So close, yet so far

Chelsea missed another opportunity to progress furtherin the Champions League when they ere beaten 3-0 at the Nou Camp yesterday.

The competition has traditionally been dominated by Spanish and German giants, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly making it into the top four. While you may see it as them having strong teams, one cannot help but wonder if the weaknesses of their leagues help in some way or not. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, which other team in the Spanish league do you know of that can regularly pose a threat to other teams?

Chelsea’s loss in the Champions League means the FA Cup and a top four finish suddenly look like they have taken more importance. For many teams, the FA cup is the only chance of silverware now – particularly the big spending ones of Man United and Chelsea. Chelsea are almost guaranteed at least fifth place but need to overhaul a deficit of four points to overtake Liverpool or Tottenham and Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Do you thinking Arsene Wenger is quietly smiling before this evening’s match with AC Milan? Only Manchester City and Liverpool have chances for European glory, and Arsenal are also in the fold thanks to the Europa Cup. Never mind that the latter is actually Champions League Division Two; teams are so desperate for success that if you took a rusty metal plate and called it the Universal Champions trophy, which would be contested among a professional football team and three other under-11s teams, the teams would still take it, and the hollow success. The shame!

Managers out of control

Is Arsene Wenger off his rocket again? The Frenchman has recently made the headlines again for his claim that “English players are the best at diving”. We can be absolutely certain that he is not referring to Tom Daley. Hot off the game of Liverpool and Tottenham, where Harry Kane, using his clout as one of England’s top players, went over in injury time, expecting that referees were not going to flag him up for diving and won his team a penalty which was later saved, Wenger offered his comments about how the art of diving is being refined by English players.

First of all, that is an unequivocally silly statement to make. Wenger himself has English players within his Arsenal team, so it would be an awkwardly embarassing insinuation that the ones in his team are learning how to go over, how to initiate contact and how to fall properly. Has the Premier League become so competitive that teams are sending players to ju-jitsu lessons to learn how to land on the floor without injuring themselves, then looking for contact in the game?

This is not the first time Arsene has opened his mouth and said something he shouldn’t have. Referring to his team’s defeat by Manchester City in November, he accused Raheem Sterling of diving then. Wenger seems “locked in” in his ideas that the manager should take the heat off his team, and seems to be saying something controversial to avoid any discussion of his team’s form in the league, or to take away the media attention on his defence – or lack of defence, not that the courting of Jonny Evans has failed. But the problem is that each time Wenger thinks he is deflecting attention away from his players, he really – by attracting media attention – is drawing attention to it. Yesterday, the media would have been happy focussing on Antonio Conte’s poor form at Chelsea, and how Chelsea managers don’t last very long in the owner versus manager battle. That story still had long to run. The only thing is now Mr Wenger has accused English players of diving, after the Tottenham game, ahead of the North London derby where Harry Kane will be in attendance.

Is it a clever move to say things that will ignite your opponents? Wenger probably hopes that his comments may influence the game such that if a Tottenham player like Kane goes down again, the referee will be less inclined to blow his whistle. But he is out of touch to think that. If anything, the subtle attempt to influence the officiating is such a distasteful act that any referee would probably blow the whistle just to annoy Wenger.

And if one of his English players go do down under a Tottenham challenge, don’t expect Wenger to eat his words.

The point is – if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it!

Arsenal players probably play best when the focus of expectation is not on them. But Wenger’s recent talk is probably going to just put them under the media glare again. So despite the new improved attack, don’t expect them to emerge winners at White Hart Lane this Saturday.

And Antonio Conte? The longer his war of words with the team continues, the less it does for him.

As a supporter voiced on BBC Radio 5 Live, the fans just want to see the old Conte from last year back again, they don’t want to see him whinging about things, especially considering how much he is being paid. They just wish he would get on with the job.

And Wenger? Arsenal fans probably wish he would step away from it now.

Chelsea in Crisis

With reference to the last post, could Olivier Giroud have made a winning debut at Chelsea.

Not a chance.

Giroud joins former team mate Theo Walcott (now Everton) in the “thumped on their new debuts” list.

Is the clock ticking for Antonio Conte? You might think at Chelsea they don’t use clocks, they use hourglasses.

Star Wars: A New Hope

You know the feeling.

You go out regularly with a group of friends – perhaps you are part of a group or club like Scouts that meets at weekends.

And maybe one of the people in your group like the leader has bad body odour that affects the group. It’s the sort of thing that gets tolerated but uncomfortable. Within the group no one dares to say anything about it, because it is after all a sensitive topic.

So you get on with it, and get on with doing the group things, and the discomfort is tolerated.

And the members don’t say anything also because the group leader actually has good skills to impart and leads the group well.

Things go on fairly smoothly, but one day after someone makes the casual observation, things take on a negative tinge. The leader, offended, decides he will transfer to another group at another location when the year is out, or whenever there is a vacancy. You all get on with your activities, but it seems a bit like following through the motions, enduring the smell, and waiting for the leader to leave. The leader is in demand because of his skills, and there are frequent calls asking if he would like to leave, but things never really materialise. One day he is, the next day he isn’t, and instead of focusing on your activities, you all live with the uncertainty of your leader’s situation. It becomes a distraction. In regional competitions, your group under performs under this cloud of negativity.

As it turns out there is another group elsewhere with a slightly disenchanted individual with whom the leaders agree to a mutual swap. And when that day happens, your group is glad, because the smell is no longer there, and also because the leader’s situation is no longer a distraction. You can get on with group activities, and when the new leader arrives, not fully integrated yet into the group, existing members are keen to impress, to show their abilities, and there is a positive drive to group activities. Perhaps in the next few regional competitions, this positive spirit comes with a run of good results.

