Premier League preview: A big weekend for Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool

This weekend features three massive games in the race for the Champions League places as the season enters its final few weeks.

Fulham v Arsenal

Arsenal’s late season charge to make the top four takes them to Craven Cottage. After a midweek draw against Everton, the Gunners will feel they need three points from this away trip before Manchester United come to the Emirates next weekend.

Santi Cazorla

After their surprise away win at Spurs a few weeks ago guaranteed their Premiership status for another season, Fulham’s season is drifting towards its conclusion with no win in their last three games, which included a crushing home defeat to local rivals Chelsea in midweek. Arsenal’s greater desire and need to win should be enough to see them to a comfortable three points at the Cottage.

Tottenham v Manchester City

A huge game at White Hart Lane as Spurs host the current champions. Spurs have been feeling the pressure once again late in the season with their last two home games ending in defeat to Fulham and a draw with Everton, whilst also crashing out of the Europa League to Basel. This is a big opportunity for them to get themselves back in a prime position for the top four against a Manchester City side who looked jaded in their 1-0 home win over Wigan in midweek.

Gareth Bale

The crowd will certainly be up for this game as well and with the likely return of Gareth Bale, Spurs will fancy their chances of getting a positive result out of this game. City know that they are not going to catch Manchester United and that they have second place pretty much sown up. For them all the focus is now on the FA Cup final and they may make a few changes after playing three games in a week. Spurs know a win is vital as they still have tough away games to come against Chelsea and two teams who are battling for survival in Stoke and Wigan.

Liverpool v Chelsea

Rafael Benitez returns to Anfield for the first time as an opposing manager with his Chelsea side. The Spaniard is sure to get a terrific reception from the home supporters and it will be interesting to see how it affects the Chelsea team. When Gerard Houllier returned with his Aston Villa team a couple of years ago and got an amazing reception Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 victory. This Chelsea team though are a lot more experienced than that Villa side and you would expect them to be able to cope with what is sure to be a passionate atmosphere.

Rafa Benitez

On the pitch Liverpool have won four of their last five meetings in the league against Chelsea and they drew the other. Liverpool have once again saved most of their best performances for games against the bigger clubs this season, even though this may not be borne out by results. Benitez continues to rotate his squad well to cope with their demanding fixture list and their 3-0 away win at Fulham in midweek was certainly impressive, whilst they were unfortunate not to take Manchester City to extra time in last Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final. Liverpool’s recent record against the Blues may well swing this game in their favour and Daniel Sturridge may well be out to prove a point against the club who he feels never gave him a proper chance to make his mark in his time there.

By Chris Newman

Manchester United out of the Champions League – expect a red response

United to bite back?

Manchester United exited the UEFA Champions League last night amid a storm of controversy, after a truly dramatic encounter with Spanish giants Real Madrid. The fixture, which saw the return of former Old Trafford idol Cristiano Ronaldo and another top-of-the-bill tactical duel between Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, certainly lived up the pre-match expectations.

What nobody saw coming though, was the actions of referee Cuneyt Cakir. The Turkish official brandished a straight red card for United’s Nani after the winger caught Alvaro Arbeloa with an accidental high boot. The impact of the decision on the home side was brutally clear by the end of the 90 minutes, but as the analysis of the incident spins around Europe, NMO now takes a look at what the turn of events means for the English domestic season.

Fans of Manchester City were likely to have watched on chuckling as United’s European dream came crashing down in shower of perceived injustice. The more perceptive among them however, will know that when that red card came out of Cakir’s pocket it was not just a watershed in the game but also a beacon, signalling the end for City’s aspirations of defending their league title.

Sir Alex Ferguson

While United are galloping 12 points clear at the Premiership’s summit. Roberto Mancini will surely have been clinging to the faint hope that his arch rivals’ European endeavours would prove a distraction, causing them to drop a few points and allow his own side to rein them in.

With the possibility of two-leg quarter and semi-finals now eradicated, the Old Trafford side will be able to fully focus on regaining the crown that was so dramatically snatched from them within the final minutes of last season. Expect Ferguson to field strong sides now in all of United’s league fixtures until the title is claimed, which could well be before the end of April. The top two of course, still must meet for a second time this season, with City scheduled to make the trip across town on the April 8. Had United progressed to the quarter-finals this crucial six pointer would have fallen bang in the middle of their two European ties. This would surely have been an advantage, which has just been removed from Mancini’s list of reasons to be cheerful.

