Another Ryder Cup year approaches and the rush for qualification begins

As we prepare to enter a year which will no doubt be remembered for it’s sporting prevalence in the UK and Europe, we are also entering another Ryder Cup year. Team Europe will travel to the Medinah Club in the latter half of 2012 and the rush for qualification is now well and truly on.

G-Mac sealed a momentous victory in front of raucous crowds at the Celtic

201o’s Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor provided a magnificent spectacle which eventually saw team Europe prosper in a year which marked a major turnaround in global golfing fortunes. Off the back of this success, Europe will now be aiming to further assert their authority with a victory on US turf armed with a team set to include an interesting mix of the world’s highest ranked golfers, some resurgent forces, and some exciting rookies.

No matter what the eventual line up looks like, if the end of this season is anything to go by then Europe’s challenge is set to be very strong and the winning feeling is already building some significant momentum.

The world's top two players will no doubt play a huge part for Team Europe

World Number one Luke Donald has been the recipient of a whole range of awards in recent weeks, World Number two Lee Westwood has ended his year with a win in Thailand (including an astonishing 12 under par round), Rory McIlroy has established himself as part of the world’s top three with another career win this month and Matchplay supremo Ian Poulter has ended his year with a triumph at the Australian Open.

Couple these recent glories with Martin Kaymer’s continuing stay in the world’s top five, the renaissance taking place in Sergio Garcia’s game and the host of young talent pushing for qualification and things appear very rosy indeed for Team Europe.

If qualification was halted now then those that would make Team Europe would include many of the aforementioned stars as well as some slightly more surprising additions. If this were the case the the team would be as follows; Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Gonzalo Fdez-Castano, Alvaro Quiros, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Simon Dyson, Graeme McDowell and the two captains choices.

Messrs Kaymer, McIlroy, Fdez-Castano, Quiros and Garcia would be qualifying by virtue of currently occupying the top five places on the European qualification list, whilst Donald, Westwood, Rose, Dyson and McDowell would make the team through the World qualification list.

If this were the side that Europe went in with then I think the current Captain Jose Maria Olazabal would fancy his chances of retaining the famous trophy for his team. The dilemma for Jose-Maria come August-September time will be his decision for the two Captain’s selections, and if the standings remained similar to the current predicament when this decision has to be made then his final choice will become interesting.

Players who could be in the reckoning if this were the case could include Ryder Cup veterans Miguel Angel Jimenez, Thomas Bjorn, Open champion Darren Clarke, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter, and at the other end of the spectrum rookie options such as the exciting talents of Tom Lewis and Richie Ramsay could be in with a shout.

With such strength in depth being demonstrated by the aforementioned veterans and young-guns, the present and the future seems very bright for European golf and it will be extremely intriguing to see who makes Jose-Maria’s final cut. The fine balance of youth and experience in the potential European side doesn’t only bode

The Medinah Country Club, Hosts of the 2012 Ryder Cup

well for 2012 but for future Ryder Cups also, as the more experienced heads will surely make the natural progression on to Team Europe’s coaching team. And while their wealth of experience will strengthen the foundations, the younger specimens will continue to dominate the individual format of the game in global terms and in turn will do Team Europe proud as playing members for many years to come.

Lets look forward to a glorious year of British and European sport, and hopefully another awe-inspiring triumph over the United States come Ryder Cup time. Back-to-back, home and away Ryder Cup successes would be rather enjoyable!

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The FA’s Captain Crisis: Should Terry be removed and if so then who should replace him?

As the John Terry race-row continues to simmer away the FA have one heck of a dilemma to resolve.

Terry has now been charged and given a court summons that means he will have to defend himself in a legal capacity, but in the mean time his professional situation hangs in the balance. The FA are still in the process of carrying out their enquiries into the alleged events at Loftus Road and they are still yet to have formally punished the England Captain.

If John Terry is found guilty in court come the beginning of February it will make his position as England Captain untenable, and it will even bring into question whether he should be playing football for club and country. To be found guilty by a court of law of having performed racially abusive actions would arguably take Terry’s career and societal standing beyond the point of return.

