Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Inter Milan v Manchester United, 24 February, Champions League

I remember a press conference from Mourinho’s time at Chelsea after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United. Quoting from memory, he said, “It was a very easy game to comment upon. In the first half, Manchester United play well, they score a goal. In the second half we play well, we score a goal.” I had been expecting the CL clash between his Inter and Manchester United to follow the same script and it did. Though someone erased the part about the goals.

The Red Devils lined up in a 4-4-2 (or maybe a 4-4-1-1) and thankfully for them, injury scares Evans and O’Shea managed to start. O’Shea underlining his versatility by now taking up the right back role. A central midfield of Carrick and Fletcher with Ronaldo on the right was the option that Sir Alex chose to go with and it was also little surprise to see Park Ji Sung in the starting eleven, given the responsibility of the left side of the midfield. Park is an amazing battler and has tons of energy and it’s not uncommon to find him engaged in a defensive battle one second and popping up in the box the next. Sir Alex tends to give him a start whenever attacking threat from the flanks has to be nullified and in Maicon, Inter had a potentially dangerous attack minded right back. The big surprise of the evening was Giggs playing the supporting striker role to Berbatov and while Giggs has been immense at times this season, most of those performances have come from the centre of the park.

Inter lined up with a midfield diamond, which was a formation that Mourinho had used rather reluctantly at Chelsea when it seemed he was being forced to pair Sheva up front with Drogba. At Inter, this has been his preferred approach and has obviously paid dividends. Inter’s own central defence was impaired by the loss of the likes of Walter Samuel and Burdisso and so we had an inexperienced Rivas pairing up in central defense with Chivu. Maicon and the young Davide Santon lined up as right and left fullbacks respectively. The diamond had Cambiasso at the base and Stankovic at the apex with Zanetti and Muntari as the right and left midfield points. Up front were Ibra and Adriano, two absolute bulls of strikers.

That Manchester United completely outplayed Inter in the first half is an understatement. The narrow Inter midfield allowed space for Evra and O’Shea to charge forward and link up with Park and Ronaldo but that was to be expected. What was not a result of the tactics was the absolute submission of the ball in the centre of the park by Inter, where they had numerical superiority. Both Fletcher and Carrick not only saw a lot of the ball but were also able to create play without too much protest. Having said that Carrick was brilliant at times and this is coming from someone who almost always feels that Carrick is overrated. The pass that freed Giggs up for a shot on the goal was a beauty and it would be delightful to see him make them more consistently.

Ronaldo was enjoying himself and on many occasions could have scored had it not been for some great work by Júlio César in goal and some narrow misses. Inter’s defence was stretched at the best of times and looked completely disjointed more than once. Rivas especially looked completely out of place and if they had allowed Ronaldo any more free headers, they may as well have started scoring own goals. But for all that Manchester United failed to score and they must have been fuming at half time for not having made their superiority count.

Having said that, I was not at all surprised to see Inter turn it around in the second half. Mourinho’s teams have often played two halves as differently as pink and blue and the Inter that came out for the second half was a completely different opposition to deal with than in the first. Rivas made way for Cordoba and that did improve the confidence at the back but the major change for Inter was in the midfield.

Cambiasso, Zanetti and especially Muntari improved in leaps and bounds and began looking to win the balls for the first time in the game. Within minutes of the restart they had threatened the Man U goal more than once and had come close to getting a penalty which some referees may have been kind enough to award. Cambiasso made a great impact all over the pitch and suddenly the front three started seeing a lot more of the ball.

In Ibra and Adriano, Mourinho has two Drogba clones in terms of strength and the ability to hold a ball. Ibrahimovic was hard working and showed why he is rated so highly by being able to hold possession in dangerous positions under any amount of pressure. Adriano was the striker always around in a useful position to finish anything that looked like half a hance. Trouble was that barring his positioning, he had little else going for him and he managed to embarrass himself multiple times when in a good position to score.

