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The next Chelsea manager

Following yesterday’s sacking of Luis Felipe Scolari there has been much speculation as to who the next Chelsea manager will be. A wide range of names have been linked with the job already, some of which I expected to hear and some I most certainly did not. As both a Chelsea fan and someone with a great interest in the wider football world I will be taking a look at some of the names on this list as well as some of those I think ought to be on there. Feel free to disagree with any of my opinions if you so wish.

PS. Before any of you suggest any names I may have left out of this list, please bear in mind that I’d rather have my balls sandblasted than have Martin O’Neill as Chelsea manager. You have been warned.

The names that are always mentioned:

Frank Rijkaard: Won 2 la Liga titles and the Champions League with Barcelona but struggled to contain the egos in the dressing room thanks to his lax attitude toward discipline during his final two years in charge. Overall, would try to play the good football Abramovich seems to crave but seemingly not the man to control the Drogbas and Terrys of this world. Avoid.

Guus Hiddink: Has enjoyed great success at club and international level and known to be a strong disciplinarian. A close friend of Abramovich who may be willing to take the job on a part time basis until the end of the season. However, seems reluctant to leave his job as manager of Russia and has not had a job managing a club outside of Holland for some years. Would be a popular appointment but a risk nonetheless.

Jose Mourinho: Ever since his sacking I’ve maintained that he will not be coming back, no matter how much anyone at the club wants him to. However, you can’t help but wonder when you hear stories about him not being happy in Italy or that he and Abramovich have patched up their differences (Roman recently bought Jose a car as a thank you for everything he did for Chelsea). Has a proven track record in English football and would command the respect of the players. But even if this most unlikely of comebacks is still a possibility, it would almost certainly have to wait until the summer; Inter are 7 points clear in Serie A and Jose would want to have a Scudetto on his CV meaning someone else would have to take charge until the end of the season. I’d love it if Mourinho did come back but still can’t quite see it happening.

Roberto Mancini: Whenever there’s a job going in the Premiership, his name always pops up. Won 3 titles with Inter (the first admittedly by default) and got Lazio into the Champions League with a transfer budget of about 50p, but has no track record outside of Italy and suffered a near mental breakdown last season as Inter were knocked out of the Champions League and almost threw away the scudetto. I worry how he would cope if he ever became embroiled in Ferguson’s mind games or if the team suddenly lost form as Inter did last season. A calculated risk.

The surprise:

Avram Grant: In spite of what some fans may think, I believe Grant did an admirable job as manager last season. Knows the club and the players very well and seemingly remains on good terms with Abramovich in spite of the ruthless nature of his sacking just 2 days after the Champions League final. I would happily welcome him back until the end of the season but worry about the reception he may receive from some of the more moronic sections of support who refuse to acknowledge his achievements and are seemingly unable to see past the fact that he’s Jewish (sad, but true). Such a hostile reception may take its toll on the players and add to the club’s problems.

The up and comers:

Gianfranco Zola: A club legend who would be given time by the fans to turn things round and would probably bring Steve Clarke back with him. After a slow start, has managed to galvanise West Ham, lifting them to 8th in the Premiership and earning rave reviews from the players. Still too inexperienced for me though (Glenn Hoddle proved at Tottenham that returning heroes don’t always make great managers) and recognises that he owes a lot to West Ham for taking a chance on him. Has never broken a contract in his career and, in spite of his oft-stated love of the club, is unlikely to start now. I’m sure he’ll be Chelsea manager one day, but not yet.

Roberto di Matteo: Another club legend, currently guiding MK Dons toward another promotion. Still has no experience of top level management though, could prove to be another Paul Ince. Could one day team up with Zola for the fan’s dream ticket but should not be considered for a few years yet.

Slavan Bilic: Undoubtedly a great motivator, as evidenced by the success he has had with a Croatia team with a few stars but a lot of average players. No experience of club management though and may represent too big a risk than the club is willing to take. Does strike me as a strong disciplinarian though which seems to be what the club needs at the moment, and is clearly a total head case, which would make for some interesting confrontations with other managers.

Not mentioned but worth a look?:

Phil Brown: Laugh if you must but I’m a big fan. In one season turned Hull from Championship relegation fodder into a Premiership club, and is making a good fist of keeping them in the league. Their recent drop in form was inevitable but I still fancy them to survive. One of those managers who just needs a big club to take a chance on him. The biggest risks can sometimes bring the biggest rewards.

Quique Sanchez Flores: Anyone who could cope with the pressure of managing a club like Valencia would have little trouble coping with the pressure at Chelsea. His Valencia team played great football and were competitive in la Liga despite a massive financial disadvantage against Barcelona and Real Madrid. I’d love to see him get the job but doesn’t seem to even be on the board’s radar. A shame.

