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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Weekend Football Thoughts 2015 (December 12-14)

The busy Christmas period is fast approaching for the sides in England with this being one last quiet week ahead of that time. Teams have a chance to prepare this week, but next week will see them open a stretch of three games in an eight day period and that recovery time and squad depth will be tested to the full.

Another weekend is in the books and this one also came with two big draws for the Euro 2016 Finals and the Knock Out Stages of the Champions League and Europa League which will commence in February.

Pressure Continues to Build on Louis Van Gaal
I have never been a fan of Louis Van Gaal and don't buy his previous 'successes' outside of his time at Ajax. When he first was expected to be the next manager of Manchester United I made a note of saying his best experiences as a manager came in the last century, but that we had to give him time to right what had been a disastrous time under David Moyes.

Any Manchester United fan had to know it would take time and Van Gaal had to be supported even if my personal opinion was that this was a manager who greatly overestimated his own achievements over the last fifteen years.

Van Gaal has had eighteen months and has spent a lot of money to mould the squad to his liking, but the football remains as uninspiring as ever and now the results are also beginning to suffer.

Being knocked out of the Champions League in a weak Group was a disaster, even if the money men at Old Trafford achieved their goals, and a 2-1 defeat at Bournemouth has increased the pressure on a man that simply doesn't look like he knows the answers.

His substitutions are baffling and Van Gaal has killed any creativity that might have been in the squad. The team play like robots and to a set system, but the blood and thunder of the Premier League has exposed those limitations while Van Gaal has never quite understood that this is a unique League.

Not for quality, but the sheer fact that any team in this League is capable of beating any other on their day. And 'smaller' clubs are not financially constrained as they are in La Liga or the Bundesliga so they are more than capable of coming out and giving the 'big' clubs big problems.

Yes Manchester United are generally defensively sound even if the last week has been poor. But as an attacking threat they are very easy to negate at times and the lack of urgency or tempo, even when drawing or losing a game, is inexcusable and a poor reflection on the manager.

Van Gaal has continued to ignore the obvious problems- every interview bar one at Arsenal and one at Crystal Palace has spoken about the dominance Manchester United have had and the chances that most fans simply don't see.

And if David Moyes had spoken about United not being able to compete at the top level of the Champions League after he had spent a quarter of a billion pounds I honestly think he would have been lynched.

Outside of the fancy sounding foreign name, too many similarities with Moyes are beginning to worry me. The training is being criticised now, the conclusion that dominance of the ball is a good indication that a game is in control, and the outward expression that Manchester United are not able to compete and perhaps looking at other teams with envy are mistakes both managers have made.

Do I think it's time for Van Gaal to go? No, I think a snap judgement at this stage of the season would be a mistake as Manchester United are still in the top four. The idea that another banner will be flown over Old Trafford this Saturday is beyond a joke and highlights why some United fans are complete idiots.

However, failure to beat Norwich City followed by defeats at Stoke City and at home to Chelsea might start changing the opinion of not just myself, but the board at Manchester United too. Even if United do finish top four, I do think there has to be some evaluation of Van Gaal's position at the end of the season if the 'progress' and the 'philosophy' continue to show no sign of being a hit.

United can't afford to back this manager with another huge outlay of spending if that progress is not there and there are big options out there. Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti are the obvious names that might be available and I think there are some big decisions ahead for Ed Woodward and Manchester United.

Aston Villa Need the Greatest of Great Escapes
Appointing a manager who has had no experience of doing that in the Premier League looks to have blown up in Aston Villa's faces and I think it is going to take some miracle for this club to avoid the drop. After flirting with relegation for the last few years, Aston Villa might not have the time to be saved by the January transfer window as it is hard to see how they can entice anyone good enough to help them when in the position they are in.

Six points from sixteen Premier League games is an embarrassment to be frank and there is little to suggest that improves. Aston Villa have a huge game at Newcastle United on Saturday, a team that has won two in a row, and a defeat there effectively puts them down before Christmas Day as far as I am concerned.

This is a poor squad.

One that I would seriously worry about when going into the Championship and definitely not one I see challenging for an immediate return to the Premier League. In fact I would be more worried about the team 'doing a Wolves' and suffering back to back relegations down to League One!!

Defensively Aston Villa are a mess and they don't have enough goals in the