His current stance of committed denial and his quest to “fight tooth and nail” to prove his innocence would on the surface suggest that he has nothing to hide. However, if he is on the wrong end of the verdict both in court and from the FA then his defiance will simply add to the torrent of abuse that he will be subjected to.

With events rumbling on but still yet to have fully transpired it is unclear exactly what the outcome will be, but it seems increasingly feasible that the FA will have to look into choosing a replacement as the national side’s Captain with just 6 months to go until Euro 2012. Below I will suggest a few different options and their likelihood of landing the role if Terry is deposed.

Leading Candidates:

Steven Gerrard – The Liverpool man makes for the obvious replacement if a short term choice is seen as the responsible move looking ahead to Euro 2012, but there are huge question marks over his fitness. Having returned to action against Manchester United earlier this season after a six month absence, he managed only a couple of appearances before again succumbing to injury and it is unclear just when he will return again and whether this return will be less short-lived.

Scott Parker – Having Captained Newcastle and West Ham in the past, Parker is more than used to leading sides and fighting fires on and off field. Having almost guaranteed his place in England’s starting line-up for the Euro’s after a very successful and very overdue run in the side he seems to be a very strong contender. He would be my choice as a potential replacement.

Frank Lampard – A very willing leader on and off the field, Lampard stands out as a decent choice to take the reigns as a short term option. Whether or not he could be given the role might well be dictated by whether he can even get in England’s first XI. In recent times ‘Super Frank’ has struggled to hold down a place in the starting line up of either his club or national sides, but if he is going to be a crucial member of Capello’s side then I’m sure he would be immensely proud to be at the forefront of it’s leadership.

Long Shots:

Wayne Rooney – Anyone with as many caps as him should be taken into account, but his fiery temperament may put pay to any aspirations he might have of leading the national side. If he was to be chosen then it would have to be viewed as a long term option, as in the short term how could you choose a replacement that is unable to lead the two games most immediate in England’s competitive future?

Phil Jones – Young, passionate, committed; he might not be a bad option you know… However, it would be an enormous shock if the FA or Capello would consider a 19 year old to lead the national side into a major tournament. His long term hopes of one day being Captain look very strong though, time is definitely on his side in that respect.

Jack Wilshere – If he’s fit and he’s playing well towards the end of the Premier League season then Arsenal’s young gun could feasibly be considered. Though on the face of it he would be less shocking a selection than Phil Jones when considering their age and experience it is still unlikely that he would get the nod. The fact that he has been injured and unavailable all the way through this season certainly doesn’t help his cause in terms of being a realistic option.

Rio Ferdinand – The forgotten man of English football. At present it seems Rio would be doing well to even make the squad for the Euro’s given his recent omissions from England squads, but a a recent run of game time will have brought him back into Capello’s thoughts. If he were to be considered for a return to the Captaincy then it would of couse only be short term move as he is reaching the closing years of his career. It is  even possible that he would decline the role if offered it in the wake of Capello’s controversial handling of the United defender in the past.

Joe Hart – Is there anybody more assured of their place in England’s starting line up than Hart? The answer is ‘probably not’. He is also renowned for his strong character and his likability which could further any hopes he might have of one day landing the job. Other goalkeepers such as Oliver Kahn have led their national side’s effectively in the past so maybe Hart would be worth a shot?

 

The encouraging thing for the FA amidst the current turmoil is that if they have to retire Terry from the Captaincy that they have plenty of willing options. Not only are there many people who could be in the running, but there are also many different types of option, ranging form long to short term potential replacements and this is demonstrative of the mixture of youth and experience in the England side at present. We await the outcome of the John Terry saga with a mixture of sadness, optimism and great anticipation…

 

 

Stars of the Premier League season so far…

With the Premier League readying itself for the busy festive season and the season reaching it’s mid-point I felt it was time to pick out my players of the season so far. With Manchester City currently ruling the roost it is hard to look beyond their star turns but I have endeavoured come up with a few alternative selections that I feel are also worthy of significant recognition. First up: The man who would make everybody’s list…

David Silva:

What can I say about Silva that hasn’t already been said by a thousand pundits and sports writer’s in 2011? Well, in truth, very little indeed. So here goes a rather predictable homage to the brilliance of the man that is known by his team mates as “the magician”…

Couple speed with superb balance, great feet, and an almost unrivalled eye for a defence splitting pass and you have the make-up of the Spaniard’s game. His majesty in the roaming central midfield role for City this season has inspired their charge to the summit of the Premier League and if he continues in the same vein for the remainder of the season then it is hard to see how anyone will be able to handle either him individually, or him as part of an entirely potent attacking force at the Etihad. I can’t recall a single player ever to grace the Premier League that has provided so much in terms of creation in the first half of a season as Silva has so far and there really is no greater compliment that I could afford him than that.