While the second half belonged to Inter, Man U were nowhere as marginal to the proceedings as Inter were in the first half. They did have their good moments but the swagger and the spark had diminished to the point of disappearance. With Inter contesting the balls much more than before, possession in midfield became difficult to come by and with time the fluency in passing was gone which meant that possession was lost far more easily than before. Under such circumstances it was a little surprising to see Wayne Rooney come in only as the game entered into its last twenty minutes but Sir Alex must have had his reasons and it is never wise to question his tactics.

It ended goalless and much like that Chelsea-Manchester United encounter, was an easy match to comment upon. Funnily, while I expected Inter to raise their game in the second half, I also had the feeling that they would not be too desperate for a goal. Mourinho likes to let his CL games be decided in the second leg (sometimes with disastrous results) and I felt that the second half Inter performance was more of a show of strength than a goal scoring endeavor.

And so it goes into the second leg with all outcomes still possible. Manchester United will take heart from the fact that Vidic will be back, Rooney will be available for ninety minutes and the Old Trafford crowd will make life very difficult for Inter. Also while the defensive problems for Inter may be sorted out for the next leg, Stankovic is probably not the greatest player at the top of the diamond anymore and that will make life easier for the hosts. He can still be explosive at times, but I think Ferguson will be happy with the fact that Inter didn’t land Lampard in the summer.

Inter, will know that one goal may mean the world to this tie and I expect their focus to be completely on defence till they find the opportune moment to strike. They may have been outplayed for large parts at home by the same opposition but I do not think that would have created any fear in Jose’s side.

It will again be tight and tactical but being one who rather enjoys such matches, I am already looking forward to leg two. The result I think will be determined by the form of the Inter strikers on the night. Manchester United will get many chances and will probably score. Inter on the other hand will soak up a lot of pressure and create few chances. How they take them will decide who goes through.

Friday, February 20, 2009

We Were There!

Yesterday, I had a first-time experience. Most of my sports viewing has happened on the idiot box and the internet, mobile, print and radio are strong support media in my sports experience which really leaves one viewership/audience channel that is relatively unexplored and that has to be on-ground presence. Wherever else you may witness sports, there is no denying the fact that watching people play in front of you is a completely different experience all together.

Going with dad to the lovely Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur to watch a domestic cricket match is my first memory of watching live organized sports. Over the years, I have been to the occasional international cricket match at the Keenan and at Kotla in Delhi, a trip to scenic Alleppey for the Nehru Trophy boat race was another divine experience and more recently I have had the privilege to watch football games at the Parc du Princes in Paris, Emirates Stadium in London and the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. But it was not until yesterday, that I had my first experience of club level football in India and what a delightful feeling it was.

The Bangalore Super League kicked off yesterday and Anshu and I had discussed the idea of catching some games this season. So when Anshu called late afternoon proposing that we catch the season opener, there was not much thinking to do.

Kickoff time was at 4:00 in the evening and the venue was the KSFA ground which is located near the heart of Bangalore. Vohra and I had been there once, when our wives were shopping in a mall opposite the ground and I vaguely remember that a game was about to start or had just finished. What I do remember is that we never did see any action that day but that the stadium looked decent and the fact that it had one covered stand and fairly decent seating on three sides was impressive.

And so Tullu and I reached the ground around five minutes late and Anshu was waiting for us having already bought the tickets. Tickets came in two denominations of Rs. 5/- and Rs. 20/- and we had tickets for the privileged gallery. Funnily, the man behind the counter only gave Anshu two tickets insisting that it would not be a problem for us to enter the ground, obviously pocketing the twenty on the third ticket. Scams in Indian football could hardly be expected to be of a bigger scale!

Anyway, so our two tickets did turn out to be sufficient to let three of us enter and we reached the seating area to see the last few minutes of a lower division league game, where Anshu noticed a couple of his friends playing.

