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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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Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

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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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Best of the Prem: Sunderland to West Ham

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

None of these sides seriously challenged for a Champions League side… but a couple of them almost got relegated.  Here then, is the last of the club-by-club players of the year.

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson's England maths

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson’s England maths

SUNDERLAND
Adam Johnson (ENG) – It’s great sport in England to second-guess the national team manager, a thankless job if ever there was one.  For the most part, Roy Hodgson seems to have done the best he can with what he has.  However, his selection of a certain Manchester City player was flawed, especially when a former Citizen could have easily taken the spot.  Adam Johnson never shone in the team of stars that was assembled around him before Citeh shipped him back to the North East.  But the winger did a better job at the Etihad than James Milner has done… yet it is Milner who will get the World Cup caps.  What’s more, Johnson has been Sunderland’s best player for the last two seasons, even as they looked over the precipice during the Christmas break.  The Black Cats did a miraculous turnaround, not only staying in the Premier League but finishing 14th in the table.  Cue the Mackem applause for the man who led the club in goals, assists… and heart.

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

SWANSEA CITY
Wilfried Bony (IVO) Swansea City’s signing of this Ivorian striker was astonishing, and it paid off.  Although the Welsh club slipped in table position and stature, Wilfried Bony’s production far outweighed that of his team mates.  Tied for sixth in league scorers and making his contribution to Swansea’s admirable European adventure, Bony assured his club’s safety from the mire of the Premier League’s relegation fight.

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge...

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge…

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Christian Eriksen (DEN)  Where do you go when you’re 21 years old, and you’re already named the best player for club, country and league? Danish player Christian Eriksen chose an Andre Villas-Boas-led Tottenham Hotspur.    Spurs are one of the Premier League’s “big small clubs” (like Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland), and Eriksen must have been caught off-guard at the turmoil that has engulfed the team’s front office.  Still, the young winger was the sole success amongst a splurge of Spurs signings.   He was second behind scallywag Emmanuel Adebayor for goals, and was the club’s best playmaker.

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Morgan Amalfitano (FRA) – To be frank, it was hard to pick a best player on a side that was awful enough to challenge for relegation, but still managed to stay afloat.  This is a side that drew 15 times, had chaos at the managerial position and finished a hair above the drop zone, after spending the previous two seasons in the top half of the table.  Morgan Amalfitano shone for the West Country club in a fantastic performance against Manchester United, but was often subbed off, started on the bench… or not even used at all.  Luckily for the Frenchman, he’s back in Marseille to play under new manager, Marcelo Bielsa… while WBA remains a club in disarray.

"Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam..."

“Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam…”

WEST HAM UNITED
Mark Noble (ENG) – Sometimes, your best player is your folk hero… the man who creates story lines because of his links to the club that he serves. For years, that was Steven Gerrard’s role at Liverpool.  In London’s East End, Mark Noble is Mr. West Ham… a reliable central midfielder on a Sam Allardyce squad… which is to say that he is invaluable to Big Sam.  A goal here, an assist there… but a defensive asset through and through, Noble’s on-field performances outshone the reputations of the Tyneside Twins, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll.

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: My Starting XI

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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Arguably the Dutchman’s finest season… but can he repeat his success at the Euros?

As the Euros start swinging into full-gear, the Premier League season continues to fade in the rearview mirror.  But after such a compelling season, we can’t sign off on it without telling you about our picks for Starting XI.  I would have posted these earlier but I was in the UK for the last week, doing (ahem) research…

Here we go!

Hart: World’s best keeper?

GK: Joe Hart (MNC)
The England number one had the lowest goals-against average in the league. That’s no surprise, since he faced the fewest shots, and I’m sure the Citeh keeper is happy to have Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in front of him.  Still, his save percentage (a stat that involves him actually touching the ball) was only second to David De Gea.   I’m tempted to pick Michel Vorm, simply because the Dutchman had more to do.  But even Hart’s fellow keepers are saying that he is close to being the best in the world.  England fans everywhere are singing, “we thank God that he’s ours”.

