Do we really need the League Cup in 2011?

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On Sunday, Arsenal and Birmingham will walk out on to the Wembley turf to do battle for the first silverware of the season. A win for Wenger would secure the North London side’s first trophy in over five years, ending a long fruitless wait for the Gunners faithful. Victory for Birmingham, currently three points above the drop-zone, could no doubt be the boost needed to turn their season around. But are we interested? And more so, will the Arsenal fans thirst for trophies really be quenched by a Carling Cup? And would most Bluenoses not swap a victory on Sunday for 3 points back on New Year’s Day? Points which would see them sitting just off the top half of the table.

The League Cup has always played as an understudy to the F.A Cup, but whilst it provides many less giant killings than its counterpart by only allowing Football League teams to enter, hence the name, it does offer the opportunity of European competition to its winners. Something the Birmingham players will no doubt have in the back of their minds on Sunday.

Ten years ago, Birmingham reached the same stage of the competition, eventually losing via a marathon penalty shoot-out to Liverpool. This being the last time a second-tier side has reached the final. So with a decade past since a ‘League’ team has reached the final of the League Cup, let alone win it, it’s little wonder many are beginning to show increasing disinterest towards the competition.

Ironically, the other side in this weekend’s final, are partly to blame for the demise of the tournament. For many of the last ten years in question, Arsenal have used the competition as an opportunity to rest first team players, instead making use of both their reserve and youth squads. This season has been a little different, with increasing pressure on the club to win a trophy, Wenger has more often than not fielded a strong, if not his strongest side. However, Wenger’s former approach to the competition has stuck, and many other Premier League teams, even those with very little chance of achieving any other silverware, continue to field weakened sides.

Surely then this must have opened up the competition to those in the lower divisions, and those Premier League sides taking the competition seriously? Apparently not. Of the last twenty League Cup finalists, only six have not been Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham. So not only are the top teams fielding weakened sides, but they’re overwhelmingly winning the competition. It can be argued that if these sides didn’t field weakened teams they would reach finals with even more regularity, maybe so, but it would certainly boost the profile of the tournament once again, and perhaps go as far as eradicating the saying “It’s only the Carling Cup”.

But let’s face it, in an age when winning the European Cup is rewarded with the princely sum of around 7 Million Euros, are the top teams ever going to want to field their best side, or for that matter be able to? The increasing over-congestion of fixtures in the British season means that top sides can be expected to play with much more regularity than their European counterparts, many of whom are gifted the luxury of a winter break and not competing in a secondary cup competition.

Options then seem sparse. Perhaps the most logical would be to not invite teams involved in Europe to partake, opening up the tournament, increasing competition and incentivising a cup run. But this seems highly unlikely, the Europa League position would no doubt be withdrawn by UEFA, sponsorship would undoubtedly dwindle and ultimately, if only for the final few games, the quality of football would be watered down.

However, on Sunday, for 90 minutes at least, the role of the League Cup will not be questioned. Both sets of players will want to win, but one may just have their minds somewhere else. Ultimately, I’m not sure there is a solution for the demise of this historic competition. But I hope there is.



Boli, bribes and big-eared trophies: the story of Marseilles' corrupt Champions League win

Didier Deschamps lifts Marseilles' first ever Champions League trophy; but their route to the final is littered with controversy. 

Mark Hateley was a superb centre-forward. A proper, old-fashioned centre-forward. One of those rare English beasts who travel to warmer climes and improved their game immeasurably. From Michigan through Milan and in to Monaco; he travelled the leagues, and helped himself to 32 England caps along the way. But it was at Rangers where he played his best football. Forming a deadly partnership with Ally McCoist, he scored a total of 111 goals in 214 games for the Scottish club; in turn leading them to 5 consecutive SPL titles and a Champions League semi-final.

That aforementioned semi-final was against Olympique Marseille: the most successful club-side in French football history; and at the time, the winner of four consecutive Ligue 1 titles. A rising power in the European game under the flamboyant leadership of chairman, Bernard Tapie. He was the self-made millionaire who had made his fortune by buying up bankrupt companies, Tapie had taken over Olympique Marseilles in 1987. Under his stewardship they became a force to be reckoned with. At home Marseilles, the people's club, successfully took on the wealth of Arsène Wenger's Monaco. Next on Tapie's horizon was Europe.

1993 was a strange time for the European Cup. The tournament had just been re-vamped as the Champions League, and with the break-up of the USSR, new teams from brand new nations were allowed to enter for the very first time; teams like Tavriya Simferopol of Ukraine, Olimpija Ljubljana of Slovenia and Latvia's Skonto. 32 teams in all contested a first round. Naturally, this was cut in half for the second round, and finally, the remaining eight teams were split into two groups of four, with the winner of each group going on to reach the final.  

In Marseilles' group along with Rangers, were Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow. Much like today's Champions League group stage, each team played the other three home and away. The first time Rangers and Marseille met, the scores were level; that man Hateley with a late equaliser to make the score 2-2. The two sides then continued to match each other's scores: Rangers two wins and a draw, Marseille two wins and a draw. They met again in a decider on 7th April. And this is where the corruption begins in OM's Champions League-winning story.

If Mark Hateley is to be believed, a senior source at the French club rang the centre-forward three weeks before the all-important game and offered him "large sums of money" not to play. As it was, Hateley was sent-off in the previous group game against Club Brugge, which meant he was banned for the trip to France anyway. That sending-off however was described in The Independent at the time as "extremely harsh", leading many to assume that the referee had perhaps received a phone-call as well.

Marseille vs Rangers, round two, was a cagey affair. Marseille went 1-0 up within 20 minutes; Franck Suazee with the goal. But Rangers pegged back after half-time, and the game finished 1-1. The group decider had ended in stalemate. Next up for Marseille were Club Brugge; a win their would see Marseille go through on goal-difference.

