A Scapegoat is Born

Months ago, when everyone was raving about Harry Redknapp being the next England manager, I predicted that the FA would hire Roy Hodgson.  My reasoning was that the FA needs a scapegoat.

Harry Redknapp is the teflon man, no one can hate him and he never gets blamed when things go wrong.  When England go to Euro 2012 and inevitability perform poorly, no one would consider it to be Harry’s fault.  Instead they would start looking at the players, and worst of all the FA themselves!  Maybe the old guard, the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney are just not good enough anymore.   However these are the players that bring in the big attendances, big sponsors and big money for the FA.  These players also give the FA safe results; “England may not win with these players, but at lease we won’t get beaten badly”, is the mentality.

Maybe people would start to look at the FA and think “are they doing enough” to encourage and bring young talent through the football system.  Maybe people would start to think it’s time for a change right at the top levels of the FA.  But, of course, the FA could not allow this kind of thinking to occur.

Instead they have found the perfect patsy in Roy Hodgson.  He seems to have a personality that fans just love to hate, at the first sight of a poor result the fans and media will already be out for his blood.  Hodgson will continue to trot out in front of the cameras and deliver monotone speeches about how “we need to work on this and that” each week.

Eventually, after a few failed tournaments, Hodgson will quietly fall on his sword with dignity and the FA will find another puppet.

Don’t get me wrong, Hodgson is a great manager, but he is suited to lower end Premier League teams, such as Fulham or West Brom, where he can always exceed expectations and the fans will love him.  But any job where a win is expected in every match, is not the job for Roy Hodgson.

Resurgent Strikers to Decide FA Cup

Liverpool and Chelsea square off in the final of the FA Cup next Sunday at Wembley Stadium.  It’s been an up and down season for both clubs as their Premier League form has been patchy but their tournament successes have drawn heavy applaud.  Two players who had been very poor for much of the season have recently lit aflame and are now on a collision course set for the match.  Fernando Torres, once the scourge of Chelsea drew acclaim for his Champions League sealing goal over Barcelona and his recent hat trick against QPR.  Alternatively, Luis Suarez, who has been suspended for a large swath of the season, is lobbing in goals from 50 yards out and also had a hat trick on the weekend against Norwich City.

Now the two players are set to feature in a game that can restore so much pride for their respective clubs.  To Liverpool, who won the Carling Cup earlier this year, an FA Cup represents a more prestigious and memorable trophy, and a win would mean a domestic cup double for the season.  For Chelsea, who aim for Champions League glory, the FA Cup is just another measure of success.  But, if they go on to lose the European final in Munich, bagging the FA Cup shows that the season wasn’t a total failure.

Fernando Torres has been dormant for so much of the season.  His form has led to many speculations and cries for Didier Drogba, Daniel Sturridge, and Salomon Kalou to see more playing time.  However, the stern resolve of Roberto Di Matteo looks set to pay off as the striker is beginning to resemble his old world class self ahead of the most pinnacle moment of Chelsea’s season.

Luis Suarez is no stranger to trouble.  During the 2010 World Cup, he blatantly used a handball to prevent Ghana scoring a late match-winning goal against Uruguay in the quarterfinals.  Suarez further angered the public when he was charged with racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United during a Premier League match.  Recently seeing out an eight game suspension, Luis Suarez returned to form this weekend with his hat trick.  However, he has also raised eyebrows for all the wrong reasons such as when he was caught trying to use his hands in scoring a goal against Wigan.

Regardless of character issues, Torres and Suarez should provide a thrilling matchup in the FA Cup final.  Both players are coming off of hat trick glory, and we can all hope to witness a bounty of goals at Wembley.

Champions League First Leg Upsets Set Stage for Exciting Returns

The second leg of a UEFA Champions League tie is always the most enthralling.  This is the true match where the victor progresses and the loser must simply wait until next season.  At this point of the tournament only four teams remain, and the winners will meet in the final match for all the glory of Europe.

In both cases, the pundits would declare that the underdog teams won the first leg.  Bayern Munich scrapped a very late goal through Mario Gomez against Real Madrid which gave them a 2-1 victory.  Now they will travel to the legendary Bernabeu and hold on for dear life.  Real Madrid will be thoroughly invigorated due to their victory over Barcelona on Saturday that basically assured them of the La Liga title.

Bayern Munich desperately want to win the semifinal.  As Borussia Dortmund recently claimed the Bundesliga, the Champions League presents their only opportunity for silverware on the season.  With the future of Arjen Robben up in the air, this may be their last chance to win a major trophy with the current make-up of the squad.  The Dutch playmaker is a crucial attacker to the side and will be extremely difficult to replace.

Further providing motivation for the German side is that the final will be held at Bayern Munich’s stadium.  The ability to play the ultimate match on one’s home turf would give Bayern much more favorable odds.  Look at how host nations have fared in recent world cups.  Germany excelled in 2006, as did South Korea in 2002.  In 1998, France won as hosts.  If they can hold onto their lead, Bayern Munich will like their chances to win the Champions League.

Chelsea stunned holders Barcelona 1-0 in London last week.  Salt was added to the wounds when Barcelona lost El Clasico and the Spanish League.  Many moons have passed since Barcelona was defeated two games in a row, and morale must be low within the team.  Overturning the deficit will be quite challenging, especially as Barcelona failed to secure an away goal against Chelsea.  Due to the UEFA rules, if Chelsea scores a goal in the game, Barcelona would actually need to score at least three goals and win by a two goal margin.

