For the 32 clubs involved, the UEFA Champions League group stage draw is perhaps the most anticipated date of the football calendar not to involve an actual football.
It’s an occasion when each club learns who they’ll face in the first stage of a competition on which so much importance is placed – not only due to its prestige, but also its financial benefits.
There’s often at least one group which is considered the “group of death” due to the strength of either three or four clubs involved, guaranteeing the early elimination of one of those clubs.
Whilst I strongly disagree with the suggestion that this year’s so-called “group of death” is that which brought Man City, Barcelona, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Celtic together, it’s nonetheless a fascinating group that reunites a series of former colleagues and rivals.
The most high profile is the return of Pep Guardiola to Barcelona, the club where he made his name as a manager and lifted two Champions League titles during a three year spell in charge.
Despite taking over at Bayern Munich at a time when the German club had arguably surpassed Barcelona as the continent’s most feared side, Guardiola failed to experience a Champions League final – comprehensively beaten in semi finals against Real Madrid and Barcelona in his first two seasons, then seeing his side unable to capitalise on a dominant display against Atletico Madrid in an away goals loss at the same stage last season.
There will inevitably be a huge amount of pressure on Guardiola to maintain the gradual progress which Man City have made in the competition, and although the Spaniard has already experienced a return to the Camp Nou as a visiting manager, it won’t be a place he’d have chosen to visit so early in the competition.
Also meeting again will be two of Brendan Rodgers’ former stars at Liverpool, with the £124million pair of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling both set to be reunited with the manager who sold them to their current clubs.
Rodgers returned to management with Celtic in the summer, and successfully guided his new team into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in three years.
Having entered the draw as one of the lowest ranked clubs, there’ll be less expectation of Celtic than the other three teams in the group, though there have been many famous European nights at Celtic Park, and there’s always a possibility of the home side rising to the occasion and adding to the list of shock results in the competition.
The group’s other team, Borussia Moenchengladbach, also have recent history with both Man City and their new manager, and proved to be a thorn in the side of Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, with two wins and two draws in the last four Bundesliga meetings. Man City had more success against Borussia, winning both group games between the sides during last season’s Champions League group stage.
City had to demonstrate their character to overturn a 1-0 deficit in Germany, before a comfortable home win in the last round of group games, having already guaranteed qualification from the group.
Rematches and personal reunions will occur in every round of Group C games, but the amount of quality and experience in the squads of Barcelona and Man City suggests that anything less than a top two placing for those teams would be a surprise.
It’s difficult to put into words my disappointment with the result of last week’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.
For much of the campaign, it seemed unlikely that the result would be anything other than United Kingdom remaining part of a union which the country has been part of for 43 years.
Aside from avoiding a future path packed with uncertainty, such an outcome would have been the same as if no referendum had taken place at all. And with so many people undecided, or simply not qualified to make a confident judgement on such an important issue, it would at least have allowed more time to get to grips with the facts, and to understand the consequences better.
This is especially true given the dreadful way in which the issues were communicated – with both sides guilty to some degree, but the leave campaign undoubtedly causing greater confusion.
Each argument put forward by the remain camp that warned of a dangerous consequence of leaving the EU was met with a simple accusation of scaremongering. And even the statements released by normally-trusted independent bodies were undermined by accusations that the advice wasn’t impartial and only intended to support the “remain” campaign.
It was as if the purpose was to discredit every claim by people qualified to offer analysis of the issues, but without countering the claims with any genuine substance. Over-simplified claims relating to a number of topics that were important to voters were repeated, and there was little or no attempts to provide honest explanations of the risks involved with leaving the EU, nor provide any balanced arguments.
This wasn’t as true of the “remain” campaigners, who often spoke of the imperfections of the EU set-up and by no means portrayed the organisation as being without its problems. The campaign was fought on the basis of it being in Britain’s very best interests to remain a member in spite of the issues.
But that message was drowned out by the momentum being gathered by a growing number of voters subscribing to the idea that the EU was holding the country back.
With expert opinion disregarded as being untrustworthy on the basis of a failure to forecast the global credit collapse of the last decade, it was, ironically, characters of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who more and more people started listening to, despite their campaign being more about securing votes to realise a political agenda than to openly and honestly provide information on the risks associated with leaving.