The KSFA ground is quite satisfactory as a venue to host games at this level and it’s three stands should comfortably hold a couple of thousand spectators if ever so many turned up to watch local football. There were about 150 to 200 people present with everyone sitting on one side of the ground and a few plastic chairs probably differentiated the twenty rupee seating from the five rupee seating. Anyway, nobody was checking or bothered. The audience consisted of youngsters and a handful of veterans who may have been ex-players or KSFA members or something similar. A set of four occupied chairs and a table roughly in the center of the seating area was marked “Press” and four journalists sat there waiting to scribble the proceedings in their small notebooks. The pitch looked green and welcoming and though the grass felt a little heavy and unevenly cut, I have seen enough worse quality pitches in Indian football games on TV to be disappointed. It will be interesting to see how the ground holds up as a frenzy of matches takes place over the next couple of months.

All preliminaries done and we headed for the Super League kick-off and the score board kept at one lonely corner of the ground told us for the first time exactly who is it that we had gone to see play. ASC versus BHEL was the verdict of the score board. A club representing the Army and one a public sector engineering company! And then out stepped the teams – one in Orange and one in Yellow but for a while it was difficult to say who was who. That was until the ASC goalkeeper’s jersey thankfully gave away the secret that the men in Orange were ASC and ergo, the Yellow team were BHEL.

The teams lined up and pictures were taken and a group of veterans were felicitated. Microphone announcements in Kannada indicated that they had represented India in the 1956 Olympics, though my knowledge of Kannada and the quality of the loudspeaker (as well as the speaker) may mean that I might be mistaken. While all this happened, Anshu chose to support ASC, I decided to back BHEL and together we decided that Tullu should cheer for the referee.
ASC looked smarter as a team, thanks partially to their tall and very athletic looking and smartly attired goalkeeper. They also looked to be significantly more experienced with the BHEL team consisting of a number of players who were almost pre-puberty. The ASC line up also looked more cosmopolitan than their public sector counterparts, whose team seemed to consist almost entirely of local boys.

And then they kicked off. Around fifteen minutes after the scheduled time but nobody seemed to mind that, us included. The first couple of minutes were tentative for both sides but ASC quickly got into the groove and the tone of play was set early. The ASC right back carried the ball forward and played it to number 18 who was the right midfielder in ASC’s 4-4-2 and the wide man crossed the ball into the box. This process was repeated over and over again with a few similar moves from the left being the only variation.

Every cross that sailed into the BHEL box, so their keeper flaying arms and their defenders completely losing track of the ball and yet ASC could not find the net. Within the first twenty five minutes they had missed 5-6 sitters and had hit the post twice or thrice. The chief culprit for ASC was one of their strikers, a short fellow from the north east who clearly had never learnt of the term “finish”.

The words horrendous and hilarious come to mind while trying to describe the spectacle. BHEL were pathetic! They couldn’t kick, pass, defend or hold possession. Their goalkeeper would wave to the skies on every cross and they simply seemed to have no idea of what to do. He also walked funny, but that I noticed much later.

ASC were playing well and they had a clear strategy to attack from the flanks and put crosses in and they had a clearly identified creative force in their number eighteen. They seemed to be superior and accomplished but in front of goal they turned out to be entertaining rather than clinical.

After a number of mis-kicks and blunder-heads, they did suddenly have a very decent shot on goal, but the BHEL goalkeeper who had looked a no-hoper till then, suddenly pulled off a spectacular save.

The drama went on till about the thirty minute mark, when finally true to the spirit of the
encounter, a goal that led to much laughter in the stands was conceded by BHEL. One of their desperate clearance attempts after yet another mis-kicked effort on goal by ASC, rebounded off an attacker and the ball cannoned back into the goal. In a way, it ended the misery for BHEL who were almost looking embarrassed at not having conceded till then.

And from then on the goals kept coming for ASC. Three came in the first half, including one for the short mis-firing striker, which really was the most spectacular piece of play for the evening. He collected the ball, turned, beat the challenge of two defenders and shot from the edge of the box into the corner of the goal for the “play of the day” moment. Meanwhile the second goal had been equally comic with the BHEl defense setting up a finish for ASC by meekly playing the ball to them when they were under almost no pressure.

