Tagged premier league

Best of the Rest

Before the season began, the bookies had Burnley as near even odds to be relegated from the Premier League. then on the opening day of the season, they shocked fans around the country with a 3-2 win over 9-man Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Since then they’ve taken points from Anfield and Spurs’ temporary home Wembley, as well as wins at Goodison Park and St Marys.

Last season they struggled on the road while keeping one of the best home records in the league, but this term they look to have overcome their problem. Only Man City have lost fewer times after 12 games and the Clarets are sat in 7th position, level on points with Liverpool and Arsenal, and just one point behind Spurs. The top six is made up of the usual suspects, and leading the chase is Burnley.

Their win against Swansea at the weekend was the first time they have won three consecutive top-flight matches since 1975. What a lot of people don’t realise is that not long after that, in the early 1980’s, Burnley were almost relegated to the conference. They were in financial difficulty and if they had lost to Leyton Orient on the final day of the season it’s likely that they would have folded.

They ended up winning 2-1 and rebuild the club, gradually becoming a solid Championship side before earning promotion to the Premier League in 2010. They were later relegated before returning twice, and they are now one of the toughest teams to beat. It has been a crazy rollercoaster up to this point but Sean Dyche has got them playing good, technical football and they seem to be unphased by anybody.

Most people will still associate Burnley with no-nonsense football, but that’s no longer a fair assessment. They’re solid at the back and have conceded the third least amount of goals so far, but their goals are what have made the difference.

The biggest surprise for any top side that plays Burnley is that they are always up for a fight. When it’s a cold, rainy day, you would think these guys maybe could have an off day but they consistently play the game like it’s the Champions League final. (People will say because it’s always cold and rainy there). The only things that can stop them are key injuries or if they can’t physically keep bringing the high energy levels until the end of the season.

Next up they have another big test as Arsenal visit, and a shock win would see them leapfrog the Gunners. But if they stay consistent and focused over the next few months they will be closer to European football than Championship football for the first time in half a century.


Back with a Bang

It was the most anticipated weekend of the summer for football fans everywhere, and the excitement was answered with plenty of goals and entertainment.

Arsenal and Leicester kicked things off with a seven goal thriller. Lacazette headed the Gunners ahead 94 seconds into his Premier League debut, only for Okazaki to equalise just two minutes later. We were off to a flyer and that intensity continued over the 90 minutes with Leicester taking a 3-2 before Ramsey and Giroud swung the balance in Arsenal’s favor in the last 10 minutes.

Arsenal are always one of the teams that play the brand of football that, on its day, can be out of this world. Going forward they are always deadly but they are still missing something. If Wenger can find the balance and keep more clean sheets but continue to score plenty of goals, this season could see them push for the title again.

Watford and Liverpool were next up and the goals continued. Miguel Britos scored a controversial 93rd-minute equaliser for Watford to give them a share of the spoils at Vicarage road. As good as Liverpool were in attack, their defense was showing the same problems of last season.

If you want to be a title contender you have to win games like this. I know it’s tough playing away at Watford but you are still Liverpool – a club that should be aiming to win the league. You can’t be that easy to cut open. To be in with any chance of contending the title, they need to be more solid, especially away from home.

Chelsea were involved in the shock result of the weekend, falling three goals behind Burnley at Stamford Bridge. The team looks too light. I already said it weeks ago – I don’t see Chelsea winning this one because the big focus is the Champions League. Your squad needs to have the depth to handle both compeitions, and at the moment it is too thin. If you want give the youngsters a chance it will take time and patience is needed, but I’m not sure the blues want to wait for glory and if that’s the case they need to strengthen if they want a great season again.

Huddersfield also looked like a surprise package, defeating Palace 3-0 in their own back yard. Most people have predicted Huddersfield to finish rock bottom this season and on paper they are the smallest club in the league, but if they can stay positive and take each game as it comes they could cause some surprises. As we all know football isn’t played on paper, and they can look at the likes of Bournemouth and Swansea for inspiration.

Man Utd looked the best they have for some time during their 4-0 win over West Ham. It was Lukaku who grabbed the headlines with his brace, but Matic was key in midfield and looked like the piece that had been missing from Jose’s puzzle. He’s not Roy Keane, but his presence in the midfield was reminiscent of the former skipper and could turn out to be an important player for United this season.