"L'affaire OM" as it would become known, eventually saw Tapie convicted of fixing a French league game. But despite a series of allegations in the years that followed their European triumph - Basile Boli with the winner in the final, a 1-0 win over Milan - Marseille still remain on UEFA's roll of honour as France's sole European champions.

Their path to the final still remains littered with doubt. CSKA Moscow were beaten 6-0 in one group game amid allegations of spiked drinks and overwhelmingly biased refereeing. The final group game, a 1-0 win over Club Brugge, formed part of the French Prosecutions case that finally got Tapie sentenced. All this, along with Hateley's current revelations, add weight to the claim that Marseille should be stripped of their one and only European title. 

The perverse truth though is that OM were a formidable side in their own right: Marcel Desailly and Basile Boli at the back, Didier Deschamps in midfield and a front three of Rudi Voller, Alan Boksic and Abedi Pele; it was no wonder they'd dominated domestically for so long. But Tapie was determined not to leave his dream of continental glory to chance.

It was not long after that famous victory over Milan that rumours of financial irregularity began to surface. It wasn't, however, until two years later in 1995 that Tapie finally faced trial along with Jean Pierre Bernès, Marseilles' director general under Tapie, and three players, Jean-Jacques Eydelie of Marseilles and two from Valenciennes, Christophe Robert and Jorge Burruchaga, a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986.

Six days before that European Cup final, Marseille were due to play Valenciennes in a league match that would all but mathematically win them their fifth consecutive title. Valenciennes were, at the time, struggling in the league and really were no match for OM. Tapie however didn't want the players over-exerting themselves before the biggest game in the club's history, so Eydelie was ordered to approach the opposition with a deal. The decision was made during a party on Tapie's yacht, Phocea, four days before the Valenciennes fixture. Eydelie described what happened in his book, published in 2006 and over which Tapie unsuccessfully tried to sue him.

"Bernard Tapie said to us, 'It is imperative that you get in touch with your former Nantes team-mates at Valenciennes [there were two of them including Jorge Burruchaga]. We don't want them acting like idiots and breaking us before the final with Milan. Do you know them well?"
On the eve of the game, which Marseille won 1-0, Eydelie handed over an envelope containing 250,000francs to Burruchaga's wife; later, as the scandal broke, French police discovered the envelope buried in Burrachaga's garden.

Eydelie was eventually found guilty, fined and received a suspended prison sentence, but the affair went much further than a single French league game. Bernes, Marseilles' director, was also found guilty, and was to testify at regular attempts to buy opponents and referees both at home and abroad. In 1997 Tapie and a number of others faced a second trial at which he was accused of embezzling over £10m of the club's funds. Prosecutors picked out three games, against AEK Athens in 1989, CSKA Moscow in 1991, and that Bruges fixture. But nothing has stuck when it comes to Marseilles' European exploits.

Marseille were stripped of their 1992/93 Ligue 1 title. But have not, as yet, been stripped of their Champions League title of the same season; even after two of the games were used as evidence of proof that Tapie had influenced the outcome of the games. Why is this case? Only UEFA know.

How OM won it

1992/3 was the first Champions League. After two knock-out rounds the remaining eight sides were split into two groups, with the winner of each qualifying for the final. Here are the key games in Marseilles advance to the final against Milan:

Rangers 2-2 Marseilles
Hateley scores equaliser as Rangers rally from two down.

Marseilles 6-0 CSKA Moscow
There were later claims of attempts to spike the players' drinks and bribe the referee

Rangers 2-1 Club Bruges
Rangers win but Hateley is sent off and so is banned for Marseilles game

Marseilles 1-1 Rangers
Durrant wins a point to keep Rangers in with a chance.

Club Bruges 0-1 Marseilles
The game that formed part of the French prosecution of Tapie. Boksic scores after two minutes and that seals their progress to the final.



Can the current Barcelona team really be considered the greatest of all-time?

Cesc Fabregas was overwhelmed with adrenalin and pride last Wednesday night. Having come back from a goal down to win 2-1 against the travelling Catalans; Arsenal's dream of conquering Europe is still on.

You could forgive the Arsenal captain of most things in such exhilarating circumstances, but that, surely, does not include tampering with football history. For that was the young Spaniards crime when he pronounced that Arsenal's late victory had been achieved against the greatest side ever to play the game.

Extraordinarily good, often sublime, always fascinating to watch are all assessments of Barcelona of which no one could argue. But the greatest in history?

The trouble with Fabregas's statement is twofold. Firstly, you cannot assess greatness until it has run its course. And secondly, it just cannot be true, at least not just yet in the current Barca story.

The 'greatest team' have now played at the Emirates twice over a period of 11 months, with the aggregate score: Arsenal 4-3 Barcelona. Of course, the away-leg at Camp Nou last year was a wonderful individual display which left Arsenal shaking their heads in awe. But it is also true that twice now, Pep Guardiola has been to north London, and both times left deeply frustrated.

Arsenal may claim to have beaten Barca "at their own game", but many seem to forget last year's Champions League semi-final first-leg, in which Inter Milan utterly dominated, eventually winning 3-1. Three first half goals from Maicon, Sneijder and Milito paved the way for the now infamous second-leg. That defensive stroke of genius from Mourinho meant Barca - who had over 75% possession - were completely shut out at home. And lest we forget, Inter played over an hour with ten men in that game, thanks to Sergio Busquet's theatrics.

That semi-final loss meant that Barca could not defend the Champions League trophy they had won a year earlier. A trophy that only came about because of one of the worst refereeing performances in living memory. Tom Henning Ovrebo is no longer an UEFA-standard referee: no one can be surprised.

