Four wins on the trot had elevated Liverpool from relegation zone to mid-table, but the euphoric mood was ruined in a 1-1 draw against Wigan and 2-0 defeat to Stoke. Liverpool fans are again questioning Roy Hodgson’s credentials, and sympathizing with him is difficult when clubs humble the Reds so effortlessly.

Stoke’s first league win in 26 years over Liverpool was fully deserved in a scrappy but intense battle which saw the disjointed Reds placed on the back foot. Ricardo Fuller opened the account by poking home from a messy pinball passing while Kenwyne Jones wrapped up the win by slotting in coolly.

It is embarrassing to see Liverpool struggle with the tempo and could not make decent shots on goal. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were so off-color, they hardly do justice to the effusive praises written earlier. To make matters worse, Lucas Leiva, one of the better players, got sent off.

Recent loss of points against lesser teams prove that clinching the Premier League title is still a distant dream for Liverpool. After a stirring comeback against Napoli and vanquishing Premier League leader Chelsea, the Reds felt ready to take on the world but bravado is no answer to structural problems.

Roy Hodgson has wasted no time in highlighting his “fairly small squad with a few injured senior players.” Hodgson feels he has inherited a banal squad and his first XI kept functional solely by 1-2 players. The rebuke from Rafael Benitez was swift; after all the Spaniard has splurged a considerable sum and does not relish his successor pouring scorn on his recruitment.

In fairness, when Benitez clinched the European championships and second spot in the Premier League, he was able to exploit the attacking prowess of Torres and Gerrard and rely on Finnan, Carragher and Hyypia for a solid defense. But since the departure of Hyypia, Finnan, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, the core has weakened considerably.

Notwithstanding new financial fair play regulations and austerity measures sweeping across Europe, new owner John Henry has to open his purse string in the next transfer window, else Liverpool will see its competitive edge being eroded further.

Champions League qualification for Liverpool is no longer a certainty unlike the past where usual contenders are Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, in different order. These days, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton want a bite of the cherry too and they have formidable squads to stake their claims.

Conversely, Liverpool have looked vulnerable given their thin squad and a manager who has never won the Premier League or Champions League titles. Admittedly, Hodgson possesses a wealth of coaching experience at the club and international level. In Europe, he is held in high regard, having served on the UEFA and FIFA technical study groups.

Roy Hodgson’s last job has burnished his reputation in England, which was in tatters from an earlier stint at Blackburn. Fulham secured an unprecedented 7th place in the Premier League, and then their first major European final the following season.

Though Fulham lost to Atletico Madrid, the impressive run in the UEFA Europa League garnered Hodgson the prestigious LMA Manager of the Year award. Given Fulham’s dearth of talents, Hodgson had outdone himself and it was not surprising that a troubled Liverpool board favored him ahead of their favorite son, Kenny Dalglish who holds the figurehead role of “Ambassador and Head of Football Development.”

So far, Roy Hodgson’s effort at steadying the ship has been mixed, if not negative. Liverpool scored only four goals and picked up just five points from a possible 21 away this season. Away form has always been Hodgson’s Achilles heel; in 105 away league games since Bristol City, Blackburn, Fulham and Liverpool, he has managed only 13 wins and 35 draws.

Managing a club of Liverpool’s stature is different from Fulham where they are more accustomed as underdogs and avoiding relegation. Since the ’90s, the Reds had lost their dominance and worse, its reputation defiled by the rancorous drama of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Despite the disappointments, the fans still have high expectations every season – top four placing, if not silverware.

Unfortunately, mid-table seem more realistic if Hodgson is unable to stop Liverpool from dropping points in away games. Dishing out this kind of mediocrity will seal Hodgson’s fate in the same way that Rafael Benitez was not pardoned for a poor season. Meanwhile, Kenny Dalglish ‘s stock is rising. Roy Hodgson felt the affective divide when livid Liverpool fans clamored for Dalglish during the defeat to Stoke.

Hodgson said: “If the club decide they want to give the job to somebody else, then I’ll have to accept that. I can’t get upset every time the fans chant someone’s name. They may have to do it a few more times this season, because I can’t see us going through a season winning every single game.”

Roy Hodgson is being honest, but the defeatist attitude will not endear him to the fans. To make matters worse, Glen Johnson – who was criticized by the manager for his poor form – hit back by describing Liverpool as ‘boring’ under his charge. The last thing Hodgson needs is internal strife and losing the support of key players. It also doesn’t reflect well on his man management skills.

Despite Kenny Dalglish being the fans’ top choice and Roy Hodgson having little chance of eclipsing his predecessor Rafael Benitez in winning the Champions League, I believe his immediate dismissal is counterproductive.

Since 1991, Liverpool has gone through several management changes, including Graham Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houillier and Rafael Benitez. Each manager brought a new direction but the constant transformations in transfer strategy and formation are disruptive, financially wasteful, and left the club nowhere near its much craved Premier League title.

Rather than having the whole process start again, Liverpool should live by its decision in appointing Roy Hodgson. To be sure, Hodgson is still on track for European qualification. Those who expect him to perform miracles in his first season which saw Liverpool narrowly escaping administration and a 10 points deduction, need to wake up and smell the roses.

Roy Hodgson can heave a sigh of relief that player transfers are taken out of his hands; the fans have one less complaint. Damien Comolli, the newly installed Director of Football, has to identify and purchase suitable reinforcements. The Frenchman comes with a big reputation as talent evaluator, recommended by Billy Beane, close friend of John Henry and general manager of Oakland A’s baseball team.

Billy Beane is best remembered for his use of objective metrics in baseball. The statistical analysis on players’ performances allows him to find talents worth more than their market value. John Henry wants this approach replicated at Liverpool and Damien Comolli is deemed the best person to implement it.

As scout and sporting director, the Frenchman picked up from obscurity Koulo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Gareth Bale, all admirable coups which fit into Henry’s long term value-for-money strategy.

However, it is not clear if Comolli will bridge the gap between the manager and owner/directors. His presence has certainly made Kenny Dalglish more of a peripheral figure. Very likely, a clash of egos may erupt soon. At Tottenham Hotspur, Comolli undermined successive managers Martin Jol and Juande Ramos by signing players without their knowledge. His return to Saint-Étienne as sporting director in 2008 has also hastened the departure of manager Laurent Roussey.

On the surface, Roy Hodgson has welcomed Comolli’s arrival, even though he was caught off-guard by the club’s sudden announcement.
The Director of Football is an eminent position at continental clubs but has never caught on in England. Overlaps and conflicts with the all-powerful manager often arise as the scope of work is not clearly defined.

Having assumed the role of Director of Football at other clubs, Hodgson may be more understanding towards the new hierarchical structure. But a fallout is inevitable if Damien Comolli decides on transfer deals unilaterally or try to teach Hodgson what to do.

In a sign of things to come (putting Hodgson and Dalglish in their place), Christian Poulsen could be axed just months after signing for Liverpool. He was bought by Hodgson in the summer, with the blessing of Dalglish, along with Joe Cole, Raul Meireles, Paul Konchesky and Milan Jovanovic.

They had been largely lackluster but Poulsen is the biggest flop, considering the intention for him to replace midfield stalwart Javier Mascherano. Damien Comolli views Poulsen as part of the ills of the old regime in which aged players with little resale value were signed.

He wants to bring in a younger player with better ability. In this case, I believe Hodgson has no argument, seeing how Poulson’s lack of pace, energy and passing made the £5m outlay appear extravagant as compared to Spurs £8m bargain for Van der Vaart.

Since Hodgson has tried and failed to impress with his transfer policy, I doubt John Henry will parlay more money for another round of trial-and-error by the former. Damien Comolli has to convince Henry that Liverpool needs more reinforcements in the January transfer window.

Due to injuries, Roy Hodgson has been deprived of fielding his best team on several occasions. Daniel Agger, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Joe Cole and Glen Johnson saw more action in the treatment room, while Fabio Aurelio, Dirk Kyut and Ryan Babel have not hit peak fitness after recovering. Liverpool’s resurgent form, albeit short-lived, has coincided with returning players and increased confidence.

As it is, the Reds appeared stretched from playing two matches in a week. One wonders what happen when Christmas come around as the schedule becomes tighter and players usually make do with two days of rest. If Liverpool are again decimated by injuries, they could end up back in the relegation zone.

With the benefit a full team and new options, there is hope for Hodgson to avoid mediocrity. Of course, he has to motivate the players to show the same passion as Steven Gerrard and step up their performances. Gerrard and Torres cannot be at their best in every game, so their team mates have to drive the team forward, take chances on goal and close down on opponents too. Playing as a team has been Liverpool’s recipe for success from the mid 60′s through the mid 80′s.

If the relationship stays harmonious, Comolli’s expertise will strengthen Liverpool in the long run and the fans can expect more unpolished gems like Martin Skrtel to arrive rather than expensive but over-the-hill superstars.

A possible target in January is France under-21 midfielder Dimitri Payet who caught the eye of Comolli at Saint-Etienne. Other transfer activities could involve Dutch utility man Urby Emanuelson. The 24 year-old is versatile and may eventually be available on a free if contract negotiations with Ajax break down.

Comolli should focus on quality defenders too as as the backline has been inadequate and sloppy at times, leaving Pepe Reina to fend for himself. Against Chelsea, the Reds were cruising but had to endure close shaves in the second half. Against Wigan and Stoke, luck deserted them and the defense crumbled under relentless pressure.

Liverpool had conceded more goals than they scored and it is discomforting to know Hodgson’s conservative lineup of 2 holding midfielders in front of the back four (similar to Rafael Benitez) is still insufficient to stop opponents from scoring. Hodgson will do well to focus on the defensive frailties, as the midfield is still capable of holding its own and creating chances for the lethal Gerrard-Torres front line.

Besides recruiting talents from aboard, it has been a while since the youth academy churn out players who take the league by storm. During Benitez’s era, no notable youngsters made their mark and it is worrying where the next Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen or Steven Gerrard will come from. Traditionally, Liverpool possess a resolute English core; and the youth may just get a chance to flourish under Roy Hodgson.

Currently, youngsters like Martin Kelly, Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing, Dani Pacheco and Nathan Eccleston are given more match time, thanks to the absence of senior players. While throwing the youth into the Premier League cauldron may have adverse effects if they are not ready, it is better than practicing in the reserve squad forever.

For all of Roy Hodgson’s limitations, he does not possess some of Rafael Benitez’s frustrating habits. The latter is known for rotating players or keeping them in cold storage for inexplicable reasons. Robbie Keane virtually gave up on Liverpool after being kept on the bench even when the front line is lacking firepower.

Hodgson has stuck largely with a winning team and only resting Gerrard and Torres for important fixtures. Having a settled squad will reap dividends for Hodgson in the later part of the season.

A New Dawn under NESV

Roy Hodgson’s future may look bleak, and it is hard to see him at Liverpool beyond next season. Nevertheless, I like the changes which John Henry is putting into place. He is building an institution where managers are dispensable but it ensures stability at Liverpool. They can remain on track to challenge for trophies, whoever is in charge.

The fans need not worry about implementation like Tom Hicks and George Gillett who painted a rosy picture but underachieved. In fact, their leveraged buyout left only a trail of destruction in its wake. On the other hand, John Henry knows what a successful club entails.