Yaya Toure:

When he signed for the club I was entirely sceptical about the sum of money that City parted with to secure his services and the reported weekly wage outlay of over £200,000 that they were set to give him. Add to this Mancini’s seeming desire to turn him into a more attacking central force than a defensive one and I became even more of a synic, but as it turns out my scepticism was wholly unfair.

Mancini’s decision to give him far greater attacking license than that which he had been afforded at former club Barcelona has proved to be an inspired move. Since joining City, Toure’s ability to gobble up the yards with consistently strong and rangy surges has become a trademark of his both in attack and defence and it has demonstrated his immense value all over the field of play. Many have delved deep to lavish his more celebrated team mate David Silva with every superlative they can find, but I believe that Toure has been equally brilliant for City this year. He has very rarely failed to deliver a high-class performance this season and his strength, determination and appetite for getting from box-to-box has been utterly essential to City’s rise to prominence.

Michel Vorm:

Unbelievably the man between the sticks at Swansea City (the team most fancied for the drop at the start of the season) has managed to keep eight clean sheets in sixteen games this season. Such statistics sound befitting only of teams harbouring serious aspirations of competing for the title, but Mr.Vorm has risen from anonymity amongst Premier League fans to become a cult figure in Swansea and one of the most respected keepers in the English league.

Following his low-key summer transfer to the Premier League new-boys he has fast-established himself as their number one and arguably the most impressive keeper of the season so far. His penchant for saving penalties and making some quite frankly outrageous reaction stops has endeared himself to all who follow the Premier League, and sadly for Swansea, his form has been so good that it is hard to see him staying when the bigger fish of the footballing world come circling in as they inevitably will.

Robin Van Persie:

Fifteen goals in sixteen Premier League games pretty much tells you all you need to know about RVP’s most impressive season to date and there is no team in world football who wouldn’t benefit from his presence when he is in this kind of form. Since being handed the Captain’s arm band at the start of the season the Dutchman has elevated his already brilliant game to a new level. If it weren’t for his inspirational goalscoring exploits then I shudder to think where Arsenal would be in the league. The technical genius that he demonstrated in his match-winning strike against Everton this month epitomised all that has made this season one to remember for a man who is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest centre forwards.

Phil Jones:

Whether it be at right back, centre back or centre midfield Phil Jones has surpassed all expectations so far in his first season at Manchester United, and he has made a complete mockery of his £16 million transfer fee.

In the modern game it is hard to buy any player of real quality for anything less than around £20 million, but in recruiting Jones from Blackburn Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to pull off an absolute steal. Not only has he signed someone of real quality, but in Jones he has landed a player that I think could go on to be one the best players of his generation. His speed and technical ability must be the envy of all other defenders in world football at the moment, and they’re enabling him to demonstrate something of an ‘X-Factor’. Couple these defining characteristics with the more stock abilities for a central defender such as strength, awareness and aerial ability (all of which he has in abundance) and you can see why he is fast becoming United’s man for a crisis.

When you consider the premium placed on the head of English footballers in the transfer market (for example: Andy Carroll to Liverpool £35 million, Stewart Downing to Liverpool £20 million and Jordan Henderson to Liverpool £20 million… spot the trend…) it is verging on miraculous that United managed to land Jones for such a reasonable price, and the more he continues to impress the more of a coup it will become.

