Friday, December 9, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: December 8, 12:52 PM UK
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: Andre Villas-Boas' tirade ahead of Chelsea's home game against the table-toppers, a fragile-looking Newcastle side as injuries take their toll, questions being asked of Manchester United, a cure for insomnia at Villa Park, and the tale of the "obvious goalscoring opportunity".
Andre Villas-Boas: Why, oh, why?
On Tuesday night, Chelsea did avoid disaster - and that is not hyperbole for we all know of owner Roman Abramovich's hang-up with the Champions League - as they put in a performance of yesteryear to overcome Valencia 3-0 and book their place in the knockout phase of football's most lucrative competition. Instead of revelling in the achievement, the pressure having been well and truly cranked up to 'vehement', Villas-Boas opted in his post-match press conference to launch a tirade at the media.
In his machine-gun English, he fired: "This has been a continuous persecution of Chelsea, continuous aggression of one club. We have become your target. We have to accept it. We've been continually chased by different kinds of people, but today we've given everyone, those critics, a slap in the face."
Maybe the proverbial middle finger should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certainly the words shouldn't be taken personally, as some might. Villas-Boas is a sharp man, one most want to do well in fact, in spite of what he pressed upon the press this midweek. Few have been shrieking from the London bridges for his obituary, this is merely a media familiar with how things work at Stamford Bridge under their trigger-happy owner. And the questions asked of the Portuguese's team have been valid, for the results have been, by Chelsea's standards, questionable. Now, though, they are improving - in this season-defining December, the first two tests have both been passed by the same scoreline, although in different manners.
In the St James' Park success, 38 shots were had in total by both sides and the possession evenly split. Yet versus Valencia, the Spaniards enjoyed 69% possession of the ball, while the home side played a defensive line as deep as the Blue sea. They were disciplined. They were organised. They were efficient in their attacking. They were familiar. Yes, as much as one is loathe to compare Villas-Boas with Jose Mourinho, sometimes instances are too glaring to ignore. It was intriguing that a man charged with rejuvenating a squad, of implementing his own methods, turned to tactics much anti his usual values when the situation called for it. This is not a criticism, if anything it shows flexibility. And the coach's call to leave Frank Lampard benched reverberated his brass. Villas-Boas is a man doing things his way, and, ultimately, external views are irrelevant. The only opinion that matters is that of Roman, who will watch his team face Manchester City on Monday.
Newcastle: Surveying the damage
The dream might be over. Newcastle have been a revelation built on a backline of consistency, but that foundation has crumbled. Last weekend, Fabricio Coloccini, arguably the defender of the season thus far, was struck down with a thigh strain. Then, Steven Taylor, also impressive to date, ruptured his Achilles. The lungs of a five-piece chest, that includes their outstanding goalkeeper Tim Krul, have been ripped out, and now the pressure intensifies on a beating Dutchman. For all the praise directed at the Magpies manager, Alan Pardew, of his summer business, his defence now looks unsound. It would indeed seem that Pardew failed to plan for the winter months, when the building blocks would be most susceptible to decay.
Yet matters are not bordering on the nightmarish at the Mike Ashley Arena. Far from it. The Magpies are still James perched sixth in England's top flight, level on points with Arsenal and three ahead of Liverpool, their current tally 14 short of the magic 40 that is said to guarantee safety - there are still 24 matches to play. Furthermore, having endured three gruelling examinations, Newcastle's next quartet of matches is more in keeping with this time of year, as Norwich, Swansea, West Brom and Bolton should, on paper, should be more giving. This next chapter is a new test for Pardew and his troops, one the boss will be wary of but perhaps comforted in the knowledge that January is only round the corner, and with it the opportunity to survey the damage and plug the leaks.
Manchester United: Take notice, AVB
The champions' engine had been making an awful racket, a sort of squeaking noise as they ground out insipid 1-0 victories. They were getting from A to B, but the journey was hardly smooth. And then the wheels fell off. Their rivals City's failure to progress to the next round of the Champions League was no surprise, their group having been tough and it being their debut in the competition. United, though, were rightly expected to make light work of Benfica, FC Basel and Otelul Galati. Yet, they blew it.
Now the questions are being asked - you see, AVB, it's not just Chelsea - of where next for United. The pedant's answer is Wolves at home. Perhaps now that Wayne Rooney has his appeal-shaped monkey off his back, he will return to scoring ways, to help restore the Red Devils' recently absent swagger. But one fears the seemingly lengthy absence of Nemanja Vidic is likely to be detrimental in the realms of severe, for he has been the glue holding the backline together. The picture being painted of a dynasty over at Old Trafford is exaggeration, although of genuine concern for Sir Alex Ferguson is that this high-profile collapse has seemed only a matter of time.
Aston Villa: Uninspired
'Unbeaten into submission' was the sub-header for a September edition of Premier League Spotlight, referring to the cure for insomnia that is the football played under Alex McLeish. Since then, the number to fall into an uninspired slumber has multiplied, supporters only groggily opening an eye to see if the Scot remains in charge. The least surprising statistic of the season so far is that half of Villa's 14 matches this term have ended in stalemates. Certainly the Midlands have been subjected to mediocrity. That the club's hierarchy were prepared to face vociferous adversity in bringing in a coach - that got his previous side relegated - from bitter rivals Birmingham was a bold move to make. Ironically, such cavalier tactics are not associated with the man they acquired. Out-of-form Bolton await Villa this weekend, when a run of one victory in seven outings must be resolved to shake the growing doubters from there stupor.
Referees: Consistently inconsistent
The most recent Premier League round of fixtures was not famous for its blemish-free officiating. While there is a book of footballing rules, some of those bullet points inscribed therein are subject to interpretation. The case in point: "Denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick". And so Mike Dean brandished yellow as David Luiz brought down Demba Ba 20 yards out from goal, yet Stuart Attwell flicked red as Gary Cahill as he felled Scott Parker near the halfway line. The latter dismissal, which occurred on 18 minutes, has been rescinded by the Football Association, which is scant consolation for Bolton, who went on to lose that game against Tottenham 3-0. It is suggested Attwell - he of the infamous 'ghost goal' - has been demoted to fourth-official duty this weekend as punishment for his indefensible decision. Attwell left red-faced on two counts, then.
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