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.

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.

Formidable Cech continues to display his worth as one of the last of Chelsea’s old guard

This piece originally appeared on Goal.com on 3/10/2012

On paper, at least, Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win away at Nordsjaelland on Tuesday night, but the scoreline masked a spell of pressure that the European champions owed a debt of gratitude to Petr Cech for repelling – and not for the first time in his illustrious time at the club.

At Parken Stadium, with the home side trailing 1-0, Nicolai Stockholm and Joshua John tested the Czech shot-stopper. The first two efforts were comfortable for Cech but the third had him scrambling to his left and clawing a curling, dipping effort from John out of the top corner. In short, it was a world-class save.

On Saturday at the Emirates Stadium, with his team leading 2-1, Cech tipped another goalbound effort, this time a Lukas Podolski header, out of the furthest reaches of his net. He had no right to deny the German an equalising goal, just as he had no right to prevent Nordsjaelland pulling level on Tuesday.

Perhaps it is no surprise to see Cech in such convincing form. He has, after all, been a mainstay of the Chelsea machine and has done this for eight years – we have grown accustomed to his excellence.

Add his inspirational Champions League displays en route to capturing the game’s greatest prize and you have a No.1 in full flow. He is confident, assured and the foundation on which Chelsea are now built.

For, over this summer, the club has undergone major surgery. Gone – or at the least, marginalised – are many of the old guard as the club look to smooth the transition from old to new.

Oscar and Eden Hazard joined Juan Mata to provide an attacking trio brimming with skill and invention, easing the gradual decline and worth of Frank Lampard. The goals his career was noted for should be spread evenly across the board and indeed cover the malaise Fernando Torres is suffering.

At the back David Luiz and Gary Cahill look primed to strike up an understanding able to cushion the weight of John Terry’s eventual retirement. Even at left-back, Ryan Bertrand already looks the natural heir to Ashley Cole.

It seems strange to talk of Cech as part of the ‘old guard’ at Chelsea but in many ways he is. Of the starting XI in Denmark, only Cole and Lampard are older and Cech is very much one of the senior pros in Roberto Di Matteo’s squad.

Signed from Rennes in 2004 for £7 million, the then-22-year-old dislodged Carlo Cudicini, a terrace favourite, and embarked on a debut campaign that leaked just 15 league goals.

Even now, aged 30, he remains relatively young in a goalkeeping context. The agility is certainly still there and remains remarkable for a man of such stature, while his footwork is trusty.

He is vocal and commands his penalty box better than the majority of Europe’s keepers – arguably the most important facet of a modern day keeper, once you get past the requisite shot-stopping ability.

He is not without his flaws though: An inexplicable handling error under pressure from his own Czech Republic team-mate at Euro 2012 handed Greece a way back into their group game, whilst a similar mistake at Wigan last season cost his side two points. There were parallels with both goals – each time Cech was called to gather a low cross in among a scrum of bodies – an understandable mental scar borne from the skull fracture he sustained at Reading in October 2006 prevented him averting the danger.

It took Cech a long time to recover from that horrific injury and his confidence was noticeably shaken. The broken nose he received against Blackburn in late 2011 preceded another dip in form and this points to an entirely expected fragility in his make-up.

But taking the whole package leaves Chelsea with a dependable goalkeeper capable of making saves very few can and although his form dipped in the last couple of years, he was invigorated by the backs-to-the-wall journey through Europe in 2011-12. He has recaptured the poise last seen in the Jose Mourinho years at Stamford Bridge – the days of going 1025 minutes without conceding a goal.

It would be remiss not to cast a glance to Atletico Madrid’s on loan Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois given the topic of goalkeeping replacements. The 20-year-old looks a carbon copy of Cech with his almost skeletal gait and has racked up an impressive CV in his year and a bit in the Spanish capital.

Winning the Europa League provided Courtois with a fateful meeting with Chelsea in the European Super Cup – a one-off game that he impressed in as Atletico demolished the new-look Blues 4-1 in Monaco.

Whether he will be ready to press Cech for the No.1 shirt remains to be seen, though the current occupier of the gloves at Stamford Bridge has been effusive in his praise for his understudy: “If you look around Europe and you look at the goalkeepers with top quality that you would expect for a Premier League team, then there are not many as talented as Thibaut is. He is one of the best talents in European football.”