Chelsea seems re-invigorated and their manager, Roberto Di Matteo, will see the Champions League trophy as a route to securing a permanent job with the club.  Both ties are set for great excitement.  The Spanish clubs were deemed the favorites heading into the semifinals, and both teams lost the first legs.  Therefore, we will get to see them really go for it in front of their home fans.  I predict that only one of either Real Madrid or Barcelona will make the necessary turnaround to earn a final spot.  My money is on Real Madrid.  They are on a hot streak and are finally showing the poise that we expected when Jose Mourinho was brought in to be manager.

Can Roberto Di Matteo Save Chelsea Job?

The life of an interim manager in the English Premier League is a treacherous one.  For their predecessor to be fired, it shows that the team was struggling.  Proving even more challenging is to be interim manager at Chelsea.  In the past few years, both Avram Grant and Gus Hiddink were added to the club in an effort to improve the team mid season.  In both cases, the new manager brought some success to the club and re-invigorated the side.  But also in both cases, the manager was fired after the season ended.  So, what does Di Matteo have to do in order to show that he can stay in charge of one of Europe’s most proud and wealthy clubs?

First, Di Matteo will need for Chelsea to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next year.  To do that, the club will have to finish at least fourth in the Premiership table.  The team currently resides in 6th position, two points from the crucial spot.  Their recent form in the EPL has been quite inconsistent, only winning two matches of their last five.  The run in is also rather daunting with Chelsea set to face Arsenal, Liverpool, and Newcastle in their last five games.  If Di Matteo fails to lead a successful charge in the next month, he will be replaced.

A secondary goal for Di Matteo will be to win the FA Cup.  Chelsea has endured a horrendous campaign, but a trophy would make the season at least a partial success.  They had a wonderful 5-1 thrashing over Tottenham at Wembley Stadium last Sunday to progress to the final where they will face Liverpool.  Liverpool has also endured a rough year, but their Carling Cup victory shows that they can make a victorious run for a domestic trophy.  Both teams will be eager for the prize, and if Di Matteo can win it, he will display a winning characteristic that could just keep his job for next season.

Most important is the coveted Champions League trophy.  For all of Chelsea’s woes, they have progressed to the semifinals of Europe’s greatest club competition and are set to face Barcelona.  Clearly this will be the hardest task.  Even if they make the final, they will play either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.  Owner Roman Abromovich has desperately wanted to win the Champions League, but Chelsea has yet to perform the feat.  The closest they came was in 2008, when the team lost to Manchester United in the finals during a penalty kick shootout.  John Terry had an opportunity to seal the win but his slip and consequential miss meant Chelsea was to go home empty handed.  Avram Grant had taken Chelsea further than ever before but it wasn’t enough, and he was dismissed shortly thereafter.

Ultimately, Roberto Di Matteo will need to win the Champions League in order to become the full time manager.  It is the only trophy that Chelsea has yet to win, and would prove to the owner that he is the man.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe that such a task is possible, but perhaps, given the inspired football Chelsea has played during the last few weeks in tournaments, they just might rise to the occasion and save their season.

Mikel Arteta Making Arsenal Proud

Seen by the media and skeptics as a frantic move, the purchase of Mikel Arteta on deadline transfer day last August has proven to be yet another shrewd move by Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger.  Although Arteta’s adaptation to the Gunners’ playing style took a few months to develop, the creative midfielder has made a name for himself around the Emirates with his thunderous strikes from distance.

Arteta’s most recent goal was a glorious effort that came in the crucial moment of a Premier League match with Manchester City.  It was a must win game for both sides as Arsenal is in the race for vital Champions’ League qualification, and Manchester City desperately needs points to keep pace with Manchester United for the title.

Arsenal dominated the proceedings for most of the game, but it wasn’t until Arteta’s fantastic goal in the 85th minute that a breakthrough was reached.  This hasn’t been the first time that the talented Spaniard has scored late goals.  Only two weeks ago, Arteta banged in a tremendous free kick against Aston Villa in the dying moments.  When he hit the ball, it was a direct bullet of a shot that barely even rotated as it rocketed 30 yards into the corner of the goal.  The effort was selected as Arsenal’s goal of the month of March.

Arteta, who was a childhood friend of Real Madrid star, Xabi Alonso, has been a late bloomer of a footballer.  He began his career in the hallowed Barcelona youth system.  After failing to establish himself in the first team, he moved to Rangers FC of Scotland where he attained some success, winning the league and cup double in 2003.

After a failed move to his favorite childhood club, Real Sociedad, Arteta brought his talent back to the UK and became a star at Everton.  He was a vital part of the team during his time there, helping them qualify for the Champions’ League in 2005.  He was repeatedly Everton’s player of the season, winning fame and accolades for his ability to direct the attack, and for his vibrant goals in important matches.

However, during his later Everton years Arteta suffered serious injuries which kept him off the pitch for months at a time.  Never truly regaining his form, his career stagnated.  When Arsenal came calling last August, Arteta knew it was time to make a move to a powerful club.  He stated, “I am 29 years old so I haven’t got much time left to take a chance like this one.”

Arteta has done well to help the Gunners fill the void left by the departing Cesc Fabregas.  Although he was initially criticized for passing the ball backwards and sideways too much, Arteta’s recent goals have displayed a knack for pulling his team through in clutch moments.

He has yet to earn a spot in the Spanish national team squad, and when one sees the talent chosen before him they can understand why.  But, his recent displays may just be impressive enough to earn him a place for the EURO 2012 tournament.  As wonderful as Spain is, any team should employ the skills of a late game changer.   Arteta is truly a player that shows the leadership and determination to inspire his team to greatness.