UnVARgettable Weekend in the FA Cup

Another exciting weekend of FA Cup football is behind us and we can safely say that the decision to only have VAR available at the Premier League grounds was somewhat questionable.

At the Millwall v Everton match they had their own unofficial version of VAR, it’s a pity that the referee team didn’t make better use of it though. Apparently you can’t overturn a decision based on a giant replay of the incident seen by thousands inside the stadium, but it is OK to overturn the decision if it’s an official VAR system.

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Is there no common sense in football these days? Surely if a member of the referee team sees something that leads to a wrong decision he should alert the referee. How can he go on knowing a wrong decision was taken regardless of the manner in which he received that information. In this instance it was a massive game changing incident allowing Millwall to draw level late in the game with a clearly illegitimate goal. Instead the 4th official just signaled vigorously for someone to turn the replay off.

Another Premier League team to crash out of the Cup was Spurs, their 2nd cup exit in a week after their defeat by Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final. Despite the different circumstances from the Everton game both Premier League teams deserved to leave the competition based on their performances alone.

Spurs obviously have problems with squad depth with Kane and Ali injured and Son on international duty. If they had played if they were available is another question. For the spurs players and fans I imagine this Cup exit will be less painful than the League Cup exit. Especially after being 1-0 up against Chelsea from the first leg. Having one foot in the final and then having it taken away again could have played a part in their poor FA Cup exit also.

One team prancing their way to the 5th round is Man Utd after their 8th straight win since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took after a month ago. In his first few games Man Utd may not have dispatched all the teams with ease but they’ve kept winning and that will breed confidence throughout the squad. With away wins at Spurs and Arsenal, they have their tails up. They are playing with a much better flow than a few months ago and seem a more unpredictable outfit, with all the forward players contributing. I can see them going on to win the FA Cup now, with Man City being the only team that could stop them.

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Man Utd must go to Chelsea in the next round but should still play with the same nothing to loose attitude as slight underdogs. Chelsea on the other hand may feel under pressure and have some problems scoring goals at the moment. Higuain is considered to be the solution to their problem. Personally I’m always skeptical about big name strikers coming to the Premier league so late in their carriers. Shevchenko, Falcao and Morientes to name but a few who have arrived late and flopped. Sari has worked with Higuain before so maybe that familiar face will be the difference between Higuain and those aforementioned strikers.

This years FA Cup has been something special so far with the lower league teams providing a lot of value with several cupsets. There are only 7 Premier League teams left and many of them playing away to lower league opposition in the next round. There could be a few more cupsets to come.

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Liverpool’s ghost of Christmas past

It has been well documented over the past few weeks that on 8 of the past 10 seasons, the team at the top of the table at Christmas have went on to win the league. The 2 exceptions are Liverpool of course. In the 08/09 under Rafa Benitez and then again 13/14 under Brendan Rodgers.

In the 08/09 season Liverpool faded somewhat in the second half after Benitez’s infamous ‘Facts’ rant. In the 13/14 season Liverpool were still top with 3 games to go, only to choke and hand the league to Man City. The devastating loss to Chelsea along with that monumental collapse 3-0 up at Crystal Palace ended Liverpool’s chances that year.

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Liverpool could look back on both those occasions and learn something. Quite simply they need to keep calm on and off the pitch. In 08/09 Benitez clearly lost his cool trying to play mind games with Ferguson and as a result the whole team suffered. In 13/14 the players lost their cool on the pitch during that 3rd last game against Mourinho’s bus-parking, slow-moving Chelsea. Liverpool were trying a little too hard to win that game when a draw along with 2 wins from the last 2 games would have secured the league.

Despite their defeat to Man City last night Liverpool have no need to panic and with Jurgen Klopp at the helm and this group of players they are much better equipped to deal with the pressure. In both 08/09 and 13/14 Liverpool had an excellent first 11 but beyond that it was very limited. It was almost inevitable that those players would not be able to keep up that level of performance the whole season with no backup. Liverpool have a huge squad this time. They have players who can make a big impact from the bench, and with several players still to come back from injury they are in much better shape than those previously failed attempts to win the league.

