Randy Lerner Deserves Credit for Managerial Policy

The League Managers’ Association leader, Richard Bevan, expressed on Wednesday that the recent sackings in English football have left him “embarrassed”. From fallen Premier League winners and contentious European Champions right down to the depths of League Two, there have been some frankly outrageous decisions made by nearly one hundred clubs this season with regard to the termination of their managers’ contracts.

Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal by Chelsea in late November is probably the example that most aptly underlines a concerning predicament in the culture of hiring and firing coaches. The Italian, who had been a loyal servant to the Blues as a player, was given just eight months in charge at Stamford Bridge despite winning the most improbable of Champions League titles and an FA Cup trophy to boot. Incredulous though Chelsea fans were and indeed remain, many other managers, if not quite as shockingly, have been forced out in a similar vein across the country.

While the Premier League has seen just three further managerial casualties to Di Matteo (Mark Hughes from QPR, Nigel Adkins from Southampton and Brian McDermott from Reading), these are just drops in an ocean of 103 sackings across the four professional English leagues.

Embarrassing: Roberto Di Matteo fired by Chelsea after winning Champions League and FA Cup

Embarrassing: Roberto Di Matteo fired by Chelsea after winning Champions League and FA Cup

Of course, the attitude of a certain Russian oil billionaire is likely to have a significant impact on public opinion given his financial impact on the world’s most lucrative division. However, the Blackburn Rovers ownership has caused a stir all of its own making since the takeover in 2010. With promise of riches and a reversion to distant triumphs for the Lancashire side, Indian company VH Group has overseen a capitulation quite contrary to those ambitions that saw even the great Ronaldinho linked with a move to Ewood Park. Rovers fans have been enraged since their relegation from the Premier League last year and the circus continues with Michael Appleton becoming the third coach to exit the club this term.

Perhaps the super-rich owners who care little for loyalty and greatly for immediate returns on their investments are to blame for this perverse brutality when it comes to managerial careers. Whatever the cause, it is disgraceful and certainly embarrassing. Nevertheless, clubs of all levels seem to be adopting these severely strict and often unreasonable policies, in acts that suggest these professional coaches are as dispensable as the money with which the top clubs compete. The real question is one that is hard to fathom – why do so many clubs opt to fire during the on-going hardships of a competitive season? While a new manager can bring short reprieve through the famous (or infamous) “honeymoon period”, very rarely does a change of leadership formulate the desired result. In short, it is better to fight and wait until the end of the season at least.

Certainly this is and has been the case for Aston Villa and Randy Lerner. It’s a sad indictment of the situation when you find yourself in a position of pleasant surprise because your manager has not been shown the door despite an exceptionally challenging campaign. This is not due to Lerner’s record, which is simply lacking in terms of dismissals mid-season. And yet, that is how many Aston Villa fans must feel, particularly given the itinerant nature of the numerous head coaches to have come and gone over the past few years, not to mention the precarious state of affairs on the pitch at Villa Park.

Paul Lambert has come under pressure, of that there is little doubt. What is of paramount importance and, though it is regrettable to admit in light of this disposable culture, to the credit of Randy Lerner is the fact that he has maintained the Scotsman’s position at the club and trusted him to do the job set out upon his arrival. With two vital wins against Reading and Wigan under their belt in recent weeks, Lambert’s Villa now have a real chance of surviving the drop that Blackburn and many others now mourn so ruefully.

Randy Lerner: Aston Villa chairman has never sacked a manager mid-season

Randy Lerner: Aston Villa chairman has never sacked a manager mid-season

Randy Lerner has had a tumultuous tenure at Aston Villa Football Club and many people, this author included, have strongly criticised his capacity to direct, particularly this season when irresponsible overspending in prior seasons has become rather blatant and detrimental to on-going purposes. That said, his continued and principled operation with regard to his managers has been nothing short of exemplary, especially in mind of his arrival in 2006 as just another foreign investor with an interest in this great football league.

Martin O’Neill, after four successful but expensive years as Villa boss, parted company with the club in August of 2010 citing a conflict of ambitions as his reason for departure. Between that time and Paul Lambert’s appointment in June 2012, Gérard Houllier and Alex McLeish shared the responsibility of keeping the side afloat, let alone aspirational. Although this was not the most prosperous of claret and blue periods in history, Lerner never rocked the team by ridding of a manager prior to the end of a season.

Many others this season (103, to be exact) have faltered and given into the whimsical and impatient decision-making that the ever-emerging pressures of modern football seem capable of creating. Lerner, on the other hand, has allowed Lambert to develop his team, albeit a weak team, and this has given the club a far better chance of survival than say, Reading, or indeed than any alteration could possibly have done for Villa. This is a virtuous trait the American chairman has in his possession and while the rest of the League Managers’ Association will be embarrassed by recent turbulence in the profession, Aston Villa and Randy Lerner ought to be rather proud of their managerial policy.

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Wayne Rooney: Much said but more left unspoken

We were always going to remember the name. From the moment he whipped home that iconic goal at Goodison Park to defeat one of the finest sides in Premier League history, Wayne Rooney’s name was etched into the tapestry of undying national hope. Seemingly, this explosive forward had all the talent to lead England to World Cup glory.

He became the player of whom the most words were spoken since Paul Gascoigne, with contrived similarities cited as a means of emphasising just how good this young player could be, or indeed how disappointing, as the former ultimately was. Often compared to Gascoigne in terms of his talismanic ability and invariably aggressive style, Rooney differs at least in one significant fashion – career management. Gazza, who has recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre in Arizona, perpetuating a long line of self-abusive behaviour that was in evidence even during his playing days, retired from the sport at the age of 34. In reality, his role in the game was over long before that, such was the extent of his harmful attitude.

Rooney has had his fair share of pernicious tabloid attention, to say the least, renowned for his fondness of tobacco, destructive involvement in extramarital affairs and a careless attitude with money. But by and large, there is an acceptance that Rooney has settled as a man and a family one too, and his ability to laugh off much of the media slur is even considered exemplary in some circles. That said, there exists an ineluctable, yet entirely bizarre sense of unfulfilled potential as a footballer, which is not too dissimilar from Gascoigne, despite Rooney’s four Premier League and one Champions League winners’ medals.