The main messages which ultimately delivered a successful campaign centred around the UK’s EU membership fee, immigration, big business, and UK sovereignty of laws.
The amount of money Britain pays to retain its membership was used purely to suggest that it could be spent on the NHS instead. But the figure used failed to take into account the money which Britain receives from the EU, as well as the fact that the money wouldn’t necessarily be available anyway, should the economy experience even the slightest weakening due to an EU exit.
Some of the most deprived areas of the country have been among the biggest beneficiaries of EU funding, as have small businesses and universities, who receive hundreds of millions of pounds towards research projects which include research into treatments for rare medical conditions. For the same levels of funding to continue, the Government could be forced to introduce further austerity measures in order to find the finances needed.
On the issue of European laws being imposed on Britain, this was also simplified to suggest that Britain is forced, against the will of its elected politicians, to adopt a whole series of laws which wouldn’t otherwise be in place.
The precise number of laws that have been passed down over time is unknown, but among the many which do exist are a large number of laws which serve to benefit UK citizens. The decision to leave now hands control of those laws to a Conservative government, who won’t necessarily retain all of the laws which protect the rights of people – whether in general life or at work.
Immigration was another hotly-debated topic, and potentially the issue which, more than any other, swayed people towards voting to leave. Immigration would be better controlled and therefore would reduce once we were out of the European Union, said the campaigners.
But rarely, on the “leave” side, was there any mention of David Cameron’s deal earlier this year which would ensure that in-work benefits could not be immediately claimed by people migrating to the UK. It was due to take effect following the referendum and would have partly addressed one of the very problems being raised by the “leave” campaign.
The deal was subject to UK remaining an EU member, however, and will no longer be introduced. Instead, there is a risk of UK Border Agency staff being relocated from the French border at Calais, to Dover – making it easier to cross the channel and make it onto British soil.
And one final issue causing a fuss was the big businesses, who were used to push voters towards the “leave” option. After all, if the big business leaders were all campaigning to stay, then it must be clear that EU membership exists as a mechanism to benefit the wealthiest in society – at the expense of the poor. Therefore, the best way to hurt big business executives would be vote in the opposite way.
At least a couple of flaws exist in that argument. Firstly, top managers and directors of large organisations rely on their businesses being successful in order to continue picking up bonuses year after year. And if their businesses suffered, it wouldn’t be the people at the top who would be the very first to be affected, but rather the tens, hundreds or even thousands of workers at the opposite end of the organisational pyramid, whose jobs would be placed at risk.
Having now voted to leave, the consequences of doing so are becoming more apparent as the days go by, and will continue to do so during the weeks and months ahead.
One of the most talked-about topics already is the UK’s access to the European Single Market, which allows free trade between countries who are signed up to it. Being a member of the EU is not a pre-requisite to accessing the single market; Norway and Switzerland, both non-EU members, are two examples.
Access is not free, however, and the amount which the UK would have to contribute for it to continue enjoying the benefits of free trade within the world’s largest economy will involve a cost which could end up being a high percentage of the current outlay to the EU’s coffers.
Also, access to the single market would be permitted only by accepting other terms, one of which would certainly be to allow the free movement of people – another blow to the hopes of those who thought that leaving the EU would enable Britain to have the best of both worlds. Britain would be subject to EU trading laws, but would no longer be able to participate in writing them.
Meanwhile, business-related negotiations would involve business leaders, who will demand that the UK Government does whatever is needed to maintain access to the single market. Failure to do so could result in some businesses relocating to other European countries, damaging the UK economy and potentially resulting in job losses.
So all in all, Britain’s exit could be a pretty disastrous outcome for those thought that Britain could reduce immigration, write its own laws, retain economic growth whilst bringing the big business executives back down to earth, and still have a huge pot of money left over each week to spend on the NHS.
After all the debating, perhaps the eventual outcome will ultimately end up pleasing no-one.
There were huge contrasts in the reaction to Jose Mourinho’s sacking as Chelsea manager on Thursday.
Fans of Chelsea were understandably disappointed that the man who led the club during last season’s title win had now been removed as club manager. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s detractors – of which he has seen a growing number this season following a number of unsavoury incidents – were quick to celebrate some misfortune by a man who enjoys highlighting his successes, as well as drawing attention to the perceived failures of rivals.