Since Henry’s company, New England Sports Ventures, took over Boston Red Sox in 2002, the club has been perennial playoff contenders in the Major League Baseball and have won two World Series titles, emerging as one of the most successful teams of the last decade.

The Red Sox also consistently top the average road attendance, only the small home capacity of Fenway Park prevents them from leading in overall attendance. Every home game since 2003 has been sold out—an MLB record that has spanned over seven years.

Besides appointing Damien Comolli as part of an American styled corporate makeover to curb wasteful transfer policy, John Henry is also aiming to cut expanding wages. Under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool wage bill increased from £66m in 2004 to over £100m in 2010 which is unsustainable.

Henry said: “There were a number of unpleasant surprises during our due diligence. The wage bill is high, it’s going to be higher next year and we’re not a young team. That was disappointing.”

The twin approach of greater accountability on transfer funds and wage bill will bring Liverpool in compliance with the break-even requirement by UEFA.

John Henry has also expressed distaste at the overarching power of agents and players in Premier League which he likened to the “wild west.” In the United States, Henry said players generally see out their contracts and clubs were in control.

It must have been a “culture shock” to Henry when he saw Wayne Rooney forcing Manchester United into submission over his astronomical wage demands and the club having to come out the next day to assure all is well. The NESV owner is firm that he will not be held to ransom and players who are not committed to Liverpool’s cause will not be retained.

That could be too early to say though; if Steven Gerrard wants similar wage terms as Wayne Rooney, Liverpool will be unwise to walk away. Fact is, there are players who are hard to replace, else Liverpool will not be missing the pin-point passing of Xabi Alonso.

Whilst Damein Comolli goes about uncovering raw talents, Liverpool have to retain its key assets too. Pepe Reina has expressed his intention to move on and Chelsea are keen to pry away Fernando Torres who has become too much of a bogeyman for the champions. If the trio are missing from Liverpool team list, appointing Kenny Dalglish as manager with a bunch of kids in tow is not going to win championships either.

Nevertheless, John Henry is sending the right message that players who are under contract must toe the line. It is time for football clubs to gain an upper hand since the Bosman ruling skewed contract negotiations in favor of footballers. The days of pandering to players could be over.

As John Henry control expenses, he also has an eye on increasing Liverpool’s top and bottom line through TV revenue and merchandising. He walks the talk, with his Boston Red Sox generating impressive off-field revenue despite a moderate fan base.

As Liverpool’s brand and popularity in Asia and Middle East is largely untapped, Henry is virtually sitting on a goldmine by bringing the club closer to these markets. There is no reason why Liverpool cannot grow their revenue to compete against Manchester United and Chelsea.

Manchester United have boosted commercial revenue around the world by targeting global sponsors in a range of new categories and Liverpool are expected to follow suit. A new stadium with larger capacity is being evaluated and that will certainly generate more gate receipts to repay debts and buy new players.

After the turmoil of the past year, I am looking forward to a new chapter for Liverpool, even if major trophies for this season seem a remote possibility. The title race is going to be tight as there is not a single team which appear invincible this season.

Liverpool’s closest rivals are dropping points – Chelsea just suffered a 3-0 defeat to Sunderland, while Manchester United are starting slowing again and Arsenal have its usual youth and inconsistency problem. Man City and Spurs are also not looking like automatic top 4 finishers with their shaky forms.

Liverpool remain a match for any side on its day but they have to improve their mental approach towards bread and butter games. The Reds have always excelled in cup competitions and outwitted Goliaths but the occasional display of brilliance is not enough to win a Premier League title.

This weekend, Liverpool take on West Ham and it is time to pummel the opponent into oblivion. West Ham, winless since September and nestling sweetly at the bottom of the Premier League table, will be foolhardy to go on the offensive at Anfield.

Roy Hodgson must throw caution to the wind and unshackle his team. Playing a defensive setup against Stoke and Wigan has shown Hodgson’s naivety. You do that in Champions League against European teams but not teams which are clearly short on quality.

That is not to say West Ham are just a ragtag team of losers. Scot Parker and Luis Boa Morte are likely to hold the midfield together while Carlton Cole and new star Piquionne will feature up front. Matthew Upson will lead the defense in front of Robert Green. That is a fairly decent assemblage and Avram Grant will certainly want to capitalize on Liverpool’s loss of confidence.

I don’t have much illusions about Roy Hodgson winning anything, if he proves to be better than mediocre, it is an achievement. If not, the Liverpool board should blame themselves. The fans should let Hodgson do his work, instead of having knee-jerk swings from positive to negative reviews.

By the way, it is not a long way off from 4th place… having another unbeaten streak, starting with West Ham, will see Liverpool creep higher up the table. Even with an injured Steven Gerrard, the odds are good at most online betting sites for Roy Hodgson to beat West Ham handily. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Everton manager David Moyes has earned a reputation for leaving it late to steer the ship back on course (not unlike Manchester United), but the abysmal start to this season’s Premier League, with potentially disastrous consequences to the club’s fortune, has piled on doubts if David Moyes is the right man to propel the club to greater heights.

Even if Everton’s performances had at times surpassed its opponents and certainly don’t warrant relegation, the Premier League table doesn’t lie. The club languishes at bottom of the pile without a win this season following defeats to Blackburn, Aston Villa and Newcastle and draws with Wolves, Manchester United and recently, Fulham.

It is not the first time that Everton had started slowly. For the fifth time in nine seasons under David Moyes, the Toffees have failed to secure three points a game from their opening quintet of matches. This is the worst run yet..

One has to go back to 1994 to see Everton failing to win in 12 matches, a sham which eventually cost manager Mike Walker his job. But even if that streak is replicated today, I doubt David Moyes will be sacked in a hurry.

While betting houses have slashed their odds on his dismissal and the fans are getting restive with their increasingly prominent post-match boos, Chairman Bill Kenwright remains an avid fan of David Moyes’s managerial abilities and transfer dealings.

In David Moyes, he has a manager who delivered consistent top-six league placings over 8 years without miring the club in debts. There are more capable managers but they won’t come cheaply and Everton hardly feature as their preferred appointment.

It is David Moyes who is upset with himself for the club’s worst start in 16 years and may quit on his own accord. He was linked to Aston Villa and has no lack of suitors should he wish to advance his career, if Everton self-destruct and his painstaking work comes undone.

At the moment, there is nothing to suggest David Moyes’s loyalty has wavered. He is desperate to protect his legacy and set the situation right, beginning with Fulham last Saturday. The encounter was far from easy though as Everton had only won once at Craven Cottage since 1966.

Under Mark Hughes, the task of defeating Fulham became more arduous. Fulham had drawn virtually all their league fixtures and shown a lot of character to claw points from the opposition even when they were outmaneuvered. Besides a never-say-die spirit, Mark Hughes team is also known to be uncompromising. In fact, Hughes stressed on a tougher approach after Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele fell victim to bad tackles earlier.

Speaking of toughness, David Moyes is also keen for Everton to “return to some of the old ways.” He was upset with the character of his team and challenged his players to scrap their way back to form, saying: “The biggest concern for me is that we have lost our competitive edge in the last few games. The one thing you could never do was beat Everton up.”

With both managers upping the ante, this was bound to be a tight match. True to form, a goalless stalemate ensued, which means Everton are still seeking their first victory. On the positive side though, the Toffees got their first clean sheet of the season and things can’t get worse as they are already at the rock bottom of the Premier League. It is one way up from here, as David Moyes gallantly declared.

To be sure, Everton improved by leaps and bounds – the passing was fluent, forward play incisive and the midfield did not concede ground easily. Fulham were pinned back for long spells but despite being bossed around, its defense held firm, thanks to the efforts of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

Steven Pienaar had the first chance for Everton but his shot was saved by Mark Schwarzer who was at full stretch again to meet Mikel Arteta’s dipping effort from 25 yards minutes later. Yakubu then wasted a Seamus Coleman cutback by attempting a fancy backheel with the goal gaping. The Nigerian had gilt-edged opportunities to make amends later but ended up empty-handed.

Well, if your strikers miss so many chances, you will have problems winning your opponents, even those from lower leagues. It is a sign of weakness and invitation for the other team to turn the table around. Fortunately, Fulham were tame in attack. If they had thrown caution to the wind, they actually stand a good chance of dealing the killer blow instead.

Tim Howard hardly saw action until Dickson Etuhu sent a diving header into his arms from Carlos Salcido’s cross. Everton survived a bigger scare when Sylvain Distin was caught out by a pass from Danny Murphy and Zoltan Gera pounced in for a shot which went wide. But that was as good as it got for Fulham.

The uplifting aspect from this encounter is that the Toffees rallied to their manager’s call for action by giving their all. Just days after the torrid performance against Newcastle United which Moyes described as their “worst,” the Merseyside club reached a new low when they were embarrassingly dumped out of the Carling Cup by League One strugglers Brentford.

Being eliminated, even by a lowly opponent, is secondary in the grand scheme of things. In fact, Everton should consider it a blessing in disguise as they can now focus on the Premier League with their limited resources. The worrying aspect is the players’ poor attitude – they didn’t share the manager’s anxiety in stopping the rot.

Everton could have emerged victors, had the superiority in the opening 20 minutes, an early lead and near misses not lull them into complacency. While Brentford hung on and increased the tempo, Everton caved in and nearly allowed the former to snatch victory in normal time. Hence, the Toffees cannot lament the 4-3 defeat in the penalty shoot-out which was already a luxury.

It was the same spiritless display against Newcastle United and David Moyes remarked that he will have joined the fans in booing the team too. Given that Newcastle had not won at Goodison Park since 2001, Everton were expected to seize the day and grab three points, but a solitary goal by the Magpies spoiled the party.

Not much separate the quality of players in both teams but Newcastle won on commitment and desire to win. Perhaps the Toffees didn’t feel a sense of urgency, believing that things will come good at the end of the season. However, if they continue to take things for granted, they will be the relegation candidate their position suggest.

At least, the Fulham match salvaged some pride for Everton and proved that character and technical abilities of the team are still intact. Now David Moyes has to fix the goal scoring department and leaky defense. Against Aston Villa, Everton forced 18 corners and pulverised the opponent but ended up in a 1-0 defeat. The wasteful finishing was also replicated at Brentford and Fulham.

Everton have always lacked depth in the striking department. If the first choice forwards are off-form, the back-ups proved inadequate too. So far, Everton had netted just four times in the Premier League and are awaiting the first goal on their travels. The fact that Everton’s top goalscorer is midfielder Tim Cahill (2 goals) also illustrates the strikers’ collective failure. Unfortunately, Cahill is out injured and his driving force is deeply felt.

Louis Saha can be a lethal poacher on his day but he is too injury prone. Manchester United didn’t extract much value out of him and David Moyes is still trying. Right now, Louis Saha has a calf injury sustained in the Aston Villa match which will put him out for at least 3 weeks and then he needs more time to regain match fitness. By the time he is back, the fight for European qualification is either lost or the team has already overcome the crisis.

Victor Anichebe is also facing a long spell on the sideline and has yet to feature this season. The Nigerian striker has been at Everton for seven years but has seen Louis Saha and new signing Jermaine Beckford pull ahead of him in the pecking order. He is a fringe player and could be out by the next transfer window if Newcastle make good on their interest with a reasonable offer.

