Thursday, June 29, 2023

Silly Season

Silly season is that time of year when rumors fly and fanciful dreams sometimes, but not always, come true for Premier League supporters. Last season’s momentous move of Erling Haaland to Manchester City led to a historic Treble.

The last two transfer windows saw a strange spending spree by a new ownership group at Chelsea which delivered quantity but seemingly not the quality to which Blues supporters had been accustomed. This summer’s transfer window is seeing Chelsea rushing to undo past damage in an unprecedented fire sale. Outgoing rumors at Chelsea thus play a feature role in this summer’s window.

A number of departures feature Saudi Arabia as an unusual and lucrative destination for several departing players. The N’Golo Kante and Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy transfers to Saudi Arabian clubs are complete. An expected move to the Saudi League for Hakim Ziyech is imminent. The Chelsea players will join stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in the big spending Saudi Arabian league which is populating its squads with European stars in the manner of the Chinese league some years back.

Staying in England will be Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic who joins Manchester City, bolstering the Premier League champion’s midfield which has said goodbye to captain Ilkay Gundogan. The German international has departed for Barcelona.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have acquired Gunodgan’s countryman and Chelsea’s leading scorer last season, Kai Havertz. Former Bayer Leverkusen star Havertz had a star-crossed time at Chelsea. His goal in 2021 delivered a Champions League title for Chelsea and then manager Thomas Tuchel. Much of his time with the club, however, will be remembered for missed chances as he became the face of Chelsea’s problems in putting the ball in the net. Havertz, whose success in the Bundesliga was as an attacking midfielder, was often asked to lead the line at Chelsea with poor results. A career revival could be in store for the 24-year-old should he slide into a more comfortable role in the Gunners midfield.

That Arsenal midfield could be further improved by the addition of West Ham’s Declan Rice. Arsenal have submitted multiple bids for Rice and reportedly now have the inside track with Manchester City supposedly withdrawing from the bidding war for the England defensive midfielder. Rice would be a perfect fit to guard the Arsenal back line. Rumored to be departing Arsenal, particularly if the Rice deal closes, are current Gunner midfielders Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s negotiations for Rice have been protracted with multiple bids being exchanged.

A similar scenario has played out in Manchester United’s attempted signing of Mason Mount from Chelsea. Chelsea have been surprisingly stubborn on the transfer fees for Mount, even as they conduct their roster clear out. The talented Mount is a Chelsea academy graduate and has seen action in the England squad which makes the 24-year-old’s departure tougher for Chelsea supporters to accept. Mount and Chelsea can’t agree on an extension to his current contract, however, and he thus would walk for free after next season if not sold.

Harry Kane is in a comparable contract situation at Tottenham Hotspur, but the club has so far rebuffed interest from other clubs in the England striker. Bayern Munich is reported to have submitted a bid for Kane this week. Meanwhile, Spurs have acquired midfielder James Maddison from relegated Leicester. Reported interest in Maddison by other clubs was surprisingly muted for a player who had 19 goal involvements in the Premier League last season.

The silliest midfielder pursuit this window has been, unsurprisingly, Chelsea’s interest in Brighton’s Moises Caicedo. Brighton wants Declan Rice type money for the Ecuadorian who has just one season of Premier League experience. Caicedo is good but not that good. What Brighton is demanding is essentially double what the club received from Liverpool for World Cup winning midfielder Alexis Mac Allister. Mac Allister had a reasonable release clause written within his contract. Caicedo does not and the club can thus demand whatever it wants. Chelsea remains in desperate need of a striker which makes a large expenditure for midfielder Caicedo even more questionable.

