From the Other Side of the Pond

Christmas is all about football – sorry, soccer – isn’t it? Well not quite, but, while the MLS enjoys an off-season and most of Europe goes on holiday for a few weeks, we here in England traditionally enjoy a frenetic festive period.

The English Premier League

Last weekend in the Premier League was a particularly memorable one. Top of the bill was a seven-goal thriller at Eastlands. Manchester City eventually despatched a dogged Sunderland 4-3, a result that failed to keep City boss Mark Hughes his job. It was a fitting finale for Hughes’ tenure: exhilarating, headline-making, Carlos Tevez and co. rampant going forwards but ragged at the back. Press speculation since Hughes’ departure was announced shortly after the game has ranged from a player revolt, led by Craig Bellamy, Shay Given and Gareth Barry, after an emotional wave goodbye and farewell dressing room speech, to the Welshman being given a stay of execution to give his replacement an easy run of fixtures to start with.

That man is Italian Roberto Mancini, the former Inter Milan manager and one-time Leicester City player. City Chief Executive Gary Cook has admitted that the club’s top brass started looking for another manager back in November, after a 1-1 draw with Hull City, with Mancini offered the job after Hughes’ side surrendered at Spurs last week. Criticism has rained in over the Welshman’s mistreatment by City chief Sheikh Mansour and right-hand-man Cook, with City sitting sixth in the Premier League after recently beating leaders Chelsea and with a Carling Cup semi-final tie against neighbours United to look forward to.

Hughes should be disappointed, but far from surprised. The result against relegation candidates Hull was the last of eight straight draws in the top flight, after Hughes spent £242 million on transfer fees yet failed to build a side with anything like the resilience ‘Sparky’ himself had on the pitch. Replacing defensive leader Richard Dunne with the hapless Joleon Lescott – and losing £18 million in the process – was a particular black mark. I thought it was a mistake for Hughes to take the manager’s job at City – a merry-go-round even before the Sheikh takeover – when, after an excellent start in the dugout for Wales and Blackburn, he looked a front-runner to eventually succeed Sir Alex Ferguson on the red side of Manchester, and he’ll have to prove himself from scratch now. As for Mancini, he will need to indulge the famous Italian passion for being tight in defence if he is to replicate his achievement of three Scuddettos at Inter, and meet the very highest of standards expected at City nowadays.

Elsewhere, leaders Chelsea dropped yet more points, but extended their lead at the top after Manchester United were stuffed by Fulham. Portsmouth find themselves in the unenviable position of bottom at Christmas, despite a 2-0 win over 10-man Liverpool. The so-called ‘Big Four’ of English football has not been broken since 2005 but Rafa Benitez’s side’s decline has opened a very lucrative door this season. Aston Villa keep winning and are currently eight points ahead of eighth place Liverpool. Martin O’Neill’s side have a strong English core of players vying for World Cup places, and will learn from the experience of being in a similar position last season before falling short. Their trip to Arsenal on the 27th will be a real test of Champions League credentials. Next up are Spurs. Away at Blackburn in late December was the kind of game the Spurs of old wouldn’t have fancied, but Peter Crouch scored both as Harry Redknapp’s side notched up another three points. And then Manchester City, where Roberto Mancini has publicly targeted the top four for this season. The race is on – but just as excitingly – with Manchester United having lost five times already, not to mention Liverpool’s seven defeats – the Premier League has become far less predictable, closer; anyone can beat anyone.

The furore surrounding Wolves manager Mick McCarthy’s team selection rumbles on into its second week. After a 1-0 win at Spurs, he changed all ten outfield players for a midweek trip to Old Trafford, where they lost 3-0. Nine then returned for a home win against Burnley, which seemingly justified the decision to rest his main men. Wolves have been asked by the Premier League to explain their team selection, while McCarthy has attracted widespread criticism. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter accused him of tarnishing the Premier League, letting down fans who’d paid for tickets and cited rule E20: ‘In every league match, each participating club shall field a full-strength team.’ I disagree completely. The top sides ‘rotate’ their sides to prioritise certain fixtures all the time with no questions asked, McCarthy just made it more obvious. Labelling the midweek Wolves team ‘weakened’ is bordering on offensive – the players were members of the first-team squad, and they actually put on a good showing. More importantly, every relegation-threatened manager pinpoints games in which their side need to gain points to stay up, the pragmatic McCarthy did this, and pulled it off, with six points gained this week. I hope he’ll be having the last laugh come May.

With the January transfer window soon to be flung open, one deal has already gone through, the two-and-a-half-month loan deal taking Landon Donovan to injury-hit Everton. The US captain joins counterpart Tim Howard on Merseyside, until mid-March when he’ll return to LA Galaxy in time for the start of the MLS season. Despite his MLS and international success, English juries are still out on the midfielder, who failed to impress during spells at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. The first time we’ll see him in the blue of Everton should be the FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Carlisle on January 2nd.

Barcelona Win Another Trophy

European Champions League holders Barcelona have won their sixth piece of silverware in an incredible 2009, beating Estudiantes 2-1 after extra time in the Final of the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Mauro Boselli gave the Argentines the lead, before Barca’s next superstar, Spanish winger Pedro, equalised in the closing seconds of normal time. Lionel Messi – crowned as the FIFA World Player of the Year on Monday – bagged the winner in the 110th minute. Barcelona had already won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, Champions League and European and Spanish Super Cup titles this year.

Champions League

The draw for the first knockout round of the Champions League was made on Friday. It’s a tale of reunions when English and Italian sides go head-to-head in the most intriguing of clashes. David Beckham – enjoying his second spell on loan at AC Milan – will surely be given a warm welcome by Manchester United fans when he returns to Old Trafford in opposing colours, while Jose Mourinho will be making a similarly emotional return to Chelsea as manager of Inter Milan. Despite a good start for Carlo Ancelotti at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea fans – and perhaps players – are not over ‘the Special One’ yet, and the two bosses have got some previous from their time in opposing San Siro dugouts. Inter struggled through the group stages with a winner-takes-all victory over Russians Rubin Kazan, but should be a more tricky proposition than they were for Manchester United a year ago.

I fancy Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux as an outside bet for the competition. Top of the tree in France, they beat Bayern Munich home and away, only dropping points at Juventus to top Group A, and will be delighted at drawing Olympiakos in the last 16. Creator Yoann Gourcuff and finisher Marouane Chemakh are key, whilst they are hugely dangerous from dead-balls. Fiorentina and Bayern Munich also looks like a tie with goals in it, both sides possessing some serious attacking firepower.

Champions League last 16 draw in full:

Lyon – Real Madrid 16/02 and 10/03

AC Milan – Manchester United 16/02 and 10/03

Porto – Arsenal 17/02 and 09/03

Bayern Munich – Fiorentina 17/02 and 09/03

Stuttgart – Barcelona 23/02 and 17/03

Olympiakos – Bordeaux 23/02 and 17/03

Inter Milan – Chelsea 24/02 and 16/03

CSKA Moscow – Sevilla 14/02 and 16/03

Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: