Wednesday, 12 December 2012

12.12.2012 Quickies

Considering today's date is 12-12-12 regardless of preference for the British or American date format, here's a special set of quick musings for the month. Think pesky foreign managers in England and overlooked aspects of European competition.

Arsène Wenger - What to say about Arsène Wenger? The man gets a lot of criticism in the English press, which could be worn as a badge of honour. For the past month, Arsenal fans have been attacking Wenger as if Arsenal had been knocked out by a League Two side. So now that Arsenal has been knocked out of a winnable cup competition by League Two side, even more questions are being asked. Wenger hasn't won a trophy for nearly eight years but Alex McLeish has. Context is vital. Supporters want Arsenal to be "winning things" but should realise that Wenger's prudence has been essential in securing Arsenal for the 21st century. Would finishing fifth but winning the FA Cup suffice? After all, the "failure counter" used against Wenger would be reset. Wenger wants to win, is not doing so but he should not be questioned in isolation. Boardroom anyone? Regularly qualification for the Champions League and reaching the last 16 season after season is not something to be dismissed either. Changing the culture of the club, playing attractive and entertaining attacking football, winning major trophies, playing a significant role in moving to a new stadium, accepting financial constraints for the good of the club without pointing fingers at others and keeping the side relevant is a pretty big deal for one man. Not every side can or is entitled to win and Arsenal fans should remember that. One man changed the culture of your club. For the better. Not many managers can claim that influence. It is rare, admirable and not easily achieved. Be careful what you wish for.

Rafael Benítez - The man who divides opinion is currently in Japan to continue his lucky streak with Torres and company. Sometimes his persona splits opinion but track record seems to perform similarly. Let's take a look. In Spain with Valencia, Rafa won and retained La Liga in addition to lifting a UEFA Cup. At Liverpool, the "Rafalution" brought two domestic cup finals, two European finals, one FA Cup, one European Cup, Liverpool's best ever Premier League points total and ensured that Liverpool were the top ranked side in Europe over his first five years in charge. A legacy has been left through a revamped academy, essential first team players left (Reina, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas) and current young stars (Sterling, Suso, Shelvey). Hell, Rafa was even lucky with Inter by winning the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. The list of grand teams and managers Benítez has tactically outwitted is impressive at the highest club stage of all: the UEFA Champions League. His reputation as a tactician of the highest quality is well earned. If supporters and football observers cannot respect the man himself then at least respect his record.

The Russian Premier League - In Europe. Well, just two. In the world of the richest football clubs, Russian clubs are at the top table in salaries and transfer fees. Zenit Saint Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala are the two sides making the biggest financial noises while there are quite a few talented players at current league leaders CSKA Moscow. This season hasn't been what some fans were expecting. No Russian side reached the last 16 of the this season's Champions League. Spartak Moscow finished bottom of Group G and Zenit narrowly missed out in Group C, settling for a place in the last 32 of the Europa League where Russian results were disastrous. Anzhi qualified second out of a tricky Europa League group but there was more Moscow misery for Dynamo and CSKA who both failed to make it past the qualifying rounds. Zenit and Anzhi are the last Russian representatives standing in Europe but not the competition both expect to be in next season. Things might change. Money tends to chatter quite loudly and this season is the first of the August to May schedule in Russia. Such changes have angered some Russian fans but Russian clubs are set to benefit by playing alongside the rest of Europe. The previous November to March schedule set Russian sides at a disadvantage in the latter stages of European competition. The league changes combined with continued respect for FFP in the guise of large cheques should make such poor results a distant and cautionary tale of the past.

UEFA Club Coefficients - It is astounding that the many watching the game as fans or press members do not take enough notice of uefa coefficients. When Manchester City tumbled out of all European competition by finishing bottom of UEFA Champions League Group D, it was immediately clear that next season would be another tough one in Europe's top club competition. Yet Man City fans and journalists claimed it was better to be out of Europe altogether instead of derailing a league campaign by playing in the Europa League. While the Thursday-Sunday split can be challenging, the Europa League is a prestigious competition in its latter stages. Clubs just need to get there. A bigger concern is the prospect of a formidable Champions League group for the next few seasons. They are 19th in the UEFA coefficient club rankings taken over the past five years in European competition. A decent 08/09 score will be irrelevant next season and Man City's position will inevitably drop considering this season's poor performance. What does this mean? Another fun time in pot two, possibly pot three in next season's Champions League draw and another tough group to qualify from. A run in the Europa League would have helped repair some of the damage. Last season, only Real Madrid scored more points in European competition than Europa League holders Atlético Madrid. Lying second to only Barcelona in La Liga and reaching the last 32 in the Europa League, the Europa League winners in 2010 and 2012 could be set to benefit in an inevitable Champions League campaign next season.

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