and both they and finalists Atalanta struggled in the league that season.  Still… silver is silver.

Fiorentina declined the next season, finishing ninth and Ranieri left for Sunny Spain, albeit still a hero in Tuscan eyes.   The Tinkerman landed in Valencia, where he reversed his pattern.  His first season was middling, but the next season, Los Che jumped into fourth spot and into a Champions League place.  However, it was the Copa del Rey campaign where Valencia really shone.  Jumping in at the Round of 16, Ranieri’s side pumped their derby rivals, Levante, 4-0.  Then they overcame Barcelona in a goal-scoring slugfest, beating the Catalan side 7-5 on aggregate.  In the semi-finals, they embarrassed Real Madrid at The Mestalla, 6-0; a 2-1 loss back at the Bernabeu became meaningless.  A 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the final was almost anti-climatic.  Claudio Ranieri’s Valencia scored 21 goals over five games… and he now had more silver and more accolades.

That was 16 years ago, and after nine more jobs over 15 seasons, the Italian has yet to win anything else.   Atlético Madrid were relegated in his sole season in the Spanish capital.   He then took over from Gianluigi Vialli at Chelsea, slipping backwards in the league, but taking them to an FA Cup final and a Champions League semi-final.  A stint back in Valencia ended badly, after he took over the Spanish champions from Rafael Benítez… and finished in seventh.   He moved to Italy, taking over at Parma and then a newly-promoted Juventus (after their relegation for the Calciopoli scandal), followed by stints at Roma and Inter Milan.  He helped AS Monaco win promotion back to Ligue 1, before a disastrous stint as Greece national manager, with the side losing to the Faroe Islands in Athens.

At 63, the Tinkerman may not be able to tinker with the machinations of Time.

Frank-RijkaardFrank Rijkaard
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 2005, 2006 Spanish Champions, 2006 Champions League winners with Barcelona

There might not be a more decorated unemployed manager in the world than Frank Rijkaard. As a player, the Dutch star was a member of some of the best squads that ever were, including the Ajax sides of the 80s and 90s, along with a stint at Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side that dominated the late 80s (speaking of unemployed managers, this might explain why Sacchi is no longer employed).   He was also a member of that golden Dutch side that won the 1988 European Championship.

Rijkaard’s big management break came early, when at 36 years old, he took over the Netherlands national side.  The Oranje only missed out on a trip to the Euro 2000 final after losing on penalties to Italy.  He then moved into club management, suffering relegation with Sparta Rotterdam before moving to Barcelona.  Like his famous compatriot, Johan Cruyff, he helped Barcelona develop its “Golden Generation” of young Masia graduates, including Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Victor Valdes… and  a certain Argentinian midfielder.  By 2005, Barcelona had their first La Liga title in six years; the following season, they would repeat as champions.  But more importantly, Rijkaard’s Barcelona would win the first of three Champions League titles in six seasons.

Then things started to go south.  The Catalans missed out on the following season’s title due to its head-to-head record with arch-rivals Real.  The following season, Barça finished third, and were knocked out of the semi-finals in both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.  Barcelona President Joan Laporta finally pulled the plug, removing Rijkaard and replacing him with Pep Guardiola.   The Dutchman then spent a decent season at Galatasaray before taking over as manager for Saudi Arabia.  But a poor showing in World Cup qualifying and then in the Gulf Cup of Nations meant another exit.

The same rumours of arrogance and prickliness that surround his  former teammate, Ruud Gullit, also permeates Rijkaard’s reputation.  But the man won the Champions League and now he’s working at a Florida prep school.  Come on…

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes...

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes…

Delio Rossi
Age: 55
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1999 Coppa Italia with Lazio

Delio Rossi’s first taste of Serie A managerial life began when he gained promotion — and subsequent relegation — with Salernitana in the late 90s. However, that single solitary season was his only stint in the top-flight for the first 13 years of his head coaching career. It’s when he took over at Lecce that his career took off… sort of. After guiding them to a decent 10th place, he jumped ship to Atalanta in 2004, and was promptly relegated again. Undeterred, he joined Lazio, where his side played decently, but they were prevented from playing in the following season’s UEFA competition because of the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. But the following season, the Romans made good, finishing third… good enough for a qualifying spot in the Champions League.

