Friday, March 2, 2012
Corridor of uncertainty
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Harry Redknapp: Catch-22
Even Harry's most loyal media darlings have likely had a twinge of doubt in recent weeks, after the seemingly anointed England boss was on the receiving end of a disappointing result in the FA Cup followed by a cataclysmic (sit down, hyperbole police) outcome in the Premier League. Against League One Stevenage, Redknapp plumped for a 3-5-2 system that looked plain awkward, while his tactics for the trip to North London rivals Arsenal were also a trifle bamboozling. These are but whispers, but is Redknapp actually fit for what is deemed his inevitable purpose?
There may have been some logic in starting with a 4-4-2 against the Gunners, for they are the anti-defence, and hence Redknapp sought to exploit that glaring vulnerability. It appeared to work, too, as Spurs raced into a 2-0 lead. Yet it was a fortunate one as the home side carved out a number of attacking opportunities of their own, courtesy of a stranglehold on midfield coming from the numerical advantage. Indeed, Redknapp acknowledged: "I didn't feel comfortable at 2-0 up to be honest. They were creating chances at 2-0." A comment which, while characteristically open, is arguably troublesome in its acceptance of inevitability.
To his credit, Redknapp did respond at the interval by introducing the gumshield-wearing Sandro to 'beef up' his midfield; alas, it was to little effect. "It was one of those days for us" was the sign-off from the Spurs boss, who will be without this week's England captain Scott Parker for the meeting with Manchester United at White Hart Lane due to suspension. For Harry, the game presents an interesting opportunity to restore faith (which has only dwindled in modicum) and prove that the England manager's job is not turning his head by achieving a result that would ultimately reinforce his case to land the position.
Liverpool: Sing when you're winning
They may have done it the hard way against Cardiff in the Carling Cup final, but Reds fans will not care a jot about the method. That they lifted a trophy for the first time in six years upon their first trip to Wembley since 1996 was all that mattered for Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool. The popular belief now is that this glory will serve as a springboard to further overdue glories. And that may indeed turn out to be the case, as, in spite of the 'Mickey Mouse Cup' sniping, Arsenal supporters, among others, probably looked on enviously. Yet, a caveat: the 120 minutes last Sunday were further evidence of the Reds' shortcomings this season.
Yes, their old foe profligacy was again at play, as they had 37 shots on goal, but scored only twice. Granted, Arsenal, whom Dalglish's side host on Saturday lunchtime, have a porous defence, so avenues to goal should again be plentiful, but repeated wastefulness will not be tolerated in this fight for fourth place at Anfield. Fatigue might also be of concern, too. Having played a gruelling 90 minutes plus extra time, physically and mentally there could be strain. The former is exacerbated by an international break that saw Steven Gerrard gingerly removed after 30 minutes for England against Netherlands. Dalglish, for all his spikiness, would be within his rights to question his skipper's involvement.
Andre Villas-Boas is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The Portuguese coach is managing on numerous fronts, it seems; from ensuring he appeases club owner Roman Abramovich, to coping with the demands of his side's old guard. After leaving out the likes of Frank Lampard for the trip to Naples, Villas-Boas - who, remember, is charged with overseeing a complete overhaul at Stamford Bridge - restored the 33-year-old midfielder to his starting line-up for the home meeting with Bolton. Lampard performed well and, as is usually a given, scored. Instead of receiving pats on the back for choosing an XI that ensured Chelsea returned to winning ways, the reaction was one of 'I told you so' and further accusations that he has lost control of the dressing room. In a sea of uncertainty, Villas-Boas, whose side travel to West Brom, continues to swim against an unrelenting tide.
Aston Villa: Save yourselves
To regularly feature in this column is no positive thing. In Villa's last three Premier League fixtures, they have scored one goal while their manager, Alex McLeish, continues to persist with Emile Heskey on the wing: ergo, they are the least appealing team to watch in England's top division. The atmosphere among the fans is one of disillusionment, at best, with their scorn only compounded by the announcement of losses of almost £54 million for the year ended May 31, 2011. Though it is worth pointing out, amid the frenzy that being entrenched in negativity brings, that the figure excludes the sales of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, while record revenues were posted. Regardless, a trip to Blackburn awaits, when positivity from all concerned is required, as a relegation battle threatens to swallow them up.
Theo Walcott: Haters gonna hate
Football's a fickle world, and the aforementioned North London derby was an embodiment of that ethos. Arsenal's Theo Walcott was wretched in the first half, downright awful in fact. There were calls, from those (including yours truly) for him to be hooked off at half-time. Arsene Wenger, however, stuck by the England international, who duly rewarded that faith with a brace of high quality finishes in stark contrast to anything he had done in the first 45 minutes. It was a Jekyll & Hyde display from the youngster, but also from the fans after they segued from booing to cheering with ease. Still, there was foundation in the initial outpouring of criticism, for Walcott has been below par in large patches throughout his career thus far. He must demonstrate consistency if he is to convince his many doubters.
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