The London club is still trying to balance the books with additional potential departures in various stages of rumors and process for players such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic. Loftus-Cheek was reported enroute Thursday for his medical physical in Italy to complete a transfer to AC Milan. The Italian club has funds to reinvest after the sale of Sandro Tonali to Newcastle. The Magpies paid a steep price for the Italian midfielder who normally plays the same holding defensive midfielder position as current Newcastle star Bruno Guimaraes. It will be interesting to see how Newcastle Manager Eddie Howe sets up his team next season with many expecting Guimaraes to be given more freedom to attack as a box-to-box midfielder after the addition of Tonali. AC Milan, meanwhile, continues to shop with its newfound funds and has been connected with Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic. Pulisic’s wages, however, are making it difficult for Chelsea to market the American.  

Monday, June 26, 2023

U21 Euros A Chance To Shine For Premier League Youngsters

The U21 Euros currently being played in Romania and Georgia provides some opportunities for young Premier League players to make a statement. Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe is wasting no time as he tallied in each of England’s first two group stage matches, identical 2-0 scorelines over Czechoslovakia and Israel. Smith Rowe was a forgotten man for the Gunners last season. Injured early on, Smith Rowe lost his place on a squad which led the Premier League for much of the season. Arsenal ultimately lost out to Manchester City and is looking to bolster the squad in this transfer window to set up another title challenge next season. That could mean even more competition for Smith Rowe who continues to profess a desire to fight for his place. The young forward can help put himself back on Manager Mikel Arteta’s radar with a strong U21 Euros performance.

Aston Villa’s Jacob Ramsey scored England’s opening goal against Czechoslovakia after an exchange of passes with Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon. Ramsey had a solid season for Unai Emery and an improved Villa side in the Premier League last season and this summer can only further burnish his reputation. Gordon, like Smith Rowe, is trying to re-establish his standing with a strong Euros. The former Everton academy player left on bad terms with the Toffees and their fans last season and proceeded to underwhelm in his time at Newcastle. Perhaps the most vivid memory of his brief time with the Magpies was the sight of him arguing with Manager Eddie Howe on the sidelines. Gordon’s vocalizations at each of his two Premier League stops have outpaced his on-pitch production. Once highly regarded, Gordon wants to recapture that status with a strong performance for England. After having a goal called back against Czechoslovakia, Gordon broke through against Israel, finding the scoresheet from an unaccustomed striker position. Gordon’s demonstrated versatility could give Newcastle Manger Eddie Howe some additional options next season in deploying the young Englishman.

Morgan Gibbs-White was instrumental in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League survival last season after his transfer from Wolves. Like Gordon, the midfielder was positioned up top in England’s dual striker formation and assisted on both goals in the win over Israel. Gibbs-White is further building his case for a future spot on Gareth Southgate’s senior England team.

Noni Madueke, however, will need further development before Southgate looks his way. Madueke was one of the few Chelsea players to look interested in the Premier League’s final weeks and his energy was again on display against Czechoslovakia, though flagging a bit versus Israel. Most notably, however, the young winger exhibits the all too familiar and seemingly endemic habit of Chelsea attackers who fail to convert their chances. Madueke missed on three chances versus Czechoslovakia, once clipping the crossbar, before egregiously firing wide on a chance which would have given Gibbs-White a third assist versus Israel.

Madueke, England teammate Levi Colwill, and Ukrainian Mykhailo Mudryk are all trying to use the tournament to make a good first impression on new Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino. Colwill is coming off a strong season on loan at Brighton and the Seagulls are reportedly still anxious to lock down his services for the long term, submitting two unsuccessful bids so far on a permanent transfer. Colwill, however, is expected to be a building block at the back of Pochettino’s defense, his importance even greater with the departure of center back Kalidou Koulibaly to Saudi Arabia this summer. The young defender has played well in England’s opening two clean sheets.

Mudryk, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten off the bench in Ukraine’s two matches and is reportedly nursing a calf injury. It could be a lost opportunity for the young winger who made little impact for Chelsea in limited minutes under managers Graham Potter and Frank Lampard. Early returns are making Mudryk look like the poster boy for Chelsea’ owner Todd Boehly’s misguided spending to date. Boehly overpaid to steal Mudryk out from under an Arsenal bid and Mudryk’s subsequent lack of production makes it seem the Gunners may have dodged a bullet.