After that, it was tough for Rossi.  The club finished in a miserable 12th place and came dead last in their CL group.  Their league form barely improved in 2008-2009… and there were rumblings that Rossi’s infamous temper did not sit well with Lazio chairman Claudio Letito.  But their Coppa Italia run that season was inspiring.  The Biancocelesti took out Rossi’s old club, Atalanta, before beating Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan side in extra time, then won against Turin’s big clubs in three straight games: a 3-1 victory over Torino, then subsequent 2-1 victories in the two legs of the semi-final against Juventus.  In the final, it took six penalties to beat Sampdoria to take the cup.

But trophy or no trophy, Letito had enough of his manager by the end of the season.  Rossi had to wait until November for another gig, this time in Sicily with Palermo.  He guided them from 12th to fifth, only missing out on a Champions League spot by a point.   The next season, they slumped in the league and dropped out of the Europa League in the group stage, leading to Rossi getting fired for two months before being rehired again.  Then cup lightning almost struck twice, as he reached the 2011 Coppa Italia final, going through eventual champions Milan again to lose 3-1 to Inter.

But the moment that will define Rossi — and probably a big reason why he is out of work — is an incident in Fiorentina.  He joined the Tuscan club in November 2011 but they struggled, sitting just six points above the drop zone at the beginning of May 2012.  Fiorentina were losing to Novara 2-0, when Rossi substituted Adem Ljajić. The Serbian sarcastically applauded his own manager, which made Rossi lose. His. Mind. He attacked his own player on the bench… and was dismissed the next day.

Rossi’s last job was at Sampdoria in 2012-2013, where the Genoese side finished 14th and were humiliated in the Coppa by Serie B side, Juve Stabia. He was relieved of his position in December 2013, with Samps sitting in the drop zone.  Rossi was replaced by the man he took over from at Fiorentina, Siniša Mihajlović, a man who is no stranger to fisticuffs himself.

FOOT - RCLJacques Santini
Age: 62
Nationality: French
Honours: 2002 Ligue 1 winner with Olympique Lyonnais

Jacques Santini is considered the architect of the mighty Lyon team that dominated French football at the dawn of the millenium.  As the club’s technical director, he built up the club and took over as manager in 2000.  The next season, he led the club to what would be the first of its eight straight league titles.  So it’s no surprise the French national team came calling, after the defending World, European and Confederations Cup champions failed to score a single goal in South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Under Santini, Les Bleus were an unqualified success, losing only single match — a friendly — to the Czech Republic in early 2003.   The French team sailed through Euro 2004 qualifying, and won the Confederations Cup again along the way.  In the actual tournament, there was the infamous opening win against England in Lisbon, when Zinedine Zidane scored a monster free kick in the 90th minute to tie the match, followed by a converted penalty three minutes later.  The French would draw the Croatians and beat rivals Switzerland to earn a quarterfinal against unassuming Greece.  The rest is history… and so was Santini as France’s manager.

Really though, the former St-Etienne star had already agreed to take over at Tottenham Hotspur from caretaker David Pleat.  But 13 games into the season, Santini quit… apparently because the former football executive couldn’t agree with his higher-ups at the club.  Of course, it didn’t help that Spurs were sitting in 14th spot at the time.  He took over at Auxerre in 2005-2006, but was sacked after losing the last five games of the season and dropping out of a European spot.

Recently, Santini has been linked with jobs in Africa, including the top spot at 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-finalist Equitorial Guinea.  But he is 62, he hasn’t managed a team in almost a decade and he has a reputation for conflict with his bosses.

Still… if Tim Sherwood can get a job…

Brent Lanthier

 

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Filed under Champions League, English Football, Europa League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Premier League, Serie A

Where in the World Is…?

Matt Broderick discovers Football Manager
Matthew Broderick discovers Football Manager

Shall we play a game? Let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Wouldn’t you rather play a nice game of FIFA 2015? Later… let’s play Find the Winning Manager.

It’s not Global Thermonuclear War, but the managerial shuffle  in Europe’s biggest leagues sometimes feels like the end of the world for football fans.  What makes the hiring and firings of managers so frustrating is the constant recycling of coaches who have never won anything.  Nada.  Zip.  Sixty-year-old Big Sam Allardyce is on his sixth English club, four of them in the Premier League. Yet he has won exactly zero trophies.  Tony Pulis? He’s 57 and on his eighth club.   Hull City is 54-year-old Steve Bruce’s seventh club as a manager…nothing.  Let’s not even talk about Serie A…

A club’s choice of manager is an obvious reflection of its ambition, and it has to be disheartening to see your team hiring a gaffer who’s been run out of his previous job.  Yet there are coaches who have winners’ medals for major European and domestic trophies, but are not currently in charge of a team.