I never understood Chelsea for letting Matic go to their rivals. I’m sure Chelsea thought they are paying over the price, but still, you know how much Mourinho needed him after last season. Pogba was doing both jobs and with Matic in the team now he has the security behind him so he can start producing more of the stuff that should make him one of the best midfielders in the world.

Away from the Premier League, Neymar made his PSG debut with a goal. There was so much expectation on the Brazilian and he delivered the goods saying that he feels more alive than ever. Barcelona played the El Classico without him, and Real Madrid got the better of them with goals from Asensio and, of course, Ronaldo. Ronaldo was sent off and will miss 5 games for pushing the referee. He can play in the Champions League but will not return to domestic action until 20 September against Real Betis, giving Messi a 5 game head start in the season’s battle for top scorer.

Barca looked like they were out of balance without Neymar and I’m sure they knew they were about to miss magic when he left to PSG. But in the Clasico they got the confirmation. Madrid was too strong and the quality that came off the bench was no different to what was starting.

It maybe will take some time to fix the Neymar shaped whole, but I’m sure Barca are working hard behind the sense to find an answer.


Number 5!

They did it again – trophy number 5 is a fact.

It’s been an interesting journey for Chelsea because winning a trophy a season is a must. Conte came in and everyone thought he was going to play a very defensive game, not much different to the style of Mourinho. And that was myself included because I know the tradition of the Italians is enforcing a defensive that’s unbeatable.

I know defending is an art but I love to add goals to that. He implemented the new system of 3 defenders, wingback, two holding midfielders and freedom for the front 3 from the begin of the season. The only problem he was dealing with was that he had a lot of players that had to adjust to the fact he was stepping away from the old system of 4-3-3 that had brought so much glory to Chelsea in the Mourinho days.

The season started with a similar system of Mourinho but when they got outclassed by Arsenal the alarm bells started ringing and there was no time to get used to the new system. Conte’s 3-4-3 had to start there and then, and he would only revert to the old system if it would suit the situation. What he’s done to the players is make them more disciplined and responsible, as well as given them freedom. Those three were key and were what he kept repeating from the technical area.

His team started playing some great football. Everything was set and some players started to shine again. Hazard was back to his best, Kante showed why he’s the key in this system and Fabregas used his intelligence either from the start or the bench when the team wasn’t playing well.

We can go on about the likes of Moses and Luiz playing their best football, while Costa wasn’t just out there looking for red cards but solely to score goals. After Arsenal they had another big moment in the season against Manchester City. They had to show they could bounce back from losing the previous game. When they did that I was like if people weren’t sure they were going to win it they were now.

Man Utd found a way to stop them by man marking Hazard, and that will happen again but that just shows how good the Belgian is. It will only make him better because I’m sure after the game he must have thought I couldn’t unlock myself but next time I’ll be ready, and that’s what we saw against Everton.

They asked me before the game if I thought they were going to win the title against West Brom on Radio 5 and I said for sure. The mindset of Conte is so strong that it’s all about winning and not looking for draws. That’s why Inter Milan wants to do whatever it takes to bring him home again. But he has started something very beautiful in London and I don’t think it will make sense to go to Inter and play clean up before he can start making them shine too.

I have enjoyed this season and I want to thank all of my fans for talking about this beautiful game online and in person.

Congratulations to all my fellow blues. Now it’s all about the FA Cup, and trust me, Conte wants nothing more than the double. Next season I can bet you the Champions league is the only thing that would make him sit on his bench for more than just a minute because that man has some energy!


Top of the Tree This Christmas

We’re almost at the half way point in the Premier League season and Chelsea will sit at the top of the tree this Christmas. A 10th straight win for Antonio Conte puts the blues 6 points clear at the top. Fabregas’ goal also meant Sunderland stay pinned at the bottom of the league.

It’s exciting at both ends of the league and everyone will have different opinions about how the table will look come May.

Man City made a flying start to their campaign under Pep, winning their opening 6 games. It wasn’t just the results but the way they picked apart their opponents that had many making early calls for City winning the title.

On their day City can be unplayable, and if Guardiola get’s them playing at the top of their game quickly they will cause the other title contenders a lot of trouble. As it stands though, they have won just 6 of their last 15 games in all competitions going into Sunday’s tie with Arsenal.

Arsenal have also been great to watch. Their mid-week game with Everton was the first they have lost since the opening day of the season, and Alexis Sanchez has looked particularly brilliant. His pace and finishing is causing defenders all kinds of problems and he’s adjusted to his new role excellently. The game on Sunday could be one of the games of the season with the way both teams like to play.