Thomas Schaaf: If Roman Abramovich wants exciting attacking football, this is the man to provide it. During his time in charge, Werder Bremen have consistently been the top scorers in German football and have won many admirers with their attractive offensive style. However, the flip side to this is frequent kamikaze defending; if Werder score 3 there’s always a chance they’ll let their opponents score 4. Defence has been a big problem for Chelsea this season and I doubt that Schaaf is the man to address this problem.

Sven Goran Eriksson: Was vilified by Chelsea fans when linked with the job 5 years ago but was his record with England really that bad? Not when you compare it to Steve McClaren’s efforts it wasn’t. Made a great start at Manchester City last season before being undermined and eventually forced out my the club owner. Certainly has an eye for a good signing and has a proven track record with big clubs. I’d still rather they looked elsewhere but am now not nearly as hostile to the idea of Sven managing Chelsea as I have been in the past.

Conclusion:

I’d obviously love to have Jose Mourinho back as manager, but as I stated above, I just can’t see that happening. While writing this article I have learned that the club have been talking to Guus Hiddink with the view to him taking over until the end of the season. I would welcome this appointment but still wonder where this would leave us next season. One thing is for certain, whoever is given the job long term, the board have to make the right decision. Chelsea are a team in need of some major surgery at the moment and the new man needs to have the character and the determination to take on this task. Many fans continue to use Jose Mourinho as the yardstick by which all Chelsea managers are judged, any new manager needs to be able to cope with this expectation and return Chelsea to the top of football’s pyramid if he is ever to be spoken about in the same breath as “the Special One”.

A tribute to Europe’s strangest continental competition…

I found myself even more appalled than usual by the shabby nature of Channel Five’s UEFA Cup coverage last night. I mean, awful commentary and even worse punditry are a given on any match covered by Five, but what really struck a nerve was the apparent inability of the summarising commentators during the Portsmouth and Everton games to understand the away goals rule. After Portsmouth had brought the score back to 2-2 during extra time (which put them 4-2 up on aggregate) the summariser, whose name I can’t remember, declared that it was looking good for Portsmouth because now Guimaraes had to score twice in less than 10 minutes if they wanted to take the game to penalties. At the start of the Everton game (which was 2-2 on aggregate at the start of the night) the summariser was suggesting that Everton might employ cautious tactics in an effort to suffocate Standard Liege’s high tempo game and play for penalties. I have to assume that these two summarisers were once footballers themselves and so must have come across the away goals rule at some point in their careers, but even if they haven’t this is an awful gaffe for anyone to make, let alone two people on the same night who are supposed to know a thing or two about the game. Truly astonishing.

Anyway, enough of that. Something else which caught my attention last night was the revelation that Guimaraes did not represent Portsmouth’s first European opponents. That honour it so happens went to those giants of continental club football, Charlton Athletic in the first round of the 1992-93 Anglo-Italian Cup, perhaps the most pointless and ridiculous European competition ever created. Try to imagine the Intertoto Cup being played mid-season and without the prize of a place in the UEFA cup for the winners and you’d be on the right track. However, the mention of a tournament that everyone seems to have forgotten about but which provided European competition for such unglamorous clubs as Tranmere Rovers, Notts County and Port Vale has inspired me to take a closer look at this competition, hoping to discover why it came about and why it no longer exists.

The inaugural Anglo-Italian Cup was actually contested as far back as 1970. The competition came about as a result of a disagreement between the English Football Association and UEFA over the European governing body’s refusal to allow Swindon Town, winners of the 1969 Football League Cup, into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (now the UEFA Cup) because they were in England’s Third Division. The FA soon stuck a deal with their Italian counterparts to stage an annual competition between the teams from outside both country’s top divisions. The competition ran for four seasons before it was abandoned in 1973 with Swindon Town, Blackpool, AS Roma and Newcastle United (See! They have won a trophy during the era of colour television! They truly are a massive club!) winning one tournament each.

So marked the end of the first Anglo-Italian Cup. However, the tournament was to be resurrected in 1975 as a competition for English and Italian semi-professional teams. Running until 1987 this competition was dominated by the Italians, with Sutton United in 1979 providing the only English winners. An interesting side note to this competition should be that the inaugural final in 1976 featured Wimbledon, who only 12 years later would be winning the FA Cup against a Liverpool team many considered to be among the best teams in Europe. A remarkable rise indeed.