Lack of patience and defensive frailties were not flaws that you could pin-point at Arrigo Sacchi's '89 Milan side. Boasting a team outrageously full of talent, this rossoneri side won the European Cup twice in a row in '89 and '90, and also reached three of the next four European Cup finals. When you have Marco van Basten, Ruud Guillit and Frank Rijkaard in attack, it's easy to understand how they did it. But perhaps even more remarkable were their league performances during the same time. In the 1988-89 season, Milan lost only one game all season, letting in a total of 12 goals. And two seasons later, they would go on a frankly remarkable 58 game winning streak - remember that Serie A at the time was by far and away the best league in the world.

Other great European sides that also need to be considered are: the Bayern Munich side of the mid-70's who won the Big-eared Trophy for three consecutive years in '74, '75, '76. That side included the great Franz Beckenbauer, bombarding wing-back Paul Breitner and goalscoring behemoth Gerd Muller, who in one European Cup year scored nine goals in six games, and also scored in all three finals. Ajax Amsterdam of the three previous years also have to be in contention for the title of 'greatest team of all time.' Like Bayern, they also won three consecutive European Cups, this time in '71, '72, '73. Pioneers of  the pass-and-move style Barcelona currently deploy, this Dutch side created the template for 'Total Football', something which mesmerised the footballing world for three perfect years. And with Johann Cruyff as its focal point, they had the perfect player, for the perfect team at the perfect time.

If we are to talk about European glory as a parameter for greatness then we can't go any further without mentioning the Real Madrid side of the late-50's. Five European Cups in a row is still, to this day, unfathomable. Wins over Stade Reims (twice), Fiorentina, AC Milan and most famously Eintracht Frankfurt helped Real Madrid monopolise the trophy for the first five years of its existence. If every great team had one great player, it doesn't come much better than Alfredo di Stefano. The lynchpin of that Los Blancos side, he scored in all five finals he played and is one of only two players to score a hat-trick in a European Cup final. (The other being Ferenc Puskas, who incidentally scored his in the same game: the 7-3 win over Frankfurt.)

Puskas, as good as he was at Real Madrid, was even better for his national side Hungary. Admittedly, international football is a lot different to club football, but we can't go through the greatest club sides in history without mentioning some the best international teams as well. And that Hungary side, of which Puskas was the key component was some side. According to the ELO all-time football ranking system they are the greatest international team ever. Unbeaten for more than four years between 1950-1954, they were only denied their name in the annuls of history by a World Cup final defeat in 1954; a 3-2 loss to a West Germany team now believed to have been fuelled by illegal substances. Of course, on these shores, they will be remebered for their 6-3 victory over England, the first time a 'foreign' side had beaten the English on the hallowed Wembley turf. 'The Match of the Century' was then followed by a 7-1 thumping in Budapest six months later, just to prove it was no fluke. It would be no exaggeration to say that The Mighty Magyars quite literally invented the modern game. Technicolour football in a black-and-white world.

Three years ago, World Soccer Magazine asked the same question as I am now. They polled a number of football men far more qualified than myself, and the concluding result was a landslide. The best side ever were the Brazil team of 1970. Pele, Jarzinho, Revelino and Carlos Alberto were the samba stars who showed the world how to play. That Mexico '70 was the first World Cup to be televised worldwide and in colour may have helped. But the fact remains that their 4-1 win over Italy in the final is the best final performance ever, and includes the greatest World Cup goal ever.

So seriously Mr Fabregas. Well done on your win and all that, but just think the next time you tell the world that Barcelona 2011 are the greatest team ever.



Ronaldo: in praise of a footballing genius

Forget about the weight. Forget about the fact he only had one working knee. Even forget about the meetings with transvestite prostitutes. The statements coming out of Brazil today that Ronaldo has retired is even worse news on Valentine's Day than getting dumped by the missus.

"The head wants to go on but the body can't take any more. I think of an action but I can't do it the way I want to. It's time to go."

With these words, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima retires from football after a seventeen-year career filled with wonder, awe and perhaps, more importantly, injuries. Ronaldo has really been in semi-retirement for some time. Having been back in Brazil with Corinthians since 2009, he's hit the headlines more for his partying than his performances. But the man who played with such distinction for Barcelona, Madrid and both Milan clubs leaves the game as truly the greatest player of his generation.

With 350 club goals to his name, mostly at the top eschelons of world football, Ronaldo's place in the pantheon of all-time greats is safely secure. FIFA World Player of the Year three times. Ballon d'or winner twice. The highest goalscorer in World Cup history with 15 goals. And up-front in UEFA's All-Time Starting XI. It's safe to say he was fairly good. And with an astonishing return of 62 goals in 97 appearances for the Brazilian national team, he's worshipped as a hero back home as well.

Yet statistics and awards alone don't do justice to a player which the Italians nicknamed 'O Fenomeno'. In his pomp, Ronaldo was a force close to unstoppable. Between 1995-2002 there was not a player on earth who could touch him. And for three of those years he was out with a series of knee injuries. His record of 51 goals in 49 games for Barcelona is still a record; even after Messi's exploits last year. And to think, he was only 20-years-old at the time. Not as inventive as Zidane or as technically exquisite as Messi, Ronaldo's style was more head-down-charge at the defenders. (This goal against Valencia is the perfect example.)

Using quick-feet, exceptional close-control, blistering pace and the strength of an ox, he frequently went past three of four defenders, emerged unscathed on the other side and gently rolled it past the goalkeeper. It's difficult to think of a more complete centre-forward, ever. Perhaps only Marco van Basten comes close. And it was the sort of style that made Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid all pay world-record fees to make him their player.