Liverpool have also been great so far this season, but they will need to sort out their defensive problems if they are to be serious title contenders. They’ve scored the most goals in the league but they’ve also conceded more than any of the top 7. Their 3-0 victory against Middlesbrough last night shows they can be solid at the back, but Klopp will need to make sure they stay consistent.

Man Utd have struggled a little bit and Mourinho is always under the microscope so everybody knows it. But Jose is a winner and you can never count out Utd going on a crazy run of form until the end of the season. Spurs are also in the mix and can always cause a surprise like they did last season. Pochettino has played 3 at the back a few times to great success and it looks like it suits the players. They could be a dark horse in the new year.

At the other end of the table things are quite tight for the bottom eight. Sunderland sit rock bottom but are only 6 points off 13th place Burnley. The pack includes the Champions Leicester who were always going to have a tough season after winning the league last year. The extra games that come with being in Europe was going to be tough as they don’t have as much strength in depth as the usual big four.

Hull, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Palace join Sunderland as the favourites to go down, all winning only 3 or 4 games so far. It will probably be a fight to the end and it will be interesting to see who spends in January.

Whatever happens it will be thrilling for the fans and I hope Chelsea can repeat history: Each of the four times they have been top of the Premier League at Christmas they have gone on to win the title.


The Billion Pound Transfer Window

It’s the most highly anticipated transfer market in recent memory and we’ve witnessed a lot of great buys. 13 Premier League clubs broke their transfer records, but we know that there are still teams that would’ve loved to buy more if they had more time to get the players they needed.

Chelsea, Man Utd and Man City knew who their target men were and made most of their deals pretty quickly. We know they have the financial backing and with three new managers looking to stamp their ground in their first seasons, they were always going to move fast and do their business before the last day.

The managers all had interested preparation coming into their new clubs. Pep knew he was leaving Bayern Munich so I’m sure he kept his cards close to his chest and didn’t share some of his interest until he arrived at City. For example, I’m sure Leroy Sane would now be at Munich if Pep had stayed in Germany.

Mourinho was well aware of his job even when Van Gaal was still in charge, so he began his focus from distance and saw where he needed to change players quickly to get his team ready and get off to a good start in the new season.

Conte maybe had the hardest challenge of the three because he was occupied with the Azzurri during the summer. He had to bring Italy as far as he could at the European Cup but also needed to get his Chelsea team in place. The signals are clear. None of the three will tell you they want the title but they sure do play like it and will go after it with hunger. ‘Don’t talk, just deliver’ is the mantra.

I, like everyone else, did expect Arsenal to get make some investments eventually, but they waited – and maybe a little too long – as the season didn’t start like it normally does for the Gunners. Let’s hope Arsenal and Liverpool get their balance back quick, pick up some form and make the title race more interesting.

Enjoy your international break #mmlove

The Battle of Manchester

When Real Madrid signed Jose Mourinho in 2010, his mission was a simple one: to knock Guardiola’s Barcelona off their perch.

It turned out to be a fierce rivalry both on and off the pitch, with many red cards and countless heated press conferences from both managers. By the end of Guardiola’s spell in Catalonia, he had failed to win just four out of a possible 18 trophies, and three of those four were to Mourinho’s sides (La Liga and Copa Del Rey with Madrid and the Champions League with Inter).

Six years on we are in a similar position, but this time, as the rivalry is renewed, Pep and Mourinho share a city. It almost feels scripted. Once City hired Guardiola, United had to bring in his arch-enemy.

Mourinho’s appointment has been lingering for many months and the news has come as no surprise. Van Gaal took over a stalled Man Utd but his tenure did not meet the expectations of fans, just missing out on the Champions league spots this time round. His possession football was also criticised, but it was great to see Louis end on a high note with the FA Cup trophy.

But if it’s exciting attacking football that Manchester United fans want, Mourinho may not be the right man, but one thing we know for sure is that he’ll be doing his best to bring more silverware to Old Trafford. His style is defensive and he likes to build his teams from the back. I’m sure he will do whatever it takes and spend money on transfers over the summer, reshaping the squad that has been built by three managers since Sir Alex retired. With the rumours of Ibrahimovic joining Man Utd, it will be interesting to see if Mourinho puts faith in the youngsters and continues the progression of Martial and Rashford.

Next season we will be treated to an intense Manchester derby, while the rivalry between Mourinho and Wenger will hopefully relight the fire that used to be the Man Utd and Arsenal rivalry (that seems to have died down a little in recent years). The arrival of Antonio Conte will also bring excitement and hopefully success to Chelsea.

