Monthly Archives: October 2014

Chelsea and Mourinho look set for a prolonged spell of domestic domination

Jose Mourinho

 

Jose Mourinho has never been a man to outstay his welcome. His longest tenure as manager at any club was his first spell at Chelsea, where he spent a little over three seasons before things turned sour with Roman Abramovich.

He gives off a restless vibe, someone always pursuing a new challenge in order to enhance a glittering CV. Whether it’s due to an alleged falling out with an owner (Abramovich), a curious lack of success (Real Madrid) or a simple yearning for a bigger challenge (Porto and Inter Milan), Mourinho doesn’t do long-termism.

Yet this time it is different, and he has said so himself. In an interview with Gary Neville in the Telegraph recently, Mourinho said that if he was offered a six year contract extension by the club then he would ‘sign tomorrow’.

The 51-year-old earlier this year proclaimed that if Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke don’t make the first team under his stewardship then he will accept the blame. Given his varied success in integrating youth in to star-studded line-ups before, this was quite the statement from Mourinho. But this time his intentions are transparent; he is here to stay.

The question is, why now? An obvious starting point would be to point out that he has frankly run out of other options. He has managed probably the biggest club in the wold in Real Madrid, and his relationship with Spain’s other colossus is, to put it mildly, strained. The Manchester United job, one that he openly craved, was somehow lost to David Moyes.

His time at Inter Milan was an unrelenting success, but there was a clear lack of feeling between him  and the Italian game as a whole. The only club big enough for his demands in Germany is Bayern Munich, where his recent foe Pep Guardiola sits on the throne.

Another feasible reason is that Mourinho has genuine warmth and affection for Chelsea and its fans. It is after all where he cemented his name as Europe’s most wanted coach, a behemoth of the modern game. He won trophy after trophy and forged special relationships with his players, most notably Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech.

 But one trophy eluded him at Chelsea, the European Cup. Maybe he feels he owes it to the fans. Maybe he feels he owes it to himself. Maybe he feels cheated that it was Roberto Di Matteo that lifted the crown after Drogba converted the decivisive spot kick.

But Mourinho is a man of logic, not a man of sentimentality. The main reason he is back at Stamford Bridge for the foreseeable future is staring us right in the face; Chelsea are more primed than they ever have been to join Europe’s band of elite clubs. Success in the English game doesn’t automatically translate to success on the European stage, but Mourinho and many of his team have been here before.

Everyone knows by now why Chelsea didn’t win the Premier League last season. They had the best defensive record in the league and enjoyed some excellent results against the other big sides, but they didn’t’t have a clinical goalscorer to see them over the line against some of the smaller clubs. In the last three months of the last campaign Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland.

That simply won’t happen again. Diego Costa, provided he stays injury free, is too much of a force of nature, and Loic Remy  is a worthy second striker.  Cesc Fabregas has added an extra layer of wondrous creativity behind the ever-maturing front three of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian. Nemanja Matic is now firmly entrenched in the holding role, allowing Fabregas to venture into more dangerous territories. Mourinho’s teams have often been seen as a little prosaic, but this side is full of vivacity and flair.

Add that to the fact that they have the sturdiest defence in the league and you’re on to a winner. Thiabut Cortouis’ command of his area is a lesson to all other goalkeepers, whilst John Terry and Gary Cahill continue to provide a strong base for the rest of the team to work from. Branislav Ivanovic can slot in at both full back and centre back perfectly, and Cesar Azplicueta and Felipe Luis make up the other spot.

Against Burnley in their first game of the season, Chelsea fielded just two players over the age of 28, Terry and Ivanonvic, yet none of the players that started that day were under the age of 23, something that must be a clear worry to teams in England and across Europe. Chelsea’s attacking players are continuing to mature, ergo Chelsea are reaching their peak at an alarming speed.

As we have already discovered this season, Manchester City are the only team who can realistically stay with Chelsea, but even they are are finding things tough going, and they are yet to find a winning formula in Europe.

Without Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge Liverpool have dropped way off the pace, and Arsenal continue to promise everything and deliver nothing. Manchester United have been slightly reinvigorated under Louis Van Gaal but their leaky defence is a pressing concern, added to the fact that Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie are perhaps a little past their highest level.

Chelsea have only conceded four points so far this season from nine games this season, both in the dying stages away to Manchester City and United. It shows that they are fallible, and despite Mourinho’s diligence when coaching his defence, they will still make mistakes. But they are offering precious little in the way of hope for opposition sides, and it the rare event they don’t dominate a game with the ball they can fall back on a safe back-line. Their pre-emimence in England is becoming more obvious by the week.