The threat to his position will grow as Courtois ages but the biggest danger lies in the hands of Di Matteo. History has taught us that replacing a goalkeeper is both the most important and difficult problem a manager must solve.

It took Sir Alex Ferguson six years to finally replace Peter Schmeichel and you could argue Arsene Wenger has never found David Seaman’s successor. Everyone associated with Chelsea will hope for a seamless transition when Cech’s time runs out.

But he is a stalwart. A veteran at 30, with 378 appearances to his name and 95 international caps. He signed a new four-year deal in the summer and already holds the club record for appearances made by a foreign player.

It will inevitably be a formidable task to replace him when he does end his association with the club, but for now, Chelsea will be delighted to retain this valued member of the old guard.

Premier League Preview 2012/13 – Part 1 of 4 (Arsenal-Fulham)

This is the first part of my Premier League preview for 2012/13. Each club gets a maximum of 250 words, a prediction and a key man. Looking forward to revisiting this at the end of the year. 

ARSENAL

Prediction: 3rd
Odds: 12/1

Even with the future of Robin van Persie unresolved, Arsenal have made impressive strides in the transfer window, adding quality in attacking positions with the signing of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla – who could well turn out to be the coup of the summer.

Though 30 league goals will be hard to replace, that burden should be helped by Podolski from the wide left position and Giroud. The Frenchman arrives with an impressive Ligue 1 reputation but will be considered more of an unknown quantity in the Premier League after just a solitary season of success in a European top flight.

Bizarrely the rumoured departure of Alex Song may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Though no-one can doubt his quality, after an excellent campaign last year, moving the Cameroonian on will provide Arsene Wenger with the chance to deploy a traditional anchorman – something that should go a long way to restoring some much-needed defensive solidity.

If Thomas Vermaelen an Laurent Koscielny stay fit for the duration of the season, I can see Arsenal closing the gap on the two Manchester clubs and take steps towards ending the seven year trophy drought. Though I don’t think they’ll necessarily compete for the title this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wenger lead his team to success in one of the domestic trophies.

Key Man: Santi Cazorla

It may seem disrespectful, but when it became clear Cazorla was available and for the same price as a Steven Fletcher, I presumed the elite clubs would compete with Arsenal for him – City, United, Real Madrid, PSG. Yet, Wenger identified his man, swooped and nabbed him and I predict he’ll light up the league next year. He seems the perfect fit for Arsenal’s style and should score and create goals in abundance. Would calling him a better Samir Nasri be going too far? Probably not.

ASTON VILLA

Prediction: 11th
Odds: 1500/1

I’m a big fan of Paul Lambert and found myself really impressed by his work at Norwich last year. The versatility his side showed throughout the year kept opponents guessing and often accrued points they perhaps had no right to gain. It also pointed to his own ability as, no disrespect intended, but a team that had back-to-back promotions and contained a number of unfashionable players adapted to the demands of the Premier League impressively.

Villa were probably the most disappointing team in the league last year – lost in an Alex McLeish daze of defensive negligence and a lifeless attack.

However, they have always possessed a rich academy and Lambert will no doubt be looking to call on a number of prospects in his first year in charge. Helped by the return to fitness of Darren Bent – the captain in Stan Petrov’s absence, goals should come easier than they did last year.

The summer acquisitions carry an air of intrigue. Brett Holman is an attacking midfielder capable of providing goals from between the lines, Ron Vlaar should provide some steel to a creaky defence while Karim El Ahmadi arrives to do the same in midfield.

This will be a season of finding their feet once again and placing the foundations for what is hoped to be a successful reign for Lambert.

Key Man: Darren Bent

Bent is still relatively young at 28 and should be entering his prime right about now. He’s led a nomadic career but his best chance at finding a way back into the England squad would be to firmly settle at Villa and score the goals he is capable of. If he stays fit, expect him to hit double figures for the first time since 2009/10.