Other close contenders: Wayne Rooney, Scott Parker, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Collocini, Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero

Team of the season so far: (4-1-1-2-2)

GK: Michel Vorm

RB: Micah Richards

CB: Vincent Kompany

CB: Phil Jones

LB: Luis Enrique

CDM: Scott Parker

CM: Yaya Toure

AM: David Silva

AM: Gareth Bale

STR:Robin Van Persie

STR: Sergio Aguero

An Ode to Jonny ‘That night in Sydney’ Wilkinson

The word legend is often used to freely in the realms of sport, but it would simply be unfair to describe Jonny Wilkinson as anything other than a Rugby legend. The man with the golden left boot has made the decision to hang up his boots in the international game and has left behind him one hell of a legacy.

The Early Years

‘That night in Sydney’ was the moment that made him worthy of legendary status, even if he being his modest self was a little underwhelmed with his own personal performance. He even rather infamously described his last-gasp, tournament winning drop goal (slotted under enormous pressure with his wrong foot) as a “dead duck”. This lack of interest in self-glorification and personal success is what has made him such an incredible asset to his nation and one of the finest players of all time.

For a man so humble about his abilities and his inspirational character he has amassed some seriously impressive individual achievements. Now we know that he is never to don the red rose again we are left looking back at such examples of his brilliance and the impact he has had upon the world of international rugby. This impact is probably demonstrated most clearly by his incredible tally of 1,179 points from 91 caps which places him second only to Dan Carter on the all-time top scorers list, and a clear leader of England’s own list of top point scorers.

These statistics are beyond impressive in their own right but Wilkinson will know more than most that it could have even more incredible had his body been able to keep pace with his talent. Staggeringly, Wilkinson managed to achieve all that he has in international and domestic rugby having had to endure the most miserable of periods out of the game with multiple serious and not so serious injuries, that in effect wiped out the four years of his career which could well have been his prime.

Between the successful World Cup Campaign in 2003 and the near-miss in the 2007 tournament, Wilkinson was sadly removed from the England international set-up due to such afflictions as a fractured shoulder, a recurrence of the same shoulder injury, an extended recovery period following reparatory surgery on his shoulder, a torn bicep, an upper arm haematoma, removal of his appendix, severe damage to his groin muscles, a torn adductor, torn knee ligaments and a lacerated kidney to name but a few…

The all too familiar sight of a Wilkinson injury

We will unfortunately never know just how many points he might have accumulated had he not spent so long in the rugby wilderness or just how good the England side could have continued to be had he been there to contribute and oversee this era as captain. Nevertheless, his achievements are right up there with the all-time greats and this is exactly how he should be remembered in the wake of his international career.

It is plain for all to see that Mr.Wilkinson hasn’t ever quite hit the heights of 2003 again in his playing career but he must be greatly admired for the courage and determination he has continued to demonstrate since the return from his darkest days prior to 2007.

When Jonny returned to the England side as a regular in the 2007 World Cup he helped inspire a quite frankly rather lacklustre troop of players to reach a second consecutive final and very nearly a second triumph on rugby’s greatest stage. His ability to control the game with his metronomic goal-kicking and more often than not immaculate tactical kicking will go down in history and it remained a terrific asset throughout this campaign. It served as a reminder for the world of rugby about just how much they had missed his presence.

Though his game has arguably suffered as a result of his long-term absence in terms of his pace and his adaptation to the ever-evolving way in which rugby is played, his touch of class has remained and as such he has ended his international career as England’s first choice fly-half.

Though the most recent England World Cup campaign was far from successful and wasn’t exactly befitting of Wilkinson’s final bow on the international stage, Jonny himself will be enormously proud that he was still a key player in an England side at the World Cup right up to what has turned out to be the finishing point of his glorious international career.

This retirement doesn’t of course mean the end of ‘Wilko’ as a top class rugby player, and as he has proven since his high profile transfer to Toulon he still has an awful lot to offer. The legs might not quite be what they once were, but his game management is still right up there as is his unrelenting effort and commitment on the pitch. He’s still a pretty handy goal kicker too….

It feels strange to know that Jonny will never play for England again while his domestic career will continue, but there is no doubt that his time as an international rugby superstar will be remembered with enormous fondness. I personally will always remember Wilkinson as England’s iconic number 10, who with his own brand of hard-work, modesty and complete lack of respect for his body (ie- his seemingly unquenchable thirst for pain and self-sacrifice on the field) became the model professional in the world of Rugby.

Thanks for the memories Jonny; a true legend of the game and a national hero to boot. Bring on the Knighthood.