The professional Anglo-Italian Cup was to make a return in 1992 as a replacement for the Full Members Cup, a competition for the teams in the top two divisions of the Football League, which had been wound up after the formation of the Premiership had seen England’s top division break away from the Football League. The new Anglo-Italian Cup was to be contested by the teams from England’s First Division and Italy’s Serie B. The competition began with a preliminary group stage after which 8 English teams and 8 Italian teams would remain. Four groups of four teams, all comprising entirely of clubs from one country, would then be drawn with the English and Italian teams competing home and away in a round-robin style tournament with the eventual top team in each group advancing to the semi finals. Clubs from the same country played against each other in the semi finals in order to guarantee an international final, which was always held at Wembley. Again, the Italian clubs were to dominate with Notts County in 1994-95 providing England’s only winners. However, the competition was only to last for four years. A general indifference towards the competition existed between the clubs in both countries, who viewed it as a time consuming distraction from the domestic leagues and cup competitions. Fans also criticised the pointlessness of the competition, with no major prize awaiting the victors, and were put off by the violence that often accompanied the fixtures. The subsequent poor crowds for all but the final stages of the competition and the fact that it was not covered on any major television network meant that the tournament was not cost effective and was abandoned for good in 1996. While it was a commercial failure, the Anglo-Italian Cup did provide the opportunity for many clubs who would otherwise not have had the chance; to test themselves against continental opposition and provided Portsmouth with their first “European” tie, a 3-1 win over Charlton Athletic, more than 15 years before last night’s terribly analysed tussle with Guimaraes, something which the club and its fans should never forget.

Why things are looking somewhat hairy for the Rossoneri


Before you read this I apologise in advance for the long, sometimes rambling nature of this article, but this is such a large topic that it takes a lot of explaining. Right, on with the article…

Its 3.03 PM local time on Sunday the 5th of May 2004. Andriy Shevchenko scores what turns out to be the only goal of the game as AC Milan, the reigning European Champions, beat AS Roma 1-0 at the San Siro to wrap up their 17th Scudetto. The Rossoneri eventually finish the season with 82 points from 34 games, putting them 11 points ahead of their nearest challengers Roma and 13 ahead of Italy’s Vecchia Signora (Old Lady) Juventus. Shevchenko finished as Serie A’s top goal scorer with 24 goals, and was backed up by the ever reliable predatory instincts of Filippo Inzaghi. Carlo Ancellotti’s team also boasted a perfectly balanced midfield, combining the industry of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini with the art of Andrea Pirlo and an emerging Kaka, and the incisive wing play of Clarence Seedorf. The defence, marshalled by the aging but dependable Paulo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta was one of the meanest in the league. Even without the inevitable arrogance and infectious optimism that comes with any title success, the future seemed bright for Carlo Ancellotti and his team.

Now fast forward less than 4 years to Tuesday the 4th of March 2008. Milan, once again defending European Champions but by now a shadow of the team they once were, are dumped out of the Champions League at the Second Round stage after being out-fought and out-classed by a slick young Arsenal team. During the second leg at the San Siro, which Arsenal won 2-0, every Milan player lost his individual battle with his Arsenal counterpart and as a team Milan simply could not cope with Arsenal’s quick interplay and dogged determination. While watching that game I actually found myself agreeing with the ITV commentary team (and it won’t be often you hear me say that, dear reader) that this game took on a symbolic significance, as if the torch of footballing hegemony was being passed from the older generation of players, symbolised by Milan; to the new emerging generation symbolised by Arsenal. However, worse was to come for the Rossoneri. By the end of the season Milan were 5th in Serie A, a massive 21 points behind champions Inter, and had failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in six years. Milan’s top goal scorer for the 2007-2008 season was Kaka who managed an admirable 15 goals from midfield, with only one Milan striker, Filippo Inzaghi with 11, finishing with 10 or more league goals.

Given the club’s dramatic decline in fortunes over the previous four years, it must be asked, what is wrong with AC Milan? Where has the current malaise come from? Who is to blame? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how long will it last? In this article I will explain what I believe are the causes of Milan’s problems both on and off the pitch and what must be done to rectify them if the club is to avoid the steady slide into mediocrity from which it may take years to recover.

Lets start with the obvious, compared to many of their rivals for the top prizes at home and in Europe this Milan squad is old, very old. In an era where teams with an average age of barely 20 can be seen competing at the top of Europe’s major leagues a squad with an average age of over 30 seems an anachronism but that is the reality at Milan. On any given match day at least half the Milan starting 11 are likely to be in their thirties; while club captain Paulo Maldini is still playing regularly at the age of 40. While the benefits of having a settled side that has been together for many years should not be downplayed, the wisdom of persisting season after season with a squad containing many players who may be past their peak must be questioned for a club with designs on winning the game’s biggest prizes every season. In recent seasons Milan have also displayed a worrying tactical inflexibility, which has been exploited by the opposition. Never was this more clearly demonstrated than during the 2005 Champions League Final. Facing a 3-0 deficit at half time, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez withdrew full back Steve Finnan and replaced him with midfielder Didi Hamann. Unable to cope with Liverpool’s extra man in midfield and seemingly unable to adapt their tactics to do so Milan quickly surrendered what had appeared an insurmountable lead and went on to lose the game on penalties. The same appeared true in Milan’s match with Arsenal in last season’s competition. Unable to contain Arsenal’s midfield Milan desperately needed a tactical reshuffle if they wished to win the game. However, the club’s recent over-reliance on Kaka for goals from midfield meant that the system; initially set up to allow Kaka the chance to get forward as much as possible by limiting his defensive responsibilities; could not be changed and subsequently Milan lost the game. With other teams having apparently discovered the cracks in Milan’s system the issue of tactical rigidity, which has now been neglected for several years, will continue to cost Milan dear if it is not addressed.

