Chelsea’s only option is to apologise to Clattenburg and move on

Originally published for Goal UK on 23rd November 2012

Tuesday’s loss in Turin almost certainly eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League; it definitely brought about the end for Roberto Di Matteo, and on Wednesday Rafa Benitez was hired as his replacement. Thursday saw the positive spin on such a remorseless sacking emanating from Stamford Bridge bloodied by news of the Football Association’s decision to drop the charges Chelsea made against Mark Clattenburg. This has been an eventful week, let alone season, and what a fall it has been from the highs of Munich six months ago.

The problem now, is where next? There are a number of parties who must decide how they want to proceed. Chelsea’s statement reluctantly accepted the decision, which may just end what had seemed a personal vendetta against the FA. Should the FA hit Chelsea with more than just a slap on the wrists for making public such a monumental accusation with baseless evidence? What about Clattenburg? He has more than enough material to sue the west London club for slander.

It is, much like the John Terry saga that shrouded the game for the last 12 months, a bit of a mess. The irony though, is that while Chelsea could issue an apology to the official and wash their hands of the event, Clattenburg is about to embark on an unfair and impossibly difficult period of his career.

He is, lest we forget, one of an elite band of referees across the globe. Whatever your view on his ability, and yes, there have been some memorable mistakes in his career, it only takes one or two idiots to mouth off to send an entire company of fans into an abusive serenade. The hope is that fans up and down the country will recognise the bogus claims for what they were and avoid falling into such a Neanderthal trap.

The responsibilities of being the man in black carry enough pressure as it is and knowing the problems this has caused Clattenburg in the last four weeks – he hasn’t refereed a game since the allegations arose – are indefensible. Chelsea acted thoughtlessly and recklessly on a unique issue that was always likely to draw scrutiny and vast condemnation. It was always a bizarre accusation, but made particularly sour in the haste with which it was made public.

Clattenburg received support in the aftermath from refereeing bodies, leading managers and figureheads in the game who provided strong character references and pointed to impressive man management skills. But you were left hoping Neil Warnock was wrong when he said: “I’m sure he might have said a few things but are you telling me if Chelsea had won that game that there would have been one iota of a complaint?”

One hopes that right is not lost amongst the madness of last month’s events. As Clattenburg said in his statement: “this experience should not discourage those to speak out if they genuinely believe they are a victim of abuse.” Forget the way Chelsea reacted, players must still feel confident in the complaint system or else we risk losing much of the progress that has been made with relationships between all those involved on the pitch.

The most striking aspect of the allegations was eventually the brittle nature of the evidence Chelsea and an outside party felt was strong enough to pursue the John Obi Mikel case. The “inappropriate language” Clattenburg used was alleged to be “shut up you monkey”, but this came only by way of Brazilian midfielder Ramires. Mikel, who was stood closer to Clattenburg, admitted he hadn’t heard anything.

That such an allegation was aired publicly before the club had a chance to properly assert the particulars of the incident showed complete contempt for Clattenburg’s career and future. Though he has been cleared by the FA and had a legal case against him dropped, the ramifications of being placed in the public eye with such a damaging slur hanging over him are still to be fully realised.

And it is a pity that Chelsea have sullied their name once again. This is a club that, despite many deriding them for having ‘no history’, sit in the upper echelons of the modern British game. Their Champions League triumph pushed them further and they have played the best football on these shores this year. It is a pity therefore that their reputation is festered by misdemeanours.

With Benitez at the helm and another era underway, Chelsea should treat this as a new beginning, a fresh start.

By acting on impulse and without consideration for Clattenburg’s career and livelihood, Chelsea made an almost irreparable mistake and for that the only action they must take is to issue an unreserved apology to the official and hope that is the end of the matter. This is no longer about a war between the club and the FA, it is about rebuilding the reputation of an innocent official.

Fragile Chelsea underline value of Terry amid Champions League horror show

Originally published for Goal UK on 21st November 2012

What has happened to the house that Jose built? The modern Chelsea, the multiple Premier League winners, the FA Cup plunderers, the European champions, were all built on a dauntless backline capable of repelling even the most incisive attacks. But as the full-time whistle blew in the Stadio Juventus, a shell of the blue curtain so indomitable against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in 2011-12 was presented to the millions watching the Old Lady triumph 3-0.

In days gone by Petr Cech could go an entire match barely being noticed – remember the 2004-05 season and the preposterously minute 15 goals they conceded in 38 Premier League games? His reputation may be ascending once more, but this is down to his prominent role in any Chelsea matchday narrative.

There is only so much the six-foot five-inch Czech shot-stopper can do and it became brutally clear that those operating in front of him were conceding far too much space in and around the penalty box to keep Cech out of the firing line. Inevitably the bundle of chances that came Juve’s way would yield at least a couple of goals.

Though Roberto Di Matteo – whose role in the defeat eventually cost him his job – chose to play three centre-backs with Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta as wing-backs, the performance had echoes of the 3-1 defeat to Napoli in last season’s edition of the Champions League. That night, also minus John Terry, the Blues looked panicked against an Italian side vibrant in their movement and direct in their probes.

On Tuesday night, it was a repeat as Gary Cahill and David Luiz were shackled together once more. They may have had the additional assistance of Branislav Ivanovic, but the outcome was similar. Sebastian Giovinco’s 91st-minute strike was the 20th goal Chelsea had conceded in the last 10 games the pair had started together – a world away from the bolted iron door the Blues defence was a mere six months ago.

And against Juventus, hardly a side blessed with world-class strikers, there was pandemonium in the penalty box. There was an element of fortune for the first two goals, certainly, but David Luiz was pulled all over the pitch and did little to further the claims of those who label him as a top-class defender. At one stage he appeared so disoriented, a long ball hit him on the back as he retreated towards goal.