Rooney has been in the glaring spotlight ever since that goal for Everton against Arsenal just five days shy of his seventeenth birthday, and the expectancy has risen with every appearance for club and country. To no avail, as far as English hopes are concerned. The reality is that there is something of an unspoken acceptance now that this boy wonder is not to single-handedly deliver on the greatest international stage, partly because the game has changed. England fans are more realistic, or perhaps just defeatist, with Spanish supremacy an indictment of how modern football is not a sport dominated by the individual unless the collective is of a similar calibre, or at least on the same wavelength. Of course, that does not stop the media, British and foreign alike, emphasising the apparent importance of Rooney’s role in any success to go England’s way.

Rooney’s rise to prominence saw him move to Manchester United in August 2004 for around £27 million, one of the signings to kick-start a polemic over-pricing of English players that exists in an even more perverse form today. The real question is whether Rooney can in fact continue to be considered the key to England’s success and indeed, with an eruption of journalistic certainty that he is out of favour at Old Trafford following his omission from the starting line-up against Real Madrid, whether his future as Manchester United’s figurehead remains intact. For foreigners looking in, Rooney remains a symbol of English football, almost a caricature of the British bulldog sat on a mountain of outdated and unfounded hope. This ought not to be as accurate as it probably is.

Wayne-Rooney
With Wayne Rooney, in spite of his omnipresence in the papers, so much has gone unspoken. Perhaps it was assumed. Never as a Manchester United player has he been the most talented in the side, though there has been a considerable element of assumption with regard to his prominent role in the first team, let alone the squad. Rooney has always had others to share the limelight, to drive the success and to help him to be as effective a goalscorer as he has been for United, be it Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie or the perennial brilliance of Ryan Giggs at his side. Vitally, Rooney has never had to carry Manchester United alone, even if many of his individual performances have indicated his wonderful ability. On BBC Final Score on Saturday, Mark Bright alluded to Rooney’s exclusion on Tuesday, saying that “Ronaldo and Messi would never be left out of Real Madrid or Barcelona’s biggest matches”. The harsh truth is that Rooney is not of the same quality as these players and his presence for his club is not as essential. The early expectations will always weigh him down, however.

It is imperative that we learn to appreciate the differentiation between Rooney for England and Rooney for Manchester United. If Rooney were left out of an important England fixture, it would be genuinely disconcerting simply because he is the finest player in the national selection. The same does not apply to his absences from the United starting line up, because he is quite frankly not the best player at Old Trafford. A great deal of this stems from other problems, including an unwillingness on the part of English players to go abroad and experience foreign leagues. Indeed, if Rooney were a Real Madrid, Barcelona or even a Paris-Saint-Germain (given recent rumours) player and had been left out of an important match, there would not have been the same reaction from the Spanish, Catalan or French media, because he is not the shining light in their patriotic psyches. As it is, as the best English player in our greatest sporting export, the Premier League, his omission leads to outrage, particularly with the backdrop of a clash between England and Spain’s juggernauts in Europe’s elite competition. The dynamic so swiftly changes to one of national pride and Rooney has long been a pawn in this dance.

Another key omission from the dialogue about Rooney is that to an extent, it’s a miracle that he is still playing every week in the most aggressive league on Earth, given his physique. He was just five and half when Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut on March 3rd, 1991. The reality is that the latter is probably in better physical condition even as he ventures into his 40th year. Rooney’s pace has receded already and his ability to play at full intensity for 90 minutes is questionable. This is not necessarily a criticism of Rooney but more a demonstration of how ignorant expectations of him continue to be. Rooney is a footballer who was not naturally given the body to accommodate his ability and in that sense, he is a flawed phenomenon in his own right – one of the more potent similarities with Gascoigne.  Inevitably, Rooney was never going to be the lasting boy wonder that people persist in casting as a shadow upon him, Manchester United and England.

Wayne Rooney is a very good footballer and his career has been one of notable success. Unfortunately, the amount that has been said about him, the expectation that has grown to unreachable levels and perhaps to an even greater extent, that which has gone unspoken, will always leave an unjust sense of unfulfilled promise as a mark on his career. Rooney will stay at Manchester United this summer and the evidence as to whether he will ever leave, given this sort of media outburst every year, is thus far unconvincing. One thing is certain: his prominence in the starting line up at Old Trafford will diminish, whether the media accepts it or not.

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Football Is Business

The expected ramifications commonly associated with the influx of money to a football club, invariably from abroad, have been shaped largely by the most successful cases. Manchester City, and Chelsea prior, are the standout examples in English football of financially-bred fruition and with Paris-Saint-Germain set to dominate French football for the foreseeable future with their Qatari funds, Real Madrid and Barcelona in a Liga of their own in terms of turnover, television benefits and of course, quality football, the correlation between financial and footballing prowess is now not only an evident trend, but an entirely dominant one.

Perhaps the only true commonality between all of these clubs of apparent stature is that they have become more than just football clubs, but brands as well. For some, including Madrid and Barcelona, Manchester United and certainly the German juggernaut, Bayern Munich, the global image and exportability has come over years of shrewd popularisation of the football played and undoubtedly, an element of good fortune. These traditional clubs, so to speak, are now being challenged by the nouveau riche, PSG probably the most potent of teams to find (or at least be on the brink of) success as a result of an inexhaustible money source.

Admittedly, there is something uncomfortable about the description of football clubs as “brands”, particularly given the perpetual lamenting of the sport’s ineluctable commercialisation. While it is deemed by many as an unsavoury progression in the modern game, in many respects “football is business rather than sport,” in the words of Zdneck Zeman just last year. The authorities appear to have had enough, too, of these monopolising brands and this summer will see the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, seeking to penalise any club that cannot justify its expenditure on athletic talent with a turnover to offset it.