Three nil at half-time and it finished five nil after ninety. After the break ASC changed tactics and played a lot more through the middle. That allowed us to get a glimpse of their number 7, who looked like a very decent midfielder. Towards the end they relaxed a bit and let BHEL put some passes together, but for whatever little possession, they had, BHEL never came close to scoring.

So the game was done and we got back to the world outside, with strong commitments to be back soon enough. HAL is playing next week and that is a game I would definitely like to watch.

The fun and games were not just restricted to football. Anshu managed to get an offer to play for a lower division club. We suggested that he should charge 25,000 pounds a week and Anshu suggested that the guy who approached him may not have seen 25,000 rupees in his life. Then there was the only ball-boy for the game. A twelve-ish year old who would disappear for long times and then magically appear to change the scoreboard after every goal. And who was found sitting comfortably in the stands well after the second half kicked off.

So that was my first experience of league football in India. Not really top-level even by Indian standards, but these are the foundations on which are 150th rank is built. It is pitiful yet entertaining. The characters involved are few but colorful and I’m happy to finally be a small part of it. Will get back with more on the Bangalore Super League later and will remember to carry a camera next time so that I can also post some pictures.

Monday, February 9, 2009

West Ham v Manchester United, February 8, Premier League

It’s getting very repetitive writing about Manchester United. Not so about West Ham who have truly struck it rich with an ex-player Manager, which Blackburn and Pompey have so spectacularly not done, but as far as the Red Devils are concerned, every match report seems just like the other.

So first a bit about West Ham. A team with no real stars punching above their weight because they are playing so well as a team. In fact had Carlton Cole taken the one chance that was there for the taking, it would have meant a lot of sweat for United and it would have confirmed the rise and rise of the only under-achieving English Cole. For most of the game they matched Manchester United step for step and had it not been for the mandatory United moment of brilliance, they would have come out of this one with at least a point and many spoonfuls of added confidence.

Noble, Parker and Upson really caught the eye, though there was no player who looked out of depth and that should ensure that this slight hiccup doesn’t really derail West Ham’s impressive run. For a large part of the first half they made it really difficult for Manchester United to keep the ball. If there was one aspect of their game that I felt could prove dangerous, it was their willingness to allow United players space till they got very close to the box.

Sure enough they paid for it and United did indeed get their goal. That they let a very talented player run unchecked into the box was their folly. That no amount of stopping may have prevented this guy from scoring is another matter altogether. Ryan Giggs! Every time you say the name, the sound of it will delight you and to see the veteran get his first goal of the season for yet another season, surely ranked up with one of the magic moments of this campaign.

So I will resist going into the repetitive stories of winning ugly, of another clean sheet, of having the mentality, of not firing on all cylinders and sign off reliving fondly those few seconds after Scholes sent the ball out wide to Giggs.

Tottenham v Arsenal, February 8, Premier League

Harry Redknapp and Spurs should want to shoot themselves for not ending their winless run in the league against the Gunners in this one and Arsene Wenger and the Gunners should accept that not only are they not playing winning football, they are also not playing beautiful football at the moment.

Spurs not winning was really all about not being able to find the net because for most of the game they were clearly superior – both in terms of their display as well as in numbers. They also had a decent dose of luck when Eboue’s goal was not given, though to be fair to them the whistle was heard before the ball went in and one could always argue about the goal being prevented had the ref’s call not been heard.

The Spurs line-up looked a little centre-heavy to me with no natural left-sided player. That job was given to Modric, who while not always providing lots of width, did benefit from this change because it allowed him to get into play more up-field and make contributions where they are really useful. His impact was clear and he had some great moments, especially one where he found SWP on the edge of the box with a perfect ball only for the speedy winger to let the chance go by. On another occasion, Modric found himself clear and had it not been for a heavy first touch, he may have had a good shot on goal. His worst moment though came towards the end when he shot wide in an almost three-against-one situation. Yet, it was encouraging to see him so involved and he is the sort of player who will be a threat anywhere close to the opposition box, so I would be delighted if Harry continues with this ploy.