Another injury has derailed the U21 Euro participation of Crystal Place’s Michael Olise. Shortly after scoring the winning goal for France versus Norway, Olise pulled a hamstring and is out for the tournament and likely a good piece of the Eagles’ preseason preparations. Olise, who has rumored interest from Chelsea and PSG, could see an expanded role at Place should Wilfried Zaha leave the club this summer.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Cherries Sack Survival Savior O’Neil

Gary O’Neil took over at Bournemouth last August after the club had just been clobbered in a 9-0 thrashing by Liverpool which tied a record for the worst defeat in Premier League history. His predecessor, Scott Parker, had lamented that the Cherries had no chance to compete following their promotion to the Premier League, citing a roster that had not been upgraded from their lower division success. Three successive defeats, the record capitulation, and the public rant ended things for Parker and opened the door for first time manager O’Neil.

Shockingly, the Cherries began his tenure with a six-match unbeaten run. Thirteen points in 11 matches would result in O’Neil’s status being upgraded from interim to permanent over the World Cup break. Shortly afterwards, the club was bought by American businessman Bill Foley. O’Neil would then go on to lead the south coast side to a 15th place finish in one of the more remarkable managerial performances of the season, apologies messieurs Guardiola, Howe and De Zerbi. One would have thought Foley to be pleased. An expected relegation would have been a poor early return on the American’s investment and O’Neil had provided a foundation to build on heading into this summer transfer window. Was Foley grateful for his manager’s performance? Not so much. O’Neil was sacked on Monday. His departure was necessary, according to the owner, to provide the club with “the best platform with which to build.” Ouch…

Just hours later Bournemouth would announce the appointment of a new manager in Andoni Iraola, most recently the manager of Rayo Vallecano in Spain’s La Liga. Such is the precarious existence of managers in the Premier League where often applauded success can still result in a pink slip. The new Bournemouth ownership envisions bigger things for the Cherries than mere survival and was looking for a more experienced manager whose clubs play with a bit more flair. A disciple of former Leeds Manager Marcelo Bielsa, Iraola’s clubs play an entertaining, high pressing, fast paced style.

In fairness to O’Neil, the Cherries personnel this past season largely dictated a more disciplined and pragmatic approach. Foley’s next move is to provide Iraola with the types of weapons he needs beginning with this transfer window. O’Neil leaves Bournemouth as a much younger version of English firefighter mangers such as survival experts Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgsons, O’Neil having even tainted Allardyce’s reputation this past season as Leeds went down while the Cherries stayed up. Unfortunately for O’Neil, an English manager has never won a Premier League title and the implosion of Graham Potter at Chelsea this season does not help the perception of English managers. Andoni is the same age as O’Neil but is viewed as having a much higher ceiling and a more impressive resume after earning Rayo Vallecano promotion to La Liga and a semifinal finish in the Copa Del Rayo during his time there.

Bournemouth’s new manager becomes the fourth manager from the Basque region of Spain currently managing in the Premier League, joining Mikel Arteta, Unai Emery and Julian Lopetegui.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Manchester United’s De Gea Among Players On Club Release Lists

At the end of each season, Premier League clubs submit their list of players being retained and those technically being released with the imminent expiration of their contracts. Some noteworthy names and stories are included in this year’s lists.

A prominent name among those released is this year’s Premier League Golden Glove Winner, David De Gea. The Manchester United goalkeeper notched 17 clean sheets to lead the league this season and capture his second Golden Glove. The Spanish keeper also surpassed club legend Peter Schmeichel this year for the most career clean sheets for the Red Devils. And yet De Gea is a poor fit for Manager Eric ten Hag’s system. The goalkeeper’s contract is up this month, and the club does not seem overly concerned. Like many Premier League managers, ten Hag prefers his goalkeeper to be adept with the ball at his feet and to trigger the attack for his club. De Gea is an exceptional shot blocker with rare agility and reflexes despite occasional gaffes in recent seasons. He is not comfortable, however, with the ball at his feet and his distribution is poor. The Red Devils have reportedly offered De Gea a contract at reduced wages as they search for a new number one goalkeeper. Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Brentford’s David Raya are just two of the names already linked with Manchester United in this summer’s transfer rumors. Should De Gea not be resigned in some capacity, he leaves the club as one of only 11 players to have played more than 500 matches for the storied club.