Such is life at Arsenal without Alexis Sanchez. A breath of fresh air.

Arsenal followed up their 4-1 demolition earlier in the Premier League of Crystal Palace with a 2-1 win over arch enemies Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. If this is what jettisoning Alexis Sanchez brings you, then perhaps they should have got his situation resolved earlier in the summer. Who knows where they might have been now? Sure, Pep Guardiola’s men would still be occupying the top – no change to that, but perhaps Arsenal would have been in a better position then outside the top four, looking up Tottenham’s bottom.

While Arsenal are on winning ways, and negativity towards their manager is forgotten, the same cannot be said of Antonio Conte. Last year, he was favoured manager, just like Arsene Wenger was when he won the league titles earlier in his Arsenal career. This year, Conte is not looking great.

There is a story about how Antonio Conte revamped the pre-game diet at Chelsea. Doing away with high carbohydrate foods like pasta and egg and replacing them with nuts, seeds and other foods that prevented players from carrying extra weight in games, and giving them the sharpness over their opponents. When you are winning, that looks great. When you are losing, that looks like rabbit food.

Bottom of the table Swansea found a way to win 1-0 against Liverpool. What a fantastic result! I was hoping that they would be able to manage that against all odds and they did. And why was I hoping for that, you may ask? It’s because the gap between the bottom HALF of the table and the bottom team is a mere six points.

A two game swing with still plenty of games to play for. Lose a couple, and you could be in the bottom two. The relegation places will change positions faster than the six chair challenge in X Factor.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Last Chance Saloon?

You get the feeling Chelsea manager’s last few chances at silverware lie with the Champions League or the FA Cup. The former has just been made more difficult with a tie at Barcelona, although the Catalan giants aren’t really the feared forces they once were. Was the departure of Neymar a big factor? The feared triumvirate of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, abbreviated to MSN, is now, well MS.

Chelsea may win the FA Cup, but let’s face it, something short of Premier League repeat as champions or European glory is likely to be seen as satisfactory. Still, the FA cup is the one thing managers try to win as a baseline silverware measure – one enough to say to their fans, “Hey, I won a trophy!” (Hello, Arsene Wenger.)

Chelsea seem to be missing a certain toughness and teams seem to fear them less. Do you think Diego Costa is laughing at their form somewhere? Troublemaker as he was, he gave them a bit of an edge, and will Morata is technically gifted, he’s too nice.

Football Overload? Conte using deflection as an outlet

Is there a thing such as schedule overload? Chelsea boss Antonio Conte seems to think so. He has recently complained – protested actually – about the close scheduling of Chelsea’s matches. The Blues recently had to play Liverpool, Qarabag and Newcastle all within the span of seven days, including the round trip to Azerbaijan. Conte made it clear that he was not actually complaining about the scheduling of his side’s matches, as much as he was protesting that his team would not get as much rest as their opponents. He even went as far as to suggest a conspiracy is on the cards within the Premier League, a bias against Chelsea repeating as champions.

Is there any truth in it? Would the Premier League actually benefit with a new team winning it? Perhaps. It gives the sense that any team has a chance. (Although considering Manchester City are already running away with the title and opening up a huge gap between them and the rest of the pack, it may seem that every one is really fighting for second.) The idea that any team can win fuels hope within the fans, and it is this hope that compels people to support their team to give it the extra edge to win. It is the idea that their team can win that makes people come out to watch games. If you were going to watch a match where your team had no chance, would you go to the stadium, shiver in the cold, get rained on, spend money on a beer and pastie, just to watch them lose, or would you go to the pub, have a meal and drink for under a tenner, and watch it on Sky? Thought so. This is why Premier League bosses love it when teams like Leicester unexpectedly win the title race, it gives them the one team to quote. “All teams have a fair chance. Look at Leicester two years ago.” And this is why Premier League bosses love the FA Cup, where teams could pull off an upset. Different teams winning the league fuels the thinking that everyone has a chance. It brings fans out to watch. It gives money to the Premier League coffers instead of filling J D Wetherspoon’s.

Then again, the Premier League is not responsible for scheduling Champions League matches. Take away the Qarabag match, and what you have is two games a week apart, which seems fair. And that is why teams have more than eleven players, to have rotation players, to rotate squads around.

You can’t have equal numbers of rest days between teams as Conte claims. Otherwise all teams would have to play on the same day, which is not only logistically inconvenient, but then means teams would start complaining about playing on the early or late game and not having sufficient hours rest. Why is it logistically difficult? Well, for starters, policing resources means that teams in one region must not all play at home or there may be security risks. Imagine if Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Watford, West Bromwich and Crystal Palace all played home matches. The Metropolitan Police Force would have a fit.

Is Conte really complaining at all? One suspects he is merely deflecting attention from players, taking the media heat off them in the run up to an important part of the season. Conte railing his head off gives sports writers stuff to fill their column inches with, so that they could spend enough writing about Conte and less about his players.

So Conte’s complaints are just an attempt at deflection, like his predecessor Mourinho. But if he really feels aggrieved, he should remember that’s what he gets a fat salary for. He should perhaps remind himself of this old football joke (source here):

Question: What’s the difference between a nursery assistant and a football manager?

Answer: One gets paid a lot of money to look after children.

That’s right; Conte gets paid millions in his salary. So do those under his care. But it is time to stop whinging and start living up to the hype.