On the bench:  Michel Vorm (SWA), Tim Krul (NEW)

Difficult season for the Frenchman

LB: Patrice Evra (MNU)
Evra’s involvement in the Suarez racism affair has overshadowed a strong season for the Frenchman. He was the one constant on an unsettled United back line, and took the captain’s armband when Vidic blew his knee.  Evra was a tackling machine, and was almost omnipresent on SAF’s team sheet.

On the bench: Gael Clichy (MNC)

City’s defensive giants

CB: Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany (MNC)
The pair were instrumental — vital, even — in Citeh’s run to the title. The Citizens’ league-lowest goals-against tally had as much to do with having possession as it did with defending. But these two were monsters in the backfield, with Kompany serving as the club’s “quarterback”, while Lescott cleaned up.

On the bench: John Terry (CHE), Jonny Evans (MNU)

Ivanovic channels Al Jolson

RB: Branislav Ivanovic (CHE)
The Serbian was rough and ready, leading the league’s right backs in balls won, as well as crosses.  The fact that he scored a few goals and set up a couple more doesn’t hurt either, all while keeping his bookings down from last year.

On the bench: Danny Simpson (NEW)

A Song and a prayer helped Arsenal to a CL spot…

DM: Alex Song (ARS)
This may be a little unfair, since the Cameroonian had more of a “playmaker” role this season: 13 assists in all competitions.  But Song was also a winner when it come to breaking up opponents’ attacking runs, winning back possession deep in Arsenal’s own end and then turning the counter on a dime.  Throw out the Gunners’ horror show results against United and Blackburn early, and you see how Arsenal’s defence actually came around… and Song was a big part of that.

On the bench: Gareth Barry (MNC)

Toure led City to its first title in 44 years…

AM: Yaya Touré (MNC)
Of all the millionaires on Manchester City’s squad, Touré may have come closest to earning his £250,000 per week.  He was a menancing presence, muscling his way through the middle of the pitch to set up his teammates.  But he is not without finesse: witness his two goals against Newcastle in Citeh’s penultimate game this season, followed by a nice little tap to Zabaleta against QPR.  Man City were accused of being hired mercenaries without any fire in the belly.  But if there is a heart to this team, it lies between the “4” and “2” on Yaya Touré’s jersey.

On the bench: Mikel Arteta (ARS)

Spanish Imposition: Silva made his mark this season

LW: David Silva (MNC)
If Touré was Citeh’s heart, then Silva was their brain.  As I mentioned last week, Silva was the league’s ultimate playmaker. He led the league in assists, showing incredible control both on the ball, and with his crossing and passing.  With David Villa out of the Euros, look for Silva to move up front to lead the Spanish armada in Poland.

On the bench: Gareth Bale (TOT)

The Heart of the Mata: Spaniard has a bright future at Stamford Bridge

RW:  Juan Mata (MNC)
Another Spaniard on the wing and another speedy midfielder with the artillery to feed his teammates.   One of the players that will become a huge part of the new Chelsea.

On the bench: Antonio Valencia (MNU)

With RVP’s success, Rooney flew under the radar this season

F: Robin Van Persie (ARS), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Let’s not beat around the bush: a forward’s job is to either score goals… or make sure someone else does.   That’s what these two players did this year.  Van Persie kept relatively injury-free to take the league’s Golden Boot with 30 markers (36 in all competitions), while Rooney was neck-and-neck for most of the season with 27 (37 in total).  The Rooney numbers are impressive, considering he was hurried into midfield for a time before Paul Scholes came out of retirement.  But RVP might have single-handedly pulled Arsenal out of its early-season nose dive.  Champions League football may keep the lanky Dutchman at the Emirates for some time yet.

On the bench: Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT), Sergio Aguero (MNC)

ATR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robin Van Persie
ATR YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sergio Aguero

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Swansea City to Wolverhampton

Roy Hodgson does his best George Bailey impression: “Well, I don’t have your trophy. It’s at Roman’s house… and Alex’s house… and Roberto’s house…”

Part Four takes us to a team that squandered their European dreams, another side that dropped like a stone, a third that pulled away from the edge of the precipice, and then two more that found the soft, creamy middle of the table.  Let’s have a look at their best, shall we?