Luke Donald: My British Sports Star of the Year

With many bookmakers offering odds as long as 66/1 on Luke Donald to win the Sports Personality of The Year (SPOTY) award on the 22nd of December it seems that the rest of the nation won’t agree with me on this one, but I believe that Luke Donald has been the star of our fair isle’s sporting year.

Perhaps the reason why Donald isn’t homing in on one of British sport’s top honours is much the same as the reason he has emerged as the man to beat in his sport; he is just too damn consistent.

Within the realms of golf, consistency is the ingredient which has enabled some of the sport’s most decorated players to achieve the heights that they have, but, when it comes down to a sporting honour voted for by the public it isn’t exactly the sort of thing that endears you to those that are forking out 25 pence for their phone calls.

If Donald doesn’t make it into the top three at the SPOTY event at it’s new home in Salford (which it seems he probably won’t) then it would be a travesty in my eyes. His progressively-natured achievements over the course of this year are truly magnificent feats even if they don’t quite capture the imagination of the general public. He is without a doubt one of (and in my opinion THE) shining light(s) in British sport this year, and deserves greater recognition for an outstanding year of development.

Maybe it is because I am a huge golf fan (and a distinctly average player to boot) but I find his rise from ‘nice guy on Tour’ to world beater truly inspiring. His multiple tournament wins over the course of the year haven’t exactly been ‘major’ headline grabbers (no pun intended), but he has nonetheless overcome huge fields of the world’s very best players on each and every occasion and with it has earned an enormous amount of respect from his peers. No one in the world of golf would deny that he has been the best player in the world this year and that is an enormous achievement in a sport which has been dominated for so long by the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickleson.

It is in fact probably down to Tiger and ‘Lefty’ that players such as himself have emerged as the fore-runners driving the sport forward. I don’t mean to say that because they have slumped it is making players like Donald, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy look better, but rather they have noted the opportunity to assert their own authority on the world of golf and have used it as great inspiration. Donald has been the main beneficiary of this opportunity to date and has just served to prove that consistency and dedication can be prime attributes fit for the world’s best in a major sporting discipline.

The astounding rate at which he has churned out top ten finishes this season is testament to his ability to match and more often than not surpass some of the more flamboyant and explosive players on tour with his own brand of relentless accuracy and practically unrivalled attention to detail. He has turned sensible golf into an art form and with it has come a great confidence in his own abilities and almost inevitably a dramatic increase in success.

This increased success has today seen him become the first person ever to top both the US and European Money lists over the year. This is an astonishing achievement given the commitment it requires to constantly travel from location to location, out performing all comers in the generally more lucrative and high profile PGA Tour events, as well as switching codes and producing equally as impressive displays on the European Tour which can often require an entirely different style of golf.

His relentless form this year has seen him win personal awards as well as tournament victories and an enormous amount of money. He has been awarded the Vardon Trophy and the Byron Nelson award for achieving the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour this year, he also won the PGA Tour player of the year voted for by his peers and he has surged to the top of the world rankings where he has now stayed for around six months.

Many have tried to belittle Donald’s achievements by mocking his world ranking with regards his lack of a victory in any of golf’s four majors. But how can anyone argue against his right to be deemed the best player in the world at the moment when he has accumulated such a staggering amount of high tournament finishes in addition to five victories over the past year? I think anyone who does try to do so is ludicrous. With the incentive of Tiger Woods’ slump and the potential to establish themselves as the best player on the planet, many of the younger PGA Tour regulars fancied a shot at the number one ranking and no one has manged to match up to Luke. He has continuously delivered and has put the new breed of young, big-hitting Americans in their place (Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson) en-route to the most brilliant of years.

Hats off Mr.Donald, what a success story you have become. I dearly hope you can now take this form into one of the majors and shut the mouths of all your critics once and for all.

Tactical Breakdown: United found wanting in all departments en-route to embarrassing exit

Below is my breakdown of United’s major failings in the Champions League this season and my analysis of just why the varying frailties have caused them to fall so humiliatingly from grace.