While he cannot afford to take his eye off the Premier League, Mourinho will undoubtedly be devoting a lot of his time to the European Cup. Despite the class of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, you feel no one is safe from a Chelsea team that has added a level of ruthlessness  to a well-oiled machine. It isn’t hard to see why their Portuguese boss fancies sticking around for a while. 

 

Sterling gives us all a timely reminder of his precocious ability

raheem sterling

Raheem Sterling was once again instrumental in a Liverpool victory, but everyone must work together to protect England’s chief talent…

It is fair to say that it hasn’t been the easiest of weeks for young Raheem Sterling. Rested against Estonia due to tiredness, the 19-year-old has suffered a backlash over the internet for a supposed lack of desire to represent his country. Alan Shearer was amongst those who felt the need to criticise England’s brightest talent, trotting out the tiresome line that the average working man does not want to hear a privileged professional complain of being tired. Given that Mr Shearer gave up international football at the age of 29 at the peak of his powers, you feel he maybe the wrong man to dish out such criticism.

Rather than lambasting Sterling we should be lavishing praise on him for the way he has blossomed into such a key player at such a young age for club and country. Many players who join England’s elite clubs during the inchoate stages of their career often get lost in the academy maze, never to be seen to be seen again. It will continue to happen time and time again whilst clubs continue to deal in big bucks, so Sterling should be attracting extra plaudits for making himself such a figure importance at Liverpool, a club back amongst the giants of Europe.

With Luis Suarez now having vacated Anfield and Daniel Sturridge injured, Sterling has taken up an even more prominent role in Liverpool’s three-pronged front line, and he once again proved the difference on Sunday as Liverpool overcame lowly QPR with a distinct lack of conviction. Sterling’s performance up until Liverpool’s second goal had been patchy, much like the rest of his team, yet he never lost his zeal, constantly willing to attack his man and create chances for his out of sort’s team mates.

For Liverpool’s second goal Sterling picked up the ball inside his own half after a set piece was cleared away, and drove purposefully at the QPR defence. His pace and directness drew the opposition defence out of position, allowing Steven Gerrard to find Phillipe Coutinho on the edge of the box, who duly slotted home. For Liverpool’s third Sterling this time made a breakneck run beyond the QPR defence, collecting the ball from Coutinho and playing the ball across the face of goal where Steven Caulker inadvertently put the ball into his own net.

Sterling had also been heavily involved in the first goal, his quick thinking from a free kick allowing Glen Johnson to deliver a ball across the face of goal that caused Richard Dunne to turn the ball into his own net. The former QPR man had not had his best of games, but his devilment had once again struck fear into the heart of a shaky defence, ultimately winning his side the game. No English younger has had such a seismic effect on the league since Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene for Everton.

Yet while the temptation not to rest him must be hard to suppress, Liverpool and England must tread carefully. It is easy to forget that this time last year Sterling was in and out of the Liverpool side, yet to leave an indelible mark on his club side. It has been a rapid transformation. Squeezing every last ounce of energy out of him will only result in a drop in performance level, something that both could do without given their brittle state.

The endless conjecture over the decision to rest Sterling shows the fragile nature of the national team after an early exit in this summer’s World Cup. In times of need fans will look for a saviour, but managers and supporters alike must resist heaping the burden on such a young lad. After all, Adam Lallana, who replaced Sterling in Tallinn, is a more than capable back-up. We haven’t got the expanse of talent at our disposal that we did five years ago, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough talent in the absence of Sterling to overcome the likes of Estonia.

In the last few days there have thankfully been plenty of voices of reason in the media. Gary Neville spoke yesterday of how he was sent for a week’s holiday at the beginning of the 1998-99 season after the World Cup after complaining of being ‘knackered’, and he also spoke of how Sir Alex Ferguson would regularly gave a young Cristiano Ronaldo a week off around Christmas time. There aren’t many better examples than the most feared player on the planet. Fans shouldn’t be offended by a kids’ need to rest, they should instead be encouraged that the men in charge are willing to protect their players with one eye on a future that promises so much. Listening to the needs of a youngster is in everyone’s best interests.

Questions aplenty for Lancashire ahead of Division Two return

In the end, at least Lancashire can console themselves with the fact that they took it down to the very last day of the season. Had the heavens not opened straight after Junaid Khan trapped Eoin Morgan LBW on the final day, they may still even remain in Division One of the County Championship. But it wasn’t to be, with Middlesex eventually securing a precious draw after four days of teetering on the edge, and Glen Chapple’s men were condemned to a second relegation in three seasons, another reality check for this famous club.