The Dutchman did his part…

SWANSEA CITY
Michel Vorm (NED) – The first Welsh team in Premier League history was the mirror image of its fellow Championship graduate, Norwich.  Just like the East Anglians, the Swans’ gaffer opted for a wide-open system that had trouble on the counter.  Good thing Swansea had Michel Vorm.  The Dutchman faced a barrage of shots, but his save percentage remained in the top flight’s top five.  That’s why he will compete for the honour of being the Oranje ‘s No. 2 in the Ukraine this summer.

Ade wants to stay

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT) – I know that many Spurs fans — along with several neutral observers — will take issue with this pick. Why not Gareth Bale, or Luka Modric?  But the stats are pretty clear: more goals, more assists in the league, more possession, more clear chances on goal.  Sure the big man up front was a bit of lazy git at times, and Tottenham fans are worried that they have another Berbatov on their hands.  But the Togolese striker was lethal for the Lilywhites and, more importantly, he wants to stay.  The same might not be said for his teammates in midfield.

The Baggies’ Foster child…

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ben Foster (ENG) – Beware when your best player is a keeper.  WBA finished a positively decent 10th place under a positively decent manager, Uncle Woy.  Peter Odemwingie had a decent season with 10 goals in the league.  The Baggies were 12th in scoring, 14th in defence.  Foster was decent in the middle of the goalkeeper pack when it came to saves and goals against.  All of this bodes well for England, doesn’t it?… Doesn’t it?!?

NOT Gary Caldwell…

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Gary Caldwell (SCO) – Hey Wigan! Come here, you! No, go away! No, come here! No, go away! The Latics channeled the ghost of Alexei Sayle by dallying with relegation for the entire season (Editor’s Note: Alexei Sayle is not dead).  Wigan were bottom of the table as late as St. Patrick’s Day, so it was apropos that a former shamrock-wearing defender led the charge to safety.   Gary Caldwell’s team posted a record of eight wins and only two losses in their last nine matches, while only letting in seven goals.  That’s as many as the eventual champions, Manchester City.  (Ed. Note: Caldwell didna kill his brother — and former Wigan teammate — Stephen.  He’s at Birmingham City… )

Wolves say they won’t let Fletcher go…

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Steven Fletcher (SCO) – One of the only above-average players on a very sub-par squad, Fletcher had more goals than Frank Lampard, Rafael van der Vaart, Chicharito and Gareth Bale.  ‘Nuff said…

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Season’s Starting XI and ATR’s PoY!

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Gov for Sale

Image

After a decade-and-a-half of complaints about the oligarchical (big word alert!) domination of the Premier League by four or five clubs, you have to love the drama going into the last week of the season.  Mancunian rivals competing for the title! Three teams scrambling for the final Champions League spots! Chelsea threatening to throw it all into the wind by winning the Champions League! Merseyside clubs competing for… well, isn’t it wonderful?

But if you dig a little deeper, you find a stumble to the finish.  Clubs have taken a hot potato approach to the league table, with the teams falling over themselves trying to acquiesce table positions, often to their most hated rival.  And no side is more guilty of this than Tottenham Hotspur.

When he lasted posted, Our Ian wrote about Harry Redknapp’s acquittal and how the Spurs boss was riding high in the table.  On paper, Tottenham had a formidable team.  On the pitch, Spurs were more fun to watch than Barcelona.  Players like Bale, Van der Vaart, Lennon, Adebayor and Modric followed ‘Arry’s advice to “just run about”, while the starting fullbacks — Walker and Assou-Ekotto — joined in the rush.  It was “all-hands-on-deck” and the Warriors of White Hart Lane did not disappoint.  While they were scoring and winning, they were also keeping one of the stingiest defences in the league.  Quite simply, Tottenham were feared.

But the last third of the season has not been kind to the club.  At one point, Tottenham sat 13 points above their Highbury rivals.  They are now a point below.  Talk of Redknapp’s automatic coronation as the England gaffer was obviously premature and rightly so.  Three Lions’ supporters around the globe have taken a look at the Old Wheeler Dealer and wondered what all the fuss is about. Despite his heritage (obviously something that he had nothing to do with), his credentials are thin.  One trophy and a possible penchant for leaving when it seems to suit him.