Cahill did not fair much better and was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty after a clumsy tangle with Mirko Vucinic. Fabio Quagliarella, for all his enigmatic ability around the box, has only scored 12 goals in the whole of this calendar year. Vucinic likewise. This was not a goalscoring front line but it was up against a porous defence all too aware of its vulnerability.

This leads us onto the absence of the club captain, Terry. Putting to one side the various misdemeanours we do not need to revisit, there still stands a top-class centre-back. The 31-year-old may be discovering that all the fearless blocks and tackles he has made over the years are ravaging his body, but his supporters are being served a constant reminder of his quality. Unfortunately it is via his absence in the first team.

The four games he missed through suspension saw 10 goals conceded but in many ways it is the intangible aspects to Terry’s game that Chelsea miss the most. It is a familiar theory: “Captain, Leader, Legend” reassures one banner at Stamford Bridge. Take him out of the starting XI and carnage ensues. For all the potential of David Luiz, he looked rudderless, a bedraggled sailor without his skipper. Cahill must live with the ignominy of failing both at club and international test to be Terry’s rightful heir. On current evidence, he is a long way short.

Much has been made of the attacking wealth at the Blues’ disposal but fans are discovering in the most painful of ways that transition from a team of meticulous efficiency to a Barcelona MK II is not as simple as spending a fortune on gifted attackers. Granted, the best chance of the game (aside from Giovinco’s which was at a stage where the game was over) fell to Eden Hazard and had he opened the scoring instead of Quagliarella, the post-mortem may be different.

It was always unlikely that Chelsea would sail through this season, blowing everyone away with the glittering football Roman Abramovich has craved for so long but the small cracks seeping in must be at least mildly distressing. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz’s on-pitch spat hinted at frustration with Chelsea’s play and dampened an already dreary night.

The club are already without the sidelined Frank Lampard and the departed Didier Drogba, but losing Terry is one absent figurehead too many for the new Chelsea to manage. Often in times of strife you find out more than you expected of the characters around you and as Cech spoke to the ITV cameras afterwards and touched upon the idea of destiny in football it was hard not to wonder.

Destiny may have led to European glory last season, but it looks as if a different path entirely has been mapped out for the Blues this year. If it helps solve the conundrum at the back, Abramovich will force a smile through the Turin grimace as he looks for a new boss. Small mercies and all that.

Tottenham must not trade on excuses after Arsenal derby demolition

Originally published for Goal UK on 18th November 2012

Facts do not lie and Tottenham’s form guide makes for particularly poor reading following the 5-2 mauling in the north London derby. Two massive tests in consecutive weeks have seen them ship seven goals, scoring three, but crucially losing both matches to ManchesterCity and Arsenal.

The defeats have helped shape the Premier League table further and Spurs now sit eighth, perhaps rather fortunately only six points off the coveted fourth-place. Of course, anything other than fourth will be deemed a failure on Andre Villas-Boas’ part, largely on account of the success of his predecessor Harry Redknapp.

But unlike in past weeks in the aftermath of lamentable results against the likes of Norwich, Wigan and Chelsea, the Portuguese coach could retreat to White Hart Lane on Saturday evening relatively unscathed.

He showed remarkable fortitude in what can only be described as a Tottenham fans’ nightmare as Emmanuel Adebayor received a deserved red card for a reckless and dangerous challenge on Santi Cazorla. Per Mertesacker’s excellent header pinned Tottenham back but had they survived until half-time, the story may have been different.

For Tottenham were the dominant team (at least going by possession stats) for the first 15 minutes of the second period and although in the grand scheme of things it made no difference to the end result, it was a promising sign after what had been a somewhat surprising switch to a 3-4-2 formation.

In reality, the task was nigh-on impossible. Few teams will keep this Arsenal team, with its array of creative maestros, at bay for almost 80 minutes with 10 men. Throw in the modifier that is Tottenham’s vastly out of form defence and it was a recipe for a high-scoring defeat.

But in a perverse way – and following the rule that is often suggested of teams in defeat – Villas-Boas would have learned more about his team, as well the critics and pundits looking on at the chaos embroiling the Emirates pitch.

The starting line-up suggested Villas-Boas recognised his team’s own fragility but, following the old adage that attack forms the best part of defence, was his the greatest chance of a win. Though a Villas-Boas 4-4-2 is really only that rigid and archaic in name alone, it belies the courage it took to start both Jermain Defoe and Adebayor merely nine months after the very same formation led to an identical 5-2 defeat to Arsene Wenger’s side. Perhaps we all should have seen this coming.

Hampered by the sending off and subsequent goal glut that gave the Gunners a 3-1 lead, Villas-Boas pursued a route few in the Premier League would have the gall to try. Maybe Daniel Levy’s words throughout the week about the magnitude and importance of the derby ricocheted around Villas-Boas’ head as he made his half-time notes, but to see his team emerge without either full-back and shift to a three man defence was staggering.

It may not have worked but Villas-Boas certainly confirmed to the many fans still doubting his place in the dugout that he has the makings of a true Tottenham manager; that ability to cast off the shackles and attack for attack’s sake, to entertain and exhilarate in equal measure.

Taking positives from a 5-2 defeat seems folly but many will acknowledge a gutsy display when they see one. This did not have the feel of the dire 3-0 loss at Arsenal in 2009 when the side collectively laid down and watched Cesc Fabregas tip-toe his way through the defence (though Cazorla certainly had his free-running boots on).

William Gallas, who had a goal disallowed, continued his personal mission to squeeze his body out of the ‘centre-back’ pigeon-hole (and presumably into the ‘fraudulent footballer’ section) as he careered around his own box, causing pandemonium before finding Lukas Podolski’s shot deflect off him and in. His vacuous marking for Olivier Giroud’s goal left his overall performance, well, about par for the course this season. If there are any long-term positives to take from Saturday’s defeat, finally seeing the back of Gallas may be worth the three points lost.