1) Lack of fire power up-front:

Throughout the group stages United didn’t exactly set the world alight in terms of either their chance creation or chance conversion and as such they failed to ever really impose themselves on their opposition. When you think of United in their pomp you think of their devastating counter attacks and spells of unrelenting pressure that yield a couple of goals a time but these has been very thin on the ground. I am struggling to recall a time when they have looked less likely to turn their pressure into the priceless commodity of goals.

Last night 90 minutes of majority possession and territory was rewarded with just a single goal, and quite a fortunate goal at that! But this lack of productivity has been the story of their group campaign and wasn’t just limited to last night’s disappointing display. Even against Otelul Galati they struggled to provide a major goal threat, relying on two penalties in Galati and then one horribly deflected strike on home turf against the whipping boys of the group en-route to achieving just four goals from two games against the minnows.

There are several contributing factors to the lack of a genuine goal threat but the most significant has been that no one has stepped up and taken on the responsibility of being chief goal-getter. Rooney has scored a few in the group, though as mentioned two were spot kicks, Hernandez has failed to accumulate a strong tally, Berbatov has found his opportunities severely limited and Danny Wellbeck has spent too long on the sidleines with niggles to have a serious impact. Just like in international football, you simply must take the limited golden chances that come your way and United simply haven’t.

2) Limited creation and no natural holding player in central midfield:

It was reported all summer that Sir Alex was flirting with a pricey move for Wesley Sneijder and boy how they could’ve done with him throughout the group stage. United’s ability to unlock the door with the midfield has always been a strong-suit of theirs with the likes of Paul Scholes providing the creative instinct, but, since Scholes’ retirement United have struggled to find a suitable replacement from within the camp and haven’t brought anybody else in to fill the void.

Against Basle last night it soon became clear that United are desperately lacking in terms of central creators and as such they were only having joy out on the flanks. In the first half Nani was in electric form and was being given plenty of the ball due to United’s inability to create chances through the middle, but as soon as Basle cottoned onto this they were able to swamp Nani and provide extra cover out wide, thus negating his previously constant threat. The angle of attack, as it has been in several games, was far too predictable and it all stems from their inability to emulate the likes of Barcelona and create from the central areas of the pitch.

Another worry for must be their absence of a natural holding midfield player. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are both decent at playing from deep and can both be fairly combative but they don’t quite fulfil the sort of role that Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso do for Barcelona and Real Madrid. We even saw Chelsea’s fortunes dramatically improve in their Champions League tie on Tuesday night courtesy of Oriol Romeu’s very successful inclusion in the defensive midfield role. United must act quickly to find their greatest fit to this role, and with Nemanja Vidic’s potentially very serious injury it appears that Phil Jones is going to be needed in defence and therefore won’t be a particularly viable option.

3) Defensive fragility:

United’s inability to keep clean sheets in the group has been a major theme in their downfall. It is very unlike one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides to be so fragile at the back and arguably the two games against Basle provided the greatest examples of this weakness. In the home game against Basle they managed to slump from two nil ahead to a losing position within the space of about 20 minutes and in this period the defending was horrific. Last night witnessed Basle very much on the back foot throughout, but every time they did venture forwards United looked unstable. Xerdan Shaquiri’s strong running on the flanks and through the centre struck fear into the United defence and they continuously backed off from him allowing to roam further. Very rarely did Basle muster up a goal scoring opportunity in the game, but they still somehow managed to net twice and come out on top, this speaks volumes about the uncertainty in United’s defensive ranks at present.

It is worth mentioning that injury problems have compounded the defensive issues with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and the Da Silva twins all having spent periods of the group stages on the sidelines. The spate of short term absences in United’s defence have led to great levels of unavoidable inconsistency in selection and as such the performances at the back have tended to follow suit.

4) Problems in goal:

Another contributing factor to United’s defensive uncertainty has been the unconvincing displays in goal of David De Gea. In the opening game of the group United faced Benfica and Sir Alex opted to play Anders Lindegaard in goal ahead of De Gea and he impressed in this outing. Since though, Ferguson has tended to go with his number one De Gea and has been left a little let down by his young Spanish stopper.

