Monday, May 3, 2010

Drogba, Lampard follow the script

                                                                   Lampard and Drogba
It was exactly as the scriptwriters would have written it: goals from Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard sent Chelsea to the brink of winning the English Premier League.

After their 2-0 victory over a despondent Liverpool side at Anfield yesterday, Chelsea now need just a home victory over Wigan Athletic in next weekend’s season finale to ensure the trophy heads their way for the first time in four years.
And although this particular EPL season has contained some unlikely twists and turns, with Chelsea suffering their faire share of unanticipated stumbles along the way, surely they will claim the required victory next weekend — Wigan are a vastly inferior team who have nothing to play for, so Manchester United fans would be advised not to set their expectations too high.
It was entirely appropriate that Chelsea’s match-winning goals against Liverpool — which effectively secured the title — were scored by Drogba and Lampard, who have been the Blues’ attacking inspiration for years.

Both of them boast exceptional goalscoring records — Drogba with 127 in 259 appearances for the Blues; Lampard with 156 in 476 — and, as evidenced again this weekend, they also possess the ability to score important goals at important times.
Lampard’s goal return (one in every three games) is especially impressive for a midfielder and, on the assumption that he goes on to enjoy his third title triumph next weekend, he can now certainly be regarded as one of the greatest players in the club’s history.
Having broken into the first team at West Ham United — his first club — at such an early age, Lampard was already an established top flight performer by the time he joined Chelsea for £11 million (RM55 million) in the summer of 2001.
But he did have to overcome initial scepticism amongst many Chelsea supporters, who harshly believed that his progress at West Ham was largely due to the influence of the team’s assistant manager and his father, Frank Lampard Sr.
Those doubters have since been emphatically proven wrong, with Lampard becoming the single most important player for the Blues throughout their period of recent success (narrowly edging ahead of his great mate John Terry by virtue of the number of goals he’s scored). He has registered at least 10 league goals in each of the last seven seasons, and also shown remarkable durability by missing just 20 league games during his nine years at Stamford Bridge.
Yet, it’s difficult to define exactly what makes Lampard such a great player. He lacks pace, isn’t particularly strong or athletic, is little more than average in the air and no better than reasonable as a passer of the ball; in short, his physical attributes don’t tell the tale of a player who can play such a dominant role for so many years in the most demanding league in the world.
The qualities that set Lampard apart are the great intangibles — the vital attributes of anticipation, game understanding and instinct that can’t be taught or coached; the unquantifiable things that can’t be defined on spreadsheets or measured in gyms.
You either have the ability to get into the right positions for goalscoring opportunities to come your way, or you don’t. Lampard has those intangibles, and they have played a major part in Chelsea’s golden era.
Drogba’s powers are easier to define. His physical presence is so great that, when in full flow, he is almost impossible to defend against. Of course, the Ivorian also possesses a considerable amount of natural talent, but without his physical prowess he would be half the player.
He has led Chelsea’s line superbly for the last seven years, providing a focal point for their attack as well as scoring goals with impressive regularity. It’s no coincidence that Chelsea’s first title came at the end of his first season at Stamford Bridge, and he will be an extremely difficult player to replace when his powers finally begin to wane.
And there lies the long-term difficulty that Chelsea face. As I mentioned last week, their squad contains a number of ageing stars whose best days will soon be behind them — Drogba, Lampard, Anelka, Deco, Ballack... they are all well into their 30s and will soon need replacing.
But those concerns will be addressed at a later date. For now, Chelsea can celebrate their success at Anfield and look forward to confirming their status as Premier League champions.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chelsea to emulate Malaysian drivers in title-quest

After all these years of watching English football, I just can’t believe that there are people out there who could possibly imagine a team going into a match with an intention to lose.
Okay, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy did imply it, when they travelled to Old Trafford earlier this season, with 10 changes to a side that had just beaten Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, but the ‘replacements’ did not just sit back, they held their own against the mighty Manchester United (MU).
There is no chance that Liverpool will pull the same trick of resting players in their 8.30pm kickoff against Chelsea at Anfield tonight. Rafa Benitez doesn’t have any reason to. Had they qualified for the Europa League final, he still might have some justification.
With Manchester City and Spurs both winning last night, any glimmer of hope Liverpool had of getting fourth spot for Champions League football has virtually ended. Liverpool can only achieve a maximum of 68 points from their last two matches, while Spurs are on 67 and City on 66 with two matches to go.
Man City and Spurs play this Wednesday in what will be a cup final for both. Should Spurs win they get fourth place. However, if Man City win, Spurs still have some hope should the Blues lose at West Ham United in the last round of matches next Sunday. Spurs travel to already-relegated Burnley in their last tie.
Either way, it means that Liverpool can now just take a break because the top seven teams in the English Premier League this season are guaranteed of Europa League qualification. It is a repeat of the situation last season.
This is because if the winner of the Carling Cup and FA Cup in England have already qualified for Europe (be it Champions League or Europa League), then an extra place will be allocated to the next top finisher in the league. MU won the Carling Cup last season while Chelsea won the FA Cup, thus the sixth and seventh teams in the league qualified for Europa League action.
MU have won the Carling Cup again and Chelsea are most likely repeat winners of the FA Cup, barring a miracle by Portsmouth, so there will be two extra places in the league again.