Looking for more immediate potential fallout we should search no further than Old Trafford this coming Sunday. Chelsea are the visitors in an FA cup tie which represents the Blues’ last realistic hope of silverware this season. It is a all too well known a fact that when Ferguson’s United are knocked down they get back up again and the backlash for whichever side happens to be in front of them is usually severe. As the Madrid players celebrated, Ferguson was incandescent with rage. United players lost their cool and wrongly vented their frustrations with Mr Cakir. If Rafa Benitez was looking on he would be right to be concerned as before him was the perfect example of the old cliche; a wounded animal.

That animal will take to the field against Chelsea on Sunday and it would be foolish to think that United players will be wallowing in self-pity. Fergie is likely to freshen his side. Rooney will surely return and we will see a line-up with a simple brief: attack with ferocious intensity.

The impact of United focusing solely on their domestic challenges is likely to spread down the table. Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa all have league fixtures that would have coincided with United’s Champions League schedule if they had continued in the competition. Each of those clubs must surely now feel the chances of much needed points in those games has just diminished slightly.

It is easy of course to look at the what ifs but we can briefly consider this United side and whether or not they were strong enough to compete on three fronts and repeat the treble success of 1999. The answer, ultimately, is of course no but had the Cuneyt Cakir shown yellow rather than red, the class of 2013 would most likely still be on course to scale similar heights.

The midfield quartet of Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham probably sets the 99 side apart from the current crop but the United of today has more strength in depth, a formidable lead in the league and with Barcelona’s progress uncertain, had Fergie’s charges gone through, they would be looking like the team to avoid. Unfortunately for those still to play them in the league this season, avoidance is not an option.

Chelsea must be regretting replacing Roberto Di Matteo with Rafa Benitez

With 13 games to go in the Premier League season, Chelsea’s campaign hangs in the balance. The standout event of 2012-13 is, and surely will be come the end of the season, the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo. With the unpopular Rafa Benitez brought in on a temporary deal until the end of the season and the consequent mediocre form that has followed, the powers that be at Stamford Bridge must now be regretting the decision.

Di Matteo’s heroics of turning the club’s fortunes round last season to win the FA Cup and Champions League are well-documented. The Italian coach then had to suffer the indignity of waiting around until Roman Abramovich has approached Pep Guardiola and a handful of other European coaches to fill the role permanently before apprehensively conceding defeat and giving Di Matteo a full-time chance. Admittedly Chelsea’s form in Europe had not be blistering in a tough group when Di Matteo was sacked, but surely his domestic form was good enough to keep him in a job.

Rafa Benitez

Di Matteo had won seven of the club’s 12 Premier League games before being given the axe, drawing three and losing only twice. Compare this to Rafa Benitez’s record; 13 matches played, six won, four drawn and three lost. This gives Di Matteo an average of 2.0 points per game; Benitez is down at 1.69 points per game.

The Chelsea fans have made their distaste for the former Liverpool boss known, and Abramovich must now regret the hasty and irrational decision to bring the Spaniard to West London. Although elimination from the Champions League was largely Di Matteo’s doing, Benitez has managed to fluff a chance to win the Club World Cup, been eliminated from the League Cup and is lucky to still be in the FA Cup after a close scare against Brentford; he is now one of the favourites to lose his Premier League job next with

Chelsea are currently 16 points behind top side Manchester United, and out of the title race. The best Benitez can hope for is to salvage third, or at a push second, and this surely will not be good enough to satisfy the club’s Russian owner.

It is stated in the press that Abramovich is an avid follower of the game, however the decision to sack Di Matteo was an impulse and petulant move, made by someone who does not fully understand the intricacies of the sport. He, unfortunately along with the Stamford Bridge faithful, is now being punished as Chelsea suffer a mediocre season at best.

Six of the Best: CD Tenerife

CD Tenerife were once a strong side in La Liga, but now dwell in the doldrums of the Spanish third tier. Under the guidance of current Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes, the Chicharreros made it to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in the 1996-97 season, beating the likes of Feyenoord and Lazio along the way.

But, recent seasons have not been so fruitful at the Helidoro Rodriguez Lopez. A seven-year spell in the Segunda Division came to an end in 2009 with promotion but the club were relegated from La Liga after just one season in the top flight.

The 2010-11 season saw the club go into free fall. Three coaching changes saw the team suffer relegation to the third-tier of Spanish football for the first time in 24 years.

Some excellent footballers over the 1990’s and 2000’s donned the blue and white of Tenerife before the club lost its way; here are six of the best.