Last night’s problems began with United conceding the early goal and De Gea was certainly partially at fault for this. When Shaquiri fired in his stinging cross De Gea opted to deal with it using his legs when getting his upper body in the way probably would have been more appropriate, and this hasn’t been his only blunder of the group stages. Against Benfica he over-estimated his undoubted ability when it comes to playing and distributing the ball and attempted the sort of cute delivery that you might see Xavi and Andres Iniesta attempt in the attacking third for Barcelona. Needless to say this ball was cut out and led to the equaliser which killed United’s momentum and effectively lost them two points, which of course would have seen them avoid their embarrassing early exit from the competition.

In essence, Manchester United spent far too much time failing to make the most of their possession and territory in attack and then looked incredibly vulnerable when defending against the opposition’s counter-attacks, and it has cost them their place at European football’s top table. Sir Alex Ferguson must take serious note of his side’s weaknesses and must act quickly to try and remedy the many frailties that have been so damagingly exposed on the continent thus far this season. At least the Europa League will be fun… my mistake…

English Super-Powers preparing to save their European lives

Who would have thought that going into the last round of group stage fixtures that the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea would be in serious danger of falling at the first hurdle? Not many I can assure you, but alas this is the case and arguably England’s three strongest sides are right up against the metaphorical ‘it’.

Of these three giants the side in the most grave danger of failing to progress are Manchester City which is rather unbelievable given their contrastingly magnificent league form. Week after week they are continuing to churn out formidable domestic displays, which, have seen them race five points clear of their Manchester rivals at the top of the Premier League, whilst also seeing themselves through to the last four of the League Cup. However, their stunning form outside of Europe has been belittled by their lacking performances on the continent so far this season and it has left them in an incredibly precarious position.

Manager Roberto Mancini is usually an enormously confident man and has already this season said that he believes that he is in charge of a side that are on a par with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. City’s fairly dismal European form has  seriously contradicted their manager’s assessment of their standing in world football though, to the point where going into Wednesday’s game against Bayern Munich he has conceded that they have a “60% chance” of an early exit.

Mancini’s concession that his side are facing an unenviable task must have been a really bitter pill to swallow. Having guided them to their first piece of silverware in their wealthy new-era and their first ever qualification to the Champions League, Mancini will have no doubt dreamt that his charges would venture out into the unknown and lay down a serious marker. Along with their passionate fans he will have let his mind wander freely to thoughts of making the Etihad Stadium one of European football’s most feared fortresses whilst moulding his squad into ferocious battlers when travelling away on the continent. Sadly, the blue side of Manchester have seen little of these dreams becoming a reality and their team have looked every bit a rookie side in this year’s competition.

It is quite often the case that one of England’s teams struggle en route to first round qualification but this year has provided us with two additional strugglers in the form of Manchester United and Chelsea, who in recent years have established themselves as two of the most consistently strong European performers. Manchester United must go away to Basle on Wednesday and get a point to secure qualification and though this would usually be run of the mill for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, this season has seen them repetitively stuttering through their group matches to the point where they have only achieved victory over whipping boys Otelul Galati.

Though they will undoubtedly go into Wednesday evening’s game as big favourites to progress, their Swiss opponents have already proven their ability to compete with United in their thrilling 3-3 draw at Old Trafford. This game saw United cruising as a result of a first half brace from Danny Wellbeck, but then they suffered a dramatic second half collapse nearly losing all three points only to be saved by Ashley Young’s most crucial United goal to date in the dying embers of the game. Maybe the fact that they know not to be complacent against their inferior opponents will aid them in their quest to secure qualification, but win, lose or draw Sir Alex will know that his team have drastically under performed throughout a group which they should have topped with some spare left in the tank.

The third English offering on this year’s list of under-achievers in the Champions League groups are Chelsea whose struggles have extended to all competitions under new boss Andre Vilas-Boas. Having raced to seven points from their first three games Chelsea looked to set to win the group with comfort, but since then they have suffered a major dip in European success that has coincided with a rotten run of results in the Premier League. Their previous two games have seen them play out a stale draw against Belgian minnows Genk and an immensely disappointing defeat away to Leverkusen having taken the lead in Germany. These equally damaging results have seen them slump to a position in the group where they must either achieve victory or a scoreless draw against a very decent Valencia side. They, like Manchester United, will be expected to make their class and experience show on a huge night for the club but there are perhaps greater doubts about their ability to do so than United’s when taking into account their poor recent form and their manager’s limited experience of facing up to serious adversity.