Actually, even if Portsmouth do win the FA Cup, the English FA have confirmed that they will not qualify for Europe because Portsmouth did not apply for a UEFA license earlier in the season, being cash-strapped as they are. The UEFA license is required for any team which thinks they have some chance of playing in Europe. Portsmouth obviously didn’t.
So, with Everton only getting a draw against Stoke City last night, the top seven positions in the EPL are now done and dusted.
The loser of this Wednesday’s clash between Man City and Spurs will join Liverpool and Aston Villa in the Europa League in the 2010/11 season.
This brings me back to tonight’s matches. It is likely to be the first time in history that a majority of Liverpool supporters in the stadium and around the world will be cheering the opposition, even with the opposition being Chelsea.
The ultimate prize for any MU fan is the ability to shout down Liverpool supporters with the records showing that the Red Devils have won more league titles than the Reds. So, after years of being second best to Liverpool in the category of total league titles, the tables will be turned even with Liverpool just getting a draw tonight.
As it is, equalling the 18 league title achievement of Liverpool at the end of the last season already meant a great deal to the MU fans, what more being numero uno.

But to be fair, even if MU did fail this time, one could certainly argue it was simply delaying the inevitable. As things stand, which team is more likely to win another title in the next few years? Liverpool fans might not like it, but most bets will be on MU to break the record sooner or later.
So, forgetting the issues between MU and Liverpool (and their respective supporters) for a moment, let us look at the match in itself.
Liverpool may have had a morale-boosting 4-0 win away to Burnley last Sunday, but they are surely a broken team at the moment, having come through 125 minutes of play in the Europa League semi-final encounter last Thursday night.
The Reds lost to Atletico Madrid on aggregate and were running ragged to the last minute hoping to get that one extra goal to be finalists. Tired legs already showed during the match and now, with a little bit more than 48 hours to recover, are they ready to face the might of Chelsea, 7-0 conquerors of Stoke last weekend?
One would be wise to remember that a rampant Chelsea is not good news for their next opponents.
On 27th March, Chelsea defeated Aston Villa 7-1 and travelled to Old Trafford the next weekend getting a 2-1 win over MU. Ironically, MU also won 4-0 away to Bolton the weekend before and lost to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final encounter a few days before hosting Chelsea.
So, it is likely that Chelsea will be inspired by the many Malaysian drivers on the road and not take ‘Red’ to mean ‘STOP’ in their quest for the title.
Whatever the result at Anfield tonight, the Red Devils will still be going all out for a win at Sunderland (kickoff 11pm, tonight). Sunderland haven’t lost at home since December when they lost to Aston Villa by 2 goals to nil. This was also only their second home defeat after losing to Chelsea 3-1 last August in the second week of the season.
Nothing short of three points will do if MU are to stay in the hunt for the title, so Alex Ferguson’s men will need to be on guard against an in-form Sunderland side. Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has not beaten his former mentor in 13 attempts and this will be their third meeting in the last three years in the closing stages of the season.
The Black Cats have won three out of four games in April, including a comfortable 3-1 win over high-flying Tottenham. Besides, that MU will be seeking a better performance in this reverse fixture against Sunderland, having escaped defeat at Old Trafford in the dying seconds of injury time in their match last October, courtesy of an Anton Ferdinand own goal.
What an important point it has turned out to be with that unintentional ‘gift’ from Rio’s brother. This is because without that point, even a draw between Chelsea and Liverpool would have helped the Blues to the title, given their superior goal difference.
Anyhow, MU are hot favourites to get the win they desire tonight. Their record at the Stadium of Light is strong – five wins and two draws from seven visits. After picking up six points against neighbours Manchester City and Spurs in the last couple of weeks, MU will be in a determined mood, more so if leaders Chelsea had already dropped points at Anfield earlier in the day.
For the record, Chelsea are at home to Wigan Athletic in the last round of matches next Sunday, while MU host Stoke City. Both matches almost certain wins for the top two, unless Wigan can pull off another upset like they did against the Blues earlier in the season.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Will Liverpool surrender the title to Chelsea ?