Champions Manchester City could also be saying goodbye to a club stalwart. Ilkay Gundogan, whose two goals delivered the recent 2-1 FA Cup win over rival Manchester United, also has a contract expiring this month. The Manchester City captain is wanted back by the Citizens but the German international is also a rumored target of Barcelona and potentially Premier League rival Arsenal. The midfielder just completed his seventh season for Manchester City and has been a double-digit goal scorer each of the last three years.

A series of head scratching career decisions finds another midfielder with Manchester connections on the released list. Jesse Lingard is back in the market for a new team after being released by Nottingham Forest. The long time Manchester United property had a highly successful loan spell at West Ham a few years ago but made a poor decision to go back to Manchester and fight for a spot. Failing in that fight, Lingard hit the market last season and, somewhat surprisingly, chose Nottingham Forest where he had a hard time finding minutes, never scored a league goal, and is now released. An interesting rumor has Lingard headed to MLS for a reunion with DC United manager, and former Lingard teammate at Manchester United, Wayne Rooney.

Liverpool’s release list contains several familiar names. It’s been long known that Bobby Firmino and James Milner, both revered contributors during the Klopp era, were completing their final seasons for the club. There is speculation that several Serie A clubs could have interest in Firmino while Milner looks to be staying in the Premier League with Brighton.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unfortunately experienced the same frustrating injury susceptibility with Liverpool as he did at Arsenal and leaves after an unfulfilling six-year stint with the Reds. Oxlade-Chamberlain supposedly has his eye on continuing in the Premier league with Aston Villa but it’s unconfirmed if the interest is mutual.

Another Liverpool midfielder who failed to live up to expectations is the now released Naby Keita. Signed from RB Leipzig in July 2018, Kaita’s time at Anfield was marked by poor performances and frequent injuries. The midfielder is set to return to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen.

A released player who will leave fans with better memories is Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura. Spurs fans will always have a soft spot for the Brazilian forward who put Tottenham Hotspur into the Champions League final with a second half hat trick which defeated Ajax in the 2019 semifinal. Newcastle has been rumored to be a possible destination for the 30-year-old Moura.

Friday, June 16, 2023

London Calling: Pochettino and Postecoglou To The Rescue?

Mauricio Pochettino and Ange Postecoglou will be looking to restore the fortunes of two fallen Premier League clubs as they take the reins of London rivals, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

Pochettino wades into a total mess at Stamford Bridge. American ownership led by Todd Boehly purchased a club which had finished third in the 2021/22 Premier League standings and won the Champions League the year before that. A series of poor choices in manager selections and player acquisitions saw Chelsea drop to the bottom half of the table this past season. Boehly sacked Champions League winning manager Thomas Tuchel to hire Graham Potter from Brighton. Potter seemed overwhelmed by the task, the club floundered, and Potter was sacked in favor of an interim managerial stint by Frank Lampard.

The Chelsea legend may be forever tainted by what happened next. Lampard would win only 1 of 11 contests in charge, losing 8 as the humiliating season could not end fast enough for the Blues. Boehly had gone on a spending free in the transfer market which had accumulated so many, often mediocre, players that the club did not have space in the training room let alone on the pitch, for a galaxy of overpriced and underperforming talent.