Behind him, Hugo Lloris was also surprisingly given a start and the French No.1 did little wrong. In fact, where it not for a couple of fine saves – notably from Giroud headers – Spurs could have trudged off on the end of a far larger defeat.

No-one will be pleased with a 5-2 loss, especially to the sworn enemy, but there are reasons to smile through the hurt. And if there is any justice, Levy, who sat high in the Emirates overseeing proceedings, may have actually wondered if there was a way he could help his new manager. If Villas-Boas can nurse his team through to January, Levy must back his man in the market. Saturday just added weight to many frustrations Villas-Boas must feel given the strains of the summer.

Ultimately, the biggest test of a team’s mettle is how they react to defeat but it will not get any easier as a daunting trip to Lazio precedes the arrival of Sam Allardyce and his dogs of war at White Hart Lane next weekend. Though the club can take positives from their loss to Arsenal, they must not lose sight of the end goal and realise that you can only trade on excuses for so long.

Villas-Boas and Tottenham must recognise time has caught up with Gallas and Friedel

Originally published for Goal UK on 12th November 2012

The reluctant super-sub Edin Dzeko spoke pointedly in the aftermath of Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham of delivering a message to Roberto Mancini following his match-winning cameo, but perhaps the most enlightening message that came from the contest was sent to Andre Villas-Boas courtesy of William Gallas and Brad Friedel.

To say it was a surprise to watch Spurs head to the dressing rooms at half-time leading 1-0 would be an understatement. Steven Caulker’s goal came in a difficult first 45 minutes and Villas-Boas’ men were fortunate to hold onto their lead over the remainder of the half. In truth, it was more the bungling finishing of City’s attackers and some generous refereeing than defensive mettle that kept the north London side ahead.

Friedel’s opening gambit dictated much of the remainder of his game as he ambled off his line to collect a loose ball in the box. Caulker shielded the ball under pressure before engaging in a shouting match with the American shot-stopper – not for the last time in the first half.

Elsewhere, Gallas was strapped into the Sergio Aguero roller-coaster before swiftly realising he did not like it, getting off and standing as far away from the Argentine as possible. This is the striker who netted 30 goals last season and already has four to his name this year.

What the 35-year-old defender did midway through the first period in retreating to his six-yard box as the ball was fed into Aguero was nothing short of scandalous. That Michael Oliver decided not to give a penalty for a blatant handball seconds later was a reprieve Gallas barely deserved.

The problem with veteran players is you tend to get attached to them. And depend on them. By the time you realise they have expired it is often too late. What Villas-Boas is doing in keeping faith with the duo is now damaging more than just results. The uncertainty in Friedel’s decision making and the erratic and idle marking of Gallas manifested fear in the rest of the team on Sunday.

Despite scoring, Caulker had arguably his poorest game in Spurs colours as he was dragged all over the pitch, chasing quick, nimble and evasive shadows. But it was the aforementioned communication breakdown with Friedel that instilled such trepidation. For all his talk as a future England centre-back, Caulker showed he had plenty to learn, though he will not be the first defender to be turned in the box by Aguero.

There is a reason that Gallas and Friedel have been near ever-presents for Villas-Boas and that can be traced back to his implosion at Chelsea. In his hasty attempt to impress his style and invoke the remit of revolution Roman Abramovich asked of the 35-year-old, Villas-Boas attempted to marginalise the old guard at Stamford Bridge. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and the like held more power than the Portuguese perhaps realised and ultimately he was moved on.

Fast forward to August 2012 and Villas-Boas has command of a talented but lighter squad than his popular predecessor oversaw. It made sense to empower the experienced members of the squad and in doing so he ensured he only upset fans still pining for Harry Redknapp, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric – three cult figures cut loose in the summer cull. Even a number of new signings have yet to receive extended minutes in the first team, such is Villas-Boas’ determination to keep the apple cart steady.

The disgust that has emanated from France over Hugo Lloris’ position on the Tottenham bench initially looked like an overreaction, but now more than ever it is starting to make sense. At 41 years of age Friedel has been a magnificent Premier League servant, indeed the American has become the safe pair of hands Heurelho Gomes never was. But it is ever more apparent that his time has passed.

The idea of continuity is at odds with Villas-Boas’ style. He likes to rotate his squad and drills his players to the point that any one of them can step in and follow his meticulous game-plans. He has, to this point, used more players than any other club in the league. However, continuity is also dangerous, particularly if the regulars are weak links.

Gallas has added commendable spirit and leadership since joining Spurs that many doubted he could provide. Tantrums and episodes at both Arsenal and Chelsea hinted at a fragile character with a short fuse, but for the most part he has been dependable in his time at the club.

But time waits for no man and as the legs tire quicker and the brain thinks slower, the negatives begin to outweigh the positives. Lloris is a superb talent; fast off his line, proficient with his feet and a commanding presence – everything Friedel lacks.

Jan Vertonghen has been one of the highlights of Spurs’ season and however capable he is when carrying the ball, he can look lost when defending from left-back – as highlighted in the build-up to Dzeko’s winner. With Kyle Naughton proving an able deputy and Benoit Assou-Ekotto close to a return to full fitness, the obvious move is to bring the Belgian back to his preferred centre-half role.

Perhaps the biggest test of Villas-Boas’ character will be in observing how long he perseveres with the pair. Gallas has played every minute of this campaign, while Friedel has missed just one league game.

The pair have been part of a defence that has conceded eight goals in their last four games. It is not solely their fault – as previously mentioned, Caulker was badly off-colour on Sunday and Kyle Walker has not been able to shake a funk that taints his England call-up with bewilderment.