CHELSEA

Prediction: 4th
Odds: 5/1

The European Champions have spent lavishly this summer and although Oscar, Eden and Thorgen Hazard and Marko Marin have been added to an already sparkling attack, there is a sense that Roberto Di Matteo’s approach to squad-building is a little Football Manager-esque. Rumours suggest Victor Moses will be the next through the door, while Andre Schurrle remains a prominent link.

Up front, Fernando Torres is set to lead the line as the club’s primary striker. Is he back? He shoed glimpses against Manchester City in the Community Shield and finished last season encouragingly. If he is back, is he going to provide the 20+ goals Chelsea will need to claw back to the top of the Premier League?

Upstairs, Roman Abromovich’s aspirations are no longer clear. He will expect a return on his investment this summer but after claiming the greatest prize in club football, perhaps the Champions League will take priority over domestic interests – as was the case last year.

Whatever his preference, a sixth-place finish will not be tolerated and Di Matteo will be expected to reduce what was a 25 point gap to City this year. However, his biggest challenge will be getting the best out of his attacking options and it could mean the time lost in the league as his artistic support cast to Torres gel. For that reason, I don’t think Chelsea will keep pace with City and will fight Arsenal and Man Utd for 2nd and 3rd.

Key Man: Juan Mata

He had a wonderful start to his Chelsea career, almost single-handedly keeping them afloat in the disastrous AVB tenure but tailed off towards the back-end of the campaign. But with a year under his belt and a greater array of talent around him, I expect Mata to shine once more. How prominent he’ll be depends on how generous Di Matteo is with the freedom he allows the Spaniard and how little the Olympic jaunt with Spain fatigued him.

EVERTON
Prediction: 8th
Odds: 250/1

Start strong, finish well. If David Moyes could find a way to have his Toffees fly out of the blocks in the first two months of the season, their ability to mix with the best and do enough against the worst would have them pushing for the European spots.

However, with a summer of change – Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell moving on significantly reduces the quality in midfield – I can’t see anything but the norm for Everton. They start with a tricky home game against United and that could set the tone for August and September.

Though Moyes has only signed two players so far this summer, the return of Steven Pienaar is an excellent bit of business, as shown by his tremendous form after a loan return last January. In Steven Naismith, Everton have a lively forward, likely to play off Nikica Jelavic and judging by his pre-season form, is raring to go.

Leighton Baines looks set to stay, which is fantastic news for the club but on the other flank, the dependable Tony Hibbert and aging Phil Neville suggest investment in the defence will be the club’s next port of call. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Ross Barkley this year after catching some impressive performances for the England U19’s this summer.

Key Man: Marouane Fellaini

He’s criminally underrated in my opinion and has shown for the majority of his time at Everton that he’s an excellent player. For someone of his size, his stamina is impressive – he really does get up and down the pitch. Perhaps his weakest aspect is his goalscoring – his first season at Goodison yielded nine goals in all competitions, a figure he only came close to last year with five. At 24-years-of-age he has plenty of time to improve further.


FULHAM
Prediction: 10th
Odds: 1500/1

In effect this will be Martin Jol’s proper first season in my eyes. He’s had an entire summer to prepare and has sold a number of stalwarts in Danny Murphy, Andy Johnson and Dickson Etuhu among others.

The worry is that the replacements have been few and cost nothing. There doesn’t appear to be any money in the coffers at Craven Cottage and that looks set to cost the club in the season ahead. Though Mladen Petric may well turn out to be an inspired signing, Sascha Riether is unlikely to pull up any trees, more filling a weak right-back slot.

Hugo Rodallega’s career has regressed in the last two years but he will add pace to the attack. Whether he can score double figures over a season remains a big question. Of course, keeping hold of both Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey remain priorities and if the club do start the season with their two key men, Fulham could match last season’s achievements.

I’m expecting Bryan Ruiz to have a bigger impact this campaign but the concern lies in the middle of midfield where a lot will be asked of Mahamadou Diarra. It’s hard to see Fulham pushing on from their commendable 9th-place finish but plaudits must go to Al-Fayed and Co. for firmly establishing the Cottagers as a Premier League club.