While the impact of the FFP introduction is yet to be seen, there are already indications that it will not have the desired effect for those sides that are barely capable of achieving self-sufficiency, let alone creating an image of eminence. The question has been raised as to whether FIFA will punish any of the top sides accordingly if they do indeed break their new rules. Champions League football is essential for Europe’s elite and the cornerstone of most clubs’ ambitions every season. The suggestion is that sanctions by FIFA for non-compliance with FFP would include automatic disqualification from the tournament, as has already happened to Malaga for next season after failure to pay bills. However, the likelihood of the authorities banning a Real Madrid, a Manchester City or a Paris-Saint-Germain from future competitions, in regard of their important branding and ability to promote and sell tickets, television rights and the competitions themselves, is unlikely.

Even more significant, though, is the fact that these huge clubs use their brand power to ensure that no matter how much they spend, turnover will always be greater, essentially rendering them immune to sanctions in any case. In reality, Financial Fair Play will serve only to punish those clubs lacking in self-sufficiency, when in fact these were the clubs it was supposed to help become more competitive.

Aston Villa: A Brand Forced Into Remission

It would be decidedly unnatural for a supporter of any top flight club to have banished or entirely avoided the consideration of a big-money takeover of their club. The peculiar thing for Aston Villa fans, who probably ponder the idea regularly given their current plight, is that it’s already happened – supposedly.

Brand generation, or perhaps regeneration, given Villa’s size and history, was underway at Villa Park following Randy Lerner’s arrival as the new owner of the club in 2006. The club crest, along with the team management, was adapted to fit the sense of a new start that arrived with the American. The simplest of brand initiatives though a logo may be, it was an indictment of the changes that the club was to undergo under this new management. Lerner, having paid in the region of £62.6 million for Villa, wanted to elevate them once again to a former greatness, with Champions League football the natural ambition.

The rest is history, as one might say in the knowledge that readers are fully aware of Martin O’Neill’s deceptive and ultimately detrimental advancements with a young, English-based, counter-attacking outfit that finished sixth place in the Premier League for three consecutive seasons. The price of Lerner’s financial trust in the Northern Irishman led to wild over-spending on players who were for the most part entirely incapable of giving Aston Villa long-term service, let alone long-term success. Champions League football was missed out on, albeit narrowly, and Lerner had either run out of money, or run out of interest – a question that has still not been adequately answered even today.

The new brand failed after its three-year launch. Three managers later and Villa are in the worst Premier League position they have been since the new format’s inception in 1991. Relegation is on the cards for a team made up of youth and inexperience, with a smattering of older players who have shunned responsibility and a faint sprinkling of quality that will soon be out the door.

Defeat against Manchester City on Monday night was something of an inevitable representation of the Villans’ campaign, with a growth in confidence and a genuine opportunity destroyed by moments of lacking concentration or simply, a shortage of ability.

The truth is that Aston Villa are now playing in a period of irrelevance, both in terms of their own history and that of the English top flight. They are not competing, as they were a few years ago, and they are barely surviving either. But is there any option given that on Saturday, the club revealed huge losses of around £17.7 million for the year ending May 31, 2012, which was in fact a huge reduction from the £53.9 million losses the year before. The club cited reasons such as a poor performance the year before, fewer live TV matches and lower crowd attendances. The obvious nature of these suggestions hardly adds enough comedy to make the reading bearable for Villa supporters but at least it gives cold, hard financial reasoning to the desperate weakness of Paul Lambert’s squad and the unacceptable standard of the performances this campaign. Or does it?

Surely that isn’t good enough – not for a club like Aston Villa. One of the traditional clubs in English football, with an enviable support base, they are now undoubtedly one of the examples of an unsuccessful takeover story and something must change in the near future.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow – the realisation that money is everything in football – but one that must be digested quickly at Villa Park. The few good players will leave, there will be no draw for others to join, and the club will fall hard. This will happen, but it can be rectified, with a new direction.

There is little question that Randy Lerner cares greatly about the club but his Aston Villa brand has failed because of poor mismanagement so early on. Football is a business as fickle as the fans who frequent its stadiums and it is time for Lerner to remove the emotion from it, and sell the club.

The issue of who exactly would want to buy it is a fundamental one, of course, but perhaps not as pertinent as the question as to how the Villa support would feel about the club being taken over once again, with potentially unpredictable results, and the possibility of a total makeover of this great, old club.

Ligue 1: Exponent of French football or football in France?

It’s not even March and already three of Europe’s top five league titles have been all but decided. On Sunday, Manchester City and Atletico de Madrid won to reduce the gap between them and the leaders in their respective leagues to twelve points. In the Bundesliga, currently billed as Europe’s most exciting proponent of footballing talent – both in terms of players and coaches – Bayern Munich lead by a monumental seventeen points. Even in Italy there appears to be a gulf between the top side and the rest, with champions Juventus on course to retain their Serie A title, as they sit six points clear of Napoli. In each cometition there seems to exist a club far superior, leaving the rest of the league to compete in relative futility. Not in France.

Super rich Paris-Saint-Germain find themselves top of Ligue 1 by three points, ahead of Olympique Lyonnais, who are persistent with their pressure upon the Parisiens.

On Sunday night, Paris-Saint-Germain, consisting of a plethora of international stars, managed by an Italian, watched by the world awaiting the appearance of a certain Englishman and funded by the state of Qatar, defeated rivals Marseille at Parc des Princes. The elite of France sat uncomfortably in the presidential seats and private boxes, demonstrating a distinctly frightening growth in the power and interest that is being invested in the French capital’s capital club. PSG were fortunate to win against a Marseille side that battled fiercely against the blizzard of snow and the formidable Salvatore Sirigu, who was on top form. The Parisiens looked very beatable, however, and the game, though it ended 2-0 in their favour, was a clear indication that the contest for the Ligue 1 title is far from being concluded.

Beckham PSG
Suggestion that Ligue 1 is an inferior league is quickly becoming little more than fallacy. While there appears to an imbalance in the financial prowess of the top teams and an emergence of a disturbingly international landscape to French football’s appeal, imbalance does not necessarily exist in the competitive nature of the league. Ligue 1 may be shifting away from French football and becoming more like football in France but in terms of the division’s prominence as one of Europe’s most exciting, that may not be an issue. The French national side may have something to say about that in a few years time if the trend continues. After all, England and the exportability of the Premier League stand as potent examples of the incompatability of a rich top flight saturated with foreign talent and a nation yearning for quadrennial success.