The problem for Liverpool this year is they are not up against just one great manager and squad but two. Tottenham are just 6 points behind Liverpool and must also be considered contenders for the league. They have won the same amount of matches in the league as Man City which is quite impressive. Their only negative point is they’ve lost the other 5 matches failing to rescue a draw yet. Grinding out a few wins or draws from difficult situations is something Liverpool and City have both managed this season and it is also seen as a sign that a team has got that extra grit and determination needed to become champions of England. If Spurs can correct that in the 2nd half of the season they will play a very important part in the title race.

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With many non Liverpool fans hoping this is the start of a blip in form, and Man City’s big players coming back from injury, and Spurs form improving, the 2nd half of the season is shaping up to be a cracker with a few more twists and turns to come. Can Liverpool finally rid themselves of that ghost of Christmas past? We will find out in May.

Man Utd falling into the footballing abyss

The rate at which Man Utd appear to be falling into the footballing abyss is quite alarming. It just goes to show how quickly things can change in football.

Man Utd finished last season relatively unchallenged in 2nd place. Although the standard of football was already not of the most desirable variety, Mourinho was still getting the results. This year however things are not going the same way. Bad performances and bad results are making for a very unhappy camp.

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It’s difficult to see Mourinho keeping his job much longer but Man Utd are not really the panic sacking sort of club. In the post Ferguson era they have usually given their managers almost full seasons before getting rid of them. The other problem they have is who is even available right now that could come in and straighten the team out. So the question is do they continue with Mourinho till the end of the season with morale seemingly at an all time low, or do they get rid now and bring in a temporary manager or promote someone from within.

In contrast to Man Utd, Arsenal seem to be on the up despite their loss to Southampton at the weekend. Their first loss in 22 games, since they started the season with 2 defeats. Last season they found themselves in a similar situation to Man Utd’s this season. With bad performances and results, they took the plunge and finally got rid of Wenger. However when you look at their match day squad, there are not that many changes to the squads of Wenger. A perfect example of how a fresh set of eyes (Unai Emery) can lift a talented set of players and give them a new direction and purpose.

A fresh set of eyes is surely something Man Utd could do with right now. When you look at their squad, it’s unbelievable to think that with the talent on offer, they find themselves in this situation. Mourinho’s 3rd season syndrome seems to be striking again and if someone doesn’t address the situation soon, the rot that is setting in, could be widespread by the end of the season.

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Liverpool on the other hand are like an unstoppable train recently. Qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League and top of the Premier League. Every player seems to be buzzing right now and very eager to make an empression, whether it’s from the bench or the starting line up. The same cannot be said for Man Utd. Klopp trusts his players and clearly let’s them know. Take Nathaniel Clyne for example. It was his first start of the season and he had a very solid game. If you have the backing of your manager, that can give your confidence a great boost. Clyne didn’t seem fazed despite the big occasion or the lack of recent playing time. Mourinho could certainly take a leaf out of Klopp’s book on this topic.

Liverpool… Top?

If you had have told me when Liverpool were 1-0 down to Burnley on Wednesday night, that they would be top come Saturday evening, I can’t say I would have believed you.

Somehow they’ve managed to find themselves at the summit of the Premier League despite the relentless pace of Man City. On the inside I’m dancing but my head is telling me, haven’t we been here before?

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They’ve kept up with Man City with several grinded results so far and avoiding defeat against the 3 next best teams in the league. Their brand of football this season has not always been befitting of a league winning team but their defence certainly has. The addition of Alisson has been a huge success already. He has come up with some vital saves at crucial times in matches and his distribution has been excellent, leading to several breakaway goals for Liverpool this season. The central defensive partnership of van Dijk and Gomez has been an absolute rock at the back. Something Liverpool have been missing for quite some time.

The midfield however is not as strong as it has been in recent years. Ironically I think that the amount of options they have in midfield has weaked it slightly. With Henderson as captain Klopp probably feels obliged to play him when injury free despite his lack of form so far this season. With Milner’s age Klopp possibly feels he needs rested more than others, but not something I would agree with due to his great form when he plays. Keita and Lallana have been somewhat injured and unable to get a consistent run in the team. Fabinho and Shaqiri have recently been given their chance and have given Klopp a headache with some good performances. The one almost ever-present and consistently well performing player is Wijnaldum. Due to his role, which mainly involves adapting to whichever 2 players he lines up along side, he has flown under the radar but has this season become an absolutely vital part of Liverpool’s midfield 3.