So this week, let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Here are the rules:

1) The manager must have won a major domestic or European trophy in the last 20 years.  That means Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League or Cup Winners’ Cup in Europe,  one of the top five domestic leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy or France… sorry Portugal) or one of those leagues’ major knockout trophies.  I’m biased so I’ve included the English League Cup, just to show you the dearth of winning English managers.  Oh and Super Cups don’t count.

2) The manager must not be leading a club.  This includes serving as an executive ie. Gérard Houllier at New York Red Bulls.

3) The candidate must be under the age of 65 by the end of the domestic season, just to counter the “oh he’s too old” argument.

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Antonio Álvarez
Age: 59
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2010 Copa del Rey with Sevilla

Okay, we might be starting with a bit of a dodgy example.  Antonio Álvarez was a club legend who became essentially a caretaker manager; he was Sevilla’s assistant coach when Manolo Jiménez was sacked, and took charge of Los Rojiblancos who were in fifth place with 10 games left… oh, and still had to play a Copa del Rey final.  Álvarez led them into a final Champions League position, and then a 2-0 win over Atlético Madrid for Sevilla’s second King’s Cup in four years.   But two nail-biting losses to Braga in UCL qualifying that summer, followed by a 1-0 home loss to Paris-Saint Germain and a mediocre 2-2-1 start to La Liga season, and Álvarez was out.   Who knows how influential he was?  Think of him as a Spanish version of Roberto Di Matteo.

Elie-BaupÉlie Baup
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 1999 Division 1 Champions with Bordeaux

“*Blitzkreig” Baup won the French league in his first year in charge of Les Girondins, and then leading them to a top-four finish in all but one of the next four seasons, while picking up a League Cup along the way.   But after a disasterous start to the 2003-2004 campaign, Bordeaux let him go.  An unimpressive stint at Saint-Étienne then led to his move to Toulouse in 2006, when he led the constantly relegation-threatened club to third place and a Champions League spot.   He moved onto Nantes and then Marseille, taking over from Didier Deschamps in 2012.  The mighty Marseille had finished a lowly 10th spot when Deschamps left; yet again, Baup moved in and guided his club into a Champions League spot.   But again, poor results last season got him the sack.   He’s been without a job just over a year… surely there must be something for him in England.

*Not his real nickname, to my knowledge

18FEB11LuisFernandez_800x600_t325Luis Fernández
Age: 55
Nationality: French
Honours: 1995 Coupe de France, 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup with Paris Saint-Germain

Luis Fernández is another example of a young manager whose career sputtered after a flash of brilliance.  The Spanish-born Frenchman left Cannes at 34 years old to coach in the capital, and led PSG to two domestic cups, a third-place league finish, and a Champions League semi-final.   The following year, he would win what is still PSG’s only major European Trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup.  He then left for Spain  where he guided Athetic Bilbao to its best finish in 14 years.   But a few mid-table seasons later, then a return to PSG,  was followed by some more work in France, Spain and Israel (including with the national team).  Fernández has not managed since 2011; just this week, he told French media that he wants to return to coaching.


pacoflores169Paco Flores

Age: 62
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2000 Copa del Rey with Espanyol.

Señor Espanyol himself, Paco Flores spent almost 20 years — off and on — managing at the club’s various levels.  His first real managing job was filling in for the fired Miguel Ángel Brindisi, coming up from the youth side in 2000 to lead Espanyol away from the relegation zone and winning the club’s first Copa del Rey in 60 years.  He then got Real Zaragoza promoted,  and followed that with stints in lower-league Almería and then Gimnàstic, who got relegated in 2007.   Flores hasn’t coached since… and at 62 years old, he may have decided to stay away from the benches.

Gotta love the Predator years...

Gotta love the Predator years…

Ruud Gullit
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 1997 FA Cup with Chelsea

One of the world’s best players during the 1980’s, Ruud Gullit won trophies in every country in which he played.  But he will forever be in Dutch hearts as the captain of the Netherlands team that won the 1988 European Championship against the hated Germans.  So it was a natural sight to see him transition from Chelsea player to player-manager in 1996.  The move paid off: he led his side to Chelsea’s first FA Cup in 27 years.  But disagreements with owner Ken Bates led to his sacking, despite the Blues riding high in the tables.   Gullit then moved to Newcastle United and lasted exactly one disasterous season, with rumours abounding about Gullit’s “lifestyle” issues in the notoriously fun-filled city.  The Dutchman didn’t get another managerial position for five years, taking over back home at Feyenoord, but lasted less than a season.  Two years later, he moved to MLS, coaching David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.  There reports of clashes with the team’s big players meant he was out… again after less than a year.  Gullit spent six months in Chechnya (Chechnya?!?) at Terek Grozny but was again shown the door.  That was in 2011… still no takers.

