“They don’t have to sell. Southampton have a choice. Maybe Southampton’s objectives have changed. They were looking to be a Champions League club, I believe. I don’t have sympathy, no. It’s the nature of it. The players will want to compete at the highest level they possibly can.”
Those were the patronising words of Brendan Rodgers to Southampton on August 16, before the Premier League season began. His Liverpool team had finished second in the league, and had spent over £50m in tempting Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren to Anfield.
Six months later, and those words still linger in the air at St Mary’s. Whilst Adam Lallana has been a qualified success, Lovren and Lambert have looked like foolish moves, £24m worth of bench-warmer. Furthermore, Liverpool still sit three positions and four points behind Ronald Koeman’s side. If those players “want to compete at the highest level they possibly can”, is seventh the new fourth?
“The beauty of it now is people watching will see the return of the domination and the control,” said Rodgers in midweek. “It’s a team and a structure at the moment that is ticking all the boxes.”
Liverpool are indeed enjoying an impressive run of form, but there are still reasons for the manager’s wild optimism to be tempered. The last time they beat an established top-four side was in April 2014 against Manchester City. This still feels like a far cry from the free-flowing attacking flair of 2013/14 Liverpool.
Sunday provides a chance for Rodgers and his players to show that they are serious contenders for the top four. Win and they may be as close as one point from the Champions League places, lose and they may be four points behind sixth. With 12 games remaining, those are vast differences.
“I’m not stupid enough to think the way I left didn’t leave a sour taste in a few people’s mouths,” said Adam Lallana in the build-up to facing his former club for the first time. I regret the way I left. I regret bits and pieces of how it happened and it got nasty. It was sad the way it happened.”
“Not for one second did I say I wouldn’t play for the club again,” Lallana continued. “I’m man enough to say it was my choice and my decision for me to move on. I’ve got huge respect for the club, part of me doesn’t even know how I’m going to play. It’s all a bit surreal. I just have to be professional and play well for Liverpool. I’ve got too much respect to celebrate.” Indeed, just not enough ‘respect’ to avoid publicly stating that you wanted to leave Southampton despite their asking price not yet being met.
“Football is a fickle game – if I do get the jeers and the boos I’m just going to take it as them missing me playing down there,” Lallana concluded. That’s the spirit, Adam. They’re not booing, they’re saying, “Boooo-tiful to see you again, we’ve missed you old thing.”
There was once a time when Sunderland matches were seen as dreary affairs, but that time has now long passed. Not when you get to play the Gus Poyet post-match press conference blame game. It’s the one all the journalists are talking about.
After blaming the fans (twice), the players and the club’s own lack of ambition and lack of transfer activity in recent months, I sat on Sunday afternoon and racked my brains at how Poyet would try and worm is way out of the blame yet again. I was not to be disappointed; Gus surpassed himself.
“The problem is you the media, not me,” said Poyet. “If you write what I say, the fans will be on my side. But because you write what you want, then we have a problem. I’m not going to get involved any more. I am doing my job, I know what is good for the team, my players give everything. If we close Sunderland and put a Chinese Wall around the city then it would be fantastic. Now, when we let you get in and you go out and say what you want then we have a problem between ourselves. So I would like to invite every Sunderland fan and people who care about the club not to listen to any of you, only to me and between ourselves.”
Sterling stuff from the Man Who Must Not Be Blamed, but one can’t help but feel this call to arms for Sunderland fans may have a little more credence had Poyet not spent the last month blaming them for the team’s struggles. Away supporters on Sunday sang “It’s always our fault” sarcastically to their manager, before booing the team at full-time.
Amazingly, Poyet took things one step further on Thursday, when he penned an open letter to supporters. Hilariously, he signed it off by again reiterating that he took responsibility for results. You can’t just keep saying that Gus.
Being serious for a moment, Poyet’s wilful ignorance to his own deficiencies is threatening to undermine his abilities as a manager. Brighton supporters enjoyed the good times but do not miss the Uruguayan’s bitter ending. This is becoming a familiar tale.
