Phil McNulty Q&A blog
So this is Christmas. And what better time for another Q&A blog on the Premier League and England?
Just the odd thing or two to discuss - the shabby manner of Mark Hughes's sacking by Manchester City, Liverpool's awful season under Rafael Benitez and the fluctuating title race.
Thanks again for so many questions via Twitter and Facebook. I have not been able to answer them all and apologies to those who have not got in this time. As before, there will be another one along next month and no doubt the January transfer window will provide us with plenty of material.
Alan Bates via Facebook: "Do you think the events at Eastlands this weekend signify a return to 'business as usual' at Manchester City, in spite of the board's insistence that they were 'doing things differently' only a few weeks ago?"
Got to start with Manchester City - and sadly Alan, yes I do think it is a return to business as usual. Whether you think the sacking of Mark Hughes was right or wrong (I think it was dismally premature and he should at least have been given the entire season), I think most would agree it was shabbily handled and the manager showed more dignity than the Eastlands hierarchy in his final hours in charge.
What sort of behaviour is it that leaves a manager standing on the touchline when pretty much the whole world knows he will be sacked at the final whistle and it has all been set up beforehand? Martin Jol and Spurs anyone? Bad enough to be sacked, without being humiliated into the bargain.
And as for Monday's news conference? That was not much better, especially as Roberto Mancini confirmed he had met and spoken with - in "general terms" obviously as Gary Cook was most keen to point out - City's owners in early December. Cat out of the bag, cue embarrassment for Cook.
It is a club's right to line up successors if they are about to sack a manager, but this was poorly handled and not helped by Cook's wholly unconvincing performance in front of a media pack that I thought put the case superbly.
As for Cook using phrases such as "the trajectory of recent results" to explain the decision - what does that actually mean in a football context?
I presume it means, using the Eastlands template, that Randy Lerner was wrong not to sack Martin O'Neill on the opening day of the season because his "trajectory" of results looked pretty poor with Aston Villa losing at home to Wigan. This is not the language football fans relate to or care about, so this might be another lesson Manchester City may care to learn.
Of course Cook has been heavily criticised, but what of football administrator Brian Marwood? What was his part in all of this? And where was he yesterday - not to mention chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak? I must confess I didn't realise Marwood was a figure of any serious significance at the club.
Mancini at least had a measure of calm, but he has been given a personal insight into how City work - and will know what will happen if he does not deliver the "targets" talked of so lovingly at Eastlands. Make sure you keep an eye on your trajectory, Roberto.
Rick Starczewski via Facebook, with Asikhame Oikeh also offering a similar question: "Phil, given the brilliant job that Roy Hodgson is doing at Fulham and his reputation in earlier managerial roles, is there a reason why he failed during his maiden introduction to the Premier League while at Blackburn?"
I think history has been a little hard on Roy Hodgson's time at Blackburn. He actually guided them into the Uefa Cup in his first season before it went wrong. Perhaps it was a case of a manager going into a club just when their fine title-winning team was going into decline.
I was at Fulham to watch them beat Manchester United on Saturday and they are a team built in their manager's image. Honest, hard-working and with a level of intelligence running through the side that is reflected in their results.
I should also add how gracious Hodgson was after the game, admitting it was a win against a below-strength side and offering sympathy for the injury problems Sir Alex Ferguson had. No gloating from a fine, experienced manager who - and this is no disrespect to Fulham - could grace most clubs in the Premier League.
Liam Baum via Facebook with amit327 via Twitter in a similar Anfield vein: "I'm sure that you have been asked this time and time again, but I was wondering what you foresee in Liverpool and Rafa's future?"
The immediate future is troubled Liam, I would suggest. I have been astonished at how poor Liverpool have been this season - as you might expect seeing as I tipped them to win the title.
Too many ordinary players to supplement the world-class stars such as Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, while the acquisition of Alberto Aquilani to fill the hole left by Xabi Alonso has been, to put it mildly, a non-event.
I know I am accused of being over-critical of Benitez on occasions, but his team selection at Portsmouth was mystifying, almost the act of a manager now totally unsure of his direction. Too many defensive players and the return of Andrea Dossena? Dossena has been a poor buy and nothing is going to change that now - as he rather proved at Fratton Park. So there's your answer, Rob Howgate via Facebook.
As for Benitez's future, my belief is he must get into the top four to extend his reign at Liverpool beyond this season - especially after giving a publilc guarantee on this.
AlexVickers11 via Twitter: How highly do you rate Bill Shankly compared to some of the greatest managers ever?
Feel I should answer this given the recent 50th anniversary of Shankly's arrival at Anfield. It is quite simple - without his drive, determination and ability Liverpool's successes would not have happened. He laid the foundations for everything and deserves to be ranked with all the great managers.
Greatest for me? Purely personal but it has to be Brian Clough. Took two fallen clubs, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, from nowhere to greatness, and what he achieved at Forest, winning and retaining the European Cup, was the work of genius. Credit to Peter Taylor too.