Coming Up Tomorrow:  Five more managers, including a 2014 World Cup manager without a job, and possibly the scariest coach in the game.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Filed under Champions League, English Football, La Liga, Ligue 1, MLS

Mad times in Manchester

Sure, Barca are the best is the business. But the way I see it, Manchester is the first city of European football.

Of course, that doesn’t mean both United and City aren’t in danger of dropping out of the Champions League once the group stages conclude next month.

In this week’s Toro Magazine column, I explain why the Citizens are surely Europa League-bound, while Fergie’s lot will likely find a way through…again.

Ian Harrison

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Inter Tinkers with their Manager… Again

Gasperini: Don't look back in anger

It took five matches for Internazionale to fire Gian Piero Gasperini… the fifth manager to leave the club in three years.  But only in the world of sport does a organization hire its leaders from a steady pool of failures.

The rumours are that Claudio “The Tinkerman” Ranieri has been given a two-year contract to take over from Gasperini.  No stranger to football’s revolving door, Ranieri has managed 10 teams over the last 20 years; this will be his seventh Serie A club. In that time, he has only won two major trophies: a Coppa Italia with Fiorentina… and a Copa del Rey with Valencia.  Yet this is the man who has allegedly been chosen to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Inter fans and management must be perturbed that their recent domination of Italian football has come to a jarring and screeching halt.  Long known as “the other Milanese club”, i Nerazzurri shook off its inferiority complex by winning five consecutive Serie A titles under Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, topping off the run by winning the quadruple: the league title, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa, as well as being crowned both European and world champions… defeating mighty Barcelona along the way.  Life was good for Inter Milan. Then Rafael Benitez arrived.

Rafageddon unleashed again

Sure, Rafa led them to a World Club Championship. But they did it by beating club teams from South Korea and the Congo… one of the poorest nations in the world.  Not so fast, cry Inter fans.  They beat the world’s best to get there.  But Rafa’s infernal reputation of maniacal stubbornness is well deserved, and it didn’t sit well with the club’s superstars.  By Christmas, Inter would be down by 11 points from their San Siro rivals and Benitez was shown the door.  He has yet to manage in a single match since.

While not a bad choice, the Spaniard’s replacement was perhaps difficult for Inter fans to accept.  Not only did Leonardo play over a hundred matches for hated AC… he was also part of the Brazilian team that beat Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.  No matter: the new gaffer lead Inter on a run that pulled them to the brink of another championship.  But in the end, the club failed to defend the league, and were laughed out of Europe by a mediocre German side. While Inter managed to hold onto the Coppa, the writing was on the wall.  Leonardo left Italy for the bright lights — and a big pay cheque — in Paris.

Enter Gasparini and an immediate cloud of suspicion. Rumours abounded that the former Genoa gaffer was only chosen because others refused the job.  Fabio Capello is still under contract to the England FA.  Young Andres Villas-Boas snapped at the chance to manage Cha-ching! Chelsea, after only one season at Porto.  Even Marcelo Bielsa followed up Chile’s impressive display at last year’s World Cup by signing up to manage the Spanish powerhouse… of Athletic Bilbao.

It all must have been secretly humiliating for owner Massimo Moratti.  If it was, it only got worse as the season got underway.  After succumbing to their hated rivals in the SuperCoppa, Inter emerged from the one-week players’ strike to lose to up-and-coming Palermo… one of the teams leading a Southern renaissance in Italian football.  That was followed by a CL league loss (at home!) to Turkish side Trabzonspor, who weren’t even supposed to be there.  A draw against Roma might have been acceptable, if it was not for a humiliating defeat Tuesday night to newly-promoted Novara.  Gasperini uscita… Ranieri entri.

Zanetti: Is it exit time for Inter's Iron Man?

There are some — including the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson — who argue that Moretti should never have hired Gasperini… not because he is a bad manager, but because his system doesn’t gel with Inter’s squad.  Gasperini favours variations of 3-4-3.  But at Inter, that meant using an ancient back-five of Samuel, Lucio, Maicon, Cambiasso and Zanetti as defensive anchors (the average age of the South Americans is 33).  Gasperini let his fullbacks roam just behind the wingers, and the aforementioned central players like to play up-field…. leaving Inter vulnerable on the counter.  Consequently, ball after ball has gone sailing over the heads of the defenders, with only an increasingly erratic Julio Cesar to stop it.