Whatever Poyet’s insistence that everything is fine in his fabricated utopia, a list of top-flight sides Sunderland have beaten in all competitions since May 7, 2014 reads as follows: Stoke, Palace, Newcastle, Burnley. Lose to West Brom on Saturday, and he should lose his job.
Having seemingly changed QPR owner Tony Fernandes’ mind in 90 minutes away at Sunderland, Chris Ramsey now takes charge of his first match as a full-time Premier League manager. It’s a biggie, too. Should QPR lose to Hull, they may well find themselves back in the relegation zone by Saturday tea-time, with matches against Arsenal and Spurs to come.
Ramsey has a difficult task on his hands. QPR’s away form has been pitiful, and yet their remaining home matches are against Arsenal, Spurs, Everton, Chelsea, West Ham and Newcastle. They probably need another five wins to be safe.
Some of the football Arsenal played against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round was utterly joyous, but it acted as a thin façade for the disappointment of defeat in the north London derby. Having taken several steps forward, this was the now customary kick in the balls to send them backwards once more.
Arsenal must look to respond again. League games against Crystal Palace, Everton, West Ham and Newcastle, all structured around FA Cup and Champions League fixtures, have to return maximum points. The margin for error is diminishing all the time.
Before Spurs’ game against Fiorentina on Thursday, Nacer Chadli spoke at length of the improved fitness of the squad under Mauricio Pochettino.
“He wants to make everyone sharp and be well trained. We always train with GPS. They are looking at players. If they get tired, they can see it on the GPS. The amount we run, they can check everything. You cannot cheat, or put the GPS on a cat. I’ve tried that. We have a strong squad with a lot of quality and players, so we can play all those games and compete in every competition.”
One hopes that Chadli’s confidence is not misplaced. Thursday’s game was Spurs’ 42nd competitive match of the season, and the first of six games in 17 days: Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday. Fiorentina, West Ham, Fiorentina, Chelsea, Swansea, QPR. Suddenly that FA Cup defeat to Leicester doesn’t feel as frustrating.
There is also a more immediate concern of fatigue given the early kick-off time of their derby against West Ham on Sunday, with just 62 hours between the two fixtures. For a team that has specialised in late salvos, they now enter a period of intense difficulty.
It feels as if the worm has turned with Radamel Falcao at Manchester United.
After the 3-1 win over Newcastle on December 27, match reports included compliments such as ‘work rate’, ‘determination’, ‘man possessed’, ‘tirelessness’ and ‘high intensity’. I’m calling ‘house’ on my we-really-want-you-to-be-good-but-you-didn’t-score bingo card.
Unfortunately, the mask of positivity is beginning to slip. Where there was once was discussion over whether the Colombian would remain at United, that seems to have moved onto an assessment of his likely replacements. That £43m fee to make his loan deal permanent looks laughable; the £265,000-per-week wages don’t sit too well either.
“I have sympathy for Falcao – I know how hard it is to be a striker,” former United striker Louis Saha said this week. “There is always a lot of competition at Manchester United. It’s a battle but I have no doubts about him. He has the quality to do a great job there.”
Sympathy is all very well, but ultimately makes very little difference. Falcao always had a relatively brief window in which to impress Louis van Gaal. The audition is not going well. Van Gaal is clearing his throat and muttering “don’t call us, we’ll call you” under his breath.
The owners seem to have lost their s**t after you went out of the FA Cup, Sam, so you might as well start updating the CV if you lose to Spurs. Having his players looking like they’re trying might be a good start.
Sherwood wasn’t even in charge for Aston Villa’s FA Cup victory over Leicester last weekend, and yet the media love train had very obviously already pulled out of the station.
Given the under-performance of his predecessor and the options at his disposal, Sherwood really should keep Villa up. His task starts against Stoke on Saturday.