Of all the highs in his glittering career - the year at Barca, the goals at Inter, pre-final '98 World Cup - Ronaldo's zenith was probably the 2002 World Cup. He had football's most abysmal haircut and yet still managed to score six goals in the tournament; the first time this had happened since Gerd Muller in 1974. That he had just returned from 22 months out with a succession of knee injuries made it even sweeter. Two goals in the final against Germany completed a remarkable turn-around for a player who, four years earlier, looked as if his career would end in complete tragedy.

The 1998 World Cup final has gone down in football folk-lore. It was the day when France finally accepted its immigrant population and over a million-strong partied on the Champs Ellyses. But it was also the day when a young footballing icon collapsed under the pressure of expectation, in a quite literal sense. He'd already scored five goals in the tournament, and at only 22 was the lynchpin of the Selecao. But the night before the biggest game of his career, Ronaldo collapsed at the team hotel suffering a convulsive fit. The pre-match team-sheets had Ronaldo as 'not playing', but an hour before kick-off he was back in the team. Des Lynam frantically trying to explain the situation is one of my earliest footballing memeories. And the performance of the young striker is regarded as one of the saddest moments in World Cup history. Evidently unfit to play, the sight of this great striker wandering aimlessly around the Stade de France was genuinly upsetting. Rumours have since sufficed that Nike may have forced their poster boy to play at all costs.

His goalscoring turn-around in Japan/South Korea persuaded the Galactico-era Real Madrid to take a punt on the increasingly large Ronaldo. But true to form, three months in, and the knee injury that had blighted him for the previous two years returned. As Pele said at the time: "this kind of thing makes you doubt the existance of God." And yet still, with only one working knee, the buck-toothed Brazilian managed to score 97 goals in 150 games for Madrid. Three of those goals came in a 4-3 loss to Manchester United in 2003. Those three away-goals ensured United were out of the Champions League, and yet so good was his performance, everyone inside Old Trafford gave Ronaldo a standing-ovation: truly exceptional behaviour from those fickle Mancs.

And yet, even after everything he achieved in his career, there is still a sense of unfulfilled potential. A question of 'what if?' And perhaps this is what makes him so special: arguably the greatest striker of all-time, and yet past the age of 22 never fully fit.

Look at YouTube clips of his goals and best bits, and ask yourself how many other players could have done that. The answer: not many. Without doubt, up there alongside Cruyff, Platini and Di Stefano. For my mind, the best player of the past 20 years. And just think how good he could have been with two proper knees.

We salute you O Fenomeno. The only Ronaldo.



Are we allowed to love Ashley Cole yet?

Tonight, in Copenhagen, Ashley Cole will become England's most-capped full back of all-time. So isn't it time we stopped abusing and starting applauding one of this country's finest ever players?

Leicester's Walkers Stadium may seem like a strange place to find Ashley Cole on a Saturday afternoon, but last weekend, in the Foxes 1-0 over Barnsley, Cole was there in all his glory watching on from the stands. You may wonder what interest he had in a promotion battle in the east Midlands; but he was actually there to lend moral support to left-back Patrick van Aanholt, sent on loan to Leicester from Chelsea for the rest of the season.

It was a surprising insight into the character of a man who has become one of Britain's most vilified public figures. So entrenched has this persona become, he's long since stopped trying to change anyone's mind. Cole has taken some hideous abuse over the past couple of years and in return he has double-locked the doors and pulled down the shutters. Some may never change their mind about Cole. Yet, you cannot help thinking that there aren't many Premier League footballers who would drive all the way to Leicester, the day before one of his biggest games of the season, just to lend support to a little-known youngster.

Of course, it is always important to distinguish between Cole the tabloid caricature and Cole the footballer; and this week, it is Cole the footballer who is grabbing the headlines. Providing Cole plays this evening, he will become England's most-capped full back of all-time, surpassing the likes of Stuart Pearce, Gary Neville and previous record-holder, Kenny Samson. 87 caps in total moves him up to ninth in the all-time list and within touching distance of the magical 100 - and with Euro 2012 around the corner, that looks ever more likely. He's already England's most-capped black player, beating John Barnes' 79 caps. And of the current squad, only Steven Gerrard has more international appearances.

There is no doubt that when Gerrard reaches his century, the Wembley crowd will roar in acclaim. But what reaction will Cole get when he reaches the same number?

There is absolutely no doubt his career merits a standing ovation. At only 30, he can be regarded as one of Europe's best full-backs, arguably the best. He has been consistently brillaint for both Chelsea and Arsenal over the past decade. And has, as far as I can remember, never played a poor game for England. He was one of only two players to come out of this summer's World Cup with his reputation intact. And, at the end of the month, celebrates a decade in the England team.

But the fickle Wembley crowd have, in the past, chosen to judge Cole on whay they've read in the red-tops, rather than the performances they've witnessed. The way the crowd turned on him for a dodgy back-pass which lead to a Kazakhhstan goal in 2008, certainly suggests they prefer the caricature to the man who has marked Cristiano Ronaldo better than anyone else.

So why is he so disliked? Well, first of all, everyone seems to be an expert on his former marriage to Nightclub Bouncer Beating National Treasure Cheryl Cole, which really, is no one's business but his own. Secondly, being a very talented footballer during the sport's financial golden age, has made him both: very rich and able to date very attractive women. People seem to find this difficult to accept. Are they jealous? Definitely. That he has moved from one primetime television lovely to another has made him a hate figure among the public, even though, as far as we can tell, his lifestyle has had no discernible effect on his performances on the pitch.

Only when Ashley Cole decides to call it a day will we realise what a great player he was. Leighton Baines is the latest in a long line of candidates tipped to succeed Cole, and even though he has had a great season for Everton, they will be huge, lighting-quick, over-lapping, eye-for-a-goal boots to fill.