Personally, I was disappointed in the sacking, and for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, Chelsea looked to have made some progress in the way that, as a club, they deal with disappointments on the pitch. Rather than sack Mourinho in the earlier stages of Chelsea’s ongoing run of poor form, there was a greater amount of support given to the manager than has so often been the case.
This is unusual in modern football, but a necessary step towards stability. Every club will go through a rough spell of form from time to time, and fail to get results that are sought, but the measure of the character of all involved is in the subsequent response.
Wigan and, more recently, Leicester are two examples of how trusting in the manager and players to come through bad patches can pay greater dividends than chopping and changing at the first sign of trouble. On the other hand, there are many examples of clubs who have gone into freefall – over a period of a few seasons, if not immediately – due to a hire-and-fire mentality of the owners.
One reason why Roman Abramovich is perhaps not too worried about stability is that Chelsea tend to recover quite quickly, and their talented squad of players generally respond well to whichever high profile replacement is brought into the club.
Avram Grant was initially given the manager’s job until the end of the 2007-08 season following Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea departure, and went on to lead the club to their first Champions League Final. Roberto Di Matteo went one better as caretaker manager in 2012, while Rafa Benitez earnt Roman Abramovich his only other piece of European silverware whilst appointed manager on a short term contract.
It’s likely that Guus Hiddink, if appointed for a second time at Stamford Bridge, will do just fine, too. The squad he takes charge of are not lacking in quality and in a season that has seen more unusual results than usual, there’s certainly enough games left for Chelsea to close the gap on teams occupying the European places.
But the other reason for hoping Mourinho stayed at Chelsea was to see how he coped with a challenge unlike any he has faced before.
Mourinho has been accustomed to spending extravagent sums of money at each of the clubs he has managed since first arriving at Chelsea – despite usually inheriting squads that are already packed full of quality players.
A great motivator Mourinho may be when things are going well, but the situation that Chelsea are in is something that Mourinho has never previously had to deal with.
With squads of powerful, talented players, Mourinho’s teams often start seasons so strongly that they are out of sight and carry an aura of invincibility with them through the remainder of the season. Mourinho manages to create a belief in his team that ensures a high level of confidence, and opponents often play as if they know they’re inferior.
Something has clearly gone wrong this season based on the difficulty that Mourinho has had in coming close to replicating last year’s success, with all of the club’s most influential players underperforming. To help the team regain confidence and earn the kind of results that a squad of Chelsea’s ability should be achieving, would give added ammunition for those claiming Mourinho to be one of the best managers of all time.
But without demonstarting the ability to come through such a challenge, there will remain a question mark over whether Mourinho is capable of overseeing that kind of situation without always having to resort to big money signings to address any issue.
Sacking Mourinho now has deprived fans of observing a top manager deal with a serious problem of an unfamiliar nature. It’s also given Mourinho a bit of an easy way out, and he’ll no doubt point to factors other than himself as the reasons behind Chelsea’s dramatic demise – be it refereeing decisions or underperforming players.
So Mourinho leaves Chelsea with a slightly bruised reputation, but nothing that will prevent one of Europe’s biggest clubs from appointing him as their manager – probably within a matter of months.
And as for Chelsea? They’ll probably be just fine, too. With maybe a trophy or two to show off to rival fans revelling in their so-called demise.
Buying gifts should be simple, but the weeks leading up to Christmas seem to cause so much stress for many people.
Budgets are stretched to breaking point as credit cards are filled up, and the amount of trips to shopping centres and cities that are required is seemingly endless – beginning long before December, and not complete until hours before Christmas day itself.
Whether due to poor planning, or difficulty in getting the perfect gift, the high streets are filled with frantic shoppers fighting against the clock as they aim to finish things in time.
Here’s some tips that may help alleviate some of the stresses that can come with Christmas shopping.
1. Have an idea of what you plan to buy – and don’t go overboard. It might be tempting to add one little extra thing for one person, but that quickly turns into something extra for everyone – just to make sure that the value spent on each person is exactly the same.
2. Buy only for who you want to – and ignore any family politics that places an unspoken pressure on you to buy for others out of duty alone.