The free-transfer summer recruit Jermaine Beckford is still finding his feet, though he shows great promise. Beckford scored 31 goals to fire Leeds United to promotion last season. He was subsequently named as the League One Player of the Year, an accolade he also collected in 2008.

Jermaine Beckford will bring pace and mobility to the Everton front line but it remains to be seen how he copes with the pressure and higher standard after jumping two divisions into the Premier League. For Everton, the best source of goals remain Aiyegbeni Yakubu, but his confidence and sharpness has plummeted.

There has been pressure on David Moyes to field two forwards to capitalize on the abundant chances but it will mark a drastic shift from his ultra-defensive 4-5-1 formation. I believe Moyes will not discard a formula which has worked wonders in the past and he lacks quality strikers to launch a two-pronged attack. Sometimes, more doesn’t mean better.

Besides the frontline, Moyes has to shuffle a limited pack in other departments too. Everton have a talented Team A with with strong work ethics. Mikel Arteta, Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman are great players who can step into any top-four clubs. Their presence allow Everton to dish out an attractive style of football where they create chances by fluent passing instead of launching the ball in mid-air and hoping to get lucky in the box.

But right now, most of Moyes starlets haven’t hit top gear and Team B doesn’t rise to the occasion when the regulars falter. The star pairing Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar need to rediscover much of their chemistry. Back-ups Marouane Fellaini and John Heitinga tried to helm the sputtering midfield but was no match for a swashbuckling Newcastle comprising of Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and debutant Cheik Tiote.

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Magaye Gueye will take time to come good. As for youngster Seamus Coleman, he scored an inspiring goal against Brentford and has potential to be Everton’s answer on the right flank.

It may be too late to get reinforcements now and David Moyes can only hope the Toffees eradicate their mental block of being slow starters and regain confidence soon. Ironically, David Moyes may not have saw this crisis coming, else he could have made better use of the ‘Lescott money.’

Based on their steady pre-season preparations, the fans expect Everton to charge out at the starting gate. This year, Moyes made sensible changes in routines and arranged different fixtures. Short of tricking the players into believing they were heading into the second half of the season, there is not much to fault the pre-season.

An Australian tour produced six wins out of seven. This time, there was no transfer saga involving key players, unlike the tapping of Joleon Lescott by Manchester City last season which created much distraction and turmoil in the dressing room. Play-maker Mikael Arteta announced his commitment and desire to establish Everton in top four by signing a new deal, rejecting overtures from Arsenal and Manchester City.

David Moyes also had a fully fit team at his disposal (a rarity in recent seasons) which led Everton captain, Phil Neville, to proclaim that nobody’s spot is safe in the team because of the strong competition. Even Moyes was confident enough to say in pre-season: “We don’t have any money, but we don’t need any right now either.”

Well, six weeks on, David Moyes is having a hard time choosing his first XI for the visit to Craven Cottage, but not in the manner envisaged by Phil Neville. Injuries have decimated his squad and he has limited options to lead his frontline.

David Moyes has acknowledged that the lead comes from the manager in reversing the poor form. There is hope in history for a sterling comeback. Back in 1995, Everton with Joe Royle replacing Walker, went on to lift the FA Cup with an approach labeled The Dogs of War. Moyes’ Everton, finalists in 2009 and a more solid team, are capable of a repeat.

Currently, Everton is facing a confidence crisis and David Moyes has been encouraging the players that they are good while wielding a stick by asking them to earn the right to be in the first XI. Everton has to rediscover their fighting spirit, even at the expense of exquisite passing. In short, winning ugly with a physical approach.

In order to fulfill David Moyes one way up challenge, Everton had to get some consistency besides injecting more steel in their play. The week before, they managed a stirring comeback at home to Manchester United which was supposed to be a sign of good things to come, only to plummet to a new low in the Premier League.

I believe the acrimony swirling around Goodison Park is only temporary as Everton will again push for the Europa League places come May. David Moyes is an old hand in this game and will make sure that the crisis doesn’t consume the team. Last season, Everton took just 15 points from their opening 14 games but they proved their critics wrong eventually.

It may take another month or so before Everton move steadily up the table but with Tim Cahill’s imminent return, it will boost the team in terms of purpose, leadership and goals. I won’t be surprised if Everton start showing the mettle and character for which they are known for, when they go to Birmingham next and then facing Liverpool at Goodison Park.

Indeed, if Everton get a good run under their belt, they will be ready for the Merseyside derby which presents an excellent chance for them to destroy Liverpool, a club in turmoil from debts, new manager and exodus of players. And that will be a great morale booster. Stay tuned for updates..

Who will be the new Aston Villa manager? That is a key question for Premier League watchers as a 6th placing (which the Villains have called their own for 3 seasons) is up for grabs. There are no shortage of takers eager to qualify for Europe – Everton, Blackburn, Liverpool, Birmingham, etc. should Aston Villa languish in mediocrity.

Since the abrupt departure of Martin O’Neill 5 days before the 2010 Premier League started, Aston Villa has been in a tentative state of transition. Caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald was handed the reins and hopes were high after a display of scintillating, fluent football in the 3-0 win against West Ham.

However, the wave of support was tempered by mediocre football in the 1-1 draw at Vienna and almost extinguished in the aftermath of a humiliating 6-0 thrashing by Newcastle United.

Actually, this is not the first time Aston Villa had their hide skinned. They capitulated to Liverpool 5-0 and Chelsea 6-0 last season but the defeats were palatable given the quality of the opponents. Against Newcastle United, a team just promoted from the Championships and which had earlier lost 3-0 to Manchester United, it is a disgrace.

To be sure, Newcastle’s cavalier attitude can be overwhelming when you underestimate and foolishly play into their strength. But for all their attacking prowess, it is accompanied often by a porous defense. Yet Aston Villa could not make much inroads on goal after an early penalty miss.

This abject performance has left Aston Villa fans pondering over the appointment of Kevin MacDonald as manager on a permanent basis. More disappointment was heaped on the Villains when they crashed out of Europe after losing 2-3 to Rapid Vienna (agg 3-4) in the second leg qualifier in mid-week.

Aston Villa started well, took the lead twice through Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey, and had a penalty miss by captain Stiliyan Petrov. For a while, you thought Aston Villa had banished the nightmare of Newcastle’s 6-0 drubbing as they controlled the game but conceding silly goals saw their efforts came to nought.

The only consolation is that Martin O’Neill was also undone by the same opponent in the qualifying stages last year. They had a crucial penalty saved too and their defense was breached after 16 seconds at Vienna.

For the time being, MacDonald continues to take charge of first team affairs until the international break which means one more crucial game (Premier League clash with Everton) to decide his fate.

Kevin MacDonald vs Martin O’Neill

Against Newcastle United, Kevin MacDonald had admitted to getting the lineup wrong, saying: “Newcastle are a decent side with a lot of experience and took their chances well. Maybe I was a bit naive in my selection. I played two youngsters again and maybe two games in a week was too much for them.”

Naive selections aside, the fact that his charges continue their wayward manners after half time and his ineffective substitutions indicate that his dressing room prep talk and tactical nous require further refinement if he wants to be on par with his predecessor Martin O’Neill.

When Martin O’ Neill took over from David O’Leary, he succeeded in moving Aston Villa up the Premier League table from 15th position to 11th and then 6th spot for the next 3 seasons which ensured the club’s participation in European competition.

Though major titles still elude the club, O’Neill’s consistency is a remarkable legacy of his four year tenure, considering the competitive nature of the Premier League. Indeed, Kevin MacDonald has big shoes to fill but he can seek solace from some Aston Villa fans who viewed consistency as stagnation. You can’t please all the people all the time but are these fans being negative?

When you bring ROI (return on investment) into the picture, O’Neill achievements may have to be taken down a peg or two as he spent more than £83m in the transfer market over 4 seasons.

Of course, one can always point to football clubs with more generous transfer budgets which ended up as flops (Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough) or have yet to yield any trophies. For the record, Roberto Mancini busted £130m in this summer transfer window alone and it is unclear how much the new recruits can contribute to his campaign.

However, owner Randy Lerner is not a sugar daddy in the league of Roman Abramovich or the Middle East Sheikhs, so it is fairer to compare Aston Villa’s success to tightly run and well-managed clubs like Arsenal, Everton and Blackburn.

Some of Martin O’Neill’s purchases, namely Ashley Young, James Milner, Brad Friedel, and Carlos Cueller were justified but others bombed badly. Nicky Shorey, Marlon Harewood and Steve Sidwell were a waste of money.

On the other hand, David Moyes bought excellent players like Arteta, Yakubu, Saha, Cahill and Fellaini either on free transfers or relatively inexpensive prices after taking into account his disciplined sell-to-buy policy. Overall, David Moyes’s outlay net of transfers in the last 4 years was less than than Martin O’Neill, but Everton finished ahead of Aston Villa in 3 of those 4 years.

Clearly David Moyes did a better job at keeping his club’s finances healthy. Speaking of which, Arsene Wenger come up tops among the trio for maintaining Arsenal in top four by not splashing on big-name players and rely solely on polishing raw talents.

If the money has been better spent, either on a quality play-maker who can dictate the game against the top teams, or sturdy reinforcements to support the final stretch where the first XI tend to tire, O’Neill will have secured Champions League qualification for Aston Villa already.

The Villains did come close enough; for the last 2 seasons, the team had a strong advantage only to crumble near the finish line as tiredness and injuries took their toil. The collapse stood in stark contrast to Everton’s superb comeback from a woeful start and the latter nearly finished ahead yet again.

Martin O’Neill was helpless in preventing the team’s loss of momentum. Young, Milner and Agbonlahor scored only 16 goals in 14 games. Aston Villa couldn’t capitalize on its home ground advantage and instead showed better form in away matches by counterattacking with gusto.

Aston Villa’s thin squad has proven to be a handicap as the club pursues glory on multiple fronts. Last season, Villa did well in both the domestic cups and the strain becomes even more telling. Rotating a small and tired squad is difficult. Some players have to cope with more games while others are fielded out of position.

To fulfill the fans’ aspirations, I believe Martin O’Neill may have requested for another huge transfer budget this summer but Randy Lerner is not inclined to pump in more money.

It is clear that Martin O’Neill’s position became untenable with Lerner’s insistence on a sell-to buy policy and possible wage cut. Nearly 85% of Villa’s turnover are wages, that is rather high for a football club. Villa director General Charles Krulak had criticized O’Neill for not complying to the club’s need to reduce its wage bill and acting like he is “bigger than the club.”

There is nothing wrong with Randy Lerner’s desire for a sustainable business model. Europe has not emerged from the sovereign debts crisis and football clubs are not immune to austerity measures. It will be financial suicide for owners to drag football clubs further into debts.

However, there is something to be said about Aston Villa’s sell-to-buy policy. Instead of selling players surplus to requirements, it often targets the jewels in the crown, and with the recouped money, they buy other players and increase their hit and miss ratio.

Last season, Aston Villa sold former captain Gareth Barry and now James Milner (2010 Player of the Year) to Manchester City. In return for the highly prized Milner, Aston Villa received £26m which includes the £8m rated Stephen Ireland.