Whatever happens, it won’t be dull.


Fighting For Survival in the North East

We finally saw a bit of fight from Newcastle United and Sunderland on Saturday, as both teams picked up 3-0 victories that made a welcome change in the North East.

But why have they left it so late?

Both clubs are a huge addition to the Premier League and it will be sad to see one (or both) of those clubs go down. It’s now inevitable that at least one will be relegated, as they enter a final five-game scrap for survival along with Norwich.

There was a time when I was at Ajax when Sunderland showed some interest in signing me, the time they had Neil Quinn playing there. I ended up extending my contract at Ajax, but still got the chance to play at the Stadium of Light several times.

Every time I visited I was always impressed by the fans. It was almost a full house every week, and the atmosphere was intense. It was also nearly always raining, so there were a lot of tackles flying in. Who wouldn’t like the sound of that?

Newcastle is no different and when ever I’ve played at St James’ I have never felt it was an easy game. From the first time I visited with Chelsea to my Wigan days, we always said lets get ready for this because this battle won’t stop until the ref tells us to.

Playing against the magnificent Alan Shearer was special. No player has made me more worried while defending a corner than Alan Shearer. As I was marking him I kept pumping myself up, saying to myself if the ball comes and I can’t get there, just make sure he can’t either. So I would jump against him.

I never understood why he didn’t get upset with the way I would handle him during corners, but I’m sure he thought “that young fella is trying his best.”

I could be wrong, but what ever it was he never scored against me during a corner. Well done Mario!

Going back to today, both Newcastle and Sunderland are missing the fire they use to have. Some games they look like a team, but more often both teams attack without any tactical structure. I’ve seen both attack and leave only two defenders and a midfielder to stop the opponents counter attack.

They give so much space away that every team can turn, look up, and set up a player to score. They aren’t the teams they used to be – that would press you, hustle you and beat you because they were fitter and wanted it way more because of the noise of their home fans.

It was never easy for any team to go to Sunderland and walk over them without the Black Cats trying their hardest, but it seems like that has happened on many occasions this season. The game against Norwich was a must win game though, and I know how that feels.

Their upcoming games aren’t easy either, but I think Newcastle have an even harder run in. If it goes down to the last day they could be facing a Spurs side who could need three points to become champions. And looking at the form of the spurs I’m not sure they are the team you won’t to face on the last day.

I’ve been in their situation a number of times. You go to training after a defeat and you try to make the best out of it because you need to prepare for the next game, but the result is still killing you inside. At home you aren’t the best person to be around because sometimes people don’t understand what it does to footballers in a situation like this.

They’ll talk about our lifestyle all day, but deep down they don’t know how bad we feel inside when we lose. The worst is when you meet a fan on the street and he confronts you about a defeat. I would avoid certain places sometimes when I was playing.

The pressure they face going into the last five games is huge. It’s more then a game. It’s a city that will change when at least one of the teams go down.


Leicester Edge Closer

Ranieri, of course, wants nothing more than to win the league.

A team that no one could have backed at the start of the season going on to become Champions would have him and his team celebrated all over the world and remembered for a very long time.

Even if Leicester began the campaign with the creme de la creme of coaches that have successful track records, say Pep Guardiola, you would say there is no chance of them winning the title before the season began.

The fact is there’s no better manager to have as the underdog than Ranieri.

You might as well call it ‘The Ranieri’ instead of underdog. Even if Leicester are one point away from sealing the title with five games to play, he would still say the same thing: “We are no favourites.”

I love it!

As a player it’s funny to see him talk it down to the press. You know what he tells you in the dressing room, but when you’re at home and you see your Gaffa playing mind games it makes you smile.

I’m very impressed by how disciplined he’s kept his players.

They just work harder and are fitter then most teams in the league, and when the rest of the big clubs start to slip up after Christmas, Leicester keep charging forward to the end.

When you work hard as a team and have goal scorers, you’ll always believe you can win any game. That said, most teams that have the work rate of Leicester still struggle to score goals and lack the tactical intelligence that Ranieri brings to his team. At Chelsea he always said the guy next to you is who you have to protect and make him better, and he will do the same to you.

His Leicester team are doing that same thing.

I know some people and especially Charlie Stillitano are talking about Leicester because they will be playing Champion League next season (if not for a dramatic collapse). Stillitano says Leicester doesn’t belong there. I hear where he comes from because he’s focusing on the business side of the game.