Pochettino needs to make sense of the squad problems which proved too much for Potter and Lampard. Significant culling must be done. The positive news is that Pochettino has proven himself skilled in the development of young players, of which there are many at Chelsea. Once identifying the players with the right potential for his system, Pochettino can be expected to make a difference. The Argentine manager developed a young squad at Tottenham Hotspur which would deliver four consecutive top four finishes and a Champions League final. Of course, having Harry Kane as striker didn’t hurt Tottenham Hotspur’s rise.

Pochettino would go on to win his first silverware as a manager by taking PSG to Coupe de France and Ligue 1 titles. He now takes his high pressing attacking style of football back to the Premier League and a club which notably lacked the energy of Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur clubs as the Blues stumbled to the finish line last season. Time will tell whether Boehly has made his first correct decision since entering the world of English football.

In a sense, Tottenham Hotspur were even more disappointing than Chelsea last season. Chelsea’s season looked to be a disaster from early on as fans longingly looked to the calendar for when the torture would end. Spurs, on the other hand, were in the mix for Champions League qualification before becoming unglued late in the season. The perpetually unhappy Antonio Conte left the club in late March by mutual agreement after a final rant by the manager about the failings of players and ownership. Despite Conte’s lamentations, the north London club was fourth in the table when the Italian manager headed out the door. Interim managers Cristian Stellini and Ryan Mason would then preside over a collapse which saw Tottenham Hotspur fall completely out of the European places to finish eighth in the table. Thus, like Pochettino, Postecoglou will have plenty of time on the training pitch to implement his system without the distractions of European football.

The Premier League’s first Australian manager comes to north London after winning five trophies in two seasons at Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. Postecoglou’s previous postings were with the Australian national team and Yokohama in Japan.

Like Pochettino, Postecoglou favors a fast, attacking style of play. His selection was mildly surprising after rumored flirtations by Spurs with other potential candidates such as former Bayern Munich manager  Julian Nagelsmann, former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, Feyenoord manager Arne Slot, and even former Tottenham Hotspur and now Chelsea boss Pochettino. Supposedly, Postecoglou has been assured Harry Kane will stay a Spurs player for at least one more final season. Kane’s contract runs out after next season. Absent the player signing an extension, he could walk for free if not dealt in the summer or winter transfer windows. Taking such a gamble seems uncharacteristic of business savvy Spurs chairman Daniel Levy but perhaps it’s time for him to do something different. While bringing commercial success with a shiny new stadium, Levy’s manager and player decisions have not been stellar. Conte was not shy about citing the club’s failures under Levy. Postecoglou now has the task of lifting Spurs up from their worst Premier League finish in 15 seasons.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Manchester City Completes Treble With Champions League Victory

Manchester City sits astride the football world after defeating Inter Milan 1-0 to capture the Champions League and notch their third title of the season. The Premier League champions won the Champions League for the first time. Having also secured the English FA Cup in a win over Manchester United last week, City joins their crosstown rivals as the only two English clubs to complete such a Treble.

The victory Saturday in Istanbul did not come easy. Kevin De Bruyne left the match in the first half with a severely injured hamstring. De Bruyne has now made an early exit from both Champions League finals in which he has participated. The Belgian international suffered facial fractures in a collision with then Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger in the 2021 final.

Erling Haaland, meanwhile, was thwarted by the physical Inter Milan defense on Saturday, continuing his frustration of recent weeks. The superlative striker finished his record season by scoring just once in Manchester City’s final eight matches. Yet Manchester City still found a way to capture the European crown. Defensive midfielder Rodri capitalized on a deflected pass from Bernardo Silva to drill a 68th minute goal through a narrow crack in the tightly packed Inter defense to find just the slimmest of windows between the post and Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana. The Rodri goal would become the margin of victory, just barely.

Inter forward Romelu Lukaku failed to capitalize on a free header mere feet from the Inter goalmouth. Lukaku would be less at fault for unintentionally blocking another Inter attempt on goal. Inter Milan’s Federico Dimarco would have his header glance off the bar. The match ended with an attempt by Inter’s Robin Gosens, off a cross from Dimarco, being narrowly saved by Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson to preserve the win. The Brazilian goalie showed some rust in the early going after playing in just one of City’s last four matches but was up to the task when his club needed him the most.