Fernando Redondo (1990 – 1994)

Considered one of the finest players to grace La Liga, Redondo made over 100 league appearances for Tenerife during the early 1990s. The South American was a key player for the side and under manager Jorge Valdano foiled Real Madrid on the final day of the season on two separate occasions, gifting the league title to their arch rivals Barcelona.

Valdano was appointed manager of Real Madrid in 1994 and took Redondo with him to the Santiago Bernabeu where he spent six industrious years. He won the Champions League in 1998 and again in 2000 when he will be remembered for a magnificent quarter-final second leg performance against Manchester United, in which Madrid won 3-2.

Jose Del Solar (1992 – 1995)

The Peruvian enforcer arguably spent the best years of his career at Tenerife, forging an effective midfield partnership with Fernando Redondo. He helped the club qualify for the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history in 1993 where they reached the last 16 before bowing out 4-2 on aggregate to Juventus.

Spells at seven different clubs around Europe followed before he stepped into management in Argentina with Colon Sante Fe. He has since went on to coach Peru and is revered in his homeland for a successful career on and off the pitch.

 Meho Kodro (1996 – 1999)

Bosnian striker Meho Kodro joined Tenerife in 1996 after spending just one season at Barcelona. He spent three campaigns at the Helidoro and will be best remembered for the two goals he netted for the club en-route to the UEFA Cup semi finals during 1996-97.

He enjoyed a prolific spell at Real Sociedad before joining Barcelona, netting 73 goals in 129 league matches but failed to recreate this with only 18 goals in 72 league appearances for Tenerife. After the club’s relegation season in 1999, he left for Deportivo Alaves.

Roy Makaay (1997 – 1999)

One of the most feared strikers in Europe on his day and a favourite in the “first goalscorer” market with free bets punters looking for a “sure thing”, fans will note his spell in the Canary Islands for two years in the late 1990’s before prolific spells at Deportivo La Coruna and Bayern Munich.

After four seasons in Holland with Vitesse, Dutch international Makaay stepped up a level and played in La Liga with Tenerife. Seven goals in his first season helped the club avoid relegation but even 14 strikes in 36 appearances during the 1998-99 campaign could not prevent the club slipping into the Segunda Division.

Juan Antonio Pizzi (1991 – 1993, 1994 – 1996)

The Argentina-born Spain international enjoyed two prolific spells at Tenerife during the early and mid-1990s. He scored 30 goals in 68 league matches during his first two seasons, which helped the club qualify for the UEFA Cup in 1993.

A disappointing season at Valencia followed but he returned to the Helidoro in 1994 where he struck 46 goals in 73 league appearances. In the 1995-96 campaign he scored 31 in 41 matches, winning him the Pichichi Trophy in Spain for being the top goal scorer and also the European Golden Boot. He then joined Barcelona but found it difficult to break into the side ahead of Ronaldo and Sonny Anderson.

Luis Garcia (2000  – 2001)

Former Liverpool attacker Luis Garcia played for Tenerife under then-manager Rafa Benitez, and was part of the team that won promotion to La Liga in 2001.

Garcia had spent relatively quiet spells at Valladolid and Toledo in previous seasons but exploded in the Canaries. He scored 16 goals in 41 league matches before moving on to Atletico Madrid and then returning to Barcelona before linking up again with Benitez via a £2 million switch to Anfield in 2004.

Football’s Great Chokes

Football is a funny old game. One minute your team looks like they have a match or a league title in the bag, the next it can escape their grasp. The term ‘choke’ is synonymous in sporting circles with people or teams that are in a commanding position but suffer a meltdown mentally, losing their composure and consequently the match or competition. With the United States choke against Panama in the Gold Cup fresh in the memory, I have decided to look at some of the famous footballing chokes over the years.

AC Milan, Champions League Final 2005
The Champions League final is the biggest stage in world club football and AC Milan and Liverpool contested the 2005 final in Istanbul, Turkey. The game was a story of two choking sides, firstly Liverpool were the team to freeze up as they were overawed by the occasion and let in a soft goal in the first minute to veteran Italian defender Paolo Maldini. From there Rafa Benitez’s team conceded two more in the first half, with Kaka the architect and Argentine striker Hernan Crespo the executioner. Half time; Liverpool 0 Milan 3, it looked like it could get embarrassing for the English side. However choking can be infectious and the Rossoneri caught the bug in the second half, as Steven Gerrard inspired his side to fight back and the Italian side capitulated under the pressure of being 45 minutes away from European glory. Goals from Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso saw the match finish 3-3, go to penalties and it was Milan’s darling Andriy Shevchenko who eventually crumbled under the pressure and missed the decisive penalty, giving Liverpool the Champions League title.