Over the last eight matches, their London rivals seem to want Champions League football as little as they do.  Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea have all gone 3-3-2 with the same goal difference. It’s a wash, with Arsenal and Tottenham trying to avoid fourth place in the unlikely event that a born-again Chelsea actually beat Bayern in Munich.

But if Arsenal manage to sack the Woy-less Baggies, and the Blues actually complete their Bavarian putsch, then the Lilywhites’ support will look towards the dugout for answers.  Answers on why a team that spent more on average per year than Manchester United is still trying to find a foothold in the Champions League.  Answers as to why the gaffer says the club should spend even MORE in the summer.

But more importantly, the club’s heart-and-soul support should ask themselves why they would tolerate such a mercenary to lead them into the future, after he seemed so willing to abandon them at the drop of a contract.

Brent Lanthier

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Liverpool on the Edge

Kenny welcomes back his prodigal hijo..

Two-thirds into the season, the jury is still out on Liverpool. Has the storied club moved one step closer to its former exalted position? Or does Kenny Dalglish have his team running to stand still while other clubs leapfrog over the fallen giants?

One of the clubs on the rise is Tottenham Hotspur.  “Wheeler-Dealer” ‘Arry Redknapp has built a team that sits in third place, and — along with Manchester City — has displaced long-time Top 4 residents Chelsea and Arsenal.   It is hard not to see them in the group stages of the Champions League come September, but there are no guarantees.  Meanwhile, five points separate four teams for the last CL spot.  So today’s game at Anfield may be rich with meaning and consequence for both sides.

But where are the Reds exactly? They have reached one cup final, and have bested a mighty rival to progress in another.  The club has stated that its goal is Champions League football… but they have to go through the aforementioned Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as fight off the football renaissance going on in the country’s Northeast.  Newcastle were supposed to collapse after the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to the Reds, and the defection of Kevin Nolan to play for his old boss, Sam Allardyce.  But in a case of addition through subtraction (and the smart pickup of Demba Ba), the Magpies are keeping pace.  Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill is weaving that Ol’ Black Magic with the Black Cats: Sunderland are 8-2-3 under the Irishman.

In hope of making sense of  Liverpool’s season, let’s look at the numbers.

– Liverpool have six more points than this time last year.  But in comparable games played, they are -1.  In other words, when you take all the matches they’ve played this year and compared them to the games from last year against the same teams, they are behind.

– The Reds’ record against Top 10 teams is trending to be about the same (just better than 50%), but they have improved against the lower half.

– Their away record has improved significantly, while their home record is worse.  Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this year, but they have frustrated fans by drawing a league-leading seven times at home.

– Liverpool’s goal difference is +7 compared to 0 at this time last year.  But they have scored three fewer goals.  A year ago the ranked fifth in offence, sixth in defence.  This year, they are one of the stingiest sides in the Prem, but are 12th in goals scored.  Fulham, Villa and Blackburn have all scored more than the Reds.

And therein lies the problem.   After spending over £100m on players like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez, the offence has gone backwards.  Carroll and Henderson are young players wilting under the pressure and excessive price tags. Charlie Adam seems to have been a big fish in Blackpool’s small pond.  And Suarez has been dubious in both play and disposition, letting shots go errant while embroiling himself in several controversies.

However, there appear to be several lights in the fog.  A player who is no stranger to discipline problems himself, Craig Bellamy seems to have been settled down by Dalglish, his boyhood idol. He now leads the team in scoring… not bad for a player who’s started half the games on the bench.  Jose Enrique — another wantaway from St. James’ Park — has admirably filled the long-time void at left back, and may be the team’s Player of the Year.

Is it enough?  Spurs have amassed a midfield and defence that are as good as any in the league, and snapping up Brad Friedel in the supposed twilight of his career looks like a stroke of genius.  But Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this season.  The talismanic Steven Gerrard will be in the line-up, and Suarez returns after his long stay in the corner, hopefully with something to prove.

If they win the Carling Cup (likely), win the FA Cup (maybe) but don’t reach the Champions League, will this have been a successful season? Or will Kenny have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether he’s the man to lead his team back to the promised land?  Tonight’s game may go a long way to answering those questions.

My prediction: 2-2.

Brent Lanthier

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