Inter Milan pushed the Premier League side to its limit despite being a massive underdog in the match. The manner of victory won’t matter to Manchester City supporters and Manager Pep Guardiola who frankly admitted this past week that only a Champions League title would validate his time at the Manchester club. Guardiola has been criticized for tinkering with his lineup in past major championships and it remains fuzzy if Saturday’s benching of Kenny Walker for Nathan Ake was tactical or injury related. Walker made a late substitution appearance. Guardiola’s inventiveness was on display in the final, however, as converted defender John Stones was again deployed in a more expansive attacking midfield role.

Guardiola delivered the long-sought Champions League title for which he was hired by Manchester City and did so in front of owner Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi who attended only his second match since acquiring ownership of Manchester City in 2008. Guardiola has removed a long-standing monkey from his back by winning Europe’s top prize for the first time since leaving Barcelona and Lionel Messi. The Catalan manager had won the title in 2009 and 2011 with his star laden Spanish club but experienced subsequent frustration in trying to add to that haul at first Bayern Munich and now Manchester City. His third title now cements Guardiola’s place in history.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Champions League Saturday Preview

Istanbul will be the site on Saturday for the Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan. The Premier League champions will be seeking a historic Treble to become only the second club to capture the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season. Rival Manchester Unted is the only club to have accomplished that feat.

A Champions League title would be a first for Manchester City and the first for Manager Pep Guardiola since a gentleman named Messi was on his roster at Barcelona. Guardiola’s seven years in Manchester have been marked by domestic dominance (five Premier League titles) but frustration and disappointment on the European stage. Two extra time goals by Real Madrid knocked Manchester City out in the Champions Legue semifinals last season. A year earlier was a gut-wrenching finals loss to fellow Premier League side Chelsea. Undeterred, Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership has continued to back Guardiola with an ever-increasing talent pool. Erling Haaland was the latest star added to Guardiola’s constellation of world class talents for this season and the Norwegian striker has responded with 52 goals in 52 total matches, setting a Premier League scoring record in the process.

Standing in the way Saturday will be an Inter Milan side which boasts some familiar faces. Striker Edin Dzeko scored 72 goals in five seasons for Manchester City before departing for the Italian league after the 2014/15 season. Fellow striker Romelu Lukaku is on loan from Chelsea. Inter Milan midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan and defender Matteo Darmian were once teammates of Lukaku’s at Manchester United. While the Premier League alumni may well factor in Saturday’s outcome, the Nerazzurri also feature two of the top players in Serie A in Argentine World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez and Italian international Nicollo Barella. Martinez scored 20 goals this season and is a fixture in Manager Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation, joined up top by either Dzeko or Lukaku. The choice of his second starting striker will be a key decision for Inzaghi who has seen Lukaku overcome injury problems to shine in the late stages of the domestic campaign.

Inzaghi’s two striker approach could impact Manchester City’s approach to the match. Center back defender John Stones may have to forego his recent hybrid midfield role to attend to marking responsibilities. Barella’s midfield defending could also slow down the recent successes of Manchester City creators Keven De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan. The match could hinge on Haaland. The striker has been quiet in recent matches, tying up defenders and creating space for his talented teammates.

Saturday’s match could be tailormade for Haaland to ripple the nets again when the 22-year-old squares up against 35-year-old Inter center back Francesco Acerbi. Acerbi partners with center back Alessandro Bastoni who may regret making headlines this week by saying his squad should fear “murderers and bad people,” but not Haaland.

Inter survived a group of death early in the tournament, emerging from its group along with Bayern Munich while Barcelona bowed out. The road recently has been a bit easier as the Italians knocked out Benfica and hometown rival AC Milan. Manchester City has traveled the tougher road in the knockout stages, eliminating Bayern Munich before toppling defending champion Real Madrid in the semifinals.