Five things we learned from the Premier League this weekend

1) King Kenny's reign needs to become full-time

Sunday in west London was all about two world class strikers: one who failed to live up to his £50million price-tag, and the other, stood on the sideline, proving the doubters wrong. I have to admit, initially I was one of those doubters, but it seems Kenny Dalglish is far from out of his depth in current-day Premier League management. Yesterday's 1-0 win over Chelsea showed Dalglish to be both a brilliant tactician and, as Jamie Carragher will protest, a wonderful man-manager.

Yesterday's victory means it is now four straight wins for Dalglish since taking over from Roy Hodgson, with his team's triumph at Stamford Bridge the most impressive of the lot. Liverpool not only beat Chelsea at Fortress Bridge; they did in such a fashion that the hosts could of played till next Sunday and they still wouldn't have scored.

The 5-4-1 Dalglish employed was a masterstroke. A central defensive three of Skrtel, Agger and Carragher smothered Chelsea's attacking options. And the wing-backs, Johnson and Kelly, provided width and crossing chances constantly. Many frowned when it was announced that Dirk Kuyt would be the lone striker, but as has been common with Dalglish's Liverpool, the midfield trident: Gerrard, Meireles and Maxi, poured forward at every opportunity, supporting the tireless striker. It was Meireles who struck the killer blow mid-way through the second half; a man re-born under the King, he has now scored 4 goals in as many games.

This tactical balance and fluidity has come from a man many claimed - including myself - to be past his best. A man football had forgot. But the formation, not really seen to any effect since Germany won Euro 96 with a back five, was a product of careful consideration and know-how: two qualities time can't diminish. But on a day when Liverpool were meant to be rueing the loss of their star striker they instead benefited from the wisdom of their greatest ever player. Surely, his appointment as manager full-time can't be too far away?

2) If Leon Best and Nile Ranger can induce such panic, Arsenal need to start worrying

Only in the Premier League could a team lose a 4-0 half-time lead and still end up one point closer to the top of the table; but such were events at St James' Park on Saturday. It was a truly wonderful advert for England's top division. As both Alan Shearer and L'Equipe contested: "the best game I've ever seen." But surely, when all's said and done, Arsenal's title challenge is now over.

It would be fantastic to see a team so full of attacking intent win the Premier League, but Arsenal's persistent mental frailties mean, unfortunately, that it is never likely to happen. These traits were on full show on Saturday as the visitors stormed to a four-goal lead and then, having lost Abou Diaby, capitulated in memorable fashion. Barcelona, who face Arsenal in the Champions League this month, must be licking their lips.

That this memorable draw should come so soon after the close of yet another quiet transfer window for the Gunners was somewhat ironic. The need for a top goalkeeper and world-class centre half were made abundantly clear to Wenger over January, but yet again, he decided to keep the club's cheque book firmly in his back pocket. So focused is the Frenchman on the club's future, he seeems to have forgotten the present altogether.

3) West Brom have shot themselves in the foot

The surprise departure of Roberto Di Matteo on Saturday evening was probably the most shocking managerial change this season. Admittedly, a baron spell of results: seven losses in nine, is not the most ideal of records for a club looking to avoid relegation. But the powers-that-be at the Hawthorns seem to have forgotten all the good work the Italian instigated at the start of the season.

Wins over Arsenal and Everton, as well as a superb draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford had many lauding Di Matteo and his gung-ho attacking style. Having won the Championship last season, fans' and pundits' alike presumed the world was Di Matteo's oyster. But a dip in form at the beginning of November has seen the east Midlands club slide down the league: culminating in Di Matteo being placed on gardening leave. "If this run continues much longer, achieving our goal of retaining our Premier League status will become increasingly difficult," read a club statement. "That is why we felt compelled to act now."

Changing managers' halfway through the season is always a gamble, but with West Brom two points outside of the relegation zone and - in this most open of campaigns - more than capable of staying there, you can't help but feel the Baggies have shot themselves in the foot.

4) Manchester United's frailties are finally laid bare

The worst unbeaten side in history? That they've gone this far without losing is unbelievable, but finally Sir Alex's side have lost. And to the team bottom of the league with that. It always seemed unlikely that a team containing an underperforming Wayne Rooney and an underwhelming midfield four would remain unbeaten for the entire season, but that it should come to an end in the Midlands was quite appropriate. They really should have lost to a quick-footed Aston Villa side in November. And continued to struggle against West Brom on New Year's Day. Other games at Tottenham and Blackpool also saw the Red Devils looking vulnerable.

They didn't lose those games, and such resilience is to be admired. However, in United teams gone by that never-say-die attitude characterised a team that was as strong in will as it was talent; in this team it felt more precarious. Like a teenager who keeps passing his exams without any revision. Eventually he's going to fail.

5) The romance may have gone from football, but it's still bloody good

In a week full of newspaper coloumns dedicated to player loyalties, £50million transfers and youths burning polyester shirts, it seemed nice to get back to the actual playing of football. It started at the Britannia and ended at the Bridge, but the weekend of 5th/6th February will go down in English top-flight football history.

A total of 42 goals were scored and 7 penalties were successfully taken. Both record-breaking figures. Both the sort of statisitcs that make our European cousins green with envy; as Corriere Dello Sport said in this morning's paper: "This would never happen in Italy." It was a truly fantastic weekend, one where Everton's 5-3 win over Blackpool wasn't even the best game; where Wigan 4-3 Blackburn was dismissed towards the end of Match of the Day. It may never happen again, so let's savour it when it does.



In memory of Gary Neville

If you could, you would.