From a business perspective, it makes sense as the Villians more than doubled their investment from two years ago when they signed Milner from Newcastle United for £12m. But it could be shortsighted to see Aston Villa’s competitive edge eroded.

As a parting gift, Milner turned in a magnificent performance and scored the third goal against West Ham United. It is sad that a player who is leaving is more committed than some of his mates. The slackers will do well to pull up their socks soon…

Can Aston Villa recover from the loss of its two star players? When James Milner was brought in to fill the gap left by Gareth Barry, he proved his worth admirably. But is Stephen Ireland a good replacement? Well, I can only say a power shift happened when Manchester City bought over both players while dumping Richard Dunne and Stephen Ireland onto Aston Villa.

That is not to condemn Stephen Ireland as a terrible player. He is hardworking, eager to improve and has been solid, especially last season. But it is clear James Milner was a more important player for Aston Villa than Stephen Ireland was to Manchester City. Stephen Ireland almost went to Sunderland in 2008 and costing only 8million, I doubt Manchester City are suckers to do such a deal.

Is Kevin MacDonald the Right Choice?

Looking at the achievements and shortfalls of Martin O’Neill, Kevin MacDonald actually stand a good chance of getting the job. If Aston Villa want to tighten their belts and go the youth development route, MacDonald is the right man.

Having spent 15 years at Aston Villa as reserve team manager, MacDonald is no stranger to the terrain, staff and players. He is instrumental in developing the youngsters who broke into the first-team and is regarded as an excellent coach.

MacDonald may also enjoy the implicit backing of chairman Randy Lerner who has yet to contact any candidates pending the team’s performances and an interview where he is expected to express his footballing philosophy and desire to shoulder the responsibility.

While footballing results may not have gone his way, Kevin MacDonald have won admirers for trying his best in his unassuming manner and keeping his feet on the ground. Knowing the fickle nature of football fans, he is wary of their praises which could turn on a dime when the chips are down.

His lack of ego is also endearing. MacDonald prefers being the “invisible” man, just getting out on the pitch to coach while his players take the credit. However, the scrutiny on non-football aspects and pressure in the Premier League may just see him giving up the role.

I believe Kevin MacDonald, if he is up for the challenge, should be given more time in the Premier League (at least a full season) rather than just two matches. As he possesses an intimate knowledge of the youngsters, he may be able to strengthen the team without costly transfers by promoting players from the reserve squad into the senior team.

It is worth noting that Aston Villa had won the The Premier Reserve League South for the third year in a row. Villa has an impressive youth development program and there some serious talents eager and ready to cut their teeth in the Premier League. These lads are also winners for clinching the Reserve title consistently.

Martin O’Neill’s presence may inhibit their progress but with Kevin MacDonald in charge, we will see these youngsters sooner than later. There is also a good chance of him implementing Lerner’s sell-to-buy policy effectively by casting off players past their prime.

But of course, when you are talking about youth and trying to save money, the fans have to be patient and tolerant of failures. They must be realistic in their expectations that Kevin MacDonald cannot outperform Martin O’Neill in his first season and may even flirt with relegation.

Youth promises enthusiasm and pace, but also comes with it, unpredictability and inexperience. Will we see more 6-0 drubbings for MacDonald’s youth team? Yes, but this baptism of fire is necessary for the youngsters to gain experience and develop their skills. Alex Ferguson showed faith in his youth team comprising of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and was richly rewarded.

Current Squad and Youth Development

Kevin MacDonald’s main role will be to usher in an era of young, promising players into the first XI. It is a gamble but the alternative of having Martin O’Neill overpay for players of Premier League quality while those who can set the Champions League alight just wouldn’t come, is not attractive either.

Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor are the future of Aston Villa’s strike force. The latter’s pace, poaching instincts and good rapport with Young will yield the goals to keep Villa afloat. But injury is a concern as Agbonlahor missed most of pre-season with back and hamstring problems, and he may not last the entire season.

Having another experienced striker will ease those days when goals are in short supply. Unfortunately, John Carew is not the same player he was in Spain. He is still lethal with his header but his speed has slowed considerably and is injury prone. Worse still, now his penalty taking is suspect.

As for Emile Heskey, he has struggled to provide a real goal threat for many years. Moving out the deadweight will be good news for James Collins, Andreas Weimann and Nathan Delfouneso who were top scorers in the reserve league. It is unlikely though that Villa will see any 30-goals a season type of striker just yet.

In midfield, Aston Villa are also bustling with exciting young players. Marc Albrighton’s gave an impressive show against West Ham, where he set up two goals, and was instrumental in the other. He dares to run at fullbacks and deliver telling crosses. His rise to prominence on the wings has allowed Ashley Young to switch inside and the freedom to roam. Barry Bannan is another promising attacking midfielder who had the composure to score an away goal in the 1-1 draw at Rapid Vienna.

The midfield can improve further in terms of creating chances and not giving the opponent too much space as in the Newcastle match. More sophisticated teams will have tore the youngsters apart and handed them a double-digit whipping. It remains to be seen if Stephen Ireland can provide the creative link which Aston Villa crave.

Without a doubt, Aston Villa’s weakest link lie in their defense. Martin O’Neill wrestled with the problem and failed, leading to some embarrassing results. We have to accept that Richard Dunne is not John Terry (even after the sex scandal) and true to form, he committed several typical mistakes which led to Newcastle’s goals. Dunne may still be useful in the box but inadequate when tracking back.

Habib Beye, one of the more experienced defenders, was criminal in allowing Rapid Vienna to score two elementary goals. Curtis Davies is decent for a back-up but his wages is on the high side considering his contributions last season were limited by a shoulder injury. He could be a good candidate for wage adjustment or simply being sold. American defender Eric Lichaj is still too raw to meet the challenges of top flight football.

Kevin MacDonald will take a while to experiment with his defensive setup before hitting the jackpot, if ever. It can be difficult for youngsters to make their debuts when the defense is so shaky. In just two matches alone, we have seen too many defensive errors. If there is money available for spending, getting solid defensive cover should be MacDonald’s top priority.

Improving the Training Sessions

If Kevin MacDonald wants to go one up over Martin O’Neill, training is a good area to focus on. It is shocking to know that your opponent has you all figured out. John Terry revealed last season that Chelsea knew Aston Villa would tire in the last 30 mins and they were waiting for that. This is inexcusable for modern footballers.

The players are in a professional league and are expected to last 90 minutes, not to mention keeping their focus till the final whistle. Why are Aston Villa players so tired and lacking in stamina? Just imagine what will happen if they had a good run in Europa League, besides challenging for the Premier League and domestic cups.

It is no coincidence that Frank Lampard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Wayne Rooney can feature in almost every game without tiring. Improving the training sessions is critical in improving the players’ fitness and preventing serious injuries.

Victory Against Everton Is Possible

A silver lining for Kevin MacDonald is that their visitors this weekend, Everton, have also made a poor start to the season. David Moyes is desperate to get his first win of the season under his belt.

The Toffees were beaten by Blackburn Rovers on the opening day and surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw with Wolves last weekend. There is no cause for alarm yet as Everton are slow starters and usually come back strongly in the second half of the competition.

Kevin MacDonald has a good chance to win as Everton’s record at Villa Park does not breed confidence. They have managed just one win at Villa in the Premier League, though they could have added another one if not for a late Phil Jagielka own goal last season. David Moyes will be hoping for better luck this time but I doubt they will be drowning in sorrow if they lost.

We may even see an entertaining goalfest based on previous encounters and if Aston Villa go all out (since their defense is in a shambles anyway), this trend should continue.

Assuming Kevin MacDonald is really down on his luck and Everton won, I believe he is the best candidate to lead Aston Villa. Deciding on MacDonald’s career based on the few disappointing results is unfair when he is trying to do something different and meaningful for the future of the club.

Any successful manager will have their humble and rough beginnings. O’Neill built the foundations of his coaching in non-league football before managing at the highest level. The same goes for Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger too.

Should Kevin MacDonald decide front-line management is not for him, one solution would be to bring in a figurehead to work alongside him, allowing him to concentrate on coaching while his partner deals with the media, player recruitment and negotiating contracts.

If that doesn’t pan out, Aston Villa have to start interviewing candidates for the managerial role. United States manager Bob Bradley faces competition from the likes of Gareth Southgate, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Martin Jol, though the American is the only one who has voiced out his desire to take over at Aston Villa.

Bradley has impressed in his time in charge of the USA, leading the team into the last 16 of this summer’s World Cup which included a 1-1 draw with England.

He has an advantage in that Aston Villa has an American owner (Randy Lerner) as well as several American players (Brad Friedel, Brad Guzan and Eric Lichaj). So anti-American hostility is unlikely to rear its ugly head, like in Old Trafford and Anfield. However, Bradley is considered a risky option having never managed outside of his home country.

It will be an interesting two weeks to see who Randy Lerner will appoint for Aston Villa. Stay tuned…

Jose Mourinho, fresh from guiding Inter Milan to Champions League and historic treble glory, is likely to sign a four-year deal with Real Madrid after the sacking of coach Manuel Pellegrini.

Notwithstanding Mourinho’s remaining two year contract with Inter Milan, Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is certain of his appointment and could make that all-important announcement as early as next Tuesday.

There is no doubt that Real Madrid is recruiting a proven champion but not all Madridstas have taken warmly to Jose Mourinho’s impending arrival, at least not yet. Perez wasted little time in lauding Mourinho style as the perfect fit for Real Madrid.

He said, “Bringing in Mourinho – one of the best coaches in the world, if not the best – is an opportunity Madrid couldn’t let pass by. A change of coach is always hard but we believe now is the moment to give a new impulse to our project.”

In fairness, Manuel Pellegrini gave a good account of himself. Granted that he had a “dream” team of Galacticos, but achieving 96 points (a club record for los Blancos) and 102 goals in La Liga is no small feat. Unfortunately, the dominant Blaugrana proved hard to dislodge.

For his debut effort, Pellegrini cannot be considered an abject failure but the high expectations at Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s sextuple of titles (also won in his first season) made his tenure untenable.

Losing twice in the El Clasicos this season exposed the gulf in standard between both clubs and is something which staunch Real Madrid fans cannot forgive. The defeat by Olympique Lyon in the Champions League and a humiliating exit at the hands of Second Division B side Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey also did Pellegrini no favors.

I believe given sufficient time, Manuel Pellegrini will win something for Real Madrid, in keeping with his track record at San Lorenzo, River Plate and Villarreal. But Perez is loathe to wait for him to come good, not when Barcelona intends to set the bar even higher with their recent purchase of David Villa, one of the most promising and lethal Spanish strikers.

Jose Mourinho will certainly relish the challenge of improving on Pellegrini’s tenure but more importantly to stop Barcelona from winning titles and writing new chapters in Spanish football annals. However, this is far from a marriage made in heaven.

Florentino Perez’s vision of Galacticos (strikers and attacking midfielders only, defenders need not apply) is to set them free on the pitch and entertain the fans with goals and nifty footwork.

Such laissez faire attacking football where Galacticos flaunt their skills at the expense of the team while water-carriers do the heavy lifting runs contrary to Mourinho’s philosophy of organized defense and collective spirit.