That digression aside, Ligue 1 and almost ineluctably Paris-Saint-Germain as the main proponents, have kick-started a nouvelle vague of interest. PSG, who were dominant in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Valencia at the Mestalla, are not to be underestimated in Europe’s elite tournament even in this supposedly formative year for the club. Bordeaux are the only other French representatives in Europe, having defeated Dynamo Kyiv to reach the round of sixteen. Les Girondins find themselves in 10th place in Ligue 1, which would further allude to the idea that the division is growing stronger.

Midweek, there has been another bout of fixtures across the continent, largely incorporating the numerous and unpredictable domestic cup competitions that each nation seems to pride itself on. To add to the notable Real Madrid victory at the Camp Nou, highlighting Barcelona’s vulnerability in the absence of their ailing coach, Tito Vilanova, the Parc des Princes hosted Marseille once again, with the same outcome. Ibrahimovic scored both in the combative 2-0 win for the Parisiens, shedding light on PSG’s irresistible talents but also another instance of the capital club’s defensive diligence. Great sides are created by great managers and great managers ensure their defences are the best part of the team. Carlo Ancelotti could be setting a precedent for this upcoming league.

Demoralising though the past week may be for PSG’s rivals, Marseille particularly, Ligue 1 is still very much a wide open competition. Not only the mere three point gap but the significance of how hard and how capable Lyon and Marseille are of challenging is reason enough to watch French football. Last season’s champions, Montpellier, are sixth and fifteen points behind Paris but there is no ruling them out of Champions League place contention. More important is Ligue 1′s perpetual capacity to surprise and to have unexpected teams rise the table to challenge for such places. Nice, who finished thirteenth but just four points off relegation last season, now find themselves fourth and a point behind third placed Marseille.

PSG may be the principal exponents of Ligue 1 currently and to a large extent, there is good reason for that given the financial might and their premature heavyweight title in Europe. With some of world football’s biggest stars lining up for them most weeks, an investment of interest is natural, which it is not necessarily for the rest of the league. In view of its evident and perennial competitive nature, whether it is French football or quickly converting to international football in France, there is no reason why Ligue 1 cannot be one of Europe’s most exportable competitions.

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Are Villa set to face Arsenal at the wrong time?

Arsene Wenger is under pressure, relatively speaking. Aston Villa are under even greater pressure. Villa’s pressure is absolute – if the side doesn’t build on the victory over West Ham two weeks ago, relegation is inevitable. If Arsenal don’t begin to pick up some results, Wenger’s previously untouchable status will begin to feel the weight of some genuine questions.

Paul Lambert has gone full-scale with his clichés this week, explaining that the Villans have “twelve cup finals” to play before the end of the season. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking given that Arsenal have lost their last two matches, which have both been cup games and both have been at the Emirates Stadium, where Villa will travel to on Saturday. Lambert’s men will undoubtedly have to illustrate an effort that would be fitting of a cup final if they are to come away with anything because the wounded Gunners may well be at their most ferocious this weekend.

Arsenal are a good side, whatever seems to be reported and repeated on a regular basis about their inherent ability to capitulate when they are in vital need of a result. For Villa fans, that will sound rather familiar because the claret and blues have infrequently done as required this campaign, which is why they find themselves in a lowly, rather uncomfortable seventeenth place. Victory at the Emirates on Saturday seems somewhat unlikely, but it is not an impossibility. In fact, Villa might just be able to cause an upset for a number of reasons.

With the deployment of Charles N’Zogbia on the right hand side to considerable effect against West Ham, the Frenchman, whose stature in Villa’s season is growing by the game, could be the man to dismantle the left-side of Arsenal’s defence, which has been a perpetual concern for the North Londoners. Bayern Munich, though something of a different opponent to Aston Villa, exploited that weakness to maximum effect and while it would be downright insulting to even compare Matthew Lowton to Philippe Lahm, the Villa man does have an ability to overlap and support N’Zogbia in the more advanced areas of the right flank.

Lambert has been an advocate of the widely popularised 4-2-3-1 formation this season and the gap between the opposition’s defence and midfield might just be one that the Scot will look to trouble, with Andi Weimann’s link-up play with Benteke placing him as key contender for that role. Arsenal play with defensive midfielders but they are far more expansive than most, with Wilshere and Arteta often found wanting defensively. Diligence is also imperative if Villa are to survive and therefore, the inclusion of Stephen Ireland would be difficult to envisage.

Although it has become an example of truism when discussing Arsenal, physicality is something with which they don’t deal well. According to Premier League statistics, Aston Villa have the worst disciplinary record in the English top flight this season, which is perhaps an illustration of incessant struggle but by the same token it could highlight the aggression that has become a cornerstone of Villa’s play. Certainly, it would be beneficial if they can show aggression, in a positive manner, on Saturday. Away from home, the Villans are also the second highest most formidable side in the league when it comes to aerial duels won.

Indeed, aerial challenges may well require winning if Villa are to get anything from the game. Just below Manchester City, Arsenal are the second highest team in terms of the average possession percentage statistics and the Gunners have the highest pass accuracy in the league. Therefore, Villa scoring from open play is less probable than conversion of set pieces, as evidenced in the match against West Ham.

In Theo Walcott, Arsenal have a player on form and determined to make an impact. His pace will be a constant threat, naturally, but perhaps this will be nullified by the deep backline often employed by Lambert. The true architects are undoubtedly Wilshere and Cazorla, though, and the battle will be won or lost in midfield. The return of Karim Al-Ahmadi from the African Cup of Nations could be essential to elevating the workrate and mobility in the centre of the pitch and Fabian Delph ought to make way. Ashley Westwood has a superior passing ability and in spite of his own goal last time out, protects the defence better than Delph if only due to his more level-headed style.