Key Man: Moussa Dembele

Vital to Fulham and perhaps even more so now that he’s dropped into midfield. That versatility alone is impressive but it was the ease in which he dovetailed with Mahamadou Diarra that surprised me most last year. He’s a good passer, fantastic to watch when he has the ball at his feet and has a ferocious shot – albeit lacks a genuine goalscoring touch. Improve that and Dembele will really become a household name.

Profile – Brendan Rodgers

Fenway Sports Group’s methodical appointment process heralds a new era for Liverpool as Brendan Rodgers is poised to step into Kenny Dalglish’s shoes. Although, in stark contrast to the decision that handed the Scot the power to save the mess Roy Hodgson had originally created, this will arguably be far less popular with the Anfield faithful.

With just a solitary year of Premier League experience, Rodgers probably didn’t envisage such an opportunity arising so quickly. However, as FSG implement a top-to-bottom reform of the club, eyes will be cast toward the on-pitch revolution as his particular brand of football will be exhibited at Anfield.

It has been a steep rise and as he takes his place in the Anfield hot-seat for what will be the biggest test of his credentials, I look back on the Northern Irishman’s career that elevated him to one of the British game’s great clubs.

Rodgers began his association with football as a defender playing for Ballymena in Northern Ireland before moving to Reading at the age of 18. A series of injuries restricted his time to reserve team games before he was forced to retire because of a genetic knee problem.

Rather than walking away from the game though, he displayed the desire to succeed that became synonymous with the work we have been exposed to over the past few years. Driven by a need to support a young family and a genuine love for the sport, Rodgers moved into coaching, stating: “I started coaching for one reason and that was to make a difference.”

At the age of 22, Rodgers was in charge of Reading’s youth academy, spending copious hours on the training field honing the skills he now attributes to his success. The key, perhaps, was variety. In his early days, he would train the youth prospects in the day and coach at local schools during the evening.

As he formulated a plan for his career, the belief in strong communication became an integral part of his mantra. Rodgers recognised the importance of broadening his education and strayed away from the somewhat archaic belief in Britain that everything a coach could learn can be acquired on these shores.

He has cited the Dutch ‘Total Football’ side of the 1980s as an inspiration as well as Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ a decade later. The admiration for teams that played with a certain panache can be seen in the DNA of the Swansea side he managed to such acclaim over the last two seasons.

But getting there was far harder than it may look. Rodgers took Spanish lessons three times a week for seven years after he was advised that adding that extra string to his bow would open doors to the elite level.

During that time he organised weekend trips to Spain and Holland, taking in games at clubs renowned for producing home-grown talent. These trips took him to Amsterdam, Enschede, Sevilla, Valencia and, of course, Barcelona. The idea was to decipher the strategy and structure of clubs that carried a vision from the academy through to the first team.

The information he gleaned during his visits to the continent assisted his own development as head of the academy at Reading and his work was recognised in 2004 by Chelsea coach Steve Clarke, who recommended him to Jose Mourinho – Chelsea’s new boss – who placed him in charge of the youth set-up.

The skills he developed at Reading and the philosophy he had formed in his studies abroad were suddenly more applicable when used in conjunction with a higher calibre of footballer.

He made the step up from the academy to the reserve team just two years after his appointment and was charged with being the link between the academy and first team. His focus on the constitution of football clubs around Europe was all the more relevant and made an impression on Mourinho.

“I like everything in him,” said the Portuguese coach of his young charge. “He is ambitious and does not see football very differently from myself. He is open, likes to learn and likes to communicate.”

Rodgers himself has been effusive in his praise for his mentor saying: “With Mourinho, my football education was the equivalent of going to Harvard.”

Championship side Watford were the first club to entice him into the throes of senior management and the man from Carnlough guided them from relegation candidates to safety with typical style. However, impending budget cuts and an opportunity too good to pass up saw Rodgers move back to Reading to replace outgoing manager Steve Coppell.

Six months later, the romantic homecoming was over. Just five league wins, including a solitary home victory over Blackpool led to a mutual parting of ways and suddenly Rodgers’ burgeoning career was in the doldrums.

The then Reading striker Shane Long offered insight into the failure saying: “It just didn’t seem to work at Reading… the Barcelona way of playing. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just didn’t seem to click. It was a big transition in a short period of time and we couldn’t make it work.”