Perez’s Galacticos model is ideal from a purely entertainment and financial perspective. After all, Barcelona also adopts an exhilarating brand of fluid, attacking football en-route to their unprecedented success.

Jose Mourinho’s ability to put up a barricade in front of goal may be peerless, but Real Madrid fans are not accustomed to such negative tactics. Hence, even if Real Madrid win a treble, its boring football will be viewed unfavorably compared to Barcelona. At least Manuel Pellegrini had 102 goals to account for entertainment value.

I doubt if Mourinho will bend his principles to satisfy Florentino Perez and Real Madrid fans. In any case, attacking football is not his forte. Arsenal, an accomplished master of one-touch football paid a heavy price when they tried to beat Barcelona at their own game, only to have a certain Lionel Messi tear their defenses apart. You will not catch Mourinho commiting suicide by playing into Barcelona’s strength.

To be sure, Mourinho doesn’t adopt an ultra defensive catenaccio style of football nor strive to win by the solitary goal. His teams possess a high work rate and organized defense but are equally capable of incisive and ferocious bludgeoning when they counter attack.

The Portuguese is flexible in adjusting his strategies but he hardly fall prey to mind games. Sparring with Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger did not derail Chelsea from winning the Premier League title. When Louis Van Gaal claimed that his Bayern side played a more entertaining football while Mourinho’s teams seek only to win negatively, the latter did not rise to the bait by pressing the all-out attack mode at Santiago Bernabeu, just to impress his future employer.

Mourinho persisted in his game plan which Inter Milan executed to perfection. His football philosophy has worked on so many occasions and he will not bow to pressure from anybody. This is where disputes will continually flare up between Mourinho and Perez’s management, regardless of the titles won.

Neverthelesss, such is the invincible aura surrounding Barcelona that some priorities have to be adjusted and pride swallowed. The mismangement of Real Madrid in the last decade has also strengthened Mourinho’s hand.

Mourinho’s appointment makes him the 11th coach in seven years. During this time, Los Merengues only won five trophies including two Spanish Supercopas while he has won 17 titles in Portugal, England and Italy.

Real Madrid had also gone six consecutive seasons without overcoming a single knock-out tie in the Champions League. None of the coaches Florentino Perez brought to Real Madrid has won anything. Clearly the Los Merengues need Mourinho more than he needs them.

Florentino Perez insisted he will not pay for Mourinho’s £16m get out clause but if truth be told, the money will be settled in some form or another. While arch rival Barcelona continue to celebrate their conquests, his expensively assembled team comprising Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema had yielded zero returns.

When Perez was re-elected, he promised greatness but his legacy at Real Madrid is now in danger of being written off as a shambles compared to the outgoing Joan Laporta at Barcelona.

Florentino Perez has to be clear what he wants or can get from Jose Moruinho before he signs on the dotted line. The Portuguese is a brilliant coach who plans meticulously and inspires football players to punch above their weight. Few coaches can incite passion and rally the troops to fight for a common cause as well as Mourinho. Sacrifice is the common value which run through the Nerazzurri as they defeated Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Having the best of both worlds is too much to ask for, unless he entices Pep Guardiola to defect to the “White House.” Being a true blue Catalan, Guardiola is unlikely to commit the cardinal sin. That leaves Mourinho, one of only 3 coaches to have won the Champions League in two different countries as Perez’s best hope of wresting European football leadership.

If his first objective is to win a treble to be on par with Barcelona, it will serve him well to see how Inter Milan coexisted with Jose Mourinho.
Inter Milan’s luck have improved in recent years, garnering five consecutive domestic championships and the perfect treble. But throughout its history, the Nerazzurri were regarded as underachievers.

When Massimo Moratti took over the reins in 1995, he bankrolled high profile players like Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, and Hernán Crespo but Inter were still no match for AC Milan and Juventus. It was a turbulent period with managers operating on a revolving door basis (including Luigi Simoni, Marcello Lippi, Hector Cuper, etc) and fans protesting against Moratti.

A large part boils down to Massimo Moratti’s impatience and distrust in his coaches. Surprisingly, for Moratti’s character, he backed Jose Mourinho who was on a generous pay package fully in the transfer market after the Portuguese failed to outperform Roberto Mancini in his first attempt.

There were also countless controversies which put Moratti in a tight spot, notbaly Mourinho’s war against the entire Italy football fraternity. Moratti was under pressure from the Italian media for not taking “energetic action” to rein in Mourinho’s impudence towards referees, players, coaches, journalists and the football authority.

Moratti’s perseverance paid off though as Inter Milan ended their 45 year wait for the Champions League title. This makes one wonder what Chelsea could achieve if oil oligarch Roman Abramovich had cast aside his ego and exercised the same faith in Mourinho by indulging his arrogance and disregarding disputes with John Terry… perhaps the first Champions League title will have arrived at Stamford Bridge.

Similarly, if the relationship between Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid is to blossom, the owner’s unwavering support is crucial. The trio of president Florentino Perez, director general Jorge Valdano and sporting director Miguel Pardeza have huge egos too but they will have to accept the outspoken Mourinho stepping on their toes.

It is painfully obivous José Mourinho is infatuated with himself, and his self-aggrandization made him lots of enemies. But it is this narcissism that sets him apart from the rest. Without a commanding and fanatical personality, he will be just another industrious coach with a clipboard, taking notes and strategizing away but unable to instill his plan into the hearts and minds of his players.

Modern football pays well but demands results in the shortest time possible. Managers and players are always a game or two away from the axe. To manage expectations and egoistic footballers, you need a cult-like or dictatorial figure with strong leadership and imposing personalities.

Jose Mourinho has made it clear that he will be the one making decisions about the Real Madrid first team but there are prima donnas in the squad who think otherwise. Raul wields enormous influence over the team as the captain and he has access to the inner sanctum of Santiago Bernabeu.

Unless the striker conforms to Mourinho’s teachings, high profile clashes are inevitable. Selling Raul in the summer will help Mourinho establish his authority but it is bound to raise the ire of Real Madrid fans.

On the issue of transfers, Mourinho will certainly be given a generous budget but the jury is still out on Mourinho’s talent spotting ability. There were hits and misses during his reign at Chelsea. Ferreira, Wright-Phillips, Schevchenko, Kezman, Tiago, Maniche, Jarosik, Del Horno, Boulahrouz, Essien, Drogba, Carvalho, Kalou and Mikel were bought but very few established themselves as first team regulars.

While Madrid’s directors and owner should steer clear of coaching matters, the delineation of approving transfer targets is less clear. Interfering to the extent of ignoring the coach is wrong as can be seen by Manuel Pellegrini’s frustration.

Pellegrini was not consulted about the sale of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, departures he lamented as mistakes on the part of the club. He said resignedly: “I wanted Sneijder and Robben to stay but I never had a conversation at Real Madrid about who I preferred, if it was Cristiano or Kaka and Sneijder and Robben. The coach should have had a more important voice in what the team needs. At that point I felt small.”

One of the major factor for Inter Milan’s successful assault on multiple fronts this season was their shrewd purchases in the transfer market. Moratti has credited Marco Branco, Inter’s technical director, for working hand in hand with Mourinho to recruit quality reinforcements last summer.

Inter Milan bought Diego Milito with the €46m that accompanied Samuel Eto’o in exchange for Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer. The other arrivals were Wesley Sneijder, Thiago Motta and Lucio, whom have all played instrumental roles in Inter Milan’s campaign. Without doubt, this is the most successful spending spree in football.

Diego Milito, a late bloomer at age 30, deserves special mention for the way he repaid the transfer fee. He was an unpolished gem at Real Zaragoza and Genoa but he reached his full potential under Mourinho and scored crucial goals, like the winner in the Coppa Italia against Roma and the 1-0 victory over Siena, which won Inter Milan their 18th scudetto. Milito’s brace against Bayern Munich in the Champions League was the icing on the cake and encapsulated how much he has improved in one season.

Unfortunately, Diego Milito will not be arriving at Real Madrid as Moratti has said he is not for sale. Not to worry as there are so many transfer rumors swirling around currently, you can barely keep up. Mourinho has expressed his preference for players who are in their early 30s; coincidentally, English players Lampard and Gerrard fit that profile and are in his shopping list.

Mourinho’s thinking deviates markedly from conventional wisdom of youth policy exhorted by Arsenal and Barcelona. Besides experience and consistency, Mourinho may find older players easier to motivate as their chances of achieving glory is less than their younger counterparts. It is apparent from the way old warhorses like Javier Zanetti and Marco Materazzi dig into energy reserves to cover men and ground as the competition intensifies.

Regardless of the players arriving or departing Real Madrid next season, we are likely to see attacking instincts being curbed, less dribbling and stepovers, more running and selfless defending. If the Los Merengues demonstrate altruism in fulfilling Mourinho’s tactical demands to the letter, the trophies will come.

How long the Mourinho and Real Madrid union will last is another issue though. Fabio Capello and Vicente del Bosque, now in charge of England and Spain respectively, were dismissed after winning La Liga titles because their style was deemed too boring for the fans.

In the case of Mourinho, he will have no qualms about leaving once he satisfies his objective of winning the Champions League in 3 different countries. He doesn’t aspire to an impressive legacy with a single football club like Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Mourinho has already indicated that he will not take charge of Real Madrid for the long-haul, and will love a return to the Premier League. This marriage of convenience is actually beneficial for all parties. The trophy cabinet has been empty for too long and Real Madrid fans can finally enjoy the feeling of winning major titles again. They also need not worry that Mourinho will overstay his welcome with his pragmatic football.

The rivalry in Spainish football has never been more intense. I believe other teams in Europe are having sleepless nights too as they contemplate their chances in the Champions League with Barcelona and Real Madrid fighting for the ultimate prize. Next season will be interesting, stay tuned…

Beginners luck don’t get any better than Josep Guardiola’s phenomenal first season where Barcelona swept all trophies in sight – La Liga, the Copa del Rey, Champions League, Spanish Supercup, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. The commitment to work ethics and attacking football mesmerized football fans globally and drew comparisons to Johan Cryuff’s sensational 1970s team.

However, Pep Guardiola is now facing his sternest test since taking over the reins at Barcelona. It is still the same breathtaking style of Total Football but the invincibility is waning. Replicating last year’s success is already impossible as Barcelona were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Sevilla. The chase for La Liga and Champions League titles is still on, if hanging by a thread.

In La Liga, Pep Guardiola failed to create an insurmountable lead like last season. The current one-point gap will motivate Real Madrid to push Barcelona right to the wire, as the La Liga is the former’s only chance for glory after spending a massive fortune assembling Galacticos during the summer.

Given the long standing rivalry between the two Spanish clubs, Barcelona cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal, if they want to create history. However, the Blaugranas are showing signs of strain from fighting for honors on multiple fronts.

On Saturday, Xerez, in 20th position with only six victories and 30 goals in 33 matches was pitted against Barcelona with no hopes of an upset. True to form, the Catalans dismissed their opponent in a 3-1 victory. Pep Guardiola is not in a celebratory mood though as Real Madrid squeezed past Zaragoza 2-1, courtesy of Raul and Kaka, to maintain the pressure.