Over the past 20 years as a professional, he's been called many things: A "sock-sucker" by Carlos Tevez, a "busy c**t" by Jaap Stam and "a not very nice man" by various Liverpool fans. But whether you love him or loathe him, Gary Neville deserves to be remembered as one of the best full-backs in his family.

Having become the captain and linchpin of Manchester United's all-conquering youth side of 1991, Neville found himself commander of a ship including the likes of: Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Robbie Savage. A year later, he made his first senior appearance as a wispy-'tached 17-year-old. And last night, as a wispy-'tached 35-year-old, he called time on a career spanning 602 Utd appearances, 85 England caps and 957 jibes against Scousers. "Obviously I am disappointed that my playing days are at an end, however it comes to us all and it's knowing when that time is, and for me, that time is now," droned Neville, acknowledging the fact that referees could no longer sympathetically overlook blatant red-card offences such as the ones against West Brom and Stoke this season.

Neville deserves credit for the abrupt announcement of his retirement. He could have quite happily sat in the reserves, not playing, but picking up a healthy pay-packet for the rest of the season. This, however, is not the Neville way. Never a man motivated by fame or money, the only bling this player has pursued is medals. And plenty of them. Eight Premier League titles, three FA cups, one Champions League, three Charity Shields and one World Club Cup. Not to mention five appearances in the Premier League Team of the Season, and one appearance in the Premier League Team of the Decade.  

An argument constantly used by the Neville-haters is that he was an average player in a decent team. And although it is the case that whilst at Utd he was never the best full-back at the club (Paul Parker, Denis Irwin, Patrice Evra), his commitment, loyalty and general desire to play for the Red Devils have made him one of the Premier League's most consistent defenders, and arguably, one of England's finest.

With the announcement of his retirement comes the question of what to do next? A coaching job at Utd has always been in the pipeline, but it seems Sky - who have vowed to become more PC after accusations of bigotry - have become hell-bent on employing a man who has enthusiastically displayed his hatred for all things Scouse. "Obviously there is a bit of speculation about who replaces Andy Gray and Richard Keys but it is not my agenda," quipped Sir Alex this morning, "But of course, we want him to stay here when he finishes playing but we'll see. I don't know what he'd be like as a pundit." Of course, the other obvious option would be to lend a helping hand in leading popular uprisings in the Arab world. But we'll see.

So how to sum up a twenty year career at the country's most successful football club? Perhaps two quotes from some of football's most respected voices will suffice.

"Neville was the best English right-back, certainly. If you look at his record, he has won absolutely everything. And with the number of games he has played, he is without doubt the best." - Arsene Wenger

"If you were to pick a Premier League Team of the Decade, the full-back positions would both go to Denis Irwin. Nailed on." - Alan Hansen

This then, perhaps, sums up Gary Neville. To some, he is the best full-back of a generation. To others, an odious little man who was average at best. But I guess they'll never take the medals away.


European January Transfer Round Up

Milan's "brief" entry into the January Market.
With well over £200 Million being spent throughout the January transfer window in Britain, it’s no surprise that our European counterparts have spent much less. However, some significant deals have been done, and here’s Get the Mott and Buckett’s round up.
In Spain, three years after paying €20 million for Simao Sabrosa, the Athelteico Madrid winger was Besiktas bound for a reunion with fellow countrymen Hugo Almedia and Ricardo Quaresma. All for less than a quarter paid by Los Rojiblancos in 2007. But the Red and White men of Madrid managed to add to their squad with the signings of former Real Madrid and Osasuna winger Junafran, and Elias, the Corinthian’s playmaker.  
On the other side of the city, Real did little other than temporarily tease former striker Ruud van Nistelrooy with the prospect of a return, before eventually securing the services of City forward Emanual Adebayor until the end of the season. Runaway league leaders Barce’ did little also. They didn’t need to. A cut price €3 Million for Ibrahim Affelay enough to see the Dutchman part company with PSV and conclude the Champion elect’s spending.
Elsewhere, small fees were paid for Sunderland failure Paulo Da Silva by Zaragoza, and Brazilian hit man Jonas Goncalves, switched from Gremio to Valencia. Tottenham let former-Barce’ wonder kid Giovani dos Santos return to Spain via a loan deal to Racing Santander. With Newcaslte following suit by sending Xisco to Deportivo.  Sevilla also dipped a toe in the market by securing the signings of highly-regarded Gary Medel from Boca, and Swiss midfielder Ivan Rakitic from Schalke.
The most active team in La Liga was the newly enriched Malaga. Sheikh Abdullah toed the line of rich new chairmen at “small clubs” by attempting to sign David Beckham and Ronaldinho before eventually settling for six lower-key signatures, but don’t let Julio Baptista or Martin Demichelis hear you say that.
A grand total of €28 Million was spent throughout January in Spain, unbelievably, three times that of the year before.
Over the Med in Italy, things were a little busier.
Much busier in fact at Bari, Genoa, and Sampdoria: who between them brought in a staggering twenty-five new players. Highlights including former Fulham loanee Stephano Okaka, once again on loan from Roma, joining Bari. Genoa ending Argentine, Mauro Boselli’s, baron spell at Wigan, and Sampdoria acquiring Manchester United youngster Federico Macheda on loan until the end of the season. Former Middlesbrough striker, Massimo Maccarone also joined Sampdoria from Palermo.
Over in Milan spending was clearly divided in the San Siro.  Now five points clear at the top of the table, AC played their cards to close to their chest, much like Barce’ at the top of La Liga. The exciting signing of Antonio Cassano for a nominal fee, enough to please the fans, alongside the free signature of Mark van Bommel from Bayern. 34 year old centre half Nicola Legrottaglie also signed for the Rossoneri on a free from Juve’ until the end of the season.
Currently ten points behind their biggest rivals, Inter brought in five new faces throughout January. Sampdoria’s Giampaolo Pazzini at €12 Million, plus Ludovic Biabiany, the most high profile of any move in Italy, and with 36 in 75 for his former club, perhaps the biggest hope for Internazionale.  The most expensive of their acquisitions, the buy-out of Genoa’s 50% share of Andrea Ranocchia, the highly rated centre half, for €15 Million.
Away from the region of Lombardy, Juventus acquired World-Cup winning journeyman Luca Toni from Genoa on a free, and convinced Cagliari to part company with Alessandro Matri, the one in three strike rate to cost them €15.5 Million at the end of the season. All of which paved the way for the Brazilian Amauri to join Parma on loan.
More active than La Liga, but no Premier League.
Closer to home and the most exciting move in Deutschland, for Get the Mott and Buckett anyway, was undeniably that of Rohan Ricketts. Having parted company with Moldovan club, FC Dacia Chişinău, Ricketts spent three months prior to Christmas touring the Fatherland looking for a contract. Eventually, the former Arsenal, Spurs, and Toronto forward found one at SV Wilhelmshaven, the team currently lying 12th in the northern section of Germany’s fourth tier.
A few divisions up, and the biggest fee paid was that for Hoffenheim’s Luiz Gustavo, a tidy €17 Million from Bayern’s chequebook. €6.8 Million of which went on Liverpool’s Ryan Babel.
By far the busiest club was Wolfsburg. Funded by the £27 Million sale of Edin Dzeko, in total they acquired six new players, including Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrick Helmes for €5 Million and Stoke City’s Sanli Tuncay for around the same fee.
A grand total of €57 Million was spent throughout the Budesliga this January, roughly the same amount Chelsea spent on one player, but almost three and a half times what was spent this time last year.
Closer to home, and France’s Ligue1 activity was minimal to say the least. Stephane Sessegnon and Jean Makoun both left for the Premier League, from PSG and Lyon respectively. But nothing was done by either club to replace their losses, and neither did Marseille or Lille see fit to step into the market.
Away from the “big clubs”, Monaco were the biggest movers and shakers, bringing Mahamadou Diarra back to France, alongside five other arrivals. Sitting in 19th, Les Rouge et Blanc  will be hoping the former Real Madrid man will be able to drag them up the table as we enter the business end of the season, or la fin d'affaires de la saison, if you will.  
Of all European nations, the least interested in January business. Trust the French.