Offensively, the club is only marginally better off.  The “Will He Leave, Won’t He Leave” speculation surrounding Wesley Sneijder had to have been a distraction, considering the Dutchman’s pivotal role in the formation.  Plus, the fiasco signing of cup-tied Diego Forlan from Atletico Madrid is unforgivable.  If you believe in omens, it does not portend well for The Big Grass Snake.

Obviously, the scudetto is still too young to start picking out trends.  But with non-traditional leaders like Palermo, Napoli, Fiorentina and Udinese continuing where they left off last season, Inter may have to look deep within itself and try to decide what it needs to do to turn itself around.  Ranieri will likely perturb players with his constant manipulation of the side, not unlike Benitez.  We will see if The Tinkerman soothes or chafes raw egos at the club.

From my perspective, Inter fans can take solace in two things:

1) Super Sneijder and Forlan seem to be developing an understanding, despite the recent run of form.  Both players were magnificent in South Africa, with Forlan leading what could be considered South America’s new powerhouse.  If they can get service, look out.

2) AC Milan is only playing marginally better, stealing a draw last week against Barcelona in the CL.  Italy’s axis of power may be shifting.

Brent Lanthier

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AC Milan: Il Diavolo is in the Details

C'mon Thiago, give us a kiss...

One club is considered the best in the world; the other is a team that has found its way back to the top of its domestic league.  Both were surprised this weekend by so-called lesser sides.  Tonight, it was Barcelona that showed its quality over AC Milan.  Unfortunately for Barca, the scoresheet didn’t reflect it.

Two goals by Milan’s Brazilian stars bookended the game and stole a point for the Rossoneri.  The World Champions dominated up until that point: Barcelona had 80% possession at the 75th-minute mark… a calling card for the Catalonians.  Gaffer Pep Guardiola says he’s not worried… nor should he be.

It’s the Italian club that should be wringing its hands.   The consensus is that AC Milan will have a tough time defending the scudetto…  and judging by their last two performances, they may prove the pundits right.  Not only did Barca’s tiki-taka have Milan on the back heel for most of the match, but the Italian champs kicked off the Serie A season on Thursday by having to fight back against a new-look Lazio.  Add the Roman club to Milan’s growing list of league rivals:

– Internazionale is aging but still potent.
– Juventus may be an Old Lady, but she may find a sabbatical from Europe rejuvenating.  
– Udinese was the better team against Arsenal in CL qualifiers, and could build on last year’s success.
– The South seems to be rising again with Palermo beating Inter 4-3 (again, the Nerrazzurri looked slow and old)… and Napoli being picked as a dark horse for the title.

Zlatan the Terrible

And while he didn’t play tonight, Milan still has its good luck charm: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Every team he has played on since 2004 has won its domestic title (if you include Juventus’ revoked trophies).  He is a big, black belt-wearing nutter who has a goals-per-game average of at least 50% in the last six seasons.  Plus, NOW he’s eating his Wheaties.

Brent Lanthier

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The Wild Rovers No More?

Chimbonda gives his final regards to Lancashire

The putting of pen to paper today by “nice guy” Steve Kean seems to indicate a turning point for Blackburn Rovers: that Ewood Park is shedding its image as a Home for Wayward Boys.

Indeed, the news seemed to cap off what looked like a week of redemption for the club.  Rovers have sold off poor sport Pascal Chimbonda, a whiny wantaway from every team he’s ever played for.  Kean also wondered aloud to reporters whether it might be time to let go of the Human Camel, El-Hadji Diouf.  Those words come just a week after Diouf allegedly stood over QPR player Jamie Mackie, taunting the player as he writhed in pain from a double leg fracture.

Diouf: Couldn’t meet a nicer fella…

The truth is that  — in the history of the Premier League — Blackburn has been a place for boys who behave badly.  Out of the players in the top 50 for all-time Premier League fouls, 10 spent time at Rovers.  Out of all-time Prem yellow cards, 12 wore the blue and white.  Of course, it’s also what they do off the pitch that makes them such problems.

Jason Roberts (2006 – ) – He lit up what is now League One for Bristol Rovers over two seasons.  But when they failed to get promoted, Roberts handed in a transfer request to a bitter Ian Holloway.  He was just as fickle to ex-manager Sam Allardyce.  Now Roberts can’t find the bright side of a barn door and is hated by the Rovers faithful.

