Category Archives: FA Cup

The End of the Season

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Manchester City are the first club to repeat as PL Champions in a decade

English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat.  Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight.  All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.

Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.

WINNERS

Manchester City

Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year.  The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages.  They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).

Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup.  If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team.  That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.

The off-season will be busy.  Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury.  Six other players also have one year left on their contract.  Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters.  It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.

Liverpool

It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football.  A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short.  In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches.  Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.

And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club.  Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.

A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago.   And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache.  Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”.  This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league.  A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux.  Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.

Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England.  Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001.  While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets.  They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs.  Good fun.

West Ham United

The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading.  While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence.  The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals.  However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow.  Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.

An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.

Watford

We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides.  It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table.  Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year.  Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box.  But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent.  The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way.  The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.


LOSERS

United lose to Cardiff on last day

United need a lot of work in the off-season.

Manchester United

The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?)  We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches.  Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.

Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left.  The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches.  Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.  It turns out it was the players after all…

So here they sit.  No Champions League next season.  If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition.  To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.

The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements.  It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent.  It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing.  It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move.  It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.

As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson.  Good luck finding his successor.  It isn’t OGS.

Burnley

This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake.  Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.

Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season.  Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places.  If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable.  The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses.  Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.

Huddersfield Town

Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go.  The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season.   A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet.  Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.

Cardiff City

Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing.  No money, no players, no hope.   Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.

Fulham

See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up.  Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32.   Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated.  ‘Nuff said.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season.  Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits.  But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table.  Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job.  The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.


UNKNOWN

Sarri Upset

Will Sarri win the battle of wills at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea

Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season.  At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines.  He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.

But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final.  Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.

Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against.  The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose.  With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four.  Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four.  After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018.  Nicht.  Nil.  Zip.

Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily.  They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club.  They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.

Obviously, they were not disappointed.  Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England.  Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games.  It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.

That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam.  After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.

But one can not stand still in the Premier League.  You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium.  Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs.  Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July.  Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend.  Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…

Arsenal

After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious.  Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree.  Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain.  But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room.  He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line.  Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer.  Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.

However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.  His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.

Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting.  That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th.  But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.

Newcastle United

Sigh.  The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old.  Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places.  Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table.  Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…

Bournemouth

Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons.  When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England.  Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results.  Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19.  Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.

Southampton

The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl.   Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing.  Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole.  What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower.  Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.


MEH…

Marco Silva

Much ado about nothing…

Everton

All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face.  Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth.  No Everton Cup for you, Everton.  Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.

Leicester City

Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season.  By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid.  Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth.  Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it.  Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.

Leicester is a very talented squad.  Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.  The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title.  It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six.  They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.

Crystal Palace

A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either.  An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons.  Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either.  After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals.  Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”.  Expect more of the same from Palace next season.

All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!

Brent Lanthier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Best of Times, The Blurst of Times

Do Wolves have any legs left?

Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail.   So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears.  If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency).  Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old.  Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team.  ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out.  Liverpool were already falling down the hill.  And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.

So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.

Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham.  All sit relatively safe.  Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves.  Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points.  For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.

Wide-eyed Woy widing high at WBA

I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe.  Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began. 

Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes.  The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road.  They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.

Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments.  Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air.  If they win the FA Cup final, they are in.  If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in.  Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…

Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight.   The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh.  Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe.  I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse.  But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.

That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop.  Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke.  Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season.  But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club.  It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Bruce wonders where it went wrong

At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot.  They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.

West Ham United sit 19th.  I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive.  But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.

It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about.  Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones.  Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce.  Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror.  The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam.  Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.

In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table.  It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.

By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.

Brent Lanthier

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Hammer Time?

Ba Humbug for West Ham's opposition...

It doesn’t happen very often.  But sometimes, I get it wrong.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to your computer screen, “That’s not true, Brent.  You’re being modest.  Give your head a shake and have a beer on me…”

Alas, faithful readers, I have erred. It turns out that I am not the reliable prognasticator I once thought I was.  And it’s all thanks to a certain Israeli manager who manages a certain East London club.

I had predicted in early December that Avram Grant would be fired by Christmas.  West Ham were at the bottom of the table and were up against the wall.  I said how the holiday swing was going to kill the team — and the career of the gaffer.  Indeed, through December and the first half of January, with the Hammers going 2-3-3, it seemed like curtains for both Grant and the club’s Premier League hopes.

But then a couple of cup runs seemed to give the Irons a spark.  They won their 3rd round FA Cup tie against Burnley 2-0.  Then three days later, they beat fellow Premier League strugglers Birmingham in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.  Since then, they have gone 5-2-3 in all competitions.

