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Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The English managerial merry-go-round just keeps merrily turning, with Liverpool's Roy Hodgson being the latest high-profile casualty, having departed Anfield on 8 January by "mutual consent"; this, of course, being the mannerly way of saying that he was sacked.

He follows other managers (and what of Avram Grant?), such as Roy Keane, told by Ipswich Town to pack his bags, leave and take his dog with him, Brian Laws, who was shown the door at Burnley, and the manifestly unlucky Chris Hughton, who more than deserved a contract at Newcastle United but instead got the sack. Hughton's replacement, Alan Pardew, was then given a 5 1/2 year contract by Newcastle's owner, Mike Ashley. Hughton was the guardian of the Toon Army's hopes and fortunes, and loved by the supporters on Tyneside; Hodgson got barely six months at Anfield and was seemingly loathed by one and all among the Kop faithful.

Hodgson's short-lived reign as Liverpool manager was, admittedly, a less than glorious time, with the Reds winning 7 out of 20 Premier League games and being knocked out of the League Cup, at home, by fourth-tier side Northampton Town. In Hodgson's defence, he employed a ghost team that night, preferring to give several reserves and a clutch of youngsters a run-out before a less than capacity crowd at Anfield.

It has been said, in the media and in the street, that Hodgson's style of play was too negative, that it was better served at clubs such as Fulham, that he didn't stamp his authority and/or style of play on the Liverpool squad, and that he was simply too nice. BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson was of the opinion that Roy Hodgson was "a thoroughly decent man, a very nice man, but the wrong man at the wrong time."

Hodgson was, thanks in part to the media, thanks in part to an increasingly impatient fan-base, a dead man walking. More often than not, however, there were eleven dead men wearing Liverpool shirts on various Premier League grounds not just this season, but last, a throwback to the last, desperate, days of Rafael Benitez's time as manager at Liverpool before he fluttered off to Inter Milan, only to be sacked himself just before Christmas.

Benitez, as everyone knows, won the European Cup/Champions League (call it what you will; the choice is yours) with Liverpool in 2005 with a team largely filled with players recruited by his predecessor, Gerard Houllier. The Reds reached the final two years later, only to lose to the team they so heroically beat in 2005, AC Milan. Apart from that, and the 2008-09 season, when they finished just behind Manchester United, the last six years have mostly been a time of non-achievement.

When Hodgson took over at Anfield, Liverpool FC were still embroiled in an ownership struggle, the club were broke, and many of the decent players the club had (Benayoun and Hyppia, for instance) had moved on. He was able to sign a couple of players, but Maxi Rodriguez and Meireles apart, they haven't really been up to scratch. Many have criticised Hodgson for signing a couple of "duds", but he was provided neither with adequate funds nor enough time to get a team together. He was left to make do with what he had, which was precious little in terms of quality.

The squad he inherited - Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt and Carragher excepted - simply didn't add up to much. Hodgson chopped and changed as best he could, and, to his credit, utilised a number of youngsters mostly ignored in the Benitez era, such as Kelly, Ecclestone, Jay Spearing and David N'Gog, who is starting to show some promise. There should be a clearout at Anfield, and it shouldn't have started with Hodgson himself.

It's amazing what a European Cup win can do. Rafael Benitez lived off one such triumph for 5 years, and everybody proclaimed him as the new Messiah. Hodgson has been derided as a manager of limited ability. His Fulham side reached the final of the UEFA Cup/Europa League in 2009. He has managed clubs to domestic honours all over Europe. He has also managed Inter Milan (and lasted longer there than Benitez), and taken Switzerland to the World Cup Finals. Not bad for a "dilutey", I think you will agree.

However, Hodgson has gone, unjustly hounded out of a job, to be replaced by Kenny Dalglish, hero to all of a Red persuasion and keeper of the Anfield flame, who not only played for the club over 13 years, but also managed the side at the start of the 1990s. Now he's back, but the results have been, how you say, less than impressive. It is still early days, but one cannot see an improvement before the end of the season.