But rather than worry about his rival, Pep Guardiola will do well to evaluate his team’s weakness. Barcelona were leading 2-0 but complacency set in. With nothing to lose, Xerez went all out and sneaked in a goal as well as causing panic in Barcelona’s backline, despite its limited firepower. Such defensive lapses will haunt Guardiola as the consequences are dire against tougher opponents.

Tensions in the domestic league aside, Barcelona’s European party is also in danger of being spoiled by a crafty Jose Mourinho. The Blaugranas did not impress in the group stages of the Champions League but they stamped their class after steamrolling Stuttgart and Arsenal 5-1 and 6-3 respectively.

The scoreline may gloss over the fact that Barcelona were lackluster in a 2-2 draw at Emirates Stadium and only prevailed at Nou Camp with a certain Lionel Messi in majestic form. Against Inter Milan, Pep Guardiola will need more Nou Camp magic as the odds are stacked higher after a 3-1 defeat at the San Siro in the Champions League semi final first leg.

Inter, seeking to relive the glory of being Europe’s champions since consecutive titles in 1964 and 1965, effectively clamped down on FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi and made the defending champions swallow their pride – it was the first time they conceded three goals this season.

Although Barcelona scored first from Pedro Rodriguez’s low shot in the 19th minute, they failed to capitalize on the advantage and overwhelming possession. As the game wore on, Barcelona appeared jaded, probably due to the 10 hour bus trip.

On the other hand, the goal spured Internazionale into combat mode where they launched swift counter attacks and tightened the backline. Inter Milan equalized through Wesley Sneijder in the 30th minute and collected a precious two goal lead through Maicon in the 48th minute and Diego Milito in the 61st minute.

Perhaps nobody does it better than Barcelona when it comes to exquisite passing but it cannot compensate for the loss of concentration and inability to track back quickly. That Inter Milan have a disciplined defense is no secret but the Catalans underestimated the lighting pace at which Jose Mourinho’s team launch their counter attacks.

A downcast Pep Guardiola was frank about his defence’s frailties, saying: “We could have been more concentrated. It can happen, especially when you are playing in the semi-final of the Champions League, especially versus Inter. They have very fast forwards.”

To be sure, Jose Mourinho has transformed Inter Milan from an underachiever to a club with character and self belief. Previous Inter sides lacked a killer instinct and would have resigned to fate after a dominant Barcelona went ahead.

However, Mourinho’s team fought back bravely to subdue the “best team in the world.” The new found resilience is also evident in a defense marshalled superbly by Lucio and skipper Javier Zanetti which neutralized Lionel Messi, Maxwell and Dani Alves.

As Inter failed to breach Barcelona’s defense in three previous encounters, this victory was all the more significant in dispelling old demons. It is also worth mentioning that Mourinho’s strategy proved to be superior and was executed to a tee on that night.

In the face of Barcelona’s fearsome attack, Jose Mourinho opted instead for an aggressive line-up by fielding three forwards (Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Goran Pandev) plus playmaker Sneijder. The irrepressible Sneijder orchestrates attack while the tireless Milito’s pace and positioning ensures he is frequently in the thick of action.

It was a masterstroke which unsettled the defending champions. Incidentally, this was the same formation which dismantled the Stamford Bridge fortress last month.

In fairness, there were a few fouls on Barcelona which are borderline penalty cases – Esteban Cambiasso’s stab at Messi’s boot in the penalty box and a Wesley Sneijder challenge on Dani Alves. Barcelona were also a victim of an offside decision (or lack of) on Diego Milito’s goal.

However, blaming the referee, Olegário Benquerenca of Portugal, of  helping his compatriot, Jose Mourinho, is an unsportsmanlike behavior. After all, Ogegario once awarded three penalties against Mourinho’s Porto in a single league match.

Casting doubts on a referee’s professionalism just because you lose a match is uncalled for. Barcelona also have little moral grounds to complain since they were the beneficiary of a referee decision which helped to elminate Chelsea last season.

Is Pep Guardiola A Fluke?

Pep Guardiola has to pass the crucial tests against Real Madrid and Inter Milan for his managerial credentials to be taken seriously. With a quality team like Barcelona, football critics feel that Guardiola had his work cut out for him.

How hard is it to win titles when you have Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Henry, Alves, Ibrahimovic, and at one time, Eto’o, in your team? The situation is similar for Manuel Pellegrini who may yet steer Real Madrid to the La Liga title, but it is not enough to satisfy the fans with the amount of talents at his disposal.

As for Jose Mourinho, it is difficult to begrude him the label of Special One. He earned his spurs by winning the domestic league, Cup and Champions League for Porto with an impressive record. Next he arrived at Chelsea to clinch the Premier League after a 50 year absence for the Blues.

In the process, Alex Ferguson was toppled from his lofty perch as Mourinho set a new standard for the Premier League in terms of points won and goals conceded. Now at Inter, he won the Serie A in his first season and is looking to add the Champions League.

Jose Mourinho enjoyed success in 3 different leagues, compared to Pep Guardiola’s sextuple wonder in a single league. Last season Champions League debacle at Stamford Bridge was also a blot on Guardiola’s unprecedented success. Without the referee’s mistake, the outcome for a struggling Barcelona who almost lost the plot could be different.

Guardiola was also lucky that his squad wasn’t plagued with too many injuries in his first season. Staying in contention for the titles while key players are injured for prolonged periods is a necessary quality of a successful coach.

Questions about Guardiola’s abilities and sustainability of his success will continue until he laid them to rest on the pitch. Will Guardiola crack under the pressure and set off a domino effect of losses, which result in a barren spell? I hope not and it is too much to call him a fluke.

Pep Guardiola is an intelligent player/coach and a leader of men. More importantly, he is a true blue Barcelona fan. The Catalans’ repressed culture and heritage is in his blood and he defends it passionately. There is no doubt he wants his squad to be equally committed.

At the age of 13, Guardiola was inducted into the youth academy and promoted by Johan Cruyff after 6 years. Guardiola quickly assumed the role of midfield general in the senior team and in 12 seasons, he captured six La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys and one Champions League trophy.

The sterling achievements held him in good stead among Barcelona fans and players alike. Cesc Fabregas and Xavi had openly declared their desire to emulate Guardiola’s influence in midfield. However, reputation can only carry you so far if you can’t control the troops.

Pep Guardiola has an invaluable skill in rallying his charges, to convince them of his football philosophy and maintain the burning desire to pursue more trophies. So far, the players enjoy playing for him and prima donnas are kept in line.

Perhaps Guardiola’s coaching genius will be enhanced if he managed a less talented team but it is not easy to galvanise Barcelona. Just recall the destabilising effect of dissension in the dressing room, primarily from Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, when Frank Rijkaard was the coach. In that disastrous season of 2007-2008, Barcelona finished third, 18 points behind Real Madrid and embarrassingly 10 points behind Villarreal.

When Pep Guardiola took over, he was quick in imposing his authority and eliminating players who were ill-disciplined and had grown too big for their boots. There is something to be said about the coach when he deals with virtually the same set of players but with vastly different results – six titles in one and a half years.

Guardiola’s ability to gel the players was honed during his time as skipper for Barcelona. He is a strong personality who articulates his opinion when the occasions call for it. Interaction and communication with players is a delicate skill and he mastered when to control and when to set the players free.

Imparted the art of Total Football by his mentor, Johan Cruyff, Guardiola’s football philosophy is simple - keep possession by moving the ball around and move as one in attack and defense. The strikers have to do their part in defense and vice versa. That requires a high fitness for every player.

Guardiola’s coaching is also famously meticulous with careful preparations, match analysis and a strict training regime. Under his guidance, Xavi and Iniesta forged the best midfield partnership, Messi became more versatile and lethal, and Pique a more stable but attack minded central defender. Toure, Busquets, Henry and Alves also increased their productivity in the past year.

So far, Guardiola has stayed true to his footballing philosophy and his players are always hungry for goals. By motivating his players and asking them to play the way football is supposed to be played, success has followed Guardiola and it is certainly not built on shaky foundations.

Next week, the clash of the titans will continue between the Catalan and the Portuguese which will fixate the entire football community. Pep Guardiola will do well to advice his players to refrain from diving. I believe Messi can deliver more damage dribbling the ball than diving blatantly or whining to the referee. Chelsea may have been the unfortunate victim of playacting last season but things do come full circle.

There is also an urgent need for Plan B when the direct route fails. Inter Milan effectively cut off Barcelona’s supplies by denying Xavi time and space on the ball. When Messi fails to dance through Inter’s defense, there is not much penetration from the Blaugranas. What is left from the formidable Barcelona are long aerial balls which were handily dealt with.

Shifting the emphasis along the flanks will have created more trouble for Inter Milan which also happens to yield Barcelona’s first goal. However, the left wing is a dilemna for Guardiola without the effeverscent Henry. He will have to select either Maxwell or Bojan but both lack the cutting edge or that moment of brilliance when the chips are down.

The substitutions are also crucial as Guardiola failed to lift the team or inject attacking impetus with his changes in the first leg. Above all, Pep Guardiola has to shore up his defense when faced with Inter Milan’s quadruple front line.

I believe Barcelona will score at home and they can seek solace that Inter Milan may have to make a similar long distance bus trip to Spain. However, Mourinho may yet have an ace up his sleeve. If there is anybody who can protect a two goal lead and spring a surprise at Nou Camp, it has to Jose Mourinho.

Given the depth of talent, contrast in styles, tactical nous of the managers, and the suffocating weight of expectations as history is in the making, I believe the second leg will show football fans around the world why Champions League is the most prestigious tournament.

Trumping Jose Mourinho in the semi final and another 90 minutes of thrilling action in the finals will see Barcelona create history by lifting consecutive Champions League titles. Such historic moments fuel the romanticism of the Champions League. I am inclined to believe Pep Guardiola will step up to the challenge and leapfrog Jose Mourinho as the most sought-after coach in Europe.

At the moment, Pep Guardiola’s contract with Barcelona expires at the end of the season and there are no confirmation of extension yet. He could be tempted to Manchester United but he will certainly prefer to extend his legacy at Barcelona. Even if he is to call it a day and stop coaching, his achievements will be etched in the Catalans’ memory as their amazing coach who did it all in one season.

There is something to be said about Portsmouth going into administration – with debts of around £70 million, it became the first Premier League club to achieve this dubious honor and gave a stark reminder that the entrapments from the richest league in the world will be insufficient to shelter a mismanaged club from financial woes.

For better or worse, the Premier League has been largely spared by the financial crisis and economic recession in the last two years, what with transfer fees and wages spiralling upwards while austerity measures were frowned upon, but in the fullness of time, one must expect the day of reckoning to arrive when the limit to how much debts a club can rollover or snowball is breached.

Portsmouth is facing its darkest moment currently. Entering administration means the club is virtually certain to be relegated when their 19 point tally is slapped with a 9 point deduction. With only 11 matches left to preserve their Premier League status, Pompey has to win at least 7 games, which is a tall order even in the best of circumstances.

Are they up to the task? Last Saturday, Pompey displayed enough gumption to edge out fellow relegation candidate Burnley in a morale boosting 2-1 victory. Portsmouth struck through Piquionne but a Martin Paterson goal returned the scoreline to parity and it was up to Algerian Hassan Yebda’s penalty to settle the game.