The real star for Spurs, especially in the first half was Palacios. The number of times he took the ball off Arsenal was amazing and he also had the energy to get forward and even threaten Almunia. It is clear why he came to Harry so heavily recommended and if Steve Bruce can find a replacement as good, then he too will be snapped up in the summer.

Other thoughts for Spurs, Pavyluchenko is tuning out to be a little bit of a waste because I really liked his look in Austria-Switzerland and though I would have expected him to miss many, his strength seemed to be in getting into scoring positions often enough to finally make them count. Right now, he seems to be just missing the odd chances he gets. And very honestly, I would prefer if someone like Bentley or Bale played left, Modric played in the hole behind Keane or Bent. While both the strikers are different, I think both could work with Modric, who could be amazing on the edge of the area.

Then to Arsenal. True to form, Wenger has gone on to complain about the goal that wasn’t given but he would also do well to see why his team is not banging more of them in. Palacios alone was worth twice more than Denilson and Song put together and one wonders why the Red side of London didn’t look at him as a transfer option. Even Clichy and Sagna are increasingly finding it difficult to keep possession and Adebayor has made friends with Drogba and Anelka. Take away Van Persie and to some extent Nasri and there was very little positive for a large part of that Gunner performance.

What about Eboue? I had expected big things from him this season and finding a settled spot, he seemed to be on the road to gradual improvement. Till his ejection for a second stupid yellow card, he looked sensational. He was involved wide right, wide left, centrally, was found defending and attacking and got the goal that wasn’t. But what use in the end? Such stupidity on your best day is laughable and it is evident why he does not endear himself even to his own fans.

Portsmouth v Liverpool, February 7, Premier League

Vilified over the Robbie Keane saga and troubled more by the injury to Gerrard than his own gall bladder stones, Rafa Benitez responded in the manner which only he can. Even God dares not predict what Rafa will do with a team sheet and definitely the long list of defenders was not really the expected response to a shortage of strike force situation. But that’s what he did and out came a 3-5-2-1 which was also a 5-2-3 and a 3-4-3 and many other combinations as the game progressed. But the real puzzler was seeing the pubescent Ngog lead the line with not only the fitness question-marked Torres, but even the ever favorite Kuyt only making the bench.

I will not go into analyzing the formation and how it suited the team but what I will get into is the genius of unleashing Torres for the business end of the game. I read somewhere that this is the safest way to keep Torres fit for the rest of the season and if fifteen minutes is all El Nino needs to score, then what a masterstroke it turns out to be.

The drama had started unfolding much before Torres’ winner though. With so many defenders on the pitch, Pool still managed to go behind and though they were soon level, when Portsmouth made it 2-1, Tony Adams would have believed that this time their luck was changing. But every minute has been a minute too many on the pitch for Adam’s Pompey and sure enough they gifted the equalizer on a platter.

Will Sylvian Distin have a telling impact on which side are crowned Champions? Only time will tell, but it was a blunder that stank of ill fate (apart from the usual confidence mumbo) and when Durk “not the greatest finisher” Kuyt took the chance from a very difficult angle, a Pool victory felt a more likely outcome than a draw, even with only some kick-about time remaining.
And then stepped up Torres, again. Like he did against Chelsea. Manchester United have been the masters in getting ‘THAT’ goal throughout this season and that has seen them go to the very top, but Liverpool are now showing refreshing doses of that ability. For after great discussions have been done about a team’s technique, style, depth and all surrounding factors, it is the ability to get those winners that makes Champions.

Quite often I have felt that this particular trait resides with teams as a whole and not individuals in particular, though some individuals manifest the trait more than others in the team. In other words, on the odd days when a Gerrard or a Ronaldo does not turn up a hero, a Vidic or a Kuyt or a Milner steps up and does the job. And till Pool can match United step for step on this one team-trait, they will be in with a chance, no matter how deficient their squad is, how constrained their game is or how puzzling their team sheet is.