He joined Swansea seven months after leaving Reading and in his first full season led the club to the Premier League via the play-offs. He had found a club with a philosophy akin to his, with players intelligent enough to adopt his basic principles and took the Swans to unprecedented heights. He describes his current charges as ‘sponges’, so adept are they at taking on board his methods.

Despite being written off by all and sundry, he led Swansea to an 11th place finish in the 2011-12 season, drawing admirers from across the country and beyond for their hypnotic passing style. Only Arsenal and Manchester City – a team Swansea dominated and defeated – out-passed his side.

Rodgers took four points from Liverpool last season and had his team applauded from the pitch by the Anfield faithful – something he recalls with affection: “That was really touching because that is such an historic ground.”

Now he is moving from a club without a training ground to call their own to Melwood and the eminence of Anfield. All eyes will be on Rodgers and it will be up to him to prove he can convince Liverpool’s multi-million pound stars of his ideology. If as much patience is afforded by FSG as the fans, Liverpool may well have struck gold.

A Prattling Premier League Preview – Weekend of 5/5/2012

As you can see I’ve timed this new feature superbly with it being the penultimate weekend of the season. In spite of that, here’s my slapdash take on this week’s Premier League fixtures:

Arsenal 3-1 Norwich

Definite home win. Norwich have basically decided it’s holiday time and after surpassing the magic number of 40 points, they’ve gone and lost their last three league games by an aggregate score of 11-1. They even lost to Blackburn AND failed to score against them (just the third team all year to do that).

However Arsenal are in a strange run of form, scoring just twice in their last three games and picking up just two points at Stoke and at home to Chelsea. Even the mighty Robin Van Persie seems a little jaded as the season comes to a close.

That said, if there’s one thing to galvanise a Dutchman it’s an award. Basking in the adulation of his peers and perhaps more importantly, the football writers, I fully expect Van Persie to lead Wenger’s side to a comfortable home victory.

Newcastle 1-2 Man City

The biggest game of the weekend sees Roberto Mancini’s side head across to the north-east and face Newcastle – surely team of the season. Alan Pardew’s side have already defeated Manchester United and Liverpool at St James Park (sorry, the Sports Direct Arena), as well as claiming a point from Arsenal and Tottenham.

Now, is Papiss Cisse the greatest finisher of my lifetime? At the moment – yes, quite considerably. Is he lucky? Yes, that too. His 13 goals in 12 games should strike fear into the hearts of all things sky blue but City seem made of sterner stuff this year. Captain Kompany looked incredibly focused immediately after the club’s win over Manchester United and I reckon this could be the man capable of stopping Papiss.

I just can’t see City passing up yet another chance to claim a maiden Premier League title. This will be a narrow away win.

Aston Villa 1-3 Tottenham

It’s hard to find crumbs of comfort for Alex McLeish – Aston Villa’s lame duck manager. It looks as though the Midlands club will survive relegation by default as QPR, Wigan and Bolton will have to find four points from six. Throw in a mischievous clubbing incident, some liberal fines and a team that have won just twice in 17 games and you have a problem.

That problem will likely be exacerbated by Harry Redknapp’s team on Sunday. They’ve rediscovered some semblance of the form that at one point made the north Londoners a foregone conclusion for a Champions League place. A flowing 4-1 win over Bolton on Wednesday, a team I view as having a better starting eleven than Villa, should provide enough support to predict an away win.

Bolton 1-1 WBA

A tricky fixture to call as we just don’t know how the Baggies will respond to the imminent departure of their boss Roy Hodgson. I’m going to throw it out there that they’ll want to sign off in style as a form of ‘thank you’ to a manager who has turned the perennial yo-yo club into a mid-table outfit.

Bolton had a brief period of 15 minutes against Spurs where they looked to have the courage and fight to battle against the increasingly magnetic pull of the Premier League trapdoor. I suspect they’ll be better against West Brom and at least keep it tighter at the back – they’ve only conceded once in four games at home…

Fulham 3-0 Sunderland

Pyjamas on, lights out. That’s the impression I get with these two teams. Both have had positive years – Fulham’s first with Martin Jol in charge must be deemed a success and only the uncharacteristic 4-0 humping by Everton prevented the Cottagers from pushing on for a 7th place finish (thought it is still an outside possibility).