In addition to the club’s problems on the pitch, Milan’s unadventurous transfer policy has done little to rectify the problems currently being experienced by the first team. In the summer of 2007, when Milan had just finished 4th in Serie A and won a European Cup that many observers were saying merely papered over the cracks of what had been a disappointing season, the club welcomed Brazilian wonderkid Alexandre Pato to the club, having secured his signature the previous winter. The signing of one of the hottest young properties in the World, who had been interesting practically every club of stature in Europe, represented a major coup for Milan, with fans hoping that Pato would be the first of a number of fresh faced summer signings who would once again enable the club to compete for the Scudetto. However, Milan’s win in the European Cup seemed to have infected the club hierarchy with a serious bout of conservatism and the belief that the aging squad the club already possessed would be enough to both challenge for the title and defend the European Cup. Consequently only two players, both over 30, were signed; Brazilian central midfielder Emerson, to supplement Gattuso and Ambrosini who were both younger than him, and even more bizarrely winger Ibrahim Ba returned for his third stint at the club having previously been knocking around in the French Third Division. These signings, coupled with the arrival the previous January of the over-weight and increasingly injury prone Ronaldo did little to inspire confidence in the team’s chances at a time when Juventus were overhauling their aged squad and Inter were adding to their already formidable team. The travesty of a season that followed left the team crying out for an overhaul. At first the signs appeared good with Milan securing the signings of Mathieu Flamini from Arsenal, a dynamic young midfielder who could also play in the problem right back position, as well as Mathias Cardacio and Tabare Viudez, two Uruguayan midfielders who had impressed at the previous Under 20 World Cup. Defensive cover also arrived in the loan signing of Arsenal’s Philippe Senderos. However, the club then went on to invest substantial funds in bringing in two players whose careers appeared to be stuck in a downward spiral, first acquiring Brazilian Ronaldinho, who had been voted World Player of the Year in 2005 but had struggled for form and suffered numerous injuries and questions about his continued hunger for the game in recent months. Soon afterwards, Milan brought Andriy Shevchenko; now 31 and at least a yard slower than in his heyday; back to the club from Chelsea. The total outlay on these two players probably exceeded 30 million Euros with suggestions that the club would have been better served by spending that money on a younger striker such as Emmanuel Adebayor being commonplace. In spite of these new signings, the positions in which new signings were most obviously needed; in goal and at centre back as cover for the aging Nesta and Kaladze; were ignored. Unless these holes in the team are filled another season of underachievement could beckon. Early results this season have been a mixed bag, with defeats to Bologna and Genoa being followed by victories over Lazio and Reggina leaving Milan in mid-table while Inter continue to set the pace. Only time will tell if Milan’s risky transfer strategy will pay off but this writer remains sceptical.

No article on the state of AC Milan would be complete without an honourable mention for Silvio Berlusconi, the always colourful and often controversial billionaire who is the owner of the club in addition to being Prime Minister of Italy. Here lies the problem. Since being voted out of office in 2006 Berlusconi was able to devote more of his time to the smooth running and improvement of his other businesses, including Milan. However, the fall of Romano Prodi’s government in the Spring of 2008 and Berlusconi’s subsequent re-election as Prime Minister have distracted him from this task, just when it seems his team may need him more than ever. It was easy for Berlusconi to neglect his duties at Milan during his previous terms as Prime Minister when the team was doing well on the pitch but now, at what could be a crucial juncture for the club that he has guided to the most successful era in their history, Berlusconi’s dynamism and enthusiasm are concentrated elsewhere. During this time the overall running of the club has been left to chief executive Adriano Galliani, the man who believed that a 35 year old Dida can still play for a club with the ambitions of Milan, and who was supposedly instrumental in deciding to pursue Shevchenko over Adebayor in Milan’s search for a striker this summer. It would appear that as soon as Berlosconi has fixed the problems being faced by Italy’s economy, he will need to get straight to work on fixing the problems faced by Milan. Handing Mr Galliani his P45 would presumably be a good start.