Darren Stephenson via Facebook: Judging by Chelsea's and Man Utd's poor results of late, do you think that Aston Villa could possible challenge the top four or even the title season? They have made some particurlarly shrewd signings this season.
Strange one for me this, Darren, because when I have watched Villa this season they have not played particularly well, even in the win at Liverpool. Maybe I should keep away to improve their chances.
But what is beyond dispute is their right to be where they are in the Premier League and the fact that they have beaten Chelsea and Manchester United as well as Liverpool. I do not see them as potential title winners (which is great news for them given my track record of predictions) but they have to be taken very seriously as top-four contenders at present.
They faded badly after Christmas last year, so they need to guard against that, but where manager Martin O'Neill has done brilliantly has been in the reshaping of his defence.
Richard Dunne, James Collins and Stephen Warnock have been superb purchases, and given the pace and power Villa have up front and down the flanks, this makes them a tough proposition. I just feel they might need a little more class and creativity alongside Stilyan Petrov in midfield. But top four? They will feel they can and who can blame them?
Chris via Facebook: "What are your thoughts on the England peripherals? Are they making good cases to be in the England senior squad for the World Cup? Joe Hart, Bobby Zamora, Michael Dawson, Ryan Shawcross, Lee Cattermole, Ashely Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Leighton Baines etc?"
What I do know is that almost all of Fabio Capello's squad is pencilled in. Out of the players you mentioned I think James Milner has got a great chance of going and perhaps Joe Hart may take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the goalkeeping position - although that's a long shot.
Bobby Zamora has been excellent for Fulham. I was really impressed with him when I watched Fulham against Manchester United, but I think Capello's mind is on other players in that area. Ashley Young is an outsider but may be crowded out, while I think this World Cup somes too soon for the likes of Shawcross and Cattermole.
I don't see Michael Dawson getting in, while Stephen Warnock has pushed ahead of Leighton Baines in the race to put pressure on Wayne Bridge's established position as understudy to Ashley Cole.
Stewart Downing may have a chance, but perhaps he might be denied by his Villa team-mate Milner.
Nick Jones via Facebook: "Michael Owen scored a hat-trick for Man United last month, should Fabio Capello include him in his England squad for South Africa?"
This is another one that gets me into trouble, Nick, as I have been accused of having some sort of private agenda to get Owen into the England World Cup squad. If only I wielded such power and influence.
I have said all along that if Owen is fit and scoring goals he should be in the squad. Not automatically in the team but in the squad. The hat-trick against Wolfsburg proved my case, although he was very quiet at Fulham on Saturday.
In Owen's hands really. If he is fit and scoring goals it would be a mistake on Capello's part to leave him behind for South Africa.
Shaneel Chetty via Facebook: "Do you think the three remaining Engish teams will again dominate the Champions league?"
Not sure they will dominate it, but they all have a good chance of reaching the last eight. I would say Chelsea have the best chance, followed by Manchester United if they can get all their players fit, and then Arsenal.
But given the flaws shown by all three in the Premier League this season, it is still tough to look beyond Barcelona as eventual winners. What fantastic games they will be in the last 16, though, with David Beckham going back to Manchester United and Jose Mourinho returning to Chelsea.
Phil Williams via Twitter: "Why was it always going to be a foreign manager that took over at Man City? The outstanding talents of managers such as Martin O'Neill, David Moyes, Roy Hodgson never get considered for the really big Premier League jobs."
I think it is the fashion, effectively. If you have big money and foreign owners they tend to look abroad for their managers I suppose. There is no evidence to suggest any on the three managers you mention could not do an excellent job at Eastlands, so you've got a point there.
O'Neill and Moyes, in particular, may already say they have big jobs and Hodgson has proved his worth abroad with Inter Milan and also in a variety of national jobs. Funnily enough, when news of Mark Hughes' sacking broke on Saturday night, I was still at Craven Cottage and quite a few of the media there suggested they could do worse than Hodgson, although we already knew it was done and dusted for Robert Mancini.
Shameer Razaak via Facebook: Theo Walcott looks out of his depth this season. Do you think he will be left behind in favour of David Beckham if his form doesn't improve? Should he move away from Arsenal to improve his chances?
Second question first Shameer. No way on earth will Walcott be leaving Arsenal nor should he. He is in the best possible hands in Arsene Wenger.
I am not sure he is out of his depth this season, but he has not been at his best, perhaps because of injury. I saw him at Burnley last Wednesday and he was very poor, eventually being taken off. It was a concern.
I would not leave him behind for David Beckham, but I accept his form needs to pick up in the second half of the season. He is a great natural talent and Fabio Capello will want him in his squad.
Theophile Gandolfo via Facebook: "Given Mick McCarthy's win over Burnley with Wolves, and the media/fan reaction when he fielded his reserve side against Manchester United, do you think there should be any remorse shown by anyone, esp the fans? Ultimately the final say will of course be on whether they stay up or not."