Chelsea v Hull City, February 7, Premier League

The first twenty five minutes or so were Chelsea at their best. Free flowing, attacking, getting into good positions and looking like they’d score any minute. Which was expected because statistics showed us that it was the best attack against the worst defence. Other statistics also showed us however, that Chelsea are on a bit of a struggle and are finding goals difficult to score. Of course, numbers didn’t paint Hull in the best of lights on recent form either, but who said they tell us everything.

This was in essence a clash between a lack of confidence against a lack of confidence. True Hull had a mini-turnaround against the Baggies but their season starting swagger is a distant memory and even on an off day and burdened with their recent history Chelsea would have been expected to win.

And so it began. Frank Lampard was the chief orchestrator, bringing Kalou and the debutante Queresma into play and making some unbelievable passes in the process. Queresma looked lively and was seeing a lot of the ball but eventually very little reached Anelka or troubled the man in the post. And then it petered out. Lampard went off the boil a bit and then the shortcomings became painfully obvious all over again.

Barring Lampard, there is very little creativity in the team and Ballack looks less influential than lowest paid staff in a government office. Kalou alternates good moments with bad (and adds some atrocious moments to the mix once in a while) and the bench is more like a lottery than an assured Plan B. Mikel is good to do a decent job but he is not one to change matches. How Chelsea could have done with a fit Michael Essien and to a lesser extent Joe Cole just now. Bosingwa is not landing his crosses anymore and Ashley Cole is better than before but hardly world class as an attacking fullback on current form.

The biggest loss is up front though. How two strikers capable of scoring fifty goals a season between them can look so benign and threatless is a mystery for which Scolari and the coaching cum support staff have to answer.

And we have been waiting for it to be answered more or less from the day when Drogba made his comeback from injury. Obviously we are still waiting and in the meantime with every passing game, it becomes a game too late for Chelsea. A few weeks ago, Chelsea could have been champions by turning their own form around. Now they have to do that and hope for the others to slip up. Soon even a combination of the two may not be sufficient. Will Scolari have to win in Europe to get another season?

Manchester City v Middlesbrough, February 7, Premier League

Mark Hughes made his name as manager by making his erstwhile Blackburn Rovers team the best in the business at snapping and snarling accompanied by a constant supply of over-performing or under-appreciated strikers. Such was his impact with Rovers that not long ago he was touted as the man who would step into the shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson whenever the time comes.

To that end Man City is the perfect challenge for Mark Hughes. Responsibility to build a team challenging for the crown in a couple of seasons with the resources to get the best of players. While it is too early to pass judgment on his tenure at Man City, it can be fair to classify it as a non-fairytale baptism into the really big league for Sparky. With one super star and some battlers to make an impact in the first half of the season, Hughes and City fell short of expectations and showed no consistency and very often little steel.

But now that the transfer window is done and dusted and City have come out of it with flying colors, the circus surrounding the failed bid for Kaka notwithstanding, the pressure is truly on to make a surge up the tale and make it to one of the UEFA cup spots. A home game against struggling Boro was the perfect occasion to parade his new boys and to my mind, it turned out to be a little bit of a letdown.

Shay Given and Craig Bellamy had a direct impact on the result and Bridge and de Jong made involved contributions as the new foursome did their thing all together for the first time. And a one-nil result, though not scintillating would be fairly acceptable for all involved with City. But if this performance is going to be repeated, City will find it difficult to put any winning or undefeated streak together. It was uninspiring, unambitious and rather fortunate.

For starters, they seemed to be playing three men in deep midfield – Ireland, de Jong and Zabaleta. Ireland did get forward frequently, but he was often enough way too deep than was really needed against a Boro side that only got dangerous in sudden flashes. For that matter even two deep lying midfielders would have seemed cautious. Hughes could easily have had Zabaleta on the bench and an Elano or a Benjani or a Caicedo lying behind Bellamy. So that left a usually understaffed attacking unit who frequently ran out of ideas when they neared the box and were reduced to looking cute and passing pretty till they lost possession. Credit to Bellamy though, for getting the goal and his form is going to be critical for City.