It could be that Avram Grant finally has a team that is “too good to go down”.   The team has scored thirteen goals in their last four games.  It’s likely no coincidence that this spurt is due to the arrival of striker Demba Ba (you don’t say his name, so much as let it spill out of your mouth) from TSG Hoffenheim in February.  In the five games he has played, both Ba and strike partner Carlton Cole have each scored four goals.

Parker does his Christian Bale impression...

But the keystone of West Ham’s mini-turnaround has to be Scott Parker.  The midfielder and captain has been bossing the centre of the park, marshalling his teammates both physically and mentally as they have clawed their way out of the relegation zone… at least for the time being.  Many of his teammates — as well as English pundits — say Parker should be named Player of the Year for his pluck in the face of West Ham’s dreadful first half of the season results.

I’m not going to say that they won’t go down.  West Ham are only just above Brum in the relegation zone… and the Blues still have two games in hand.  The Hammers still have to face Spurs, Chelsea and Man City away, as well as play first-place Manchester United at home. Plus, they still have to continue their FA Cup run, facing sinking Stoke again for the second time in a week.

With the Boleyn Ground averaging about 33-thousand fans a season — and the brand spanking new Olympic stadium waiting to be taken over — West Ham is a biggish club that thinks it has a brighter future.  I’d tell you where that future lies… but I’m afraid of being wrong again.  That would be just scary…

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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10 Things I Learned This Weekend

What, me worry?

1) Firing your manager before your team faces the defending champions and cup holders = stupid.  Chelsea 7-0 Ipswich Town.

2) Firing your manager before your side faces the team that ripped the World Club Champions a new one = also not smart.   Tottenham 3-0 Charlton.

3) Howard Webb likes to insert himself in games.  Questionable calls against Liverpool this weekend.  Not outrageous… but questionable. 

4) Kenny Dalglish has his work cut out for him at Liverpool, especially since he will be without Steven Gerrard for the next three games.  Blackpool away, Merseyside derby at home, Wolves away… Liverpool have lost to all three teams this season.

5) Arsenal need a keeper.  No kidding.

6) Lionel Messi wins the inaugural FIFA Ballon D’Or as the best player in the world.  No kidding.

7) All of the FIFA Pro XI were chosen from Italian or Spanish clubs.  Stop me when you are sick of me stating the obvious…

Andros Townsend: The Future of the Right

8 ) ‘Arry still hasn’t finalized a deal to bring Becks.  I don’t understand why Spurs would sign him in the first place.

9) Becks and Posh are expecting a fourth child.  Show-offs…

10) El-Hadji Diouf is still a knob.  Discuss.

Brent Lanthier

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Northeast gets Sweet FA from Cup ties

Winning never hurt so good...

The world’s oldest football tournament almost never disappoints, with its share of cracking matches, and sometimes… cracking bones.  Here are some of the highlights from Saturday’s FA Cup fixtures:

– Arsenal will have to travel to the hostile Elland Road for a replay, after barely drawing Leeds United 1-1 at the Emirates.  The only reason the Arse are still alive is because of a penalty given after a Walcott dive.  Kids today…

As if! Diouf can't believe what Neil Warnock said about him

– Speaking of dirty cheaters, El-Hadji Diouf did his best impression of a human heel in Blackburn Rover’s 1-0 win over Queen’s Park Rangers.  According to QPR gaffer Neil Warnock (who is no stranger to jackassery himself),  the Blackburn player stood over Jamie Mackie and taunted him as the young Scot writhed in pain from a broken fibula and tibia.  Diouf should thank his lucky stars it wasn’t Jamie Carragher

– League Two side Stevenage were the giant killers of the Third Round, taking out Newcastle United 3-1.  The Toon Army does not suffer fools — or managers — lightly, but apparently they aren’t as bad as the Stevenage fans.  They get upset even if their team wins!

–  The Newcastle loss means the FA Cup is going nowhere near the Rivers Tyne, Wear, or Tees this season. Sunderland lost 0-1 to Notts County, while Burton Albion beat Middlesbrough 2-1.

– A resurgent Southampton took down a reserve-side Blackpool 2-0.  Saints’ fans taunted Ian Holloway with chants of  “Premier League, you’re having a laugh.”  They should know…

Where Once We Watched King Kenny Play: Liverpool head to Old Trafford with Kenny Dalglish once again at the helm.  The Reds legend takes over from Roy Hodgson, who left after mutual dissent.  Unfortunately for Liverpool, he didn’t take Christian Poulsen, Paul Konchesky or Joe Cole with him…

Also on the Manager Merry-Go-Round:  Ipswich Town head to Stamford Bridge, sans Roy Keane.  They meet a Chelsea team whose manager might be joining Keane in the unemployment line, if the cup holders don’t beat the Tractor Boys, who sit 19th in the Championship.