3. Spend only what you can afford to – and and choose to. As above, resist the temptation to adhere to pressure to spend more than you can comfortably afford. The intended recipient may well return a gift to you of greater value, but if that’s the case, then it should be assumed that they themselves are comfortably able to do that – and that they genuinely want to spend such an amount. If either of those things aren’t the case, that’s their problem – and not your responsibility to conform to their expectations.
4. Don’t expect something back from someone who you have bought for. This ties in with the above, but from the other person’s perspective. Everyone has differing finances, financial commitments and priorities. Throw in the matter of different sizes of families, in-laws and all, and there’s infinite combinations of factors why one person is happy and able to spend money, and another is not. It shouldn’t necessarily be taken personally.
5. Don’t lose sight of the enjoyment of buying gifts for loved ones, and seeing them happy to receive the gifts. If shopping for gifts seems like a never-ending chore, you’re probably best to choose a different approach in future. Either buy differently, such as a gift voucher, or consider not buying anything at all if it really is a burden. Retailers may not thank you, nor would a Government which seems to think that getting everyone out and into the shops is the be-all and end-all of the economy, but you’ll probably be less stressed, and perhaps sleep better.
Regardless of whether Christmas is celebrated for religious reasons, or as a time for getting together with family and friends, preparing for it should never leave you weary. So get organized, get sensible, live within your means, and make it a memorable time to enjoy!
Since the birth of a rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool a little more than a decade ago, there has rarely been an insignificant fixture between the two teams.
Liverpool’s trio of semi final wins in the Champions League and FA Cup twice denied Jose Mourinho an opportunity to contest a European Cup final with Chelsea, and also a chance to win the club’s first league and cup double.
Chelsea’s successes in the fixture include the aggregate victories secured over Liverpool in the Champions League in 2008 and 2009, the former of which denied a Liverpool v Man United final. In 2010, Carlo Ancelotti’s league and cup double winning side all but secured the title with a win at Anfield, and a famous Chelsea win on the same ground in May 2014, saw Mourinho’s team issue a blow that handed the initiative back to Manchester City in a title race that Liverpool led with only a week of the season to play.
That Liverpool finished ahead of Chelsea for only the second time in 12 seasons was of no consolation, and order was restored last season with Chelsea comfortably claiming a fourth Premier League title as Liverpool slumped to a sixth place finish.
Neither side have impressed this year, but it’s the form of Chelsea that has dominated the headlines so far, having endured the worst start to a season of any team defending a league title in the Premier League era.
An early exit in the League Cup this week won’t do anything to ease the pressure on both the team and its manager, but a home match against Liverpool could be a perfect fixture in which to earn a morale-boosting win.
Liverpool started the season well, but currently sit in mid-table, with performances having deserved nothing more. A record of just two defeats in 15 competitive games that have included trips to Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Man United would ordinarily represent a good return, but a flurry of tame draws against supposedly weaker opponents has been the main theme of Liverpool’s season so far.
With so many points dropped by teams who would be expected to be in contention for the top four, it could be considered a missed opportunity that Liverpool haven’t capitalized and taken the chance to put even more pressure on the likes of a struggling Chelsea.
That’s why the meeting between the two is such a big game already, for as poor as Chelsea have been, they’ll move above Liverpool in the league with a win on Saturday. And most neutral fans would still consider the Stamford Bridge side to be stronger than Liverpool as the season progresses.
A win for Liverpool meanwhile would open up a gap of six points between the teams, and pile even more misery on a club that is experiencing more than most in the Premier League.
With a successful defence of the title looking less and less likely, the target for now is fourth place, and although Jose Mourinho is making no guarantees of securing a Champions League place for next season, there’s no reason to believe that it’s not still a realistic possibility with so much of the season remaining.
But a defeat to Liverpool – a side with similar ambitions – would be a huge setback, and that’s why tomorrow’s lunchtime fixture is one of the biggest games so far this season.
One thing that cannot be levelled at La Liga this season is a lack of drama, an often cited reason from fans with a strong preference for the English Premier League.
Just as in England, the table is topped by one of the title favourites, but there are also some unlikely clubs in the mix, namely Celta Vigo and Villarreal.