Ultimately, Aston Villa face a great test on Saturday in the shape of an Arsenal side that will be fighting for their manager and their fans who are discontented at present. The game is one that Arsenal will be desperate to win but one from which Villa will need to take at least a point. The performance will have to be gritty and aggressive, as it regularly is away from home. Villa will find themselves on the back foot more often than not so must seize any opportunities afforded to them. Darren Bent’s presence on the pitch might be tactically opportune but more importantly, each Villa player must be working for their manager and for their fans.

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Ibrahimovic Will Never Win The Champions League

Zlatan is a nine-time league title winner in three countries, a self-proclaimed “legend”, and among other things, a verb in the French and Swedish dictionaries, meaning “to dominate”.

Innuendo aside, Ibrahimovic only has one true ambition to accomplish and one competition left to dominate: the Champions League. Despite being the only player to have scored for six different teams in Europe’s top tournament, he will never win it.

On Tuesday, the Swede’s Paris-Saint-Germain side travelled to Valencia to do battle in the first knockout round of the Champions League. Even for those who follow PSG closely, the side is somewhat enigmatic in spite of its impressive form in Ligue 1 recently, which has seen Les Parisiens take a six point lead at the top.

For all of the capital club’s attacking prowess, at the forefront of which Ibrahimovic has firmly placed himself with 21 goals in 21 league games, there is still a natural element that comes with being a club of the nouveau riche variety, a lack of composure perhaps, that will prohibit Zlatan from ever dominating in Europe’s elite tournament. But more than that, Ibrahimovic is an obstacle and an hinderance to his own ambition, illustrated in his rash act in the dying minutes of the first leg at the Mestalla.

Valencia-v-Paris-Saint-Germain-PSG-Tino-Costa_2899905
Initially, it was hard to work out just how well PSG would fare in the clash with Ancelotti opting for a 4-4-2 formation against a Valencia side that plays a quick passing game with five in midfield. But the French giants took hold of the game and were as forthcoming as their hosts, if not more so, exploiting the pace and direct nature of Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi down the right side, the Argentinian forward being given a free role in comparison to the target-man, Ibrahimovic.

Javier Pastore, whose pedigree as a Paris-Saint-Germain player has been questioned intermittently since his arrival from Palermo, was playing on the left side of midfield but drifted too. Pastore delivered one of his finest performances in a Paris shirt of recent times, though he has been coming into his own in the new year, perhaps inspired by the signings of Brazilian, Moura and the embellished influence of his compatriot, Lavezzi.

PSG were leading within 10 minutes, having settled into a frenetic match. Lavezzi and Pastore linked up seamlessly, with the former skipping past a lunging centre-back to fire a powerful shot into the far top corner from an angle. A superb move, a clinical finish and the multi-millionaire, Qatari-financed, French stars looked at home in the Champions League knockout round, which they haven’t reached since 1995. Qatar Sports Investment, who bought the club in 2011, pledged to build a side capable of winning Europe’s top club competition, but it was after they had taken a 0-2 lead that it became apparent just how far off this objective they remain.

PSG grabbed a second goal largely thanks to the brilliance of €45 million winger, Lucas Moura, who has settled into life at the club almost as quickly as his inherent ability to glide across the turf. Jinking sharply past the Valencia full back and cutting the ball back to Pastore in a swift movement, the Argentinian midfielder had the space to strike a powerful low shot through the keeper. PSG were cruising to a surprisingly straight-forward progression to the quarter-finals.

PastoreValencia-v-Paris-Saint-Germain-PSG-Javier-Pas_2899908
For much of the second half, though PSG had to combat an insurgence of pressure from Valencia, who were unable to break the defence that has been exceptional in the French top flight in recent months. To a large extent, the Parisien defence has been equally as important as its attack because even when PSG fail to press home their offensive advantage, they rarely concede. Again, they stood up and kept things tight. Until the 89th minute. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the defence, but more of an error of the collective play throughout the second half, which saw Frenchman, Adil Rami, flick the ball in from four yards out with nobody tracking and Sirigu flat-footed. The first leg ended 1-2, which represents a good result to take back to the Parc des Princes.

That said, there are a number of reasons why Paris-Saint-Germain and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not win the Champions League this season at least. The towering Swede, whose performance had been decent, providing something of a link-up target man rather than a goal scorer, was sent off in the 92nd minute for a mis-timed and rash studs-up challenge on Andrés Guardado. With Champions League referees more reactive than in France’s domestic competitions, the dismissal appeared a little harsh but it was a clear indictment of why Ibrahimovic will never win the greatest prize of all – because he is incapable of accepting a position as just a team member and struggles to prioritise the collective victory over personal endeavour. He must be centre of attention, the showman, even at the age of 31. His experience would suggest he has the capacity to dictate and influence PSG’s play but he must do so even when he is not the one on the score-sheet.

Champions League winning teams are exactly that – teams. Paris-Saint-Germain are taking the form of a more convincing one every time they play but individualistic acts like this one will continue to hinder the French side and the ambitions of its most talented striker. The goal scored by Valencia could prove costly in the overall tie and while it was a lapse in concentration, the persistent concession of free kicks in similar zones to the one that was eventually converted was a result of an inability to maintain possession on the part of the Paris players. Valencia kept coming forward, often with little success, but there was always that risk. The victorious teams don’t allow the opposition to have possession, even when they lead. They keep the ball, remain on the front foot and therefore disallow the opponents any opportunity to score. PSG have the players to do it but they need to learn to lead with the front foot, studs down in Ibrahimovic’s case.

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The Cost of Disregarding Value

The blatant reality of Aston Villa’s era of over-spending has become particularly clear in the last six months as the Villans struggle in the lower echelons of a league from which they have never been relegated. After a vital victory over West Ham on Sunday to take the Villans out of the drop zone, placing the fate of the club back in its own hands, it is evident that an appreciation of certain players’ values is being realised by Paul Lambert.

There is little question that Christian Benteke has been the claret and blue revelation of the season, scoring an impressive eleven goals in 21 starts. While this may not be the most formidable goal-scoring record in the Europe, the Belgian forward’s goals comprise 44% of those scored by the side this season, making him the most valuable striker in terms of contribution to his team in the Premier League.