The fans can take heart from this victory; even if the cause is lost, the players are determined to fight for their pride. Manager Avram Grant, who shaked hands with the travelling fans after the game, said: “Despite everything, we were fighting today. You saw the spirit today, you see the real trait of people in difficult days. I still believe, I want to stay positive.”

Let’s hope the troops continue to respond positively to Avram Grant’s rally. However, it will take all of Grant’s abilities to steer the ship when the administration soap opera is underway. Firstly, the ship is now rudderless. Chief executive Peter Storrie has tendered his resignation instead of staying on for a nominal salary to sort out the financial mess which was created during his tenure.

Last year, he took home more than £1 million when the club is already insolvent. I can understand paying good money for top talents but what is the point of having a chief executive if the club is going to be run into the ground? Employing a minimum wage cleaner in that position will suffice. There should be a clawback in Storrie’s bonus or he returns the bonus willingly but that is just wishful thinking.

Instead of feeling remorseful, Peter Storrie looked on “favorably” on his eight years of service. Portsmouth fans will beg to differ. Questions abound over Storrie’s leadership and ethics but at the moment, transparency and accountability are in short order.

While wages at the club are high and the tattered ground is too small to generate sufficient revenue but where did the television money and transfer money from the sales of players like Diarra, Muntari, etc go to? Why wasn’t the money used to pay down mounting debts?

Andrew Andronikou, from Hacker Young, has been installed as chief administrator and he has promised to review all expenses and open up the books, even calling in the police if money laundering is uncovered. Andronikou has a reputation for doing the right thing so Portsmouth fans should not jump the gun on any alleged wrongdoings (on Storrie’s part or the owners).

There is little love lost for Peter Storrie but in the coming weeks, there could be more departures. Avram Grant is unsure if he will stay until the end of the season. England goalkeeper David James, the most experienced member in the squad, has volunteered to take a pay cut than be shown the door. The relegation battle could be made easier if other highly paid footballers in Portsmouth share the same sentiment.

The priority for the administrator is to find a buyer for Portsmouth but this is easier said than done. To make matters worse, the stadium and surrounding land is no longer owned by the club, thanks to financing deals made by “fit and proper” owners.

Balram Chainrai made a £17m loan loan to previous owner Ali Al Faraj in return for mortgages on Fratton Park and the club. Chainrai became Portsmouth’s fourth owner of the season after the club defaulted on repayments due to him.

The inability to find a suitable buyer sparked his controversial move into administration but as a secured creditor, it gave him priority after football creditors (like players, staff, etc) to be repaid. Ironically, Balram Chainrai is likely to emerge again as Portsmouth’s owner. In the absence of new investors/suckers, regaining control of Portsmouth with the debts largely wiped out will allow him to preserve his investment and possibly profit at a later date.

There are other legal disputes awaiting Portsmouth too. It has been sued by former defender Sol Campbell for £1.7m for unpaid image rights. The football club is also involved in a separate dispute with former owner Gaydamak over whether they have missed a deadline in paying a £9m chunk of the £28m they owe him.

Pompey must also enter a Company Voluntary Agreement for unsecured creditors by the end of the season or start next season with another deduction of at least 15 points which could result in another relegation into the Championship and put off any potential buyers.

On the bright side, Portsmouth will be a more stable and financially viable Championship side. Administration is definitely the lesser of two evils compared to a winding up order and there are already four interested parties circling in. The winding-up process, started by HM Revenue and Customs, due before the High Court this week, will be suspended automatically.

Andrew Andronikou has requested for a meeting of the Premier League board to ratify the nine-point deduction. He will also try to overturn rulings that prevent them from selling players outside the transfer window. This rule is too cumbersome for the administrator. If players have not contributed enough to justify their high wages and refuse to take pay cuts, the direct way to reduce the debt burden is to sell them, rather than waiting for several months to take action.

With Portsmouth going into administration, it is set to receive outstanding payments from the Premier League – including parachute payments paid to relegated clubs – totalling £36 million.

The Premier League has also given Portsmouth written permission to raise £20m against the promise of the future funds. However, the League will retain about £16m to pay off football debts. Besides the advance payments and raising of fresh capital, negotiations forcing creditors to take a haircut and offloading of redundant players will make the £70 million debt less daunting.

Tighter Regulations For A Sustainable Premier League

Two years ago, Portsmouth fans were on cloud nine after winning the FA Cup. This is hardly surprising, considering Portsmouth’s last taste of major success was a double-championship in 1949-1950. Unfortunately, the joy evaporated all too quickly in a humiliating administration.

How did a football club dig itself into such a ruthole? The assets have been milked dry, leaving little incentives for new investors to take over. The best chance is to find a sugar daddy like Roman Abramovich who can sustain a club without borrowing.

West Ham co-owner David Sullivan believes Portsmouth troubles are far from over, despite going into administration. In fact, the club could be six months away from going out of business completely.

Sullivan learnt about the difficulties the hard way when he decided to save West Ham – season ticket sales and TV revenues had already been securitized, sold for years in advance.

He said: “The big problem is finding a buyer. Can anyone tell me why anyone would want to buy a club with so many problems? Not just the debt, but both clubs no longer own their own ground or the car park, and without the land the clubs might very well be worthless if those debts exceeds its value.”

To be sure, many parties are at fault. The owners who turned out to be less wealthy or scrupulous than thought. The greedy but incompetent chief executive, manager and players are culpable too. And let’s not forget the responsibility of the Premier League too.

In their rush to rake in the millions that TV brings, they have turned a blind eye to what has been happening at the club. Portsmouth are not alone in following the accepted Premier League model for a club – overspending, beyond the club’s means, financed by loans from an owner and banks.

The Premier League’s “fit and proper persons test” is designed to assess whether prospective buyers have the finances to run a club, yet Portsmouth have had four owners in seven months – all of whom are far from capable of financing or running the show.

UEFA, displaying a rare foresight and leadership, have acted to implement “financial fair play,” which will require clubs to break even from 2012-13. The Premier League still allows budget overruns so long as owners pour in money to fund spending.

However, such an approach is dangerous and unsustainable. Chelsea have an owner, Roman Abramovich, who willingly dumps money and the club operates without caring about deficits or answering to creditors. The situation becomes dire when the owner grows tired of the club and does not commit fresh funds.

Manchester United and Liverpool are also up to their eyeballs with debt. If earnings becomes insufficient to make interest payments, the death knell will sound on the two most decorated clubs in England.

The FA chairman, Lord Triesman, has identified reliance on owners as a key vulnerability in his speech at the Leaders in Football conference of October 2008. He said: “Debt is at high risk levels. The clubs are owned by either financial institutions, some of which are in terrible health, or very rich owners who are not bound to stay, or not very rich owners who are also not bound to stay.”

In fairness, the Premier League has not been turning a blind eye to financial indiscipline entirely. Last summer, it introduced new rules, including a “going concern” test by which accountants will examine future financial projections for a club. The problem is that future projections are notoriously fuzzy concepts.

If Portsmouth are winning domestic trophies and qualifying for European competitions, Gaydamak’s finances appear impeccable, and banks are making loans with abandon, you could make ridiculously rosy assumptions without considering any downside.

Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe stepped into the fray by reminding that Portsmouth’s plunge into administration serve as “a massive wake up call” to ensure football get its financial house in order. Sutcliffe has been a strong advocate of tightening the rules on prospective buyers of football clubs and Pompey’s misfortune should prompt football authorities into action.

Sutcliffe is also concerned about the number of top-flight sides currently saddled with debt though he treaded carefully on government intervention in football expenditure. He has also proposed having more supporters’ voices on the board of directors.

I concur with Gerry Sutcliffe. The Premier League must examine itself and weed out bad practices to protect its own reputation. Even as broadcasters fall over themselves to pay obscene amount of money for TV rights and football fans thrill over the action served up by the world’s richest league, this season’s Premier League will be remembered “fondly” for having a football club which fell into financial ruin.

But I doubt Richard Scudamore considers Portsmouth’s administration a major embarrassment to the Premier League. It is solely down to bad management rather than oversight and so long as he continues to sign lucrative contracts, everything is fine. In that respect, he is successful for securing yet another bumper round of international TV deals for the Premier League from 2010-13.

No doubt, the Premier League is a very marketable product for all its entertainment and glam, but there is a point when fans no longer enjoy the farce as football clubs enter administration in unison. If that happens, the Premier League becomes a mockery for losing control of errant football clubs, dealing with administrators, following up on unpaid salaries to footballers and staff, and checking on buyers when they pick up clubs’ carcasses.

Indeed money, while indispensable, should not be the deciding factor of a successful league. A football club cannot be about achieving glory at the expense of its survival. Even in its mediocre ways, a club provides entertainment and unites the passions of fans, some of which grew up watching the games and treat it as family. Some fans are now screaming their hearts out “Portsmouth till I die!”

It is not worth the trouble to buy great players, pay them lots of money, win some silverware and then go into administration. Portsmouth’s owners have gambled away the club’s future and its proud 112 year heritage, all in the hope of hitting the jackpot. They walk away none the worse for wear when the pipe dreams were dashed.

Pompey will be ‘cut to the bone’ after entering administration and there is no guarantee of its survival. For a club starting all over, they may have to recruit players from Football League or academy cast-offs, and probably only a local manager. Top class football may have to wait for years. Haven’t we seen such debacles in Leeds United, Southampton FC or Crystal Palace before?

Will football fans still show the same interest in the Premier League if Manchester United and Liverpool go into administration and slipped into oblivion? Portsmouth is only the tip of the iceberg and there are more club failures over the horizon.

It is time football fans make a clear statement they do not want to be exploited by greedy owners who act more like corporate raiders. There is little purpose served in leveraged buyouts except to benefit the owners and enslaving the football club with debts.

Arsene Wenger has shown that he can provide quality and entertaining football at Arsenal through talent spotting and development at the youth level instead of buying accomplished stars at exorbitant prices. We need more football clubs to adopt his philosophy if the Premier League is to sustain itself for the next decade.

Patrick Vieira has returned to the Premier League on a six-month contract with Manchester City. His name may still evoke respect from his opponents but one should bear in mind that the feisty midfielder is no longer the box-to-box field marshall we last saw of him in an Arsenal shirt.

For now, as with any arrival, there is a great sense of anticipation. Manchester City’s hero Mike Summerbee had welcomed Patrick Vieria at the training ground and spoke of how he played until age 40. Vieira, who is turning 34 in June, will have been encouraged to know that age is not a stigma at City.

To be sure, even in the fast paced Premier League today, it is possible to have a long career without any significant decline in performance. Evergreens Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are good examples but the injury plagued Patrick Vieira is a risky bet.

Patrick Vieira’s trademark tenacity in keeping and fighting for possession has become harder to execute with age. In fact, two former Arsenal team-mates, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, believe his best days are over.

To which the Frenchman retorted: “I have nothing to prove to anybody. I just have to believe in myself. I know what I am capable of and I am back in England because I feel I still have something to offer. And City believe in me as well.”

How long the goodwill in Manchester City last is unclear. For now, Vieira is making all the right noises for the benefit of his new club. He emphasized that Manchester United have lost their aura of invincibility, especially with the departure of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Indeed, Manchester United’s dearth of attacking options has been compounded by an increasingly challenging Premier League. Besides the traditional Big Four, Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa are also gunning for glory. The humiliating 1-0 defeat by Leeds United and fortunate 1-1 draw with Birmingham reflected Manchester United’s struggle to battle on all fronts with limited resources.

