As Liverpool and Manchester City prepare to lock horns, rivals flounder

The table tends to take shape after 10 games. On the eleventh weekend, Liverpool and Manchester City scraped past Aston Villa and Southampton respectively to set up what already feels like a Premier League title decider this Sunday at Anfield. Fine margins decided where the title ended up last season, and it is conceivable that history should repeat itself. Liverpool’s win two days ago, sealed in stoppage time, echoed the spirit of league-winning sides from yesteryear, never knowing when they are quite beaten and taking their chances at the death. “It is lucky to score these goals of course, but when you look at the game, if either side deserved to win it is us,” Klopp assessed afterwards.

Pressure also brings the best out of Manchester City, who know a thing or two about winning trophies in dramatic fashion. Also a goal down, they rallied to a 2-1 victory. The gap to Liverpool remains six points, which is not a herculean task to chip away, but head-to-head results may define the season and there is not a better time for the champions to stamp their authority by beating their rivals. You would need to go back 16 years, to May 2003, to find Manchester City’s last victory at Anfield — although they were close to ending the barren run last year if it was not for a fluffed penalty by Riyad Mahrez.

The defeat for Liverpool put Champions League qualification out of their hands. Fast forward to the present day and the stakes to break into the top four could not be any higher. Tottenham and Manchester United have already been cut adrift and victory for Leicester City, who sit comfortably in third, against Arsenal this Saturday, may force the traditional ‘big’ rivals to act before Christmas.

A Friday night to forget for England

For the first time in a decade, England tasted defeat in a qualifier. Strange, but true. While many international opponents have got the better of England in the last 10 years, these have exclusively come in friendlies and the unbeaten run rather shines a light on the benefits of seeding. The run was going to end sometime and it did last night, against the Czech Republic who came from a goal down to win 2-1.

The result won’t sound alarm bells because qualification, the ultimate objective, remains in England’s hands and yet there was plenty for Gareth Southgate to be worried about. The defence couldn’t defend set pieces, the midfield lacked any control and the forwards were limp and lifeless. Much like every other team in the Premier League apart from Liverpool this season, there was no cohesion or conviction to England’s play.  

Have England hit the ceiling with Southgate? Wash your mouth out (!), I hear you cry, but it is worth pondering. There was nothing in the performance to suggest the team have evolved the way the manager has intended to since the World Cup. And if familiar failings crop up, as it did against Kosovo, at the Euros, then it will be a question asked again and again..

Flashback: When Cole’s hat-trick left Ferguson daring to dream

Ahead of the UEFA Champions League return this week, this blog takes a look back at one of the underrated away performances by an English side in the competition.

Embed from Getty Images

9th November 1997 — The best of Manchester United has yet to be seen on foreign fields but a polished display in Rotterdam left fans and even Alex Ferguson pondering if this could be their year. No team at present is accumulating such a sequence of victories and by next week, should they defeat Arsenal, the countdown to a treble of league trophies may well and truly begin. By the time Champions League football resumes in early Spring, United’s domestic lead might be so commanding that European distractions could be forgiven for.

If that is the case, the dramatic burst in form of Andy Cole couldn’t have come at a better time. After being at the receiving end of media bashing in the reverse fixture, the striker hit his first away hat-trick for the club, taking his tally to eight goals in his last three matches. United now have taken maximum points from their four group matches, scoring 11 in the process.

Always looking calm and assured with and without the ball, Ferguson’s men have now mastered the art of game management in Europe, allowing their opponents to come at them and counter-punching with quick breaks. While Feyenoord did manage to score, it was a mere consolation after minutes of chasing the ball.

Prior to the game, Ferguson called for a policy of “patience and caution,” yet this was a message ignored by a section of the travelling supporters, involved in a brawl with Feyenoord fans prior to kick-off. Riot police were called into action and by the time order was restored, United got into a rhythm on the pitch. It took 20 minutes for the home side to manage a shot at Schmeichel, and even then Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s shot was too tame to worry the goalkeeper.

It didn’t take Cole long to grow into the match and on the half hour, United took the lead. A free-kick won by David Beckham allowed Gary Neville to plant a long ball over Bernard Schuitemann’s head. Using his agility, Cole zoomed past the defender and when he tried to clear the ball away, it met with the striker’s leg and looped over Dudek’s head at the same time. Just before the break, the lead was doubled when Beckham’s exquisite cross met perfectly for Cole to sidefoot in from eight yards. Giggs came close to adding a third in the 54th minute after excellent individual play but chipped over the bar. He however found the composition to round Dudek with 20 minutes left and pass sideway to Cole, who shot into an empty net.

The only sour note to come for the English champions was the injury to defender Denis Irwin, who was sent to hospital for observation following a lunge by Paul Bosvelt after 82 minutes. It sparked furious scenes in the dugout, with Ferguson voicing his opinions after the match that Feyenoord should have had two players sent off.

Feyenoord (3-5-2): Dudek; Van Gobbel, Van Wonderen, Van Gastel; Schuitemann, Bosvelt (Zwijnenberg, 81), Boateng, Van Bronckhorst, Graff (Claeys, 34); Korneev, Cruz (Vos, 76). Substitutes not used: Petry (gk), Picun, Sanchez, Glaucio.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin (P Neville, 82); Beckham, Butt, Scholes (Poborsky, 76), Giggs; Sheringham, Cole (Solskjaer, 76).

Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), McClair, Thornley, Curtis.