At just 22 years-old, Benteke has taken naturally to life in the English top flight and the inevitable rumour mill has started churning whispers of interest from those much nearer the top of the table than relegation battlers, Villa. His aerial prowess, enviable strength and athletic speed are all elements of his game that have made him perhaps the most fundamental player at Villa Park this season. Quite simply, when Benteke plays well, Villa pick up points.

Christian Benteke: Vital for the Villans

Christian Benteke: Vital for the Villans

Alongside him, Andreas Weimann has come into his own and while his ability in front of goal is not quite as formidable as Benteke’s, the two have forged a dynamic partnership. Lambert has recently elected to deploy the Austrian as a right-sided midfielder and his work ethic means he is well suited to the task. Having come through the Villa youth ranks, Weimann has become a favourite among the supporters, given his illustration of utter determination to do well for the club. This is an essential aspect of what has been lacking among a number of the more experienced Villa players this term and is undoubtedly the reason for which Paul Lambert has let his most expensive players collect their wages from the bench.

The tide is changing and apparently, so is Lambert’s mentality towards those older, seemingly more insipid performers. Inspite of the new, young talent that has been so heavily involved in Villa’s albeit challenging campaign, it is imperative that the Scot has now realised that there are members of the team that he was unwilling to use earlier in the season who will be key in saving the club from relegation.

Charles N’Zogbia has played a mere fourteen games for Aston Villa this season, six of which have seen him emerge from the bench. The 26-year-old, once titled “Charles Insomnia” by Joe Kinnear for his frequently lazy performances, has recently come into his own. Having arrived at Villa Park from Wigan with a £10 million price tag on his head, many were touting him to be a very good signing. Many were wrong. N’Zogbia delivered very little in his first season in claret and blue and has scarcely been employed by Lambert as a result of his independent style and often questionable effort.

The win over West Ham saw the Frenchman give a man of the match performance as he was involved in both of those pressure-relieving goals. His talent is quite evident, either from the left or the right wing, N’Zogbia’s quick feet, neat touch and considerable speed makes him a real headache for full backs when he is in the mood. His trickery to win the penalty on Sunday and his deft free-kick that rippled the top corner of the net are sights that Villa fans will hope, and need, to see more often in the coming months if the club is to maintain its Premier League status. In N’Zogbia’s last five starts, Villa have won two, drawn two and lost one, which is a pretty decent record, relatively speaking.

One of the most talked about players in the English top flight this season has been one who has played very little football and whose perpetual ability to lengthen the transfer window has been something of a bore for English football fans. Darren Bent has made just seven starts for Villa this season, scoring two goals. For the amount of money paid for the England international, that’s rather disappointing, to say the least.

In short, Darren Bent is a valuable asset for Aston Villa Football Club. The number nine has had little to do with the Villans’ predicament so far but when he has, his impact has been positive. One only has to analyse the games in which he has played a full 90 minutes to comprehend just how important Bent is to his side. Undoubtedly Villa’s finest performance of the season came back in September, out-playing the side that often teaches other teams how to play, Swansea City, and winning 2-0. Bent scored in the next two games, which saw Villa pick up seven points from three games – their finest run of the season.

N'Zogbia and Bent offer a value worthy of recognition

N’Zogbia and Bent offer a value worthy of recognition

It was another two and a half months until Bent played 90 minutes, by which time the side’s form had capitulated and the relegation battle was well underway. In this game, Villa beat Norwich City 4-1 in the League Cup. While he didn’t score or get any of the assists, it would appear that Bent’s presence added a lot to the performance. That match was on the 11th of December and Bent didn’t play again until the end of January, his 45 minutes on the pitch not enough to salvage a 1-2 defeat. Again, he fell out of favour until this weekend, when he played in one of the most telling 30 minutes in Villa’s season. Again, no goals or assists for Bent, but he gave the defenders something to think about alongside Benteke and N’Zogbia, who stole the show.

Lambert has been wise to drop a number of the players who would, at the start of the season, been the first names on the team sheet. Brad Guzan has come in and done well behind a very weak defensive line, his worth proved once again with multiple saves against the Hammers. Stephen Ireland, a player that this author has tried to see the best in on countless occasions, no longer merits a place in the side, let alone the wage he is paid for frankly futile showings.

Nevertheless, the cost of disregarding the value of Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia would be a great one indeed, for they have the capacity and the experience to lead Villa’s youthful outfit to the edge of the relegation zone and to keep them there. Thankfully, Lambert appears to have made note of such at just the right time.

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You Deserve Each Other

It’s that time of the year when we all get to feign being more aware of foreign ideas than we actually are, when we can use unfamiliar clichés like “compact scrum”, “soft hands” and “heavy pack” as more than just political metaphors. It’s a time to illustrate the pride and the competitiveness of one nation against the rest. It’s a time when other continents look discerningly over in consideration of the progression of the “strength and depth” that will soon challenge them when the nations of the world clash in a few years time. It is, of course, the Chinese New Year.

Only joking, the rugby’s on.

The Six Nations is an opportunity to liberate your most masculine of complexes, to revel in the fury of nationalism and to banter with old rivals over a sport that ordinarily is not the most forthcoming in your appreciation, if you’re a football fan like me.

The Six Nations: Pride, Fury and Civility

The Six Nations: Pride, Fury and Civility

But that doesn’t matter because international rugby is so enticing as a spectacle and so relentless as a reminder of all that is wrong with modern-day football, as much of a cliché as that may be. In many respects, Six Nations rugby is an essential part of the sporting year, for football as much as for rugby.

International rugby is brutal, unforgiving and therefore gripping in a fierce, primal fashion. Most importantly, however, it is played in the right spirit by sportsmen who have respect for their opponents, their teammates and those officiating the game. Even more significantly, there is great mutual consideration and tolerance shown between spectators who, as with football, are of all ages.