West Ham Captures Europa Conference League Title

West Ham are Europa Conference League champions after a 2-1 victory over Fiorentina on Wednesday. Jarrod Bowen’s 90th minute breakaway goal clinched the hardware after Lucas Paqueta pierced the Fiorentina defense with a seeing eye pass in a singular moment of brilliance for the Hammers.

The high line which characterizes the Fiorentina style proved their downfall in the end. West Ham spent much of the match sitting deep and waited the entirety of regulation time for exactly the type of opportunity Paqueta and Bowen capitalized on. The first West Ham goal was provided on a 62nd minute Said Benrahma penalty kick after a Fiorentina hand ball. The West Ham lead then held up for just five minutes before Fiorentina knotted matters. Both clubs then seemed content to play for extra time and potential penalties until the West Ham winner materialized out of nowhere.

A physical match saw Fiorentina striker Luka Jovic suffer a broken nose and the match had to be stopped for a period after projectiles from the stands drew blood from the head of Fiorentina teammate Cristiano Biraghi. The Italian defender had a rough day as it was his handball which handed West Ham its first goal. Emotions were high in Prague with 22 fans arrested after an attack on West Ham supporters by Fiorentina Ultras the night before. An ugly Premier League season, where the club flirted with relegation, and any ugliness in Prague pale in comparison, however, to the euphoria felt by Hammers supporters who get to celebrate the club’s first major Cup since a 1980 FA Cup title and a first European Cup title since 1965. With their victory on Wednesday, West Ham also automatically qualifies for next season’s Europa League.

No one is perhaps happier than David Moyes who West Ham ownership stood behind as 8 of the other 9 bottom half teams in the Premier League sacked managers this season. Moyes has now qualified the Hammers for a third straight season of European football. Sadly for West Ham fans, West Ham Chairman David Sullivan has confirmed the expected departure of West Ham midfielder Declan Rice this summer. Arsenal and both Manchester clubs have been rumored to be among the clubs interested to acquire the England international. Rice was released by Chelsea as a youngster as just one more future star such as Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah which Chelsea notoriously let get away. The midfielder would then progress though West Ham’s academy and become one of the league’s best midfielders and a foundational player for the national team. While he will be sorely missed by West Ham fans, there is no better exit than one in which your last act involves a raised trophy.

Monday, June 5, 2023

FA Cup Final: Two Down, One To Go For Manchester City

Manchester City took the next step to a historic Treble by defeating rival Manchester United 2-1 in the FA Cup final. Ilkay Gundogan got things started quickly for Manchester City by establishing a Cup record with a goal just 13 seconds into the match. The Manchester City captain wasn’t done, however, as he would strike again in the 51st minute to deliver the winner. Gundogan has been rumored to be departing City, but he clearly remains a big match presence for the Citizens. The lightning quick first goal was a thing of beauty with Gundogan taking his chance on the volley and bending the ball perfectly past flat footed Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea.

Manchester United would get a lifeline in the 31st minute when a Jack Grealish handball led to a successful Bruno Fernandes penalty take. Knotted at the break, Gundogan would step forward just six minutes into the second half with his second goal. The winning shot was more opportunistic than skillful as Gundogan seemingly mis-hit a ball that traveled through Manchester United defenders and bounced twice in front of De Gea who once again was beaten. De Gea’s place in Manchester United’s future remains a debate as mistakes have become an increasing part of his game. The goalkeeper’s weakness in distributing the ball was also highlighted by comparison with the far more effective Manchester City’s goalkeeper Stefan Ortega. Whereas more than fifty percent of De Gea’s kicks would result in Manchester City possession, his counterpart continually triggered the Manchester City attack.