Meanwhile an iffy start by the Black Cats, which led to the sacking of Steve Bruce, was arrested by Martin O’Neill. But without a win in six, they look perfectly content with their mid-table finish.

I doubt O’Neill will allow his side to head to a game and not put up a decent fight but a relaxed side under Jol should dominate this fixture.

QPR 2-1 Stoke

The hosts are teetering. They’re on the brink, but are just propped up by Bolton who have a much more inferior goal difference. The importance of the games at Loftus Road was something hugely emphasised on Mark Hughes’ arrival and to be fair his team have consistently delivered, beating the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. The problem has been their away form – six consecutive losses.

But we won’t worry about that right now – it’s all about dealing with Stoke. Deputy sling-shotter Ryan Shotton hasn’t been nearly as effective as his mentor Rory Delap – hence the Irishman’s return against Everton. I do wonder if the narrow space between touchline and stand will cause him a problem?

Stoke are another side content with their campaign and should QPR match the commitment forever expected of a Tony Pulis outfit, I predict a massively important home win.

Wolves 2-2 Everton

Has Terry Connor burst into tears yet? Not quite actually and that’s largely down to the stirring comeback in Wales that saw Wolves snatch a point off the Swans. TC hasn’t had much fun in Mick’s hot-seat but it was pleasing to see him get a touch of fortune and even break out a smile. The pressure is off and this is the final game at home before the Championship calendar hangs in the offices of Molineux.

Finishing a season in vastly better form than they began it, we have David Moyes’ Toffees. Yes, once again, the late season rally from Everton has kept their season nicely entertaining. This year it’s particularly enthralling if you’re of a Merseyside persuasion as the battle for 7th – possibly the least talked about battle in a Premier League campaign – is actually interesting. Everton lead by three points over Dalglish’s Reds and although it ultimately will mean very little with Liverpool winning at least one trophy, it’s important to Evertonians. So a win here? No actually.

Man Utd 4-1 Swansea

Ah, the other Manchester club. A routine home victory? An ‘easy’ fixture as Roberto Mancini put it? I beg to differ. I think the Swans will give United a real test. I don’t think they’ll win, or even draw, but it will be a lot tougher than Mancini predicts.

United will need to be thinking about goal difference and on paper this is a great chance to spank a few hundred goals past one of those rubbish promoted sides. Thing is, they need the ball and little Joe Allen quite likes it himself. In amazingly contradictory shocker, I predict Swansea to dominate possession but United to win by three.

Blackburn 1-3 Wigan

The biggest battle at the bottom of the table this weekend and it is simply a must-win game for the home side. In fact, if Steve Kean’s side lose, they’d need a miracle in other results not only this weekend but on the final weekend too. So it’s a good job, he prepared his side correctly – playing a scarcely believable 5-4-1 away at Tottenham in a form of damage limitation. In his technical area last week Kean showed the body language of a man that has finally accepted that he’ll simply never be accepted. It’s hard to watch but ‘team Kean’ may finally be put to rest.

By who? Well those plucky Barcelona boys up in Wigan. Possibly playing the best football the league has seen this season, the Latics have done what they do best by springing into life a month before what seemed like certain relegation. Unconventional to the very end – who else plays a 3-4-3? – Roberto Martinez’s charges are playing their way from relegation. Oh yes, in a middle finger to the supporters of battling, long-ball survival football, Wigan are just passing the life out of anyone who dares step to them. Away win.

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

In one of those unfortunate fixture computer calamities, Liverpool and Chelsea meet again just four days after they duel at Wembley for the FA Cup. Given that this will be the last game of this round of fixtures, I’ll draw some quick conclusions from my predictions.

Chelsea will no longer be able to catch Spurs in the league and so everything becomes tailored towards the Champions League final. That means an immediate rest for anyone who played in the extra time win over Liverpool on Saturday – especially fatigued match-winner Fernando Torres – ooof what a story that was!

Liverpool are four points behind Everton and with just a League Cup to show for this year, must hunt their rivals down. Full strength team including a ludicrously petulant Luis Suarez. He may get sent-off but he got a goal and an assist before he did.