The primary problem for Lancashire has been their batting. Their inability to post big first innings scores has clearly hampered their attempts to keep afloat this season, with only lowly Northants scoring fewer batting points. Only twice were they dismissed for under 200 in their first innings, yet only twice did they get past the 350 mark, highlighting an alarming inability from batsmen to kick on and make big hundreds and genuinely match-winning contributions. Lancashire were rarely blown away, but a steady stream of mediocre totals first time round meant they were often playing catch up with a more ruthless standard  of opposition. A slow death if you like.

Without an experienced overseas player like Simon Katich the year before, the onus was firmly on home-grown talent to make the runs, something that ultimately proved costly. Players such as Luis Reece, Karl Brown and Luke Procter’s careers have all simultaneously stagnated, and although the form of Tom Smith and latterly Steven Croft has been impressive, the batting malaise for some of the club’s youngsters is the main worry, something that Director of Cricket Mike Watkinson realises.

‘‘For whatever reason the squad had grown a little big this season, and we needed to answer some questions about one or two players, and I think we’ve probably done that this season by giving them the opportunity. The fact that half way through the season there was a handful of players with a combined average of about 10, it made you think right we need to do something now, we’ve exposed these guys, we’ve answered one or two questions and we then brought Usman Khawaja in’’.

Watkinson will now cast an inquisitive eye over some of these players in his season review, and it would not be a surprise if some of the year’s underperformers were moved on swiftly. If Lancashire are to get back amongst the county elite then an overseas batsmen is a must to boost the performances of those around him, whilst also helping the next batch of players develop, with England under-17 international Hasseeb Hameed one likely to make inroads into the team at some point next season, alongside second teamer Liam Livingstone. The return of top run –scorer Ashwell Prince is a welcome one, but Lancashire should look to add another overseas batsman. Since the Championship win in 2011 the current crop of youth has failed to improve exponentially, but it is obvious that the current coaching staff will not stop picking players from the talent-rich academy, and rightly so.

While the batting has continued to falter, Lancashire’s bowling is also a pressing and urgent issue. Kyle Hogg, one of the most reliable bowlers on the county circuit, has been forced into a premature retirement with a serious back injury, and Kabir Ali’s regular injuries means that he cannot be relied on to take 50 plus wickets at any level. Kyle Jarvis has had a chastening first season in England, a combination of injury and bad form restricting him to just two four-day games and two wickets. Tom Smith’s 54 wickets at 20.46 at least added a level of potency that was otherwise severely lacking, but the absence of a real ‘strike’ bowler has placed him under increased pressure.

In testing times Lancashire usually term to their star twirler Simon Kerrigan, but ever since his tumultuous England debut he hasn’t quite hit his old heights. Kerrigan still took over 40 championship wickets, yet the old spark seems to have deserted him somewhat, with spells regularly blighted by inconsistency,  something Chapple remains well aware of, ‘‘we’ll have a sit down with Simon and work out what’s best for him. He’s been great the last half the season. He had a blip in form around the time he was challenging for a place in the test team, but he’s been fantastic in his attitude and his hunger to play, and he’s still been right up there in terms of every other spinner around, it’s just that Simon has potential to be a lot better than that and that is the frustrating thing for him at the moment’’.

Lancashire have already secured the services of Leicestershire’s Nathan Buck, but his modest First Class record of 150 wickets at 37.78 and a poor injury record means that he has a lot to improve on before he becomes the man to rejuvenate a beleaguered attack. Tom Bailey, a lithe right arm medium fast bowler, can expect to feature on a more consistent basis after performing well against Middlesex in the final game. It is unlikely that Lancashire will struggle to bowl Division Two sides out, but with one eye on the future the club will need to create a bowling attack that can cause sufficient damage when up against powerful, more seasoned opponents. This year’s attack rarely threatened to bowl teams out cheaply.

Most importantly of all, what will become of Chapple? The Yorkshire-born Lancashire legend bowled himself into the ground once again this campaign, whilst also taking over coaching duties at the last minute after Peter Moores defected to England, and the board must decide whether he is better off as coach or as player. His bowling is still sharp enough and more importantly his body is still in good enough shape, but he freely admits that doing both roles this season was far from ideal and that the situation cannot continue as it is.

Chapple commands great respect around Old Trafford, and a full-time coaching role would allow him to adopt a more hands-on policy from a coaching point of view, but can a new-look bowling attack prepare to dispense with his reliable services ahead of the new campaign? We are about to find out as Watkinson and co plan ahead for 2015.