Villas-Boas has one week to assess his options before he takes his Tottenham team to the Emirates for his first north London derby and the time is right to send the clearest message yet that this is his Spurs side, not the elderly hangover from Redknapp’s reign.

Shambolic Arsenal open the Champions League door for Fellaini-inspired Everton

Originally published for Goal UK on 10th November 2012.

It all seemed too easy. Olivier Giroud powered Arsenal into an 11th-minute lead and Lukas Podolski doubled it not long after. It was billed as a tricky, banana skin sort of game; the type of match they would have breezed through a decade ago, but equally it is the test Arsene Wenger’s side have regularly failed in recent times.

The complacency so synonymous with the modern Arsenal; the Arsenal that are accustomed to deflecting questions about their experience, fortitude and mental strength, all came to the fore on Saturday afternoon.

Fulham are a good side, but after carving out a two-goal lead, Wenger’s men should never have been left praying for one of their older heads to convert a last-gasp penalty. That the spot kick was missed, saved by Mark Schwarzer, will lend further weight to the suggestions that Arsenal are too fragile to mount any sort of title challenge.

Further dropped points instead call for a more severe critique of Wenger’s side. It is almost universally accepted that a Premier League challenge is beyond the Gunners, but what about their position in the Champions League?

Some 200 miles north of the Emirates, Everton, perennial contenders for the top four but so often nearly men, put together a rousing comeback at home to Sunderland.

The grit and determination so often attributed to David Moyes’ Toffees will no doubt be wheeled out as the defining factor in victory, but the difference now is that where once it was enough to keep Everton clinging onto the coat tails of their rivals, now it is pushing them to the front of the queue.

It is an unfamiliar scenario. Past years have seen Everton leave their charge late, often too late, with a bitter taste and thoughts of “what if?” prevailing. Yet this time the omens are good.

Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic’s goals propelled the club to the 20 point mark and ensured that along with West Brom, they sit firmly in fourth spot. The last time the Toffees hit the 20 point mark after 11 games, they finished fourth.

Careful planning on a small budget, coupled with a close-knit, purposeful squad of players has pushed Everton towards the holy grail, the Champions League. Consistency and continuity have ensured Moyes’ side have always remained competitive at the top end of the table, but it is perhaps only now, in a season in which fourth place is most certainly up for grabs, we are seeing a power shift.

The irony in all of this is Fellaini’s future. The Belgian has racked up six league goals already this season and embodies this modern Everton better than most; tough but fair and with an air of authority and pomp.

Unfortunately this has led to interest from bigger, better financed clubs and Fellaini has done little to shun the interest. But as the tides of power shift, he may find his thirst for Champions League football is best served at Goodison Park.

Wenger spoke after the 3-3 draw with Fulham of being pleased with his team’s second-half response. Arsenal played with intensity and diffused a threatening Fulham team for much of the second 45 minutes. But when it mattered, the Gunners slipped. They handed the effervescent Dimitar Berbatov a penalty and although Giroud hauled his team level, ultimately Arsenal failed to claim the three points they expected and indeed needed after a miserable run of results.

Complacency has set in – some would argue from top to bottom of the club – and it is a greater problem than just a fortnight of poor form. The club are paying for years of squad neglect and now find themselves in a state of semi-permanent transition, just as those around them near the completed article.

It is all good Wenger insisting he will “keep working on it” but unless they rediscover the ferocity and menace they have displayed in years gone by, Arsenal may find their coveted and almost guaranteed place in Europe’s top competition will vanish as swiftly as their lead did on Saturday.

Short-sighted Manchester City left hamstrung by pointless Garcia, Rodwell & Sinclair signings

The big news at Manchester City this week was the unveiling of Txiki Begiristain as the Premier League champions’ new director of football, a move that was surely invoked after an abject summer transfer window.

As title winners with an almost endless cash flow, it was simply expected, assumed, that Roberto Mancini would be photographed alongside a gaggle of the world’s best players. Yet, come September, he had Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and Scott Sinclair by his side – hardly names to crow about.

The Italian manager certainly cut a frustrated figure throughout the off-season, remarking in the aftermath of their failed Robin van Persie swoop: “No, I’m not happy. I don’t want to say anything at the moment. For me we have a good team but we need to continue to improve. You should talk to Brian Marwood for this. Not me.”

The reference to the one-time England winger, a man brought to the club to assist Mark Hughes in 2009 under the title of football administrator, was cutting and hinted at discord between the two.

Mancini went on to explain the root of his frustration, adding: “I think when you win something you should look to improve and buy new players but not too close to the end. The league was finished in May and I think now it is very difficult to move in the market. After three or four months … nothing.”

Proactivity was replaced by caution, possibly due to concerns over the financial fair play regulations eking their way into the consciousness of the big spenders and certainly on account of the Champions League registration rules that require eight “club-trained” or “association-trained” players.

 

And so, as talk of Daniele De Rossi and Javi Martinez built to a crescendo in August, fans of the club must have been somewhat perplexed as they watched Rodwell – a player who has constantly flattered to deceive – replace the outgoing Nigel de Jong and accepted the wrong Javi, as Garcia jetted in from Portugal instead of Martinez from the Basque Country.

The club still shelled out approximately £52 million this past window but many would argue whether the deal for Matija Nastasic (which also saw the underwhelming Stefan Savic depart) was worth any value to City – he remains in the category of “prospect” rather than “superstar”.

Subsequently, their plodding in the transfer market allowed City’s nearest rivals to close the gap and it has shown in the first quarter of games of the 2012-13 league season.

Chelsea have motored to the front of the queue playing compelling football, largely on account of the £52m spent on Eden Hazard and Oscar. Manchester United, meanwhile, pipped City to the capture of the league’s most deadly marksman – all this after poaching Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund.