Watching any of the six matches that took place in the first two rounds of this year’s Six Nations tournament, you would struggle to find any evidence of misconduct towards a fellow player or a referee from any single player among the 138 who were involved. Swearing or indeed any form of aggressive, argumentative behaviour toward the referee is simply unacceptable and will result in an immediate red card. Disagreements between players are dealt with amongst themselves, and punishments are given swiftly and accordingly. Lawrence Dilaglio recently made reference to the fact that rules had become more stringent regarding punch-ups and violent retribution and while he sounded a little disappointed about it, there is no doubt that it still exists, with players appreciative of the physical necessity of the sport, allowing the game to flow while they sort out their differences. Play-acting and feigning injury is not an option in rugby, let alone a part of the game. Quite simply, they wouldn’t get away with it. It’s embarrassing.

In football, all of these things are commonplace. Simulation is as much a part of the game as the penalty and free-kicks that result from them, and foul language directed towards the referee, fellow players and between spectators is seemingly encouraged. Very rarely is a player punished for such behaviour and even less frequently are fans ejected from the stadium. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon nor is it wrong that people should be allowed to say whatever they please when watching the football. There is a line, though, between offensive and unacceptable and all too often, the latter is evident. This mistreatment of players and of opposing fans breeds hatred, true or not, and this results in a merging of apparently harmless insults and racial slurs, which are still present in modern football.

This is not to say that none of this exists in rugby. Undoubtedly, as in all walks of life, there are idiots. Still, the bottom line is that the Six Nations tournament is an indication of how much more civil elite sport can be both on and off the pitch. Fans sit together, drink beer and enjoy the game. At football games, fans are segregated, alcohol is not permitted and the game often plays second fiddle to the atmospheric but angry battle between supporters.

Foul language and racial slurs are not uncommon in football even today

Foul language and racial slurs are not uncommon in football even today

So many times have we all heard the tedious refrain that “football is a game for gentlemen played by thugs, and rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen”. This is a tedium that not only rings true, but that must continue to be indulged and fully recognised, with petty arguments about the differences between the sports and their respective popularities cast aside.

George Orwell once said: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

Maybe he’s right, but I’m not so sure.

Never shall any sport overtake football as the greatest sport in the world as far as this author is concerned. However, I feel it is slipping due to the entirely unsavoury culture of cheating that is now deemed acceptable not only by the players and those directly involved, but by the fans and the journalists who have placed it at the peak of our interest. A staunch rugby flag-flyer said to me just last week that, “you all deserve each other”. I was inclined to agree with him but in reality, there are few people who watch and comment on the sport that are happy with the way it has become.

Imperatively, there are a number of well-documented initiatives and campaigns on the go that have the intention of improving conduct in football. UEFA’s Respect campaign is perhaps the most notable but the impact of such effort is yet to be fully understood. Perhaps 2013 will be the year to change it all and to make real headway with the changing of a sport that is so beautiful to watch, until you see the human interactions implicated. Perhaps the year of the snake shall see the advancements, or indeed the reversions, that we so crave as aficionados of football. But slithering forward slowly shall not do. We need to stamp out the cheating and the ill-flavoured attitudes and actions that persistently mar the world’s most popular sport, even if it means changing the rules or making them more rigid and specific to issues as supposdely harmless as diving and swearing. There is nothing harmless about these tendencies.

I am a rugby fan but I am a lover of football, entirely obsessed with it. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the sport many of us are normally all too willing to disregard.

Relegation for Redemption

The most lamentable thing about Tuesday’s unceremonious league cup semi-final defeat to Bradford City was not the realisation that Villa had fallen to a team in the fourth tier of English football but the entirely unsurprising nature of the exit. There was an air of resignation to a number of the players as we reached the latter stages of the game, when their attitude should have been quite the contrary. Perhaps more difficult to stomach is the fact that very few of those players in claret and blue had the capacity to alter the direction of the game even had they been on full-throttle.

In short, the current squad is not good enough to survive the drop. Therefore, relentlessly blaming the manager is hardly conducive to positivity, and it is unlikely that the season will be saved, rescued or even improved upon if Lambert is shown the door as a result of the current crisis in which the club finds itself. The problem lies more in the quality of the players than in the tactical ineptness of the Scotsman who has courageously taken the hotseat at a club that has been heading the wrong way for the past few years.

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While it is almost too easy to be pessimistic after such a demoralising stretch of results, the relegation battle that the side now faces may very well end in disappointment. The real question is whether or not relegation from the Premier League could in fact be something of a bittersweet remedy for the Villans, whose free-fall seems almost irreparable at this stage.

The club is in such a difficult phase due to prior seasons of mis-managed over-spending on players either too old or too incapable of reaching long-term targets that rapidly became unrealistic short-term targets. Demotion to the Championship, though exceptionally painful for all Aston Villa stakeholders, could offer the club and its management the occasion to start afresh and force the implementation of a plan that currently seems entirely non-existent.

What’s more, with the parachute payout of around £50 million, Villa could be in a position to carry out a thorough identification of the players in the current squad that are worth their wages, re-build the squad and gear it towards a re-establishment not only of the club’s status as a Premier League outfit, but as a re-development of the club’s identity. For years, Aston Villa has been a club drifting around in the uncertainty of mediocre results and regression. It may well take a seismic change or failure to rock the core of the club and force it to bounce back.

This option sounds defeatist, to say the least, and there is undoubtedly a concern that Villa would struggle in the second tier and fall victims to the predicament of a number of big clubs who have previously been relegated and then become stifled. However, if this potential eventuality did come to fruition, the size of the club would surely render this issue as unacceptable and, as Newcastle United did not so long ago, we would fight back.

Nevertheless, there is still a belief, deep down, that we will avoid the drop.

Of course, January is upon us and there is thus an opportunity to make some signings that are absolutely necessary for survival. The defence is the weakest that Villa Park has seen in recent memory and the attacking element of the side is in a state of chronically fluctuating form. Lambert will be working hard to make signings, surely, but whether or not the club’s state of affairs are attractive enough for the required quality players is another question.

Criticisms of Paul Lambert can at times be understood. For example, his substitutions against West Bromwich Albion were seemingly to blame for the loss of a 2-0 lead that had been achieved in the first half, Benteke and Agbonlahor with the goals. To take a point away from The Hawthornes was not a bad result at all but there can be little doubt with regard to the disappointment that such a defensive attitude caused. By the same token, it could be argued that the frankly pathetic amount of experience throughout the team resulted in a naturally defensive recoil, as the team sat back and suffered an onslaught of pressure.