Crawley Town F.C: Britain's most unlikeable club?

When comedian Mark Watson pulled Crawley Town out of that famous velvet bag on Sunday afternoon, the FA Cup seemed to have produced its ultimate romance tie: Manchester United vs Crawley Town. Non-league nobodies against Premier League superstars. It was the draw that, on the face it, would reignite the public interest in the cup. A tie harking back to the glory days of a once great competition. Except, it's not quite the romantic tie some people might have you believe.

Having become only the sixth non-league side in the history of the FA Cup to reach the 5th round - and the first since Kidderminster in 1993 - you'd be forgiven for eulogising over their achievement. However, for fans well-versed in the nuances of non-league football, it's become incredibly fashionable to dislike Crawley Town.

But first, a bit of background knowledge. Formed in 1896, the Red Devils were notable in the football league by their absence; never having stepped foot amongst the 92 best clubs in the land. They were regulars in the Southern Premier League for decades, and only as recently as 2004 made it into the Conference National. In 2005 they were bought by the SA Group, and made the decision to go full-time for the first time in the club's history, leading to a mass exodus of players who couldn't afford to leave their 'proper' jobs. With a lack of playing staff, Crawley went on a mad last-day-of-the-January-Transfer-Window-style hiring of players. A year later, when the SA Group decided to up sticks and leave, Crawley were left with a huge mountain of debt which they couldn't sustain. In August of 2006, Crawley Town announced they were to fold, and were within an hour of liquidation until a last minute deal was produced to save the club.

Fast forward to 2010, and current chairman Bruce Winfield announced that the club had resolved all its debts, and, in a more shocking revelation, had persuaded some foreign investors to pump money in to the club. A local businessman made good, taking over his local club, and persuading foreign businessman to invest: what's to dislike I hear you ask?

In the summer transfer window of 2010, Crawley Town spent more money on players than all of the teams in League Two combined: Just over £1million. With former creditors at the club receiving 10p in every £1 they invested before going into administration, these new anonymous backers seem to have no consideration for the local investors of the previous regime; flinging their money around at a whim. And these anonymous backers? Well, as it suggests, no one really knows. Based in Hong Kong, the two gentleman involved are listed as 'a banker' and 'in the restaurant business', but as yet remain nameless. But having only been to the club once, and already investing over £1million, you can't help but feel there may be something slightly strange going on.

Of course, jealousy from other fans has something to do with Crawley's lack of popularity. It's always been the case that the richest teams win the competitions, but when a club becomes nouveau riche, resentment from other fans seems to ramp up a notch. But for all the feelings of a siege mentality at Crawley, surely an investment from anonymous Asian backers is unsustainable? It's been seen countless times before: a struggling club is suddenly given a huge cash injection, and before you know it, living above their means, they get relegated down the divisions (Southampton, Leeds, Portsmouth, etc.)

Of course, Boston Utd were once such club. And one facet of their demise was the current Crawley manager, Steve Evans. Managing the club from 1998-2002, Evans was investigated by the FA for 'contractual irregularities' towards the end of his reign. It thus transpired that Evans was keeping two separate books at the club: one for what the club was actually paying the players. And another for what the club were declaring they payed the players. Needless to say, he was found guilty by the FA, and banned from the game for 20 months. He later appeared in court charged with fraud, for which he was, again, found guilty and given a year's suspended sentence and a fine of £10,000. The controversy has continued at Crawley, where last year he was sent from the dugout numerous times over the season, and subsequently given a ten game ban.