Most observers will agree that City have yet to find their rhythm this season. A rigid setup and unimaginative attack have seen the champions pushed to their limit already, requiring Edin Dzeko to come to the rescue in their two previous away league encounters. The defence has kept just two clean sheets and David Silva has yet to rediscover the spark that captured the hearts of every purist in the British Isles.

The acquisitions of Sinclair and Maicon only add weight to the debate over City’s business.

The former Swansea City winger was a direct replacement for Adam Johnson but is an inferior player. On the surface, he has been signed purely as a back-up, something Sinclair himself even admitted. “I don’t know how often I’ll play,” he said – hardly a ringing endorsement of his own talent.

Maicon by the same token was an opportunistic transfer for a player the club don’t need. Even with Micah Richards’ latest setback, the Brazilian remains behind Pablo Zabaleta – one of the club’s best performers this year.

It all leaves you with a slightly sore head – no doubt a familiar feeling for Mancini. There are too many question marks hanging over the summer signings and not enough convincing performances to justify their big-money moves. Javi Garcia is certainly no amateur but, ahead of a campaign in which teams would be even more wise to City’s constant creative probing, was another holding midfielder a priority?

There is a direct example of how business can be done as Mancini takes his side to east London for a difficult fixture at West Ham. Sam Allardyce has carved much of his career from astute signings and tactful free transfers – exemplified this season by the wonderful emergence of Mohamed Diame.

The former Wigan midfielder hinted at his talent when on display for the Latics but it is only since his move to the Hammers that his value has truly been discovered and, if you size them up now, who would you rather? Rodwell or Diame?

The caveat to all of the above is that City remain unbeaten in the Premier League. Their Champions League campaign may lie in tatters but the domestic front remains the biggest priority for the club’s fans and, indeed, management. The worry, of course, is that City have stood still, which in football translates to moving backwards. They face an uphill battle to retain their crown, continuing with Saturday’s game at Upton Park.

Derby d’Italia will reveal more than just Serie A credentials of Inter and Juventus

Andrea Stramaccioni’s ascent started provincially in his home town of Rome, before he climbed through the ranks at AS Roma and then moved to the coaching position of the Inter Milan Primavera (Under 19s). Victory in the inaugural NextGen Series at venues as glamorous as Griffin Park and the Matchroom Stadium saw him elevated to head coach of the first team and he has yet to look back.

There is a touch of the magic dust about Stramaccioni and something serendipitous about the meeting with Juventus in the much-revered Derby d’Italia this weekend. On the day his Primavera side toppled Ajax on penalties to claim the NextGen prize, Claudio Ranieri watched his Inter team meekly surrender 2-0 at Juventus Stadium and departed Turin the day after. On Sunday, the Nerazzurri head west to face the Italian champions for the first time under new management.

Initially seen as something of a stop-gap to bookend a season that had already watched two managers try and fail to evolve an ageing Inter team, Stramaccioni did his credentials no harm, winning five of his nine games, (and all four of his matches at Giuseppe Meazza) including a 4-2 victory in the Derby della Madonnina – ending AC Milan’s hopes of retaining the Scudetto.

The 36-year-old was handed the keys to the castle by Massimo Moratti and has shown an admirable quality in turning a team in transition from old to new, to a legitimate Serie A contender. So far this campaign, Inter have won eight of their 10 league matches, including their last six, leaving them just four points behind Juventus. Unconventionally, their two defeats have come on home ground, and both by a two goal margin. Is it a question of mental fragility or simply a team adjusting to a host of changes?

Whatever the answer, Inter travel to the first Derby d’Italia of the season in buoyant spirit. They have won every single game on their travels in 2012-13 – eight wins in all competitions – a remarkable statistic and one that should provide more than a token threat of an upset for Antonio Conte’s side.

The Bianconeri have hardly let up this year either. Unbeaten in their opening 10 matches, their record of 49 games without defeat is now just nine behind AC Milan’s all-time record of 58 games, achieved between 1990 and 1993. With Paul Pogba rescuing the Italian champions last night and ensuring they achieved their fifth home triumph – importantly keeping them four and not two points clear of their nearest rivals – the scene is set for a clash of enormous magnitude.

The hosts haven’t been defeated by Inter on their own patch for seven years, when Julio Cruz guided a superb header beyond Gigi Buffon for the only goal of the game. That was Roberto Mancini’s only success and a feat even Jose Mourinho and his Champions League-winning Inter failed to match.

Historically speaking, Juventus have a considerably better record in this fixture than Inter and will be looking to claim their 95th win (compared to 67 Inter wins), subsequently placing the club in a dominant league position. It is early to speculate, but going on recent strength, Juventus would not be far from an unassailable position should they take all three points this weekend.

But there is much to worry the Bianconeri: Stamaccioni’s Inter have only conceded one goal away from home in Serie A – and just two in total this season, while finding the net 19 times in those eight fixtures. They may have stuttered at home, but there are few better gatecrashers in Europe than Inter right now.

The caveat – there is always a caveat – is the quality of opposition the Nerazzurri have faced. They say you can only beat what is in front of you but it remains a telling statistic that every win on alien territory has been against a side occupying a position in the bottom half of Serie A. Pescara, Bologna, Chievo and Torino hardly strike fear into the heart of opponents and their nine wins from 40 combined games speak volumes. There is of course the anomaly of AC Milan – neither a real ‘away’ game for Inter, but nor a legitimate powerhouse this year.

Inter have, however, blown their opponents away at times. There are fewer ‘smash-and-grabs’ and instead dominant displays – particularly as the season has moved on. There appears to be greater focus on the collective, a hunger and ambition to fight as a unit for victory, rather than days gone by where the individual brilliance of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Wesley Sneijder would be the difference between victory or defeat.