Referee: S Puhl (Hungary)

Bury’s day of judgement

Bury’s future hangs in the balance. In the next 24 hours it will cease to exist as a Football League club, or pull through and live to fight another day.  The club’s money troubles are well documented; players and staff have been paid late, winding-up petitions have been drawn up and sent, while matches have been postponed. Image result for gigg lane bury

Steve Dale, the club owner, has been busy — trying to look busy — and drumming up interest in finding a buyer. This week he says four ‘parties’ are looking into saving Bury from liquidation.

Yet will his ‘efforts’ and the media interest in this story amount to anything? Bury’s predicament reminds you how far English football has gone tackling the ‘ownership’ issue in sport, and why more needs to be done. There is nothing to protect clubs from asset strippers and chancers and the rules laid out by the Football League do not go far enough to safeguard them. Is there a point in asking an owner to prove they have funds after a purchase?

If Bury are saved and a new owner comes in, the question remains, what will they be buying into? The club’s history is deep-rooted in the Football League, and are on par with Nottingham Forest with FA Cup wins (two). It has tradition and pride in community that would put most Premier League clubs to shame. But these qualities aren’t easily monetised. With a paper-thin squad, a novice manager and a trimmed-down staff, it is going to take more than money to address the problems that face the club in the long term.

Football Writing Festival

Aside

Football Writing Festival 2019 logoEnjoy football? Love to read? It might be worth heading to Manchester next month for the Football Writing Festival. Its sixth edition kicks off on 4th September at the National Football Museum and will continue over six nights.

Highlights this year include discussions on football finances led by David Conn and Daniel Geey, a look at the future of women’s football, European football round-up with messieurs Auclair, Honigstein, Marcotti and Lowe. There is also the return of The Bizzard – live.

If you fancy attending all events, consider getting a season ticket. At just £45, it also comes with free admission to the museum and discounted Guardian Football Weekly tickets.

[Find out more information here]

Flashback: Chelsea start season in style

Embed from Getty Images

Opening weekends can be deceptive. 20 years ago today, Chelsea went straight to the top of the Premier League table after a resounding 4-0 win over Sunderland. It was a performance that exuded confidence and maturity (see video below), and left their opponents facing the harsh reality of top-flight football.  If only the remaining 37 matches were as straightforward as that. Chelsea did not better that scoreline, or indeed performance, until the visit of the champions, Manchester United in October, where even Chris Sutton got on the scoresheet. The 5-0 thrashing was not a sign of better things to come, instead serving a reminder that on their day Chelsea were a force to be reckoned with. The days were few and far between, and in a space of a month they slid down the table.

It was reverse fortunes for Sunderland. Everything that could go wrong at Stamford Bridge did, but they put it right at home to Watford, where Kevin Phillips scored his first two goals of the season. By the time they faced Chelsea in the reverse fixture, they sat comfortably in the top four (back when ‘top four’ referred to the table and not a group of super rich clubs), and boasted one of the strongest defences. The promoted side looked a safe bet for European football when they brushed Chelsea aside 4-1 at the Stadium of Light, but then came the year 2000, and with that a run of heavy defeats and draws.

Opening weekend results (7th-8th August):

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City
Chelsea 4-0 Sunderland
Coventry City 0-1 Southampton
Leeds United 0-0 Derby County
Middlesbrough 0-1 Bradford City
Newcastle United 0-1 Aston Villa
Sheffield Wednesday 1-2 Liverpool
Watford 2-3 Wimbledon
West Ham 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur

Everton 1-1 Manchester United

The Athletic’s ambitious venture into English football

The trouble with paywall, as newspapers have learnt over the years, is you risk alienating readers. When The Times set up its subscription model nearly a decade back, it saw its online readership fall in numbers — as much as two-thirds, but they are now held up as a shining example as the publication recorded a profit earlier this year.

What could explain the upturn? Naturally over time attitudedeskworks over paywall have changed and online readers are more aware of the fall in journalism — particularly print. If content is worth reading, it is worth paying for. The Times like other paywall sites have, more importantly, benefited from ‘smart’ subscriptions, that are flexible and in line with the readers’ tastes. You don’t have to pay the price of a broadsheet just to read two articles you are interested in, nor are you tied down to a 12-month contract.

All well and good you say, but how does this relate to football? Well it appears this season there will be another paywall on offer in an already crowded field. The Atlantic, which launched in the US in 2016, is a subscription sports website that prides itself on exclusives and cutting-edge journalism. It will launch its UK site in the coming weeks, and according to a BuzzFeed report, they have spent big to acquire some of the big names in British sports journalism: Daniel Taylor, Amy Lawrence, Oliver Kay, David Ornstein and Alex Kay-Jelski to name but five.

News of the Atlantic’s venture over the pond hasn’t gone down too well here. Last month Roger Alton, the Spectator’s sports correspondent was fairly disparaging, calling them “hyper aggressive” for centralising journalism.

Time will tell if this will be a success. The reported pricing — “about £4 a month,” seems right but crucially audience growth will depend on the quality of journalism as much as the roster they have lined up. A standard match report or a ‘5 things we learnt…’ may not do, but certainly a clear, authoritative voice will. Trouble is, sport in England is more intimate and less intrusive compared to America, so it will be interesting to see the lengths the journalists will go to get fresh stories.

Flashback: Crouch’s spectacular overhead kick

Video

Peter Crouch, who announces his retirement from professional football today, was the scorer of some delightful goals. It’s fair to say he also knew how to celebrate them in style — who can forget the robot when he put on the shirt for England?

Earlier this year he won an poll for best acrobatic goal ever scored in the Champions League — a stunning right-footed scissor kick for Liverpool against Galatasaray in September 2006. Worth watching again, and again, and again…