Neither side can hardly be described as minnows, but their presence amongst the top four is one of the stories of the season so far – not least on the back of Celta’s 4-1 demolition of Barcelona that affords them more credit.
In winning at Villareal on Sunday, Celta went level on points with Real Madrid and Barcelona, and in the process denied their hosts the opportunity to themselves top the table.
A day earlier, Barca’s class had eventually seen off the bold approach adopted by Rayo Vallecano, who continue to persist with an all-out-attacking strategy, no matter where or who they are playing.
A 6-1 loss in last year’s corresponding fixture was no reflection of how well Rayo performed in the attacking third of the pitch, and a 5-2 loss at the Camp Nou this season followed another competent display at one end of the pitch whilst perfectly demonstrating the art of kamikaze defending and giving away goalscoring chances too easily at the other.
The drama continued on Sunday night in Galicia, where La Coruna came from two goals down to earn a point in a fiercely contested match against Athletic Bilbao, played out in the terrific atmosphere of a packed Riazor stadium.
Athletic continue to look much better than their league position suggests, but have struggled to collect victories since their explosive start to the Spanish season when they hammered Barcelona in the Super Cup.
But the pick of the round was saved for last night’s match at El Molinon, with Sporting Gijon entertaining bottom-of-the-table Granada.
Sporting began strongly and, after an early goal, looked in the mood to add to the scoreline and put in a dominant showing. But a scrappy equaliser helped Granada settle into the match and from then on it was end-to-end for the duration.
Two goals from distance put the visitors in total control, before a sending off and a consolation strike with minutes to spare gave Gijon late hope of salvaging something.
Surviving the five minutes of allotted time with ten men was likely to be enough of a challenge for Granada, though the task became even more difficult when a second yellow card was awarded to Doria for time-wasting at a free kick, not only of reducing Granada’s numbers to eight outfield players but also in extending the amount of time to be added on.
And as the clock edged towards the end of a sixth minute of added time, a stunning strike by Gijon’s Miguel Angel Guerrero made it 3-3.
It was a fitting finale to a weekend that had already contained so much drama already, and the best advert to anyone doubting the appeal and excitement of arguably Europe’s strongest league.
The appointment of a new manager typically leads to an immediate impact, and Jurgen Klopp’s opening match in charge of Liverpool was no exception to that trend.
Despite a promising start to the season, the Reds have looked distinctly average in most games since a impressive performance at Arsenal had led to genuine hope that the current season would see a big improvement on last year’s campaign, and ease the pressure on Brendan Rodgers.
Doubts were cast over the future of Rodgers during the summer, but amongst the split in opinion, I was always of the belief that he’d done enough overall to earn a chance to oversee a turnaround in performances.
Sadly, there have been no signs that the desired improvement was ever likely to fully materialise, and although a tough run of away games was dealt to Liverpool when the fixtures were announced, it’s been the team’s home form that has caused most concern, with five of the opening nine league points dropped at Anfield, and below-average showings in the two cup matches.
With frustration increasing among a growing number of supporters, it was therefore the right time for the board to make a change, and the arrival of a high-profile manager with a good degree of experience, and hungry to build on previous successes will reveal a lot about the squad that has been inherited. Too many players have performed poorly on too many occasions, with some guilty of lacking the commitment expected of them even in the biggest of games.
Klopp has already set about introducing a high intensity pressing game, with players expected to cover much more ground that they’ve become used to – not only in recent weeks, but during the concluding weeks of last season, too.
A draw away to Spurs is a solid start, even if the home side were marginally the better team. But the improved attitude is the biggest positive to take from the weekend.
More of the same will be expected of any player wishing to remain at the club, and if distances covered in a match are to be one measure of the effort put in, there’ll be nowhere to hide over the coming weeks for any of Anfield’s underperformers.
As work continues over the summer to rebuild the Anfield Road end of Liverpool’s famous stadium, it’s the rebuilding of the squad that fans will be more eager to keep an eye on.
In May 2014, things at Anfield looked to be heading in a positive direction and there was plenty of optimism among supporters for what was to follow.
A title challenge that failed to result in silverware was nevertheless a sign of progress – and an indication that the team, and the club, were again challenging with the country’s best.