Not that Alex Ferguson needs any reminder and there is always a price to pay for stoking his competitive nature. The two Manchester clubs will clash in the Carling Cup later this month and emotions are set to run wild. It will be a time to settle old scores too as Vieria’s last kick for Arsenal was a penalty which cost Manchester United the FA Cup in 2005.

Rekindling intense rivalry is one thing but it is quite another to reinforce Manchester City’s title pretensions. Patrick Vieira has echoed Roberto Mancini’s sentiment that City could achieve the top prize this season.

So far, Mancini’s immaculate win record in 4 games since replacing Mark Hughes has left City fourth in the Premier League table, 7 points behind leader, Chelsea. They are definitely in contention for the title if we considered that Arsenal came back “from 15 points behind in one season.”

The owner, Sheikh Mansour, will actually be contended with a top four finish to justify his spending and account for half a season of “no progress” under Mark Hughes. Thus, talking up title hopes is something which Mancini and Vieira should refrain, lest it backfires on them.

Can Patrick Vieira Fit Into Mancini’s Plans?

In the past, Manchester City have had little luck in signing aging stars who integrate into the team and excel. Past failures include George Weah, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and David Seaman. It is thus baffling to note that Roberto Mancini, with Abu Dhabi’s rich war chest at his disposal, decided to gamble on the 33-year-old Patrick Vieira, who is no longer a hot property.

Arsene Wenger was never interested in making a firm offer and he has politely remarked that Viera and City make a perfect match. As for Harry Redknapp, who has a knack of getting over-the-hill talents to outperform, the timing wasn’t right or maybe he just didn’t try hard enough.

It is too early to say Mancini has made a mistake as a veteran can provide experience, stability and leadership to a young squad. In his prime, Vieira was known as a tough player who could tackle, makes quality passes and score crucial goals. His height, stamina, strength and perception were important assets which drove Wenger’s stylish attacking side.

Getting the youngsters to learn what makes Vieira tick during training will benefit them immensely, even if he finds it hard to muster his old magic on the battlefield. Alex Ferguson favors such an approach too when he signed Teddy Sheringham, Laurent Blanc and Edwin van der Sar.

Despite success in the Premier League and Serie A, Patrick Vieira’s hunger to win more titles remains unabated. Currently, there is no player in Manchester City with a better resume than Vieira. During his nine years with Arsenal, Vieira won the Premier League and FA Cup Double in 1998 and 2001, clinched FA Cups in 2003 and 2005 as well as helming the ‘Invincibles’ campaign when the Gunners broke Nottingham Forest’s record for unbeaten games in the Premiership.

Patrick Vieira was also part of France’s 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning sides. The only honor to elude him is the Champions League which is a major reason for his departure from Arsenal. When Vieira moved to Juventus in 2005, he helped them win the Italian Championship but a groin injury affected his performances.

His appearance in the Champions League quarter-finals at Highbury was a sham as Arsenal won 2-0 on aggregate against Juventus. Robert Pires and the 19-year old Cesc Fabregas upstaged Vieira who had little to show except for a yellow card.

When Juventus were rocked by a match-fixing scandal and subsequently relegated to Serie B, Patrick Vieira transferred to Inter Milan and enjoyed another streak of Serie A titles but he was relegated to a fringe player due to injuries.

Roberto Mancini, then manager at Inter Milan, recruited Vieira but ended up using Oliver Dacourt as his first choice. With the club signing Sulley Muntari and Thiago Motta, Vieira found it even harder to get into the first team.

Mancini duly delivered three Serie A titles but was surprisingly replaced by Jose Mourinho. The change of manager did not bring better luck for Vieira though. In last year’s Champions League game against Manchester United, Vieira looked like a passenger and was substituted at half-time. For this season, he featured just 16 times in all competitions – with most of those coming from the bench.

Despite adding more championships on his resume, it has become clear that the team is carrying Vieira to glory instead of him playing an instrumental role. You can’t blame Jose Mourinho for being happy to offload Vieira whose contract will be due in June 2010, after which he becomes a free agent.

Mancini’s Juggling Act In Midfield

Notwithstanding the risks, Roberto Mancini has huge plans for Patrick Viera. He said: “Patrick is a world-class midfielder with a winner’s mentality and will fit into this group very well. He knows me and my staff well and he also knows what the Premier League is all about. He will not need much time to settle in. Patrick is one of the great players of his era with almost every honor in the game to his name.”

We can expect Patrick Vieira to be a regular presence, though he won’t featuring any time soon due to a calf injury picked up in his last Inter Milan match. As for the captaincy, it stays with Kolo Toure for the time being.

It will be nice to see Patrick Vieira as the same resilient midfielder who break up opposing attacks, hoard possession and launch counter attacks intelligently, as well as score crucial headers.

Manchester City has no shortage of quality strikers so if Vieira marshals the midfield well and provides the aerial threat which Mancini relishes, he could easily resurrect a flagging professional career and his influence in the French national team.

Against Blackburn recently, Manchester City were dominant but after conceding the first goal, the team became unsettled and it took the fourth goal to put the game beyond doubt. It is likely that Vieira, had he been fit, will serve as a calming influence for the jittery back line.

However, there are huge risks for Roberto Mancini if the Frenchman is no longer the same player. If he wants a trusted deputy in the dressing room to lead and motivate the troops, it may backfire when Vieira struggles to justify his selection.

So far, Mancini has enjoyed success at City by letting everyone start on a clean slate. Reputation counts for little – whoever is on form and has a good attitude gets into the first XI. That explains why Robinho is benched while Bellamy who did not let his unhappiness about Mark Hughes’s dismissal get in the way of his performance, is now an integral part of Mancini’s plans.

However, the arrival of Vieira may result in Mancini getting a reputation of favoring certain players which was how Sven Goran Eriksson found himself. We have to remember that Vieira is not here for the money. Even if he meets all the performance targets in his contract, he gets about £70,000-a-week, hardly an eye-catching amount.

His main intention in signing for Manchester City is to win back a place in the French World Cup squad. Currently, his impact on the national team has been minimal. He played four international games since September 2007. For France’s friendly against Spain in February 2008, Le Parisien newspaper awarded him 2 out of 10 for his performance.

It is evident that Patrick Vieira has to start playing regularly to get back his sharpness and match fitness. This is a year when Vieira will not tolerate sitting on the bench. Thus, if he doesn’t get enough matches under his belt, Mancini will have one more disgruntled player in the dressing room.

I believe Nigel de Jong or Gareth Barry may have to make way for Vieira but that means disrupting the midfield equilibrium. Nigel de Jong has been one of City’s impressive performers this season. His physical strength in tackling and holding the ball makes it unlikely for Mancini to replace him.

In City’s 4-4-2 formation, the other half of the central midfield is Gareth Barry whose composure and reading of the game make him an invaluable asset. Barry may have underperformed for Mark Hughes but since Roberto Mancini’s arrival, he is beginning to regain the sort of sparkling form that attracted Liverpool.

Even if Mancini adjusts his formation to accommodate Vieira, Stephen Ireland may be a better choice with his attacking thrust. At the moment, City have no European commitments, except for domestic league and cups competition, thus, it is difficult to see Vieira breaking into the first team unless Barry or de Jong suffer serious injuries.

Persisting with Patrick Vieira and also handing him the captain’s armband could result in a dressing room revolt. There are enough opinionated characters in the dressing room for that to happen, like Adebayor, Craig Bellamy and Vieira himself.

I believe Mancini realizes his precarious position in Manchester City. Though Mark Hughes did himself no favors when he struggled to win matches and splashed out £50m on three defenders who cannot protect the goal properly, the callous manner in which he was dismissed will be a good reminder for Mancini.

Success has to be immediate to please his Abu Dhabi boss but even then it does not guarantee Mancini will stay on the job, like what happened in Italy, after winning three Serie A titles. Mancini’s position becomes even more untenable if he misses out on the top four finish while players lose confidence in his management. He could be whisked out of the the door faster than you can say Mark Hughes.

Mancini’s midfield juggling act has just begun and it will be interesting to see how it pans out. At his age, Patrick Vieira is winding down his career as a football legend and he cannot match his younger contemporaries for pace and has to be used sparingly.

If Vieira accepts his role as a substitute, especially in the later stage of the competition where experience can make or break a team, all is fine. If not, Mancini may regret signing a former legend who he has little use for.

This is a guest post by Nick Walsh.

Premier League club Portsmouth have been accused of damaging the game by one of the leading football authorities as problems mount for the south coast side.

The club failed to pay their players’ wages from December on time and seem to be mired in financial turmoil. They are reported to have debts of £60 million and last week the Premier League used Portsmouth’s share of TV money to pay transfer fees owed to other clubs.

The threat of a winding-up petition from HM Revenue and Customs also hangs over Fratton Park. Furthermore, despite earlier assurances, it has now been revealed that Portsmouth paid their non-playing staff before their footballers.

This has angered the Professional Footballers Association, which claimed that Portsmouth’s players are “entitled” to be angry and ask questions of the club as this is the third month in a row that their pay has been late.

Nick Cusack, senior executive of the association, told the Daily Express that the situation at Portsmouth “questions the very integrity” of the Premier League and his organisation plans to speak to the players affected.

He said: “When two teams take the field, it’s 11 versus 11 and you would expect all 22 players to have been paid.

“If one set of 11 has not [been paid] then that can call into question the commitment of that team and therefore the integrity of the game itself.”

With many people in football betting that things at the club will only get worse, a players’ revolt could be on the cards.

The chief executive of the Premier League club has admitted that the financial situation is a massive problem and the owner Ali al-Faraj cannot help Portsmouth’s cash flow problems.

A number of players may have to leave Fratton Park in order generate much-needed cash at the club. The likes of David James, Younes Kaboul, Nadir Belhadj and Kevin-Prince Boateng have all been linked with moves away from Portsmouth.

“If the way to keep this club alive is to sell a couple of players again, we will have to do that – but it will be an owner’s decision,” said Peter Storrie.

“It will look doom and gloom but what is the other side of that? The other side of that is if you do not sell, then you could well be going into administration.”

Portsmouth’s owners and board are currently working to solve the situation at Fratton Park by raising a short-term loan to meet the sums owed to both the players and HM Revenue and Customs.

It is a worrying time for the club and there is a real possibility that they could be the first Premier League club to go into administration, so the next few weeks will be vital.

Players are highly likely to leave Fratton Park during the January window, and with a transfer embargo currently placed on the club there will be no new faces coming in.

This will do nothing to aid the side’s ambitions to avoid relegation from the Premier League and Portsmouth really need to start winning games as they are currently five points from safety.

Their next league game is at home to Birmingham, and Portsmouth have a tricky run of fixtures on the horizon during which they face title-chasing Manchester United and their neighbors City in the space of seven days.

Given the state of Portsmouth, there wouldn’t be many willing to bet on the Premier League side avoiding the drop.

It could be a long season for Portsmouth fans and many won’t care if their team is in the Premier League or Championship next term as long as it still exists in some form.