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Archives for December 2011

Playing the precarious predictions game

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Phil McNulty | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 30 December 2011

It is that time of the year again - time to blow the cobwebs off the cracked and notoriously unreliable crystal ball to gaze into what 2012 holds for football.

In the game this would be called a hospital pass and is accompanied by the supposedly consoling words from your superiors such as: "Don't worry. No one will remember if you get it wrong."

Just like no-one remembers a now infamous tip that suggested Liverpool would win the title in 2009-2010, a prediction that came agonisingly close to success and was only off-target by 23 points and seven places.

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Questions for Dalglish after another Anfield draw

Phil McNulty | 10:06 UK time, Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Kenny Dalglish sat at Anfield and told the same old story - but it was a tale that had a happy ending for Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean.

When Kean spoke defiantly above the din of hundreds of protesting Blackburn Rovers fans following Tuesday's home defeat to fellow strugglers Bolton, few would have risked their wages on him still taking charge at Liverpool on Boxing Day.

And yet there he was, celebrating a point earned gallantly on the back of defensive discipline and some stoppage-time miracles as the critical spotlight switched to Dalglish after a sixth Anfield draw this season.

Dalglish has written a golden chapter in Blackburn's history by winning the Premier League at Anfield in 1995. Kean sharing the spoils on the same territory does not even register a dot when set against that scale of achievement, but his sense of satisfaction and elation was understandable.

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Defiant Terry concentrates on his football

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Phil McNulty | 23:12 UK time, Thursday, 22 December 2011

At White Hart Lane

The man who vowed to fight "tooth and nail" to clear his name was not going quietly - or quickly - as he stood bare-chested in a small corner of White Hart Lane in front of Chelsea's fans.

John Terry has shown remarkable resilience in his ability to blank out personal turmoil, accompanied by the acidity of opposing fans, when he seeks sanctuary from his troubles on a football field.

And so it proved again as Terry emerged as a central character in the cast of an enthralling 1-1 draw between Tottenham and Chelsea. It came only a day after learning he will face a racially aggravated public order charge following an incident with QPR's Anton Ferdinand in the west London derby in October.

The law will take its due course so, on this noisy night, the Chelsea and England captain was left to concentrate purely on his football.

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Under-fire Kean banking on season of goodwill

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Phil McNulty | 06:37 UK time, Wednesday, 21 December 2011

At Ewood Park

Steve Kean is convinced he will celebrate Christmas as Blackburn Rovers manager - a prime example of the optimism that sustains the Scot in these dark days at Ewood Park.

And it was pitch black for Kean on Tuesday as Bolton Wanderers traded places with Blackburn at the bottom of the Premier League with a win that relieved pressure on their own boss Owen Coyle but shifted almost unbearable strain on to his counterpart.

Kean started his night with a plea for a show of unity from all with Blackburn's best interests at heart, only to see this fragile attempt at a truce fractured in five minutes when Mark Davies set Bolton on the way to a vital 2-1 win.

It ended with Kean defying logic by insisting that he will stay in his job long enough to fashion a revival as furious protests provided background noise to his words, with hundreds of supporters gathering outside the stadium's reception area demanding his sacking.

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Phil Jones destined for Manchester United folklore

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Phil McNulty | 18:30 UK time, Sunday, 18 December 2011

At Loftus Road

Phil Jones was not even halfway through his day's work for Manchester United at Loftus Road when the latest lofty comparison landed on his head.

Everton's former Manchester United defender Phil Neville - tweeting in his guise as someone called @fizzer18 - announced that the 19-year-old had shown enough in a central midfield role in the 2-0 win to be placed in the same category as "a young Roy Keane."

Sir Alex Ferguson will greet this more favourably than Jones being likened to an old Roy Keane after Manchester United's manager had his ears singed by the most unflattering of personal verdicts from his one-time voice on the pitch in a searing morning newspaper interview.

Keane was a player and captain of unquestionable greatness, but he joins an ever-lengthening list as prominent figures within football grapple with the task of finding a pigeonhole for the prodigiously talented youngster Ferguson lifted from Blackburn Rovers for a bargain £16m in the summer.

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Darren Fletcher right to put health ahead of football

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Phil McNulty | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Darren Fletcher's health has finally taken priority over football - but his attempt to conquer illness while at the same time playing his part for Manchester United and Scotland is a measure of the ethics that make him such an admired professional.

Fletcher made only one start for United because of illness after 1 March last season and remained an unused substitute in the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley, a game he would surely have started had he been in peak condition.

He last played, and scored, in United's 2-2 draw with Benfica in the Champions League at Old Trafford last month and will now take an extended break from the game in an attempt to recover from ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.

As United have recognised, Fletcher's health is now of prime importance. They also acknowledged that his desire to continue to represent club and country may have compromised his well-being.

The 27-year-old's career now takes second place to his rehabilitation, but his absence is a blow to both United - whose midfield resources are already stretched - and Scotland.

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Chelsea's win breathes new life into title race

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Phil McNulty | 07:44 UK time, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

At Stamford Bridge

As Chelsea's players ignored a raging storm to gather in a huddle, the renewed hope that spread around Stamford Bridge was stretching to the rest of the Premier League.