There was never any suggestion that a splendid 2013/14 season had instantly put Liverpool at the same level as Man City or Chelsea, but there was genuine belief that, at the very least, competing with Arsenal and Man United would be possible to maintain.
The departure of Suarez during the summer was a blow to Liverpool’s chances of success but, as key as Suarez was the the team in helping Liverpool to second place, the emphasis was always on team, and contributions from all of the attacking talent played as much a part.
Less than twelve months later, and the outlook could barely be more of a contrast.
Daniel Sturridge, the club’s top striker, has spent almost the entire season either injured, or returning from injury and struggling for fitness. Sturridge is currently out of action and won’t feature until at least early Autumn.
Also missing from next season onwards will be club captain Steven Gerrard, who has already announced his departure, having not been offered a contract extension.
And Raheem Sterling, another of the stars of last year, is refusing to commit his future to the club, and seems increasing likely to try and force through a transfer away from the club during the summer.
Sterling remains one of the most exciting young talents in the English game, but there are definitely some question marks that exist – not only over his ability to realise his potential, but on his attitude, too.
For Sterling to consider himself as worthy of playing for one of the continent’s elite teams suggests a vastly-overinflated self-opinion. Very few fans around the country would think of Sterling as anything more than a very special talent who has potential for a big future.
But despite playing regular first team football for three years, after making his debut under Kenny Dalglish during the 2011/12 season, it’s hard to recall many big matches during which he’s been the difference. Progress in Sterling’s game has unquestionably been much more gradual than the recent actions by him and his agent would suggest.
Should the 20-year-old depart, it would certainly weaken the Liverpool team, but the impact wouldn’t be as great as losing Suarez or Sturridge to the team.
Of more concern would be how wisely the transfer fee was reinvested – and that’s one of the reasons that there are even supporters doubting the position of Brendan Rodgers as manager.
More than £100million was spent last summer, though none of the players brought in have justified their price tags – something which is a recurring theme under the ownership of John Henry and FSG. There can be no accusations that the US owners have failed to support whichever manager has been in charge, as both Dalglish and Rodgers have had large sums of money available to them.
But the success rate of the players brought in has been unacceptably low for a club hoping to compete regularly for the title.
Rafa Benitez’s transfer record always divides opinion, but even though mistakes were made – as all manager’s are guilty of, to varying degrees – the success rate of the players signed for larger fees was good. The likes of Xabi Alonso, Mascherano and Torres were all top players, and offered instant improvement to the team, before establishing themselves as world class in their respective positions.
Of the players signed for £20million or more in the last four years, only Suarez is in that bracket, whilst Henderson has also developed into a reliable first team player.
But when considering that the most obvious other major successes – Coutinho and Sturridge – were signed for a combined total of £20million, it leaves a huge amount of money which has been spent on a long list players who simply haven’t proved reasonable value for money.
Having undergone a major team/squad rebuilding programme under Kenny Dalglish following the loss of key players during the disastrous tenure of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, a similar task was required from Brendan Rodgers when it became clear that too many of Dalglish’s signings weren’t of the quality needed to break back into the top four.
Rodgers can at least claim credit for overseeing a successful return to the Champions League, but there’s a feeling, only a year down the line, that Liverpool may yet again have to embark on a major squad rebuilding exercise.
Looking up at this year’s Premier League top four, Liverpool will know that there’s no evidence that any of the teams who will go into the Champions League next season are going to be any weaker next season.
And that means that more than ever, Liverpool’s transfer dealings need to be a success – or the team rebuilding work is likely to continue long after the work on the stadium is completed.
If deciding the Premier League’s player of the year is a difficult task, then singling out the top manager is an altogether more complex decision.
Wildly different expectations and a large gulf in available budgets are two of the factors that have to be taken into account. Other considerations relate to the level of pressure, the amount of injuries, and even dealing with any bad luck that has occurred; after all, how many times has a manager lost their job on the back of a series of good performances that simply lacked a bit of fortune when it came to securing the points?
The one obvious candidate each year is the manager of the champions. However, so comfortable has Chelsea’s title win been this season that Jose Mourinho’s outstanding qualities as a manager really haven’t been tested as much as they may have, had there been even one club challenging for top spot.