Journalist David Conn has described Liverpool as a club in "slow and inevitable decline"; I fear that we are indeed watching the slow decline of a club, one which reached the heights of European greatness but may shortly become the next Preston North End, and might not win the league title again in my lifetime. Very little, if any, of this, is Roy Hodgson's fault - personally, I find the way he has been treated to be nothing but shameful. He might have been the right man for the job; we shall never know. One thing is for sure; he was certainly Liverpool manager at the wrong time.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Now that the winter break is upon us (well, in countries such as Italy and Spain), it is time to sit back, put the feet up and take stock, at least at the request of my football-loving compadre, Remco Mulder, a fervent follower of both AS Roma and Ajax; someone who has been hounding me for weeks on end for my prediction as to who who will finish top of the tree in Serie A and La Liga.

Who I hope will finish top of the respective leagues - Juventus and Athletic Bilbao, just in case you are wondering, dear reader - is, well, rather different than who I think will finish top. Having said that, Remco will have noted that AS Roma's position has drastically improved from when he first asked me to put something in writing in October. Then, last season's runners-up were in the bottom 3 and looking more like candidates for relegation than challengers for lo scudetto.

Now, at the time of writing, they have worked themselves up to fourth place, though still 7 points off the pace with AC Milan leading the pack. This season's surprise package, Napoli, plus Lazio and Juventus are sandwiched in-between. Current title-holders Inter Milan are in seventh place, some 13 points behind AC Milan, and seem unlikely to mount a challenge sufficient enough to garner more than fourth place. Meanwhile, Palermo are sitting pretty in sixth place and are more than capable of upseting the odds. Sampdoria, Udinese and Genoa occupy the remainder of the top 10 places.

One-time giants Parma and - surprisingly enough -  Fiorentina are hovering above the relegation zone, though both should survive at the expense of those already ensconced in the bottom four: Cesena, Brescia, Lecce and Bari. Bari are the only club currently in the bottom four who didn't come straight up last time, having finished in tenth place last time out. Three of the aforementioned four will go down; Brescia are my tip to save themselves.

Back to the top three; AC Milan are your correspondent's tip to win what is turning out to be a stop-start Serie A, with points being dropped all over the shop in the top 8. Lazio should end up finishing second, a drastic improvement on what they would consider a disastrous showing last season, when they could only finish twelfth. Juventus should finish third, thus improving on last season's seventh place and consolidating themselves once more among the top 4.

AS Roma will finish fourth, having had too much to do to come back from such a perilous position so early in the season, but also having done enough to progress at least to the quarter-final stages of the European Cup, ahem, Champions League - having said that, they have to get past Ukrainian side Shaktyar Donetsk first. No easy task. AS Roma seem still to be a team in transition, a young side, but one which promises much; however, it will not be enough for this season.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the top three positions in La Liga are looking somewhat easier to predict that those in Italy. Between the current top 3 sides at this moment in time, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Villareal, they have lost only 6 games this season. Barcelona are 2 points ahead of Real Madrid, with Villareal already some way back, themselves 5 points clear of fourth-placed Sevilla.

What to say? A repeat of last season's finishing positons? Yes and no. Barca to finish top - how can anyone argue with that at this moment in time, with the Catalans playing some of the most refreshingly effective football seen in years? Real to finish second - also playing some good football, but they still can't always seem to get it together at just the right moment - and, yes, Villareal to stay in third, improving on last season when they finished seventh, just ahead of last season's third-placed side Valencia, who are currently in fourth spot, heading Espanol on goal difference. Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao may yet beat Espanol to a place in the European Cup or the UEFA Cup, I mean Europa League (I really should stop being so traditionalist) next season.

Who to go down, though? Last year's Segunda Division champions, Real Sociedad, should do much more than enough to beat the drop, though Real Zaragoza are already looking firm candidates for the drop. Any two of the usual candidates - Racing Santander, Real Malaga, Sporting Gijon, plus this season's new boys Levante and last season's surprise mid-tale finishers UD Almeria - could join them. Opinion? Real Zaragoza, Levante and UD Almeria to go down.

Of course, we are sitting in the winter break and a lot can happen between now and May, but sometimes, just sometimes, things can end up being so Spain, at any rate. Italy is looking just a little less clear-cut, and there may well a fine store of surprises to come, but Serie A should still be AC Milan's to lose. Well, Remco, I'm off to bed. Buonanotte..