Cup finals, Premier League shocks, new faces in the England squad, horrific injuries – this was one of the most noteworthy weekends of the season and its repercussions will be felt through to May and beyond to June and the World Cup.
Manchester City’s victory over Chelsea was more than just a win for the Middle East billionaires over their Russian counterpart, nor was it just a victory for City’s big bucks either. Rather, the three points City took from Stamford Bridge were a victory for clever management and tactical nous, just as Everton’s wins over Ancelotti’s side and Manchester United were. City’s performance was one of calm modesty and patient work that exploded into life with the pace of Craig Bellamy, Adam Johnson and Shaun Wright-Phillips working in unison with the craft of Carlos Tevez. Roberto Mancini may have been aided by a touch of luck at times but by and large the former Inter Milan boss beat his long-term rival in the battle from the dugout. An understanding of tactics and the knowledge of how to implement them is not the sole preserve of the now-traditional top four. There are many managers in the Premier League who appear to hold a good grasp of tactics. Harry Redknapp is much more than the Cockney barrow-boy the media likes to portray him as, while Martin O’Neill’s positive coaching attributes are lost beneath his quirky, fiery persona. Too often, when faced with one of the Champions League regulars, any semblance of a game plan is lost as the lower-ranked team shrinks from the opening whistle.
Manchester City did not do this, but instead kept faith in the system Mancini gave them and got their reward. They sat deep for much of the game, trusting the running of Bellamy and Wright-Phillips in particular, Tevez’s intelligent passing and the industry of Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong. It is that kind of managerial expertise that wins trophies far more than the money that powers it. Fabio Capello’s squad for the last friendly before the World Cup, with Leighton Baines, Stephen Warnock and Ryan Shawcross the fringe players given a chance to impress, indicates the Italian has all but made his mind up on who to take to South Africa. The continued presence of Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott shows Capello has decided who his back-up centre-backs will be despite the good form of both Shawcross and Michael Dawson. Bobby Zamora’s omission and Michael Owen’s continued injury problems and lack of game time mean the forward slots seem full. Meanwhile, the selection of Theo Walcott, who has failed to impress since returning from injury, points towards Capello valuing the qualities the Arsenal winger offers, namely explicit pace, regardless of the form he is in.
There is certainly no other player available to England with the speed of Walcott with the exception of Wright-Phillips and that could be valuable in South Africa, but the refinement of Joe Cole would be a useful asset too. Cole’s form since returning from an injury of his own has not sparkled either but lacking the rapidity of Walcott means an out-of-form Cole, lacking in sharpness and inspiration, is left watching from home. Cole is one of few England players who can produce something out of nothing and in tight games against strong international defences, the Chelsea midfielder could be the key that unlocks the door. The explosive Walcott offers more of a goal threat than Wright-Phillips and Cole but without Aaron Lennon, England’s right-wing is a little bare. Walcott is presumably first-choice on that side but with David Beckham cementing his place in the squad by returning to AC Milan, there seems to be no room for Chelsea’s dynamic, virtuoso midfielder, although if Wayne Rooney continues his one-man-show the former West Ham player’s rare skill might not be missed.
Rooney came from the bench to decide yesterday’s Carling Cup final that started so well for Aston Villa but ended in disappointment. Matters might have been different had Nemanja Vidic rightly been sent off but without Rio Ferdinand, United’s defence has been shaky in recent weeks and Villa certainly have the firepower to benefit from the collective uncertainty of Jonny Evans and Wes Brown. Once Rooney was introduced however, after Owen had restored parity following James Milner’s penalty, the Red Devils were just about the superior side, although their Midlands opponents pushed them to the limit. This League Cup victory could be the spur Sir Alex Ferguson’s players need to power on through spring with a just a point separating the top two. Both United and Villa have plenty more to play for this season and while taking the trophy back to Old Trafford could give the victors an added boost, O’Neill needs to ensure his players do not suffer a hangover of disappointment. With Mancini’s City impressing in their weekend trip to London, Tottenham seeing off in-form Everton with a strong first-half showing and Liverpool welcoming back Fernando Torres, the race to the Champions League is more alive than ever.
Villa need to pick themselves up off the mat immediately and next week’s FA Cup meeting with Reading is the perfect opportunity. The taste of the big occasion this trip to Wembley affords the Villains is just the motivation they need but with an away fixture at Stoke City next in the Premier League, they must hit the ground running.Undoubtedly the saddest news from the weekend’s football programme was the injury suffered by Aaron Ramsey. While there appeared to be no intent from Shawcross to injure Ramsey that should not obscure the real issue – dangerous tackles for which a three-game ban is not enough. You cannot prove intent unless you can read the players mind, so the solution is simple – remove intent from the equation. A tackle such as the one Gorka Pintado made on Robbie Savage last week is so ridiculously dangerous a red card is not sufficient punishment even when an injury is not suffered, but there is a case to be made for banning a player in relation to the injuries their challenge causes. Shawcross did not mean to break Ramsey’s leg but that was the outcome of his tackle and the former Manchester United defender will return in a few weeks while the Welshman has a long way to go before his own comeback.
The last few days have been some of the most news-filled of the season but, as the title race heats up, the Champions League fight enters its final rounds, the relegation battle rages and the World Cup draws closer, the stories, good or bad, will just keep coming.