Bayern Munich, Champions League Final 1999
Manchester United and Bayern Munich contested the 1999 Champions League final in the Nou Camp, Barcelona, in what would be a prime example of the footballing choke. In an end to end match the German side started the brighter, and deservedly took the lead through a Mario Basler effort after only six minutes. United attacked well but the German side had key chances to win the game by getting the decisive second goal; firstly Mehmet Scholl hit the post and then Carsten Jancker struck the crossbar with an overhead kick. With time almost up, Die Roten started to defend and retreat, looking to protect their precious goal advantage. Enter substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In injury time Peter Schmeichel came forward to attack a United corner, and in a me-lay in the German box Sheringham managed to convert a poor clearance and give The Reds parity. However the best was yet to come as less than thirty seconds later Solskjaer toe poked home the winner following a Sheringham headed effort. Totally capitulation and a great football choke achieved by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team in three minutes of injury time.

Tottenham, vs Manchester United, September 2001 and April 2009
Tottenham took on English Champions Manchester United at White Hart Lane on Saturday September 29th 2001, with much anticipation around the London club. In a barnstorming first half performance by the home side, goals from Dean Richards, Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege gave Spurs a 3-0 lead at the break. North London was full of energy. This could be the start of something big for Glenn Hoddle’s men. Sir Alex Ferguson and United had other ideas as five second half goals from Andy Cole, Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and David Beckham broke Spurs hearts and the game ended 5-3.

Almost eight years later and Harry Redknapp took his talented Tottenham side to Old Trafford to lock horns with The Reds, and in an attacking performance in the first half the London club found themselves 2-0 up at half time with goals from Darren Bent and Luka Modric. Redknapp will have urged his team not to solely sit back and defend, to have belief in themselves and to go and win the game in his half time teamtalk, but instead his team choked and again conceded five second half goals to Cristiano Ronaldo (2), Wayne Rooney (2) and ex-striker Dimitar Berbatov, with the game finishing 5-2 to United.

Chelsea, vs Arsenal, October 1999
Fourth placed Chelsea hosted second placed Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in a highly charged match on 23rd October 1999, with local bragging rights and the Premiership title up for grabs. Arsene Wenger had started to mould the Gunners team into his own, an had signed Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan in February 1999. In the match Chelsea took the lead through Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo on 39 minutes and Dan Petrescu gave The Blues a 2-0 advantage on 51 minutes. The chant of “we want five” rang around The Bridge from a euphoric Chelsea support. In a wet and windy day, Kanu stepped up and got one back for Arsenal on 75 minutes, slotting home a miscued Marc Overmars shot, and the home side, and their fans, became slightly edgy. Kanu shocked the home faithful with seven minutes remaining as he drove home an Overmars cross, but the African striker still had more to come. In the last minute of the game, Kanu closed down a clearance and found himself close to the cornerflag, confronted by home keeper Ed de Goey, who had rushed out of his goal. The lanky striker avoided de Goey’s sliding tackle and converted from the tightest and most impossible angle to give the Gunners the match 3-2, with Chelsea in despair.
Real Madrid, 2003-2004 La Liga Season
In the 2003-04 La Liga season, Real Madrid had a star studded team full of world beaters, were champions from the previous season and followers at the Bernabeu had Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Zidane to surely lead them to a second consecutive title. This looked very likely, as by the end of February Los Blancos were eight points ahead at the top of the standings and looking for the treble. However a four month choke by Carlos Quieroz’s side saw them lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Zaragoza, get kicked out of Europe at the hands of Monaco and lose their grip on the domestic title. A loss in El Classico and a 4-1 home defeat to Real Sociedad on the last day of the season saw Valenica lift the title, and the Galacticos finish fourth behind Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna.

Newcastle United, 1995-96 Premier League Season
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side of 1995-96 were labelled ‘The Entertainers’, as the Toon amassed a quality side with the likes of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola in their ranks. Keegan’s men dispatched all in front of them and rushed into a 12 point lead at the top of the Premier League. The Geordies had finished second a couple of years earlier, but for the St James Park faithful this would be the season of glory. However Keegan’s men fell victim to a run of inconsistent form and perennial strong finishers Manchester United caught Newcastle up, and won the league from under their noses. Newcastle have fallen from grace since, and the choke of 1996 has significantly impacted upon the team’s fortunes.

The old cliches of ‘it’s not over til it’s over’ and ‘it’s a game of two halves’ spring to mind when reminiscing about some of the great footballing chokes, and it shows that a team must be mentally prepared as well as physically and tactically to succeed at the highest level.

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