A strong start was enough to gain distance over the stuttering sides of Arsenal, Man City and Man United. Barring a dramatic collapse at Stamford Bridge, there was never a real threat that the sides below them were capable of performing consistently enough to overturn the deficit.
That’s no criticism of Mourinho, who has done a fine job this season with Chelsea, and it’s no fault of his that the West-Londoners haven’t been pushed by any of the teams expected to challenge.
Elsewhere in the top half, Ronald Koeman and Garry Monk have each done fantastic jobs with Southampton and Swansea respectively, and achieved more than what would have been expected – particularly having both lost important players.
And so to the clubs in the bottom half. Tony Pulis was voted as last year’s manager of the year for his efforts in steering Crystal Palace away from the relegation zone and ultimately achieving a mid-table finish. On that basis, it’s possible to argue the same case for Alan Pardew this year, with the former Newcastle boss having done a similar job.
Pardew’s success at Palace came shortly on the back of a fine run of form which took Newcastle into 5th place at the end of November, even amidst the backdrop of a fierce campaign from supporters who wanted him sacked.
Despite relegation, Sean Dyche has led Burnley well, and for most of the season ensured that the club were within touching distance of getting out of the bottom three.
For a side who were given no chance by many people after their promotion last season, it still represents a decent campaign, and should Burnley win promotion back into the Premier League next season, there’s every chance that a more experienced team would finish outside of the bottom three.
Despite the efforts of Dyche and his Burnley team, it wouldn’t be right to give the top award to a manager whose team had been relegated, and for that reason my choice would be the Leicester boss, Nigel Pearson.
In spite of an infamous press conference during the latter stages of the season when Pearson claimed that the team had received little credit, there have certainly been admirers of a team which, for the most part of the season, has done far better than people were expecting.
The reality did look grim for Leicester towards the end of March though, when the club sat bottom of the league, seven points behind Sunderland, and nine behind Hull City and Aston Villa with only nine games to play. But Leicester put together a remarkable run of 6 wins out of 7 (only failing to beat the champions, Chelsea), to move clear of danger.
Another point last weekend saw Leicester double their points tally for the season in just six weeks, and guarantee that they’ll be in the Premier League again next season.
The club’s survival in the top flight has some similarities to Wigan’s remarkable 2010-11 season when, after months of persisting with good football despite not being rewarded with the points it deserved, a dramatic change in fortune occurred at the most important time of the year, and Wigan put together a winning run that kept the club from relegation with a game to spare.
In both cases, the managers deserve enormous credit, but so too do their chairmen. In the cut-throat world of football management, many club bosses would have quickly moved to change the manager, thinking it was the only solution to a growing threat of relegation.
Even with so many examples of clubs plummeting into much deeper trouble after changing a manager at the first sign of a perceived crisis, it seems that in the modern game, persisting with a manager who has the support of the squad, though simply isn’t getting the results, is a much more difficult decision for a chairman to make.
That Leicester kept faith in Nigel Pearson and gave him the opportunity to keep the team up was good to see, and with the decision having paid off, should earn Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha a big shout for chairman of the year.
But the bulk of the credit for Leicester’s achievements rest with the players and the manager, and having missed out on the Premier League’s Manager of the Season award – which went to Mourinho earlier this week – Pearson’s contribution this season deserves to be recognised at the League Managers Association awards when they’re handed out next week.
With Barcelona securing their place in the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final on Tuesday night, Real Madrid last night had the chance to set up a fixture involving the two clubs that arguably make up the biggest rivalry in football.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s first half penalty put Carlo Ancelotti’s men en route to overturning their first leg deficit against Juventus, but it was cancelled out on the night by Alvaro Morata, whose goal was decisive in winning the tie for the Italian Champions.
Not only did it end Real Madrid’s hopes of being the first team to successfully defend the trophy in the era of the Champions League, but it denied football fans a chance to witness a mouth-watering ‘El Clasico’ in the season’s finale in Berlin next month.
It’s not the first time that the two bitter rivals have missed out on facing each other in the final. Here are five other occasions that have almost led to some of European football’s biggest rivalries in the Champions League final.