The Blues had finally made league leaders Manchester City blink after 15 games - and every managerial rival hoping to detect vulnerability in Roberto Mancini's team gave thanks to Andre Villas-Boas.

The Portuguese declared Chelsea's pursuit of the title open for business once more following a 2-1 win that grafted his new philosophies on to old values of resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness after City had threatened to overwhelm his side.

And back in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson's world suddenly seems a much better place as Chelsea's victory keeps City's advantage over Manchester United at just two points.

Even those on the fringes of the race will have raised a smile.

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O'Neill's joy is Kean's pain

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Phil McNulty | 07:09 UK time, Monday, 12 December 2011

At the Stadium of Light

As Martin O'Neill headed skywards, Steve Kean's shoulders slumped inside his black overcoat. As O'Neill took the Stadium of Light's acclaim, Kean felt the frustrations of 319 Blackburn supporters.

It was stoppage time at Sunderland and the brutally fine margins of management made O'Neill an instant Wearside hero following his recent appointment but left the besieged Kean the villain once more.

O'Neill had barely touched down after celebrating Sebastian Larsson's winner before some of the hardy Rovers fans who had made their way from Lancashire were making their anger plain to Kean.

And yet only six minutes earlier, it looked like O'Neill was going to start his Sunderland reign as a loser and Kean would be handed fresh ammunition to fight his detractors.

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Rooney reduction shows his England importance

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Phil McNulty | 12:56 UK time, Thursday, 8 December 2011

Wayne Rooney needed a tonic to lift the spirits the morning after the night before in Basle, and it was provided after a 100-mile journey through the Swiss night to Nyon.

Uefa's decision to downgrade Rooney's three-match ban for kicking Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic in England's final Euro 2012 qualifier in Podgorica may not lighten Sir Alex Ferguson's mood after Manchester United's Champions League exit, but Fabio Capello will be a happy man.

After what was a relatively brief appeal process at Uefa's headquarters, England's coach can now bring some clarity to his planning for next summer and testing tasks against France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine as the penalty for Rooney's red card was reduced.

The new punishment also clears Capello's head about whether to actually take Rooney to Poland and Ukraine, a decision which may have been less straightforward had he been eliminated from the entire group stage.

Rooney will now, injury permitting, join the squad primed for what Capello hopes will be a successful conclusion to his career as England coach.

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Manchester's Champions League misery

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Phil McNulty | 07:32 UK time, Thursday, 8 December 2011

Like two bald men fighting over a comb, Manchester City and Manchester United have been left to battle for European football's scraps after a Black Wednesday in the Champions League.

When City and United set off on a season of high ambition, little did they realise they would be inviting the unwelcome guest that is the Europa League into their itinerary before the turn of the year.

And yet that is the bleak prospect facing two clubs who dine at the Premier League's top table after they failed to negotiate their way out of the Champions League group stages and into the lucrative knockout phase.

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Villas-Boas vindicated after Lampard left out

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Phil McNulty | 06:48 UK time, Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Andre Villas-Boas was in the mood to take on all-comers at Stamford Bridge - whether it was tackling the task of leaving out a Chelsea icon or coming out swinging against his critics.

Villas-Boas spoke of "persecution" as he settled scores with his detractors in an outburst that was an entertaining, if arguably ill-timed, piece of theatre.

He had proved his courage as a manager and now it was time to confront another enemy after a 3-0 win over Valencia sealed qualification to the Champions League knockout phase.

And the 34-year-old's tactical and managerial bravery cannot be in question after he responded to the biggest game of his short Chelsea career by making the most important call of his time at Stamford Bridge.

Villas-Boas will have known the potential dangers of excluding Frank Lampard from a Champions League game, when fit and available, for the first time since September 2003.

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Defeat by Wolves shows O'Neill the size of his task

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Phil McNulty | 16:28 UK time, Sunday, 4 December 2011

Martin O’Neill’s allegiance to Sunderland resulted in many a boyhood scrap in the schoolyards of Northern Ireland. He will have driven through the gates of The Academy of Light on Monday morning knowing he has another fight on his hands.

O’Neill – appointed Sunderland manager on a three-year contract on Saturday – chose a vantage point high above his familiar territory in the technical area to observe the squad left behind by sacked Steve Bruce.

It was a view that allowed him an aerial – and perhaps sobering – view of the task he has taken on at the club that captured his imagination as a boy because Sunderland boasted the great Irish defender Charlie Hurley.

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No easy ride for England at Euros

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Phil McNulty | 20:00 UK time, Friday, 2 December 2011

England may have dodged the most dangerous group of all at the 2012 European Championship draw in Kiev's Palace of Arts - but a glance at the opponents they must face in Ukraine will act as an instant shield against complacency.

The time-honoured "Group of Death" next summer will be that containing Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Portugal - with Republic of Ireland also handed a tough assignment against Spain, Italy and Croatia.

It is one of the beauties of the Euros that there is little time for any team to get their eye in, so England coach Fabio Capello will only have felt slight relief at being drawn in Group D with co-hosts Ukraine, Sweden and France.

None make a compelling case to be ranked among the firm favourites for Euro 2012, but all will feel confident of making England's route to the quarter-finals as treacherous as possible.

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