In a decision that could have been later questioned if things went differently, City Manager Pep Guardiola decided to stick with Ortega who had played in the earlier Cup rounds and leave regular starting goalkeeper Ederson on the bench. Guardiola was rewarded with a confident performance from Ortega who remained unflustered after having little chance on Fernandes’s penalty. Both Manchester City goals were, of course, assisted by the Premier League leader in assists this season, Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian dominated midfield play, where Manchester United midfielders Christian Eriksen and Fred labored throughout the match. Beyond the Fernandes penalty goal, there was little to excite Manchester United supporters. Marcus Rashford was no factor and Jaden Sancho, once a Manchester City phenom, continued to burnish his reputation as a bust for the Red Devils. Perhaps the lone bright spot for Manchester United was the play of 18-year-old substitute Alejandro Garnacho who replaced Sancho in the 62nd minute. His second half introduction injected some energy into an otherwise listless attack which was without injured players Antony Martial and Antony.

Despite an underwhelming performance on Saturday, there should be no shame for a Manchester United side which lost narrowly to what is likely the best club in the world at the moment. Manchester City are just better and now turn their sights on Inter Milan next weekend. Manchester United, meanwhile, heads home after reaching two finals this year, winning one, and securing Champions League football for next season. Importantly, the club may have found its manager for the long term as Eric ten Hag has put his stamp on the club in a successful maiden Premier League season. Ten Hag now needs backing in the transfer window for Manchester United to realistically challenge a club like Manchester City. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

FA Cup Final: The Ultimate Manchester Derby

Crosstown rivals Manchester City and Manchester United will meet in an FA Cup Final for the first time on Saturday. It is, in fact, the first time that a Manchester derby will be contested in any major final. Both clubs are seeking to build on successful seasons with a second title. Favorite Manchester City won the Premier League for a third consecutive season and its fifth title in the last six years. Manchester United won the EFL Carabao Cup while finishing third in the league standings.

Manchester City, of course, has the small matter of  a Champions League final just a week after Saturday’s appointment at Wembley. The only club to have accomplished the Treble of winning the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup in one season is Manchester United (1998/99). The Red Devils will be anxious to keep it that way while securing their own brace of current season titles on Saturday. The task won’t be easy. Erling Haaland established a new Premier League record with 36 goals and has scored 52 times in his 51 appearances for Manchester City across all competitions. Often setting up those Haaland goals is Kevin De Bruyne who became the fourth player in Premier League history to reach 100 careers assists with his league leading 16 this season. The talent doesn’t stop with that dynamic duo, however, as Manager Pep Guardiola can reach deep into his bench for players who would start for most any other club. The aspiring European champions scored the most and allowed the joint fewest goals in the Premier League this season.

Rival Manchester United can also be celebrated for a strong season in Manager Eric ten Hag’s Premier League debut. Ten Hag brushed aside early season wobbles and the unfortunate Cristiano Ronaldo saga to lead the Red Devils back into the top four and put another trophy on the shelf. Four wins to close the season defused any threat from Liverpool to bump the Red Devils from Champions League qualification. Marcus Rashford scored 17 league goals for Manchester United and will need to deliver a performance on Saturday. Striker Anthony Martial and winger Antony are both expected to be sidelined for Saturday’s match, limiting ten Hag’s options in attack for a side which scored 36 fewer goals this season than Saturday’s opponent. The Red Devils were successful in the last meeting between the two clubs, prevailing 2-1 in January as Haaland was kept off the scoresheet and largely nullified while Rashford and Bruno Fernandes found the net for United. The January victory avenged a 6-3 October thumping by the Citizens. Manchester United will be appearing in the FA Cup final for the 21st time, joining Arsenal for the highest number of such appearances. The Red Devils ticket to this final was provided by a successful penalty shootout against Brighton in the semifinal.

Manchester City arrives by virtue of a Riyad Mahrez hat trick which defeated recently promoted Sheffield United 3-0. A rail strike scheduled for Saturday has authorities urging fans of the two clubs to take differing designated routes from Manchester to London as an expected crowd of almost 90,000 converges on Wembley.