2000 Real Madrid v Barcelona
When Real Madrid completed an aggregate win over Bayern Munich in their semi final, attention turned to the second leg of Barcelona v Valencia. It was already guaranteed to be an all-Spanish fixture in Paris, but Barcelona had to overcome a 4-1 first leg hammering.
At the Camp Nou, there was little sign that there would be a successful comeback, and Gaizka Mendieta’s second half opener for Valencia virtually killed off any Barcelona dreams of a miracle.
The Catalans did manage to turn the game around on the night, but were soundly beaten over the two legs.
2007 Liverpool v Man United
Man United had demolished Roma in the quarter final, and were paired with another team from Serie A in the last four: AC Milan.
Inconsistent in the Italian league, where they were struggling to secure a place in the following season’s Champions League, and not much more convincing in Europe, Milan were considered underdogs against a Man United team on the verge of claiming the Premier League title.
A 3-2 win for Man United in the first leg was a result that flattered a Milan side heavily reliant on the brilliance of Kaka. And after Liverpool had overturned a first leg defeat to knock out Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, it looked likely that an Athens final against Man United would be on the cards.
But Milan had other ideas, and after scoring early in the game to lead on aggregate, eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
2008 Man United v Liverpool
For the third time in four years, Liverpool and Chelsea met in a semi final of the Champions League. And, as English sides continued to dominate the latter stages, Man United made up the same English trio as in the last four only a year earlier.
Completing the semi-final lineup was Barcelona, and despite the attacking talent on display from both teams, it was a single second leg goal by Paul Scholes that settled the tie and took United to Moscow.
The other tie was even closer still.
Liverpool were denied a first leg win when a 94th minute own goal by John Arne Riise gifted Chelsea a 1-1 draw at Anfield.
The goal proved costly, and after Liverpool earned a draw after a closely-fought 90 minutes in the return leg, the Reds trailed 3-1 by half time in extra time. A late Ryan Babel goal put Liverpool within a goal of winning the tie on away goals, but Chelsea held on to deny a Champions League final showdown between England’s two most successful teams.
2012 Real Madrid v Barcelona
Having met each other in the 2010/11 semi final in Jose Mourinho’s first season, Barcelona and Real Madrid were kept apart in the draw twelve months later, with both teams considered strong favourites to win their respective ties.
Single-goal first leg defeats for both teams weren’t considered to be too damaging to the prospect of Spain’s top two contesting the final, with each club playing their away fixtures first.
However, the second legs were disastrous for anyone hoping to see the famous El Clasico fixture played out in a Munich final.
Barcelona appeared certain to send Chelsea crashing out after earning a 2-0 lead – and a one-man advantage following John Terry’s dismissal. But after an inspired performance from Chelsea ‘keeper Petr Cech and a penalty miss by Lionel Messi, it was Fernando Torres who had the final say on the match – netting from a counter attack in injury time as Barcelona desperately sought the goal needed.
After Chelsea had scuppered the prospect of a Barcelona v Real Madrid final, Bayern Munich went on to ruin Jose Mourinho’s hopes of leading Real Madrid to a final against his former team, with victory in a penalty shootout in Madrid.
2013 Real Madrid v Barcelona
The two teams were at it yet again, in the pursuit of a place in the 2013 final at Wembley. Barcelona faced Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid were paired with Borussia Dortmund at the semi final stage.
After overturning a 2-0 deficit to thrash Milan in the last sixteen, and then knocking out Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter finals, there was no sign that Barcelona were heading for a crushing defeat at the hands of Bayern. A 4-0 loss in the first leg effectively ended any hopes of reaching the final though, and another potential final against Real Madrid had slipped away.
But only 24 hours later, even Barcelona’s result was overshadowed by Real Madrid’s 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Four goals from Robert Lewandowski left Jose Mourinho facing a third successive year as a semi final loser, at a club where he was appointed specifically for the task of winning the Champions League.
Madrid did put up some resistance in the return fixture, winning 2-0 – though both goals came in the final seven minutes, and Dortmund held on for a surprise overall win.
Barcelona’s chances of recovery were much slimmer, and against even more formidable opposition. They were beaten 7-0 on aggregate, the most emphatic loss suffered by any team at the last four stage in the Champions League, and instead of two Spanish giants competing Wembley, it was Germany who provided both finalists.