But Lambert is the head coach and is the man for the job at present. If nothing else, his dedication and determination to succeed at this club is an exemplary demonstration for the players in which he is trying to instil those very ideas.

After the game on Tuesday, I received a text message from my brother – a long-suffering Villa fan too – that said quite simply: “I am lost for words”.

His speechlessness resonates with all of us at the moment, though we know what must be done. We must keep the faith in Lambert. We must support the team. But significantly, we must sign some players. One week remains.

This article was written for Aston Villa Life. Read more at http://www.astonvillalife.com.

You Can’t Win Anything With Kids

“You can’t win anything with kids.”

This was the refrain that Alan Hansen used in anticipation of Manchester United’s prospective campaign following a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa in the opener of the 1995-96 Premier League season.

The irony sings, as you re-read the name of the victorious side on that late summer day nearly two decades ago. The claret and blue giants of English football, who were if not title challengers then certainly pretenders in the early-to-mid-90s, have fallen almost as far as Hansen’s on-screen appeal, with young players at the core of the club’s waning strength.

While it would seem that almost everything Alan Hansen now says is somewhat by rote and programmatic – his vocabulary about as predictable as a similarly damning 3-1 result on Tuesday night – there is a sense that perhaps he was correct. Not in that instance, of course, as United went on to win a league and cup double and the so-called ‘kids’ he was referring to included Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs.

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Hansen has since undergone sporadic ridicule for making such a comment, and he plays along dotingly with Shearer and Linekar during analysis on Match of the Day, while indulging viewers in close-up shots of his crotch. That said, the Scotsman may well have been vindicated if he had made the statement in say, 2006. Arsenal have in the last seven years, if nothing else, been something of a tailor-made case in point had Hansen wanted to re-ignite his burning passion for old phrases. Wenger’s insistence on persistence has seen his youthful teams collect little more than a few admirers, and many more transfer policy critics.

But this article does not concern Manchester United’s nauseating defiance or the Gunners’ garish fall from grace. Nor does it really have anything to do with Hansen, who is actually a better pundit than is alluded to above. Still, there has been a distinct absence of his infamous remark in any form of media analysis this season, when in fact it could be quite apt when discussing the predicament of Aston Villa’s young strugglers.

With loss to Bradford City of League 2 in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final, a number of Villa fans already seem resigned to exit from what is undoubtedly a winnable competition at this stage. The idea of any form of silverware is a considerable notion for Villa, let alone for Bradford, given the weakness of the squad and the lack of experience that has fundamentally led to it.

Successful sides are usually built from the back, and Villa Park has not seen such a weak defence for decades, in spite of Paul Lambert’s employment of five in that region of the pitch. The average age of the regular starting eleven in the Premier League this term has been around 24. Negative of that number is what the Villans are looking at in terms of goal difference. With 41 goals conceded in 21 games and the joint worst goals-scored tally with just 17 netted, the kids are quite evidently not alright.

In each position, there is youth and inexperience, or simply a lack of quality. The over-zealous Fabian Delph is essentially a veteran in a midfield compared to his team-mates, which is a grave concern given his inability to maintain possession, a perpetual source of pressure on his own, feeble back line. Even the players who should be leading are apparently incapable, with Darren Bent seemingly awaiting an opportunity to leave the club, Shay Given benched due to a frightening loss of form and Stephen Ireland unapologetically lacking in motivation. Captain Ron Vlaar’s period on the sidelines with injury has not helped but despite his aggressive and, at times, impressive leadership, his ability to defend against Premier League forwards is questionable.

The ineluctable nature of football is that somebody must be blamed, and all too often, it is the manager who will shoulder it, rightly or wrongly. Wrongly, in this case, if Lambert does so. Villa fans are understandably beginning to wonder whether the former Norwich coach has the capacity to keep them in the top flight, a division in which they have been ever-present since the Premier League’s conception. But how can Lambert be to blame when the club had been mismanaged for several years prior to his appointment?

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When he took over, the squad was thinner than it is now. Suggestions that his dealings in the summer transfer window were ill-judged are perhaps acceptable, but not entirely fair. Lambert signed young players, admittedly, and while some have not been of adequate quality, it became a question of necessity as opposed to the vast options and considerable budget that was afforded to Martin O’Neill and Gerard Houllier. Indeed, other Lambert signings will be the saviour of the side if Villa do indeed manage to survive. Christian Benteke was Lambert’s big summer signing and he has delivered a large proportion of the goals, though they have been few and far between. It is likely that his partnership with Andreas Weimann will be the only memorable aspect of 2012/13.

Lambert signed in the positions that needed cover and in accordance with the money he had available to him. But he has done his best to develop a style of football fitting of a Premier League side, on the contrary to the negative fashions brought in under the reigns of Houllier and with a more lasting effect, McLeish. The inherent lack of confidence among the players at Villa cannot entirely be attributed to the results suffered under Lambert, as there is an undoubted hangover from several years of poor management and faltering spirit preceding his appointment.

The project envisaged by the chairman upon his arrival at the club has hit an iceberg and the club is sinking, with a lack of experience throughout. The worst thing that can be done at this stage is to rid of Paul Lambert, who is a level-headed disciplinarian and one of the few capable of instilling belief in the players, which is what they need more than anything at present.

The Capital One Cup is a great opportunity and one that should be seized. There is every possibility that Villa will overturn the deficit from the first leg and proceed to Wembley, which would be superb for the club. Premier League survival is the minimum requirement for this campaign and a boost in morale as a result of cup success could be vital to the players. Signings in central defence and midfield are needed in January, which the sale of Darren Bent could facilitate, so Lambert has plenty of work to do.

One thing is for certain, even Cup triumph won’t take away from the pain and troubles of relegation. It’s a very real possibility and frankly, avoiding the drop is far more important than winning anything with kids. Imperatively, Paul Lambert needs to be given time and new players need to come in, because Aston Villa won’t do either with their current crop.

This piece was written for Aston Villa Life. Read more at astonvillalife.com.

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