And thus, Stramaccioni has utilised his squad to effect, drafting in 23 players in the league so far. It is a sign of the times – a tinkerer with purpose, not just in name only (looking at you, Mr Ranieri). Speaking to reporters after their hard-fought 3-2 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday night, Stramaccioni explained: “We had to continue our growth. If I spared players who had been putting in good performances recently in view of Saturday’s game against Juventus, then I would have been giving the wrong signal both to my players and to the atmosphere.”

This is a man that recognises the value in each fixture, someone whose fallibility has yet to be pinpointed. When his team struggled, 1-0 down at the break, he turned to his bench – introducing Esteban Cambiasso at half time before Yuto Nagatomo helped inject further purpose. Despite a late Eder goal, Inter found the solution, leaving Stramaccioni purring about the strength of his squad. “We brought on quality, anger and desire,” he added.

On any normal day, travelling to Juventus Stadium is a test, the biggest in Italy these days, but this fixture threatens to unravel much more than the Scudetto credentials of both teams. If Juve succumb to Stramaccioni’s Inter, it really will be time to sit up and take notice of the almost vertical ascent of the 36-year-old prodigy.

Villas-Boas discovers the value of Tom Huddlestone after second-half siege

It wasn’t the precise cross for Gareth Bale’s opening goal, nor his abnormally inaccurate passing in the opening stages of the 2-1 win at Southampton that Andre Villas-Boas will take from this week. It won’t even be the abysmal missed tackle on Dejan Mezga in the 1-1 draw with Maribor on Thursday. No, the value of Tom Huddlestone was evident just minutes after he was withdrawn from Sunday’s game and Tottenham descended into panic-stricken hoof-ball in a desperate attempt to cling onto the three points.

His replacement, Jake Livermore, had a nightmarish 25 minutes in which he was booked for a terrifically late challenge after conceding possession high up the pitch, a product of his dallying on the ball, unsure of what to do with it. Livermore played 38 times under Harry Redknapp last season and to give him his dues, he stuck at his role as anchor man – took the ball off the opposition and handed it to the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.

Yet, at St Mary’s, his introduction was the catalyst for frenetic, frantic clearances, aimless long balls and some poor choices. In one particular incident the ball bounced off a Southampton head and broke for Livermore, who, without a moments thought, punted the ball 60 yards up field leaving Bale to his left and in acres of space pleading for the ball next time. The game needed composure and cool heads, what it got was a player devoid of the awareness needed to ease Spurs over the finishing line.

Livermore has been a reliable member of the Tottenham squad for the past year-and-a-half and perhaps with a run of games and a rhythm you can only acquire from consistent minutes, he would make better decisions. It is possible that entering the game as Southampton had their tails up spooked him a little. He was also not the only culprit in a poor second half.

Huddlestone in contrast has always provided an air of calm to Spurs’ play. He has his drawbacks and will forever be limited by his athleticism, or lack thereof, and even in a first half in which Nigel Adkins’ side allowed the Tottenham midfield the freedom of St Mary’s, Huddlestone was patchy.

He began with two attempted forward passes that immediately put Spurs on the back foot, as he handed possession to Southampton. But after an uncertain first ten minutes and a firm talking to from Villas-Boas, who gestured for the 26-year-old to settle and calm down, he improved.

Moments later he delivered an inch perfect cross for Bale to guide a header past Artur Boruc and initial concerns over Huddlestone abated. There has never been much doubt that he has a passing range to rival most of his contemporaries, however there are two schools of thought on his use of such skills.

The cynical view is that Huddlestone can only really pass backwards and sideways and the occasional aesthetic 50-yard ball should not mask his otherwise unadventurous approach. Those looking to defend the Nottingham-born midfielder point to the lack of options and static nature of them as the limiting factor.

Against Maribor, much of the game was played at walking pace. This doesn’t help impressions of Huddlestone, who often appears to only operate at walking pace anyway. Yet he did put together a series of progressive balls to Aaron Lennon – his go-to option in years gone by. It must also not be forgotten that before injury curtailed his middle-20s, Huddlestone was a near ever-present the season Spurs made it into the hallowed top four, playing 43 games in midfield.

The criticism that he can never be part of a modern midfield looks flawed when stacked against the 2009-10 example; he has previous – and in a 4-4-2 no less. Of course, the ankle injury that has sidelined him for so long (and is now understood to be a permanent hindrance) slowed his development and in many eyes his movement. Not those of Villas-Boas though, who had this to say in the post-match press conference at Southampton.

“Tom offers so much – this is a player who missed 15 months out through injury, he had extremely harsh setbacks and he has recovered. For him to play three games in a week is very important. Towards 65 to 70 minutes, physically he was feeling the strain so we made the change for Jake.”

And so we return to the options Villas-Boas has at his disposal. With Mousa Dembele out with a hip problem, pace and physical drive is missing in Tottenham’s midfield. Sandro can get forward when instructed to and did a passable impression of a box-to-box midfielder against Maribor, but many will be itching for Dembele’s return. However, with Clint Dempsey operating just off Defoe, buzzing around and claiming second balls, providing the midfield with the energy Gylfi Sigurdsson cannot, the duo of Sandro and Huddlestone has its merits.

It is vital that when these two feature together, Villas-Boas ensures there is pace around them. On Sunday, there was just that as Tottenham rampaged through the Saints in the first half. With Bale, Lennon, Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen on the flanks, the club have fast outlets, but often the midfield have struggled to distribute swiftly enough to utilise them. The first 45 minutes saw Huddlestone constantly arc passes to his full-backs and wingers. He may be slow of body, but not of mind or technique, as he stroked the ball first time with precision to his wide men.

If you leave any preconceptions of Huddlestone to one side for a moment, this ability is something so rarely seen in the top-flight. There are not many central midfielders technically adept enough to spread play as accurately as he is able to do and with such insouciant ease.