No I do not think there should be remorse shown by anyone, especially not the fans who paid good money to watch Wolves reserves at Old Trafford.
I strongly disagreed with what Mick McCarthy did, and the proof of whether he was right or wrong will come when the points are added up at the end of the season.
After watching an under-strength and off-colour Manchester United side lose easily at Fulham, it made me question even more why Wolves felt the need to play a second string at Old Trafford. They might have taken a point they could need at the end of the season.
Stephen Milnes via Facebook: What on earth can Steve Bruce do to turn Sunderland's recent bad form around? Seems we're doing the same this season as last after our derby win.
I agree Sunderland's recent slide has been disappointing, but the good news for you is that you have an excellent, experienced manager - and he will have the funds to make the changes he wants in January. Lee Cattermole's injury appeared to halt some of the omentum.
I have actually not seen Sunderland in the flesh this season (something I will put right quickly in 2010) so I will take your word for it, Stephen, when you say you need cover for Lorik Cana and Cattermole and a right-sided midfield player.
Lots of talk about Robbie Keane - so that will be one to keep an eye on.
Vito Valentine via Facebook: "Do you believe Arsenal are genuine contenders, considering their good run of three games despite injuries to key players.
It would appear we can't rule anything out this season, so yes they have to be contenders. I have my doubts, though, particularly if they suffer any more injuries. The loss of Robin van Persie playing for the Netherlands was a really unfortunate setback. Top four certainly, but not champions for me.
Bolarinwa Olajide via Facebook: Which Premier League manager has surpassed all expectations this season?
Birmingham City's Alex McLeish. Great season for him so far and with financial power to add quality in January.
Adama Sallah via Facebook: Who would you recommend to be the best replacement for Sir Alex Ferguson if he leaves Man Utd?
If United were kind enough to ask me I would recommend Jose Mourinho. 100%. Track record of success, big enough personality to handle Old Trafford's expectations and someone who knows how to win the big trophies.
tomwfootball vua Twitter: "Why do you keep bashing Heskey when England won nine out of 10 games and scored 34 goals in qualifying with him in the team?"
I'm not sure I keep bashing him, but I long for the day when England have an alternative to a striker who hardly scores at international level. If he can't do it, let's try something different. Joe Cole or James Milner on the left with Steven Gerrard tucked behind Wayne Rooney.
adamwilko89 via Twitter: "If he had chosen differently when he was a wee bairn, do you think Ryan Giggs would get into the current England squad?"
If David Beckham is a live contender then yes. Ryan Giggs has performed better at the higher level, in his case the Premier League, than Beckham has in recent years. Not a Beckham bash that by the way, just a fact.
foolhandy via Twitter: "Would Rafael Benitez still be in a job now if Liverpool had not won the Champions League in 2005? Is that still buying him job safety?"
It's not harming him that's for sure, especially when it comes to retaining the affection of Liverpool's fans.
Declan McGuigan via Facebook: "What do you think Everton's chances are of getting a spot in the Europa League next year?"
Slim Declan, I would have to say. Start to the season not good enough, too many crucial players out injured and not enough money to make the big signings in January.
Aijay Wazzallette Usonwu via Facebook: "Do you think Fergie is making the right decision playing Fletcher and Carrick as defenders when he could blood some of the younger players?"
I think he is doing it because he wants their experience in those key positions, although they did not have a great afternoon at Fulham. He will know best whether the younger players are up to it and has obviously decided not. United have been very badly hit by injuries in that area.
Samson Alexander via Facebook: "Has Petr Cech become too much of a defensive liability to be the number one at a club like Chelsea?"
Not a liability but he is certainly not the goalkeeper he was. No need for Chelsea to consider change yet but I suspect Carlo Ancelotti is keeping a close eye on Cech's form.
S_M_Cliffe via Twitter: "Do you believe Arsene Wengers transfer system actually works?":
To an extent, of course, because he has enjoyed great successes with Arsenal in the past and continues to produce and nurture fine young players. The final judgement however, must be made by trophies, and Arsenal need to start winning silverware again.
Alex Vickers via Facebook: "Do you think James Milner deserves a place in Englands starting 11, or just on the bench?"
In his current form he would not be out of place in the starting 11, but I think his more likely destination is the bench.
James Holder via Facebook: "Fergie must buy in the new year... Do you agree?"
Don't think he's too keen, James. Ferguson insists he has not found any value and the Ronaldo money is not burning a hole in his pocket. Any more defensive injuries and I suppose he might have to reconsider.
joehmusic via Twitter: "I'd ask, having backed Liverpool for title at the beginning, who do you think'll win it now? And who else for the top four? Thx!"
It's the season of goodwill, Joe. Give me a break because that Liverpool tip has haunted me for the last three months! New Year resolution may be no more predictions. Have a Happy Christmas, everyone.
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