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Of course I’m playing Liverpool’s chances of winning the league down. It is afterall only December and there’s a lot of football to go but it’s certainly exciting times for Liverpool fans. The next month however will severely test Liverpool’s resolve in both the Champions League and Premier League. With vital home games to Napoli, Man Utd and Arsenal coming up in December and starting the new year with an away trip to Man City we will know more about Liverpool’s title and Champions League credentials. Let’s hope for the sake of the Premier League, they can keep up the pace.

What has happened to Mourinho?

It could be one of a number of things or maybe all of them combined but the once self proclaimed ‘Special One’ has surely lost his edge.

Mourinho is a subject that I never get tired of talking about. One of the greatest managers and pantomime villains of all time. When he’s managing in the Premier League I just love to ridicule him but when he’s not there I actually miss him. Of course if he had have managed a Liverpool team to a Premier League title my opinion of him would be very different.

Maybe years of fighting back against the press has finally worn him out. Mourinho always launches a ferocious defence of himself and in the past his players but his tenure at Man Utd has shown a different side to him, often hanging his own players out to dry. This is something the Mourinho of old was not known for and loyalty and unity were key aspects of his previous squads. It was almost like an impenetrable machine charging toward all those league titles in various leagues around Europe.

Are his tactics dated? It’s not easy to understand why his tactics are not appearing to work any more. Maybe with the emergence of many young foreign managers who are coming into the game with fresh ideas and the willingness to take a risk, football is becoming more dynamic across the league and less predictable for managers to know how their opponent is going to play. This could be something Mourinho has failed to adapt to. Sticking with his pragmatic style of sitting back and playing on the counter for a club like Man Utd just doesn’t suit and the fans are getting frustrated as it’s a world away from the swashbuckling football of the Ferguson era.

Are the players not good enough? With the money Mourinho has spent it’s difficult to say this is the problem. There is more than enough talent in that squad to challenge for the league under normal circumstances. With Pep Guardiola’s Man City however these are not normal circumstances and anything less is being highly scrutinised. Of course the players may not be applying themselves correctly to the Mourinho’s style. Sitting back and soaking up pressure is not the same as letting the opposition play and that’s exactly what Utd did against City. There was no pressure from the Utd players the entire game. Even the last 10 minutes when 2-1 down Utd were playing like they were 2-1 up. They desperately needed to get the ball back but instead sat back and allowed City to orchestrate probably the best team goal of the season already to end any chance in this game.

Whether it’s his personality, his tactics or his players it’s still down to him. He needs stop worrying what people think of him and find the strength to re-evaluate his methods and adapt to the modern game. If it’s his players then he needs to get tough on them, they clearly aren’t putting in the effort on the pitch and that’s obvious to see.

Ronaldo Returns to Rape Utd

I mean it in a purely footballing sense of course. Juventus are a relentless machine these days but it’s a long time since they had a genuine superstar in their team.

Despite Ronaldo’s 33 years he doesn’t show any signs of easing up. Many footballers at that age are thinking about retirement and transitioning to an easier league or settling for a high salary in USA or China with little pressure on their shoulders. Ronaldo on the other hand doesn’t shy away and seems to thrive on the pressure of playing for a top team.

Of course he has bad sides to his persona, like his tantrums, his vanity and his multi-coloured boots that can infuriate football fans but one side of his persona that I admire is his professionalism and dedication to his job. He is a superfit athlete and although he’s not the same marauding winger he started out as all them years ago, he’s transitioned to a powerful and deadly centre forward.

His mere presence in that Juventus squad should give all the players a boost, the professional and impressionable ones at least, which seems to be most of the team. They should want to keep up with him and prove that he’s not the only superstar in the team.

Ronaldo has helped Real Madrid win the Champions League in 4 of the last 5 years. In 2 of those 5 years Juventus were the loosing finalists so even before Ronaldo they clearly have the European pedigree to compete with the other top teams but what they’ve been lacking all those years was a superstar player. Now with Ronaldo in their team it surely gives them an edge over most teams in Europe and they are my favourites to win the Champions League this year.

Real Madrid look a lot weaker without Ronaldo and with no superstar replacement it’s hard to see them winning it.

Bayern Munich are also struggling in their own league and without any noticeable major signings they don’t look like they have a chance.

Barcelona have also not strengthened much but they have their own superstar in Messi therefore are one of the favourites.

The last of the big boys is Man City and with Guadiola’s experience and City’s relentless pace in the PL they are also one of the favourites but with the Ronaldo effect my money is still on Juventus.