If all three of the aforementioned sides fail to qualify for the knockout stages then it would probably make for just about the greatest shock in the history of the competition given each of their standings in world football. Though Manchester City are in their rookie year in the competition they are fast establishing themselves as one of England’s strongest outfits, and the quality and depth of their squad is well in line with their lofty ambitions. For some reason though they, along with United and Chelsea, are performing with a lack of resolve and at times a complete lack of imagination in this year’s competition and as such have found themselves on the verge of an embarrassing early exit.

The fallout from the these three sides’ potential failure to progress could be enormous in terms of their finances and their reputations and if the rumour mill is to be trusted then it could even cost them the services of their managers. If Chelsea were to fail this evening then it is entirely feasible that Andre Vilas-Boas could be given his marching orders just months after taking the reigns at the club. Mancini too, in spite of his domestic success thus far this season, could face serious scrutiny if City don’t qualify for the next round. Probably the most strongly positioned manager of the three is Sir Alex Ferguson given that he has twenty five years of great success at United, but even he may have to re-consider his remaining value to the club if they were to be knocked out on Wednesday.

As it stands things look fairly dire for three of our major forces in European football, but just what will be the outcome of this week’s huge matches? We await the results with enormous anxiety and anticipation and soon we will know if  English club football is set for a crisis of confidence on the European stage.

 

My Predictions:

Chelsea win and take second place, United win and take second place, City draw at home to Munich but are eliminated as a result of Napoli defeating Villareal.

 

Euro Draw: My Thoughts and Predictions

What an intriguing draw…

Group A:

For what this group looks set to lack in world-class talent it will almost certainly make up for in ferocious atmospherics. Each of the teams drawn into the first group are notorious for their passionate and at times raucous national fans and it all looks set to kick off. The stadiums that host the Group A ties will undoubtedly be erupting with noise and energy,  and the thought of these sides coming head-to-head in one of the biggest tournaments in world football is mouthwatering even if we aren’t to anticipate consistently brilliant football.

My Prediction: Russia and Greece qualify

Group B:

Without a shadow of a doubt this group must go down as the famed “group of death”. There simply isn’t a weak link amongst the sides (though Denmark are probably the underdogs on paper), and the amount of young and experienced attacking talent on show in this group is very exciting indeed. To think that the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and Cristian Erikson will be taking to the field in the same group of the Euro’s is utterly tantalising, bring it on!

My Prediction: Germany top the group and Holland pip Portugal to second place.

Group C:

Poor old Ireland. Finally they deservedly qualify for another major tournament and they get the rotten luck of drawing Spain and Italy in their group. Not to mention  also drawing Croatia who have been known to perform well on the big stages. This is another exciting group with plenty of exciting young attacking talent as well as the all-round brilliance of the reigning champions Spain who will be hopeful of making it an incredible three straight victories in major international tournaments.

My Prediction: Maybe I’m just a romantic but I think Spain will top the group and Ireland will squeeze through to the last eight as well. I think that aside from Spain that this could be the tightest group of the lot which could play into Ireland’s hands.

Group D:

It will be tough but it could’ve been a lot worse from England’s perspective. All four teams in the group will fancy their chances of going through  and with good reason. Ukraine the joint hosts obviously have home advantage, France tend to go win or bust in recent major tournaments, Sweden performed well in qualification and England on paper are the best of the four teams. This is set to be another very close group and I just hope that this group stage isn’t as bereft of excitement and quality football as England’s group stage in South Africa.

My Prediction:

France and England both qualify as they probably should, but I can’t pick a group winner.

 

Beyond the groups:

It is very hard indeed to look beyond Spain winning yet another major trophy, but there are teams out there that could shock them. Germany’s youth will once again be on display and could inspire them to go deep into the tournament and we all know that Holland have a fantastic side, so perhaps these two are the most likely to upset the Spanish. Other major contenders include the likes of England and France but I think that Group D’s two strongest outfit’s are in the middle of tricky transitional periods and that they will both have a greater chance next time around.

I know it’s boring, but I think Spain will win the Euro’s again. How can I argue against them given the recent history?