Near their own flag, the dropping of Dunne had little impact, because they made as many mistakes as they have in any of their recent games. With de Jong in, Kompany will have to re-learn being a central defender soon enough or Hughes will soon start having to answer for not buying someone in that position as well. It was only a great debut performance by Shay Given and some second grade finishing attempts by Alfonso Alves that helped them keep a clean sheet.
Gareth Southgate on the other hand has a completely different set of problems. Every point is a point earned for his team and they did the job 99% of the time. Their goalkeeper was brilliant and had their striker shown anywhere near that form, Boro could have at least drawn this one.

Then again, the point would have come if almost the only momentary lapse of concentration in defence, not been so severely punished. It will not be easy for Boro, but I think they will have to start seeking the points more aggressively rather than chasing them in desperate situations. Getting Tuncay at his best and starting is going to be critical and apart from discipline and courage, they are soon going to need inspiration and finishing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

After Transfer Talk

The beginning of February means different things to different people ranging from the beginning of the end of winter to the season of ‘Love’. To me it signals the end of the transfer window and though the moment came after some delay this year, it is something I look forward to as assessing madness is a uniquely fascinating exercise. So after the poor weather and confusion over Arshavin has subsided, I sit to take stock of what I said and what they did.

It was a cliché filled window with the now predictable crazy money bid, a superstar caught between staying and leaving, players dropping hints, managers using the press, the press using managers, small clubs suffering and other well known lots and sub-plots developing to their frenzied conclusions come February and I must say that I enjoyed it. There has been talk of the winter transfer window being shelved but I’ll confess that I am a slave to the entertainment and if any alternative is not equally gripping then spare me the change.


Players I wanted in:
  • Holding midfielder: Sergei Semak or Marcos Senna
  • Versatile forward: Andrei Arshavin
  • Left Back: John Arne Riise
Players I wanted out:
  • None
Actual Players in:
  • Versatile forward: Andrei Arshavin
Actual Players Out:
  • Number of reserves sent out on loan
Honestly, I only named Arshavin when I made my wish list because he was already heavily linked and I think he will add real value to Arsenal. But he would have been lowest on my priority list and ergo, I am not Wenger. The www is filled with Gooners voicing their dissatisfaction over the entire package and one can empathize. However, if for a moment we wore the Prof’s football-philosophy hat, we would be forced to raise it to a man who insists he can build a team of only creative players and prefers skills over steel. Trouble is, if his brand does not bring the expected results, he may end up being remembered more as Portnoy than Professor – prioritizing hard-ons over hard facts.

Manchester United

Players I wanted in:
  • Goalkeeper: Igor Akinfeev
Players I wanted out:
  • None
Actual Players in:
  • Attacking Midfielder: Adem Ljajić (joining Jan ’10, Age 17)
  • Left Winger: Zoran Tošić
  • Versatile Defender: Ritchie de Laet
Actual Players Out:
  • Number of reserves sent out on loan
First some dung on my face for suggesting that Van der Saar could be bettered. As it stands he is still in the middle of a record battering run of clean sheets and the thought of another number one for United is laughable for some time at least.

Now to the new comers. First look at them and it is obvious that Sir Alex agrees with my assessment that his current squad needs no bettering but that’s no plus points to me…the world and their uncles all can see that. Three youngsters aged 17, 21 and 20 of Serbian and Belgian descent are in and while they may not all turn out to be Ronaldo, they very well could. While only time will tell whether this winter move will be as course defining as the non-descript captures of Evra and Vidic a few winters ago, something tells me that we may get to know these boys very well in the next few years.