Villas-Boas was asked whether he believed the lack of height up front affected Tottenham’s ability to keep hold of the ball in a difficult second half. Rather than acknowledge the debate, the Portuguese coach instead took a more abstract view, highlighting the quality of pass the striker receives as the defining factor.

He explained: “It’s a question of technical and tactical ability. We have players of the dimension of Rooney for example and Defoe and people who hold onto the ball very, very well. The ball wasn’t arriving in the proper conditions for any striker to hold onto it. If it arrives under cleaner conditions, Defoe, Crouch, Rooney, all of them are able to hold onto the ball. It’s more a question of talent.

“When you are on the back foot you are trying to come out of situations of pressure. Certainly you need somebody to be there as a reference to hold onto the ball. I wouldn’t measure it on a question of height, I would measure it on a question of tactical and technical ability.”

Reading between the lines, Villas-Boas called for an improvement in service, or at least accuracy, in the delivery of forward balls to Defoe – especially towards the end of the match. In fact, after watching the many aimless clearances, Villas-Boas replaced Defoe with Sigurdsson, a form of grim acceptance that Defoe would be useless without some semblance of service.

And so we come full circle to Huddlestone. His withdrawal was unavoidable but directly correlated with a loss of structure and control on a game Spurs should have won by the halfway point, as composure in midfield was lost and Southampton were handed the initiative.

But it remains to be seen whether Huddlestone will play a key role for Spurs over the remainder of the season. Talk of a need for pace throughout the Villas-Boas model essentially puts an end to any Huddlestone debate. Why continue with the immobile option when others offer a dynamism vital to the modern midfield? Ultimately it comes down to balance: do Huddlestone’s technical attributes outweigh his physical deficiencies? Is there a way to accommodate him when first-choice players are unavailable?

These questions will be going through Villas-Boas’ mind as he assesses the run of fixtures facing Spurs. Norwich in the Capital One Cup, Wigan and Maribor at home followed by a trip to the Premier League champions offer enough of a mix for him to truly understand what Huddlestone can provide.

Villas-Boas didn’t entirely give the impression that he saw a long-term future for Huddlestone at Tottenham, yet Sunday will serve as a reminder that if he is to sell the midfielder – he was a failed medical away from doing so in the summer – there are few players who ooze serenity as much as Huddlestone.

Walker has Bale and Lennon for reference as he looks to rediscover form of last season

On one flank, Tottenham had two established internationals neatly interchanging, working in patterns and flying up and down the pitch. On the other, two international hopefuls, trying to further their cause, building their form for Andre Villas-Boas’ team in a 2-1 win at Southampton.

Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen have the makings of a fine full-back and winger combination. The benchmark in the Premier League these days is the marauding duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar at Everton and there is every chance that Tottenham’s left side could be as productive but for the Belgian’s preference for a central role.

Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon are a slightly different case. The latter is nearing his greatest spell of form for Spurs – somewhat running against the presumption that he would struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ preference for inverted wingers (or at least wingers capable of threatening in the middle of the pitch).

His career thus far has been built on the jet-propelled heels that have sent opponents in a spin as he scurries outside them. On Sunday, Lennon created the game’s second goal doing exactly what the management would have wanted; cutting inside his marker and attacking the centre-backs. It was yet further encouragement that Lennon is a far more intelligent wide man than some give him credit.

Walker on the other hand has endured something of a rough ride this campaign. Since bursting into the starting XI at the beginning of last season, ousting Vedran Corluka, a reliable right-back and someone who regularly linked well with Lennon, Walker pushed his way into the England reckoning. There is a myth that his form endured the span of Harry Redknapp’s final season, though.

Whether through fatigue, a collection of niggling injuries or simply a change in the way opposition teams set out against him, he tailed off and was no longer the explosive force he was on his introduction. Despite missing the summer’s European Championship, Walker’s pre-season was patchy before his first-team performances underwhelmed in the opening few games of the Villas-Boas reign.

His mistake for Juan Mata’s second goal and the soft concession of the ball in the build-up to Chelsea’s winner one week ago highlighted the plight of the 22-year-old. He has cut a frustrated figure, bewildered at his loss of form and even made the ill-advised error of responding to a smattering of abuse he received on Twitter following the game.

He later spoke of the incident, telling The Times: “I have seen with Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand what has happened and I don’t want to be in that category. I thought I needed to concentrate on my own performance for a few weeks.”

The initially puerile reaction belies his fierce determination to rediscover the form that saw him named the 2012 PFA Young Player of the Year. The self-restraint he demonstrated in deleting his account is admirable, as is the work he is putting in on the training ground.

“They [those on Twitter] did not know how much work I was putting in, not just on match days but throughout the week. I am probably the first one in and the last one out every day. If that means doing gym or some extra swimming, I am prepared to do that to make me a better player.”

The faith shown by Villas-Boas should also contribute to an upturn in fortunes. Some expected to see Kyle Naughton at right-back, or even Adam Smith for the Thursday night game against Maribor, but Walker was afforded 90 minutes to make amends for the display against Chelsea.

Unfortunately, the overall display from Tottenham in their insipid 1-1 draw with the Slovenian champions made it difficult for Walker, or indeed anyone, to make a noteworthy contribution. Still, his performance appeared more fundamental, less eye-catching, perhaps a conscious return to getting the basics right.

At Southampton, Walker gave a diligent, if patchy display. There were encouraging signs – most notably in the quick, incisive one-two with Lennon that left Danny Fox in a daze and Walker in space to attack the byline and find Jermain Defoe. It really should have been an assist for the right-back had Defoe not uncharacteristically smashed his chance from 12 yards the wrong side of the post.