But come on.

If you play out a consistently spectacular season like Leicester and earn the title with hard work and sweat, it would be a crime to take the reward of European football away.

No one likes the predictable, and that’s why Leicester City’s story is so special.

Please keep football unpredictable because if not, it will be boring.


Rooney Keeps on Scoring

I remember watching Wayne Rooney’s goal against Arsenal back in 2002. A fresh faced 16-year-old boy, exploding onto the scene with a net-rippling strike at Goodison Park.

“It’s Premier League history!” announced Clive Tyldesley, as Rooney became the league’s youngest ever scorer.

On Sunday Rooney made Premier League history again, breaking Thierry Henry’s one club scoring record. With 242 goals, he’s just seven behind Bobby Charlton’s all time record for Manchester United – another record he could (and should) break this season.

When I played my first game against Rooney back in 2002, his talent was clear.

Many players have talent but you never know how far they will take it. With Rooney though, it’s a story that a lot of players admire. If we look back at his career, his move to Manchester was a perfect one.

It’s well known that he does more than score goals for his team, always tracking back as he did when I faced him. When he sets his mind on you he will do what ever it takes to stop you.

Seeing him by passing so many legends in the record books is something that takes more then just hard work. You need natural talent, and the intelligence to know where to position yourself on the field.

I remember in my youth at Ajax they used to tell us, “if you’re always moving the defenders will struggle to pick you up.”

That’s what Rooney does. He know where to receive the ball, and loves doing it between the midfielders and the defensive line. This creates problems for teams. The midfielder sees him too late to pick him up and if the defender presses forward he leaves a dangerous gap in the middle of defence.

This is a trick that Rooney mastered, and today you’ll still see him do it.

His most dangerous weapon is his character and it comes out when defenders try to stop him and when he go trough a quiet spell. He will start working even harder on the field and it won’t be long before he starts to outsmart defenders again.

He might have lost a bit of pace but if he could outsmart opponents at such a young age, I’m sure he’s even smarter now.

He’s scored some spectacular goals in his career and I hope to see a good few more, as me as a spectator I enjoy watching the best excel.


Relegation Sunday

Newcastle is a city that loves football. The black and white stripes are worn by some of the most passionate fans in the world and their club is one of the best supported in the country. St James Park was always fun to play at and I bump into fans wherever I go. Alan Shearer was recently quoted saying: “If there is one thing that is pretty much guaranteed at Newcastle, it’s that the fans will turn up and support.”

This is in no way reflected within the club itself.

Mike Ashley is probably the most resented owner in the Premier League and the players show no sign of organisation and team spirit on the field. It’s been hard to watch the chaos unfold over the last few weeks, with John Carver accusing Mike Williamson of deliberately getting sent off, rows between players on the team bus. The unwritten code of “what happens in the team stays in the team” is clearly lost. To top things off, club captain Collocini wrote a letter to fans asking for their support – a cry for help.

With just one point earned in 10 games it’s hard to fight a case for Newcastle deserving a place in the top flight next season.

You can blame John Carver, the players or Mike Ashley, but it all comes down to Sunday’s crucial game against West Ham. We can’t deny Sam Allardyce would love to send Newcastle down, since he was sacked after eight months with the Magpies without a chance to prove himself.

Bitter North East rivals Sunderland cemented their Premier League status with a draw at the Emirates on Wednesday, and now only Newcastle and Hull can join the relegation places.

Hull will face Man Utd, who without a seven goal swing have nothing to play for, and Steve Bruce has said his team have “an almighty chance of survival.” Hull city have got a job in front of them and they’ll be fighting like crazy to rescue their season. And even though they’ve lost their last ten meetings with Manchester United, you’d be brave to write off a win for the Tigers.

Three points for Steve Bruce would mean a draw would not be good enough to save Newcastle with their inferior goal difference. With that said John Carver and the Toon have to go into the game with a must-win attitude. A tactic that seems to make Newcastle lose focus and leave them looking like an open house.

93% of Newcastle fans think they won’t beat West Ham, with 51% holding the opinion they will be relegated. It’s desperate times at St James Park, which calls for desperate measures. Perhaps their only chance of survival lies with Uri Gellar. The psychic has said he will make the trip to the North East to channel positive energy from the fans to the players to help them over the line.

All we know is, it’s going to be an anxious Sunday for both Hull City and Newcastle.