1. Coyle springs in to action
Is it a sideways move for Owen Coyle to join Bolton from Burnley, a stepping stone to bigger things (Aston Villa, eventually?) or is the young manager destined to bounce around teams like Burnley, Bolton, Blackburn and Birmingham until he joins long-term unemployed such as Roy Evans, David O’Leary and Joe Royle in about fifteen years.
At St Johnstone, Falkirk and Burnley Coyle has proven himself continuously. It was one thing to achieve relative success in the strange Scottish footballing landscape but something else altogether to bring Burnley in to the Premier League for the first time and then turn over Manchester United two games in to the season.
When you look at Burnley’s results, they have been a mixed bag. Draws with Manchester City and Arsenal have been tempered with thrashings by Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. Burnley have equipped themselves well in the Premier League considering their resources but eventually the tenacity and determination will be proven to not be enough.
People tend to associate Bolton with boring long ball hoofing, over-physical tactics and a lack of ambition. True, under Sam Allardyce, Sammy Lee and Gary Megson they have not had the most attractive (in any sense) management teams.
But there’s plenty of quality in their team and with some ambition and mouding I’m sure Coyle can establish the likes of Kevin Davies, Gary Cahill, Matthew Taylor, Grétar Steinsson, Ivan Klasnić and Jussi Jääskeläinen in the Premier League. Say what you like about Gary Megson (which most people do) but he certainly put together a half-decent squad.
2. The end of an era…again
Mr Alex Ferguson has been written off many times before and bounced back with Champions League trophies and league titles. But now pundits really think this could be the beginning of the end for his empire.
Here we are, in the most open and inconsistent Premier League season of all time, and Manchester United simply cannot step it up. Some commentators seem to be highlighting the correlation between poor results and poor performance from Wayne Rooney. But there are three other factors contributing that are undoubtedly causing more damage.
The departure of Ronaldo: I wasn’t his biggest fan but he was insatiable when in the mood and I’m sure United are probably at least a handful of points worse off this season without his goal-scoring contribution. Antonio Valencia battles manfully but it’s like casting Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Tony in a remake of “Scarface”
The injury list: Robbed of the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand for most of the season, United have had to plug the gaps with the Da Silva twins, John O’Shea and Jonny Evans. In midfield the jury remains out on Anderson and Michael Carrick with neither looking to have the quality for the very top level that United require.
Lack of quality and/or form: It’s a bit early to pass judgement on Gabriel Obertan and Zoran Tosic but, going by online rumblings, there are many United fans who are just about done with Nani and Anderson. Dimitar Berbatov has found himself under fire since he signed, Michael Owen has struggled and Paul Scholes form has dipped alarmingly as Father Time taps his watch face and gestures to the Ginger Ninja that we’re just about done here.
Ferguson doesn’t look to have the money to strengthen either with the Glazers keeping the ‘purse strings’ tightly knotted. Will we see Fergie ‘panic buy’ in between FA charges this month?
3. Renaissance in Yorkshire
I was unable to see Leeds FA Cup victory over Manchester United but it ranks as one of the biggest shocks of my lifetime. Leeds might be flying high but they are doing so as a third tier club without any of the big names who took them in to Europe and then down in to the second division several years ago.
This is essentially a new club whose most recognisable name might be David Prutton – famous for shoving over a referee when playing for Southampton.
Simon Grayson dropped a division to take over at Leeds but you can understand why he felt it was a challenge that he could not refuse. If they get over possibly losing 20-goal Jermaine Beckford in this window (to Newcastle) then Leeds look like strong challengers for a return to the second tier.
The victory over Manchester United doesn’t just represent a huge upset. It pushes the reset button and repairs much of the reputation damage done in the Peter Ridsdale era. Ken Bates might have ruffled plenty of feathers in the way he has conducted business at Leeds but the 78 year old may be responsible for overseeing the rebirth of the club.
4. A spoonful of praise
I’m a Spurs fan who don’t like ‘Arry Redknapp and publically derided his appointment as well as highlighted his team’s incompetence at times.
But I have to admit that he’s done okay at Tottenham thus far. I’m sure the board would be happy with a top six position this season and at the moment they are on course for that. But there are three clubs (Spurs, Villa,
Manchester City) who are expected to finish in fifth and sixth position – and three in to two doesn’t go.
Missing out on Europe last season has been very beneficial to Spurs and – aside from the lost revenue – I’d be happy to see them miss out again (see discussion on the Europa League below). Fulham have managed to overcome a slow start to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League but I don’t think they will be able to maintain their good form to repeat last year’s seventh place. Tottenham, Villa and Bolton have all played weakened teams in European competition to concentrate on the league – if Fulham are still in the competition at the business end of the season I would expect them to do the same.
The point is that Spurs are benefitting from not having to fiddle with these extra games and being able to play largely the same team week-in, week-out, is benefiting the likes of Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Defoe and Niko Kranjcar. And, remember, this is a team without their first choice central defensive partnership too.
But Spurs have still come unstuck when it has mattered – against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal – and it’s clear the side miss the real top quality of an Essien, Fabregas or Rooney.
Buying Robbie Keane back from Liverpool was Redknapp’s biggest mistake seeing as how he had already brought back Jermaine Defoe (and Pascal Chimbonda – that didn’t work). But, overall, he has done okay (I’m still reluctant to over-praise given my objection to his appointment initially).
Let’s see if he can keep Spurs in the top six and – this is the key – bring in a top class all-round midfielder in the mould of Viera, Lampard or Keane. Maybe, Sandro?
5. European Competition of Injustice
The Europa League was a fantastic competition in the 80s and 90s (then the UEFA Cup) with top sides like Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich all winning the trophy.
The move to a single-leg final wasn’t a bad thing, nor was the abolishing of the Cup Winners Cup. But obviously shifting more and more of the top European sides in to a single competition (Champions League) has watered down the tournament. It’s interesting to see East European sides like Zenit Saint Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and CSKA Moscow in the list of recent winners but we are a world away from the glamour and world class players of previous decades.
However, that’s not to say that these ‘bigger’ clubs should be allowed to walk in to the show without paying.
At the moment clubs defeated in the third and fourth Champions League qualifying rounds enter the Europa League at various stages. I’m ok with that in the sense that usually these are medium-to-small sized clubs and the Europa league group stage has not yet begun.
But allowing clubs eliminated from the Champions League group stage to enter the knockout stages of the Europa League is contrived and unfair. These are clubs who have benefited (financially) from six group games but have ultimately failed. Why should their reward be to gatecrash a party for successful, (typically) smaller clubs who have achieved their goals?
The Europa League has a credibility problem and this injustice only adds to it.