One of the silliest rumours that I’ve heard this season — and there have been many — is the suggestion that Liverpool will lie down and make things easy for Chelsea at Anfield this weekend because they don’t want Manchester United to win the English Premier League title.
As you will no doubt already be aware, Chelsea currently head the EPL table by one point from Manchester United with two games to play. The Blues travel to Liverpool tomorrow afternoon, knowing that victory will leave just a home game against Wigan between them and the trophy. And, considering Liverpool’s fierce rivalry with their near-neighbours from Manchester, some pundits have speculated that they might simply let Chelsea win.
In reality, that simply won’t happen. As I wrote in this column a few weeks ago, professional footballers do not generally share the prejudices of their supporters, deriving their motivation instead from more selfish ambitions, and the majority of Liverpool players really couldn’t care less who ends up winning the title out of Manchester United or Chelsea.
Liverpool’s only motivation for the game will be a personal, positive one — clinging on to the faint hope that they can still secure qualification for next season’s Champions’ League by finishing in the top four. To make that happen it’s simply imperative for the Reds to win both of their remaining games, and that will be the only thing on their minds. The identity of their opponents, and the potential ramifications of the result to other teams, will not enter into their thinking.
However, something that probably will play a significant part in determining Liverpool’s mental approach to the game is their shattering Europa League exit against Atletico Madrid on Thursday night. For a long time now, the Reds have known that the Europa League offered their only potential route to a trophy — and Liverpool certainly approached the season with that specific ambition of winning silverware. Now the dream is gone, it would be natural for them to be somewhat mentally flat and distracted from the challenge presented by Chelsea.
Thursday night’s defeat against Madrid, by virtue of the away goals rule, was such a devastating occasion there is a real danger that it could effectively mark the end of the Reds’ mental commitment to their season. A cloud of negativity has been swirling around Anfield from the very early weeks of the season, ever since it became apparent that they were unlikely to mount a serious challenge for the EPL title, and that cloud could now become overwhelmingly stifling as Liverpool come to terms with their midweek European exit.
But whatever effect the events of Thursday night may exert on the morale of the Liverpool players, a far more important factor in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s meeting will be how well Chelsea play. It’s quite simple: if Chelsea perform at their best, they will probably win.
That will surely be the message that Carlo Ancelotti will transmit to his team as they prepare for the game: forget the opposition; forget the atmosphere within the stadium; forget Manchester United. Just concentrate on the process of eleven men against eleven men.
Already this season Chelsea have beaten Manchester United twice, Arsenal twice and Liverpool once, and they are more than capable of completing a ‘clean sweep’ of the Big Four if they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by the significance of the event — they need to focus on playing the game, not playing the occasion. A man as experienced and clear-thinking of Ancelotti will surely ensure they have the right frame of mind and don’t allow themselves to become over-excited.
Fresh legs will be another factor to give Ancelotti’s side the edge. While Liverpool went through the tiring mental process of preparing for a major semi-final and then endured 120 minutes of gruelling physical endeavour, often chasing the ball as Madrid dominated possession, Chelsea’s players had the welcome opportunity to partake in some gentle training sessions, rest some aching limbs and receive treatment for niggling injuries.
At this stage of the season, towards the culmination of 10 months of relentless, constantly challenging physical work, nearly every player is carrying some kind of injury. A combination of rest and treatment allows most players to get through the pain for another couple of weeks, but Liverpool’s more punishing schedule will exacerbate the aches and pains felt by their players, while their last seven days of contrastingly peaceful activity should allow Chelsea to be a lot closer to 100 per cent.
So everything seems to be adding up to count against Liverpool: the lingering disappointment of Thursday night; the lack of purpose and direction for their remaining games; the punishing physical schedule they’ve undertaken, and, last but by no means least, the fact that Chelsea have a better group of players.
In a logical world, all of these factors should combine to result in a comfortable victory for Chelsea tomorrow; but we all know that football is not always logical. More often than not it is, but not always. So there remains a chance that Liverpool will somehow overcome the odds and further obstruct Chelsea’s progress towards the EPL trophy, and in this topsy-turvy season it appears that nothing will be straightforward.
Only one thing can be certain: if Chelsea do come away from Anfield victorious, it won’t be due to a lack of effort on the hosts’ behalf.
Away from Anfield, the most meaningful game of the weekend takes place at Eastlands, where fifth placed Manchester City host sixth placed Aston Villa. With Tottenham, current occupants of the all-important fourth spot, presented with a seemingly routine home game against Bolton, this is effectively a last chance for City and Villa to maintain their claims for the final Champions’ League qualifying berth.
Defeat for either side will almost certainly bring their challenge to an abrupt end, and in such a pressurised situation it’s a tough one to call. Home advantage could be enough to turn the tie in City’s favour, but they have a series of injury concerns and have been surrounded by continuing speculation over the future of their manager Roberto Mancini. City have home advantage, Villa have the momentum; it could go either way.