Players I wanted in:
  • Right Midfielder: Schweinsteiger, Kaziim Richards or Valencia
  • Left Back: Fabio Gross
  • Left Forward: Podolski
Players I wanted out:
  • Paulo Ferreira and Florent Malouda
Actual Players in:
  • Attacking Midfielder: Gökhan Töre
  • Left Winger: Ricardo Quaresma
Actual Players Out:
  • Wayne Bridge and Carlo Cudicini
  • Number of reserves sent out on loan or sold
For beleaguered Chelsea, I think this has been a winter of mediocrity in management, in attack, in defense and in transfers. Gökhan Töre is a seventeen year youngster and obviously a Frank Arnesen capture, but given the black-hole that Chelsea has been for bright teenaged talent, I will not be as optimistic for him as I was for the Serbians at Manchester United.

The real gamble is Ric Q. Someone who has proven abilities of playing explosive football could not bring out his best in the company of a very accomplished motivator and I find it strange that Chelsea picked someone to give them that much needed width, who is being certified as mentally not up-to-it by Jose himself. Add to that the increased lack of cover at left back and goal and the win-machine now look more lop-sided than at the beginning of January.

Of course, at the moment it seems that any player could start looking ordinary in a Blues jersey and with bigger issues to address, the transfer period would have been a distraction rather than an opportunity for Chelsea.


Players I wanted in:
  • Right Midfielder: David Silva
  • Striker: Vucinic or Guiza or Tuncay or Nihat or Michael Owen (if Keane is sold)
  • Striker: Christiano Lucarelli (if Keane is not sold)
Players I wanted out:
  • Robbie Keane (as per above conditions)
Actual Players in:
  • Midfielder: Viktor Pálsson (17 year old for the future)
Actual Players Out:
  • Robbie Keane
  • Number of reserves sent out on loan or sold
Pool provided as much comic relief as any other contender this January and the departure of Robbie Keane happened at the very end. That he went back to Spurs at a much discounted price leaves one wondering how everyone has kept their jobs but the impact on the team itself is bound to be significant. It was wishful to think that Rafa would hunt for someone who could eject Kuyt out of the line-up but by having chosen to let Robbie Keane go without getting a replacement, he has opened himself upto just the kind of predicament he now finds himself in – who gets the goals if Torres or Gerrard are not fit?

Accuse me of being dramatic, but this could yet turn out to be the deal that took the photo out of the finish!


Players I wanted in:
  • None
Players I wanted out:
  • None
Actual Players in:
  • None
Actual Players Out:
  • None
I told you so!

Real Madrid

Players I wanted in:
  • Versatile left-sided: Yuri Zhirkov
Players I wanted out:
  • None
Actual Players in:
  • Striker: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
  • Midfielder: Lassana Diarra
  • Versatile Right-sided: Julien Faubert (loan)
Actual Players Out:
  • None
Hey they had done these two transfers before I made my wish list and they did nothing after that so I am not so far off here. Juande’s good start should help them cement their second place in the Liga but the question is if they can come close to winning the Champion’s League, a trophy which the Hunter is not allowed to play for. Yet, I think they could be serious contenders under Ramos, as long as Barcelona are in the mood to let anyone else win anything this season.

Manchester City

Players I wanted in:
  • Central Defence: Daniel Agger or Dennis Kolodin
  • Midfielder: Engelaar or Diego or Altintop
  • Striker: Michael Owen
Players I wanted out:
  • None
Actual Players in:
  • Midfielder: Nigel de Jong
  • Striker: Craig Bellamy
  • Left Back: Wayne Bridge
  • Goalkeeper: Shay Given
Actual Players Out:
  • Tal Ben Haim and Jo
  • Number of reserves sent out on loan or sold
The names may differ from my pick, but I think City have come out with the most improved squad this winter, significantly better than the champion churners Tottenham. Bellamy is the only player where I think they could have gotten someone better, though maybe not as good as Kaka. Having said that, Mark Hughes now has a very competitive team and though Dunne and the central defense is still not the most convincing this season, Mark Hughes will have little excuses if City can’t make a European push in the coming months.