Manager Merry-Go-Round, Part III: Tottenham Hotspur are hosting a gaffer-less Charlton Athletic  in what will surely be a second-string run-out for ‘Arry’s adolescents.  Look for goals from, um… that guy… off a cross from, uh, that fellow over there…

Brent Lanthier

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Fringe benefits for Spurs

Which way to the pitch again? I haven't been there in ages.

As our ’Arry is so fond of saying, there are no easy games in the Premier League. With the possible exception of Werder Bremen circa late-2010, there aren’t too many gimmes in the Champions League, either.  And being drawn against local rivals Arsenal in your first Carling Cup match isn’t much of a party, not when you’re used to a diet of Port Vales and MK Dons in the early stages of that competition.

So at the risk of jinxing things, it’s fair to say that Charlton’s FA Cup visit to White Hart Lane this Sunday is the first time in a long time that Tottenham have had the luxury of giving a good number of fringe players in their deep squad a chance for some action. And it’ll be interesting to see just who Redknapp kits out for the 3rd round encounter.

The manager-less Addicks, having just pink-slipped former Colchester gaffer Phil Parkinson, sit some 45 places below Tottenham. They’re in the League One playoff zone, but they’ve got a bunch of teams breathing down their necks and they haven’t won in five matches. Seems like a super opportunity for Spurs to showcase some lads whose boots are gathering spider webs, especially those who might be pushed further down the pecking order if a certain Mr. Beckham moves from La La Land to the Lane this month.

After taking maximum points in all three holiday fixtures, and weathering a pair of sending-offs in the process, Tottenham lost at Everton in the week, their first EPL defeat since October. Gareth Bale left with a sore back, and the squad was far from sharp. Time for some R & R, lads. You’ve got Man. Utd and AC Milan on the horizon.

It was back in September’s 4-1 extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup when Redknapp last dug deep into the reserves to field a team. And even though Samir Nasri’s pair of late penalties killed Tottenham off that evening, it was still fascinating to watch youngsters Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore get their feet wet with the first team.

For players like Robbie Keane and David Bentley, whose twittering wife has provided yet another reason for ’Arry’s anger, the Charlton clash could be a chance to get in the shop window and line up transfers away from Tottenham this month. Birmingham have expressed interest in both, but only Bentley (17 million pounds and he can’t even drive the team bus!) looks likely so far.

It’s 99.9 percent not likely to line up this way, but here’s a Tottenham XI (and subs bench) I’d be curious to see take on the visitors from South London this Sunday.

GK Stipe Pletikosa: The Croatian hasn’t featured since the Arsenal defeat (if memory serves) and Carlo Cudicini is out with a sore shoulder. Give Heurelho Gomes a good rest.

RB Vedran Corluka: Banished to bench for long stretches after CL miscue in favour of Alan Hutton. Time to dust him off.

CB Bongani Khumalo: Redknapp might not think South African newcomer is ready for trial by fire but hey, it’s Charlton, not Chelsea. This is like trial by lighter.

CB Sebastien Bassong: Plays the least of THFC’s unfortunately few fit central defenders. Dawson and Gallas could use a break and Kaboul is banned for his recent red card.

LB Benoit Assou-Ekotto: Caulker and the Kyles are all away on loan so we’ll stick with a starter here.

RW Andros Townsend: Newly-sacked Roy Keane (suck it, you thug) didn’t want him at Ipswich so he needs showcasing for a new loan.

MF Sandro: The Brazilian beast has had too few chances since his switch from Internacional. We know what Palacios can do. Let’s have a closer look at this lad.

MF John Bostock: I know, even Hull didn’t want him. Give him a run and maybe someone else will fancy a longer look. The kid needs to play.

LW Niko Kranjcar: The other Croatian lost in the wilderness at Spurs. Plus my made-up team is pretty young and needs some veteran savvy. He’s got it in spades.

FW Roman Pavlyuchenko: The Russian donkey was in fine form at the end of last season when he got some regular playing time. If he finds his feet again, it would be a big boost.

FW Giovanni Dos Santos: Remember him? All kinds of rumours say he’s on the way out. How about one last look before he leaves?

SUBS: GK Heurelho Gomes (in case of emergency), CB Michael Dawson (same as Gomes), FW Robbie Keane (for when Dos Santos disappoints again), MF Jermaine Jenas (can’t hurt), MF Jamie O’Hara (unless his back still isn’t better), MF David Bentley (in case his Brummie deal isn’t done yet) and FW Peter Crouch (for when my Spurs XI go a goal down).

Ian Harrison

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