He wasn’t overly troubled by Adam Lallana, Saints’ captain, who only really found joy when he drifted into central positions, though Walker was caught in possession on a couple of dawdling moments in the second period. There was also the wasted chance to get his name on the scoresheet as he sliced his shot from just inside the box wide of the near post.

The signs are there that he is coming through a difficult period, however, and indeed Walker appears aware enough to understand what he must do.

He explains: “When people know what you are about, it is difficult. They know your game whereas last season I came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. I will keep working and training – doing the extra bit I need to. Hopefully, my form will come back.”

The element of unknown helped Walker build his reputation, now it will take further education to sustain it.

Fortunately he has a couple of players alongside him who have had to go through the very same self-analysis. Lennon and Bale have both had spells where opponents would send two or more men out to mark them and have had to reinvent aspects of their play.

The road may be longer than he likes but Walker is slowly coming out of his slump and adding the strings to the bow that would see him justifiably return alongside Lennon, his partner in crime, to the England team.

Manchester City need Hart, Kompany & Yaya Toure to translate champion spirit to Champions League

This piece was originally on Goal.com on 24/10/2012

There have been wobbles, dropped points, inexplicable errors and confused tactical shuffles but Manchester City have rediscovered their domestic form, largely thanks to the champion spirit exuded by Edin Dzeko at Craven Cottage and The Hawthorns in recent weeks.

Still absent, though, is a maiden win in Europe following a late capitulation in Madrid and a fortuitous point claimed from Dortmund after one of the most dominant away performances seen at Etihad Stadium in years. The past, however, according to Vincent Kompany, is “irrelevant”.

The Premier League champions take to Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night knowing full well that anything other than a win will leave their hopes of qualification from Group D of the Champions League in a perilous state.

For Roberto Mancini, a manager who has never prospered in Europe – two quarter-final appearances with Inter are the sum of six campaigns in Uefa’s premier club competition – three points are essential and he will rely on the influence and inspiration of his three pillars of dependability, Joe Hart, Kompany and Yaya Toure, to guide them through this tricky fixture.

Yet, there are question marks over their reliability after a less than stellar start to 2011-12. Hart was (almost) unbeatable against Dortmund but has looked fallible on his travels, most notably in Poland for England and to some extent in the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid. He may not like it, but Hart has kept just one clean sheet thus far, three fewer than at this stage a year ago.

Yaya Toure, a match-winner on his day, has yet to recapture the form that had many hail the Ivorian as the most complete midfielder in world football last year, whilst Kompany is a shell of the impenetrable wall that led to him being named Premier League Player of the Season as he skippered his side to final day glory.

The trio were vital to the success City enjoyed and although David Silva pitter-pattered to much acclaim, Sergio Aguero banged in crucial goals and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli entertained in their own unique ways, the steady three that run down the spine of Mancini’s side were consistently brilliant and vice-versa.

Surprisingly Kompany, of all people, has found the going tough this year. The tactical tinkering of Mancini, attempting to integrate a 3-5-2 style and the constant rotation of his full-backs, has undoubtedly created unnecessary problems for his Belgian captain and it has shown on the pitch.

Gone is the sure-footedness that had him labelled as the best centre-half in Europe five months ago and in its place is an uncertainty in his positioning and decision making. His suicidal and clumsy dawdling on the West Brom halfway line indirectly led to James Milner’s sending off and Kompany’s reaction was telling – he knew he’d blundered.

Yaya Toure was fantastic in the Bernabeu, particularly as he careered through the heart of the Madrid defence to lay the ball into Dzeko’s feet for their second goal. However, this was the exception rather than the sight that caused punters to sit back and gasp last year – a sight City fans will be longing for in Amsterdam. The statistics for the hulk of a midfielder are telling: Yaya Toure has been a victim of a shuffle in style.

On average, he hits more shots per game (2.4 to 2), plays more key passes (2 to 1.7) and completes more successful dribbles (1.4 to 1.2) than in the last Premier League season. But defensively, there are fewer interceptions (0.5 to 1.2) and tackles (0.8 to 1.7) – a product of the signing of Javi Garcia, perhaps. Needless to say, Mancini clearly wants the 29-year-old in a more advanced position where he can better utilise his attacking prowess. The problem is adjustment.

Fortunately these teething problems are fixable. Hart has shown some of his best form in Europe, even if you include the late Ronaldo strike that some would put down as his fault. Kompany is too accomplished to struggle for so long – indeed, it is a surprise he hasn’t conquered this malaise already. A traditional Yaya Toure gallop up the field is perhaps the best metaphor for City’s season too – slow to get going, but devastating in full bluster.

Javi Garcia and Silva are ruled out of the game in Holland, meaning the value of Mancini’s three most time-tested commodities is multiplied. They must deliver for the Italian.

Ajax, though winless in Group D, are, aside from the 4-1 reverse to Madrid, undefeated at home and Frank de Boer’s charges will be intent on securing a positive result. The statistics are conflicting, though: the Dutch side haven’t won in three but City have lost three of their last four European away games. Something has to give.

City are fortunate to be able to count on Hart but Mancini warned of continuing an unwelcome trend when asked about his side’s alarming rate of conceding chances to their opposition. In just two Champions League games, the club have faced 50 attempts on goal, prompting the 47-year-old to remark: “It is difficult not to concede chances. We had a bad game against Dortmund, but it is important we don’t give away so many chances to score.”

In truth, it won’t matter how City claim their first win of their second Champions League campaign, something Kompany reiterated in the pre-game press conference: “We’re a very disciplined team and we have shown we have a great capacity to react, and tomorrow is a different game, a different set-up and it’s just important to win.”

A win will not only provide City’s European ambitions with a much-needed shot in the arm, it will complete the transference of a domestic turn of form to a competition they must see the latter stages of. And for that, Mancini needs the three stars to align if City are to ensure last season’s group stage failure is not repeated.