Paul Dickov (2004-2006) – Nicknamed “The Wasp” and “The Pest”, Dickov’s role as a second striker was more to irritate central defenders. At only 5′ 6″, the cranky Scotsman did his job but picked up a weeee bit of fouls along the way.

Brett Emerton (2003 – ) – The Aussie plays the same style as many of his countrymen (Neill, Cahill, Kewell, Viduka): nasty.  The midfielder seems to find his way to a yellow card or two internationally, including this weekend in the Asian Cup.

Emerton, Neill: Model Citizens

Lucas Neill (2001 – 2007) – The epitome of Blackburn Rovers football in the last decade, Neill is also the epitome of the phrase “See You Next Thursday”.  A dirty player, he broke Jamie Carragher’s leg in 2003… an incident that literally made him a marked man on Merseyside. Neill is now playing for Galatasaray, so if Blackburn is a stop on the Road to Perdition, then Welcome to Hell, you Aussie git!

Morten Gamst Pedersen (2004 – ) – Alternating between pest and crybaby, Pedersen made a meal of Joey Barton’s punch this season. Barton is no angel but Pedersen made it handbags at dawn.

Robbie Savage (2005 – 2008) – By all accounts a nice fella when he’s in civilians, the Welshman is probably the most hated man on the pitch.

Bonkers Bellamy

Craig Bellamy (2005-2006) – Another Welshman,  Bellamy never shuts up, irritating “friend and foe” alike.  He pissed off former Blackburn boss Graeme Souness when both were at Newcastle. He went after Liverpool teammate John Arne Riise with a golf iron. He can’t stay at one club more than a season and a half.

Of course, one only has to look at the managers over the last ten years to see why the team is built like it is.  The seeds were likely sown with Souness’ arrival in 2000.  The Scotsman earned his reputation as the Godfather of Hard during his playing days at Liverpool. When he arrived at Blackburn he attempted to build the team in his own image.  After the Neill-Carragher incident, Souness refused to apologize for 48 hours.  Just this fall, Carragher returned the favour, saying that Souness’ time as Liverpool manager was the beginning of the end for the once-great club.

Sparky points out the Road to Perdition

But the man who probably had the most influence was Mark Hughes.  The irritable striker was a superstar for Manchester United… but it was at Blackburn that he ended his prolific career.  Sparky — another Welshman, by the way — brought in the likes of Roberts, Dickov, Pedersen, Savage, and Bellamy during his tenure.  While successful — Blackburn made two UEFA Cup appearances because of their League finishes — they were often the most penalized team in the Prem.

After Hughes left for the greener pastures of Manchester City (snicker), another bad boy took his place: Hughes’ former United teammate Paul Ince.  But Blackburn soon realized what lots of people already know: that ex-players without their coaching badges are almost always awful. Plus, the players couldn’t stand him.  Ince had a cup of coffee in Lancashire and then made way for Big Sam, who brought the same philosophy of “stuck-in” football that he used at Bolton… which leaves us where we are today.

A quick note: Even when Kenny Dalglish was managing the club, there were players getting up to no good.  Many members of the 1995 league-winning side were as familiar with the referee’s book as they were with the opposing goal.  That season, Tim Sherwood got 10 yellow cards, Graeme Le Saux got eight, Chris Sutton seven.  And just months after winning the Premier League, teammates LeSaux and David Batty fought each other during a Champions League match.

I’m not saying the arrival of the Indian Chicken family, and the permanent hiring of Kean, will make Blackburn a kinder, gentler team.  But after watching the club over the last ten years, it may be that a more attractive brand of football is on its way.

Anyway, it could be worse.  Could be Millwall…

Brent Lanthier

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Leeds, Ipswich long for Red Letter Days

Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend

Rewind 10 years to May 2001.  Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat.  Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season.  But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.

The top of the table was awash in a sea of red.  But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue.  Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.

Fast forward 10 years to the present day.  Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001.  Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.

Ipswich Town
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high.  Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again.  But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign,  finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award.  They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.

George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001

But that success turned out to be a blip.  After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process.  They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham.  Since then, they’ve have simply floundered.  The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.

Leeds United
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.  A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.

That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.

Leeds: Too good to go down…

But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride.  Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league.  Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.

The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club.  Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007.  After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.

Cup Success?
One club has rebounded, one has not.  The difference between the two was evident this weekend.   Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup.  Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful.  The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.

Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes.  United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road.  If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.

Ipswich still have a chance at redemption.  New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road.  But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.

Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high.  Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.

Brent Lanthier

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