Manchester Utd vs Crawley Town, romantic? There's more romance in a Premier League players' orgy.



A footballing cold war, "the wrong snow", and German prudence. Premier League Transfer Round Up.

A transfer window of nuclear proportions.
So, another January transfer window has come and gone. The Christmas day of the football fanatic, 31st January, is once again, a whole year away. According to Chancellor Osborne and his liberal pals, spending on the high streets of Britain this Yule-tide was reduced due to the bad weather, “the wrong snow” they said. The icy December conditions reportedly cost Tesco £50 Million in the week prior to Christmas, fast forward four weeks and Fernando Torres was a much quicker affair.
However, naturally it was a much slower start.
Edin Dzeko’s move from Wolfsburg to Manchester City had long been expected and went through only a week after the window opened. Having signed for Wolfsburg for a fee of only €4 million 2 years ago, the turnaround relates to something like a 700% profit for the German club after City handed over £27 Million for the striker. The second highest fee paid by the new City regime,  behind Robinho, and the Citizens will certainly be hoping the Bosnian has more influence than the Brazilian.  
And then, it all went quiet. A lot of murmuring, and I think Steve Sidwell went somewhere (Fulham, Undisclosed Fee). Steven Pienaar picked Spurs over Chelsea, and David Bentley and Wayne Bridge found new homes if only temporarily (Bentley to Birmingham and Bridge to West Ham), but not too much to be said.
Then, as if by magic it all came to life, and Darren Bent, not for the first time, provided us all with a shock .Reportedly unhappy at his new role in the Sunderland set up, Bent however appeared to be returning to something of his best form for a club on the up. But a bid from the languishing Villa was too much too resist. Rejected by numerous England managers, Harry Redknapp and at times this season, Steve Bruce, Bent perhaps saw the recognition he feels he deserves through the £24 Million Houiller was willing to part with. A price baulked at by fans and pundits alike at the time, but having scored 82 Premier League goals since 2005, a record now only surpassed by Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney, Bent could be the steal of the decade. If not, certainly of this transfer window.
Meanwhile, activity was beginning to pick up elsewhere. Liverpool, as well as Villa, were reportedly interested in Blackpool’s Charlie Adam. Only for any advances to be rejected as “derisory” by Tangerines boss Holloway. Liverpool and Spurs would both return late in the day, only to fail once again, even if Adam himself thought “I’m sorted” at 11.50pm on deadline day. Two centre forwards meanwhile had managed to find a way out of their clubs and found loan deals elsewhere (Adebayor to Real Madrid, and Roque Santa Cruz back to Blackburn).  Demba Ba arrived at the Boleyn ground, via a failed medical at Stoke, and deals were appearing to be done.  
But no one could have expected what was about to happen next. If the lack of spending prior to Christmas was due to the British snowfall then what was about to happen was the result of a footballing Cold-war; America v Russia, Liverpool v Chelsea.  With a North Eastern hit man thrown in for good measure.
Torres to Chelsea, Carroll to Liverpool.  Two British record transfer fees paid in the space of one day, a total of £85 Million spent in one evening.  And the best of it? With 72 hours left of the window, no one had any idea.  
Both transfers are seen as a gamble. Everyone knows Torres scores when he plays, but how often can Abramovich expect to see him pull on a Chelsea shirt? Since 2007, Dider Drogba has only made two more appearances for Chelsea than Torres has for Liverpool, so the Russian will be hoping his new signing can make the same sort of impact, starting next Sunday at the Bridge against his former club.
At £35 Million, Andy Carroll has become the most expensive player in British history. All this after only six months top flight football, one England cap, and 17 Championship goals last season. Peter Whittingham, Nicky Maynard, Gary Hooper, Charlie Adam and Michael Chopra all scored more.  So why have Liverpool paid so much? Back in November, rumours surfaced that Arsenal were interested in the Geordie for around £15 Million, then a few weeks later, naturally, Harry Redknapp got involved quoting around £10 Million more than the ever-prudent Wenger. But with less than 24 hours before the close of business, in an already inflated market, John W. Henry wrote a cheque much larger than anticipated by anyone. However, at 22, Carroll is widely considered the brightest young English talent out there. A potential saviour for Capello’s England and now a potential saviour, alongside teammate Luis Suarez, for Dalglish’s Liverpool.  But with more court appearances than England appearances, there is no doubt the Merseyside club has taken a gamble on a white man who once braided his hair.
All in all, a very busy January, at least towards the end.
As well as Torres, Chelsea finally landed Brazilian defender David Luiz at the second attempt, taking their deadline day spending past the £70 Million mark. In the same breath Liverpool loaned outcast Paul Konchesky to Championship side Forest, ending a very unhappy season for the full back.  Steve McClaren replaced Edin Dzeko with Stoke’s Sanli Tuncay for around £5 Million, and Blackburn failed with attempts to sign David Beckham and Ronaldinho, unsurprisingly.  But they did manage to bring in Ruben Rochina from Barce’, and Mauro Formica from Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys, to play alongside loan signing Jermaine Jones (from Schalke). Perhaps there’s more to Steve Kean than first met the eye, after all he has shipped out El Hadji Diouf.  Elsewhere, the Bent deal encouraged Steve Bruce to complete the signings of PSG midfielder Stephane Sessegnon and Suli Muntari on loan from Rubin Kazan, while Houiller brought in Jean Makoun and Michael Bradley from the continent.
At close of play, over £225 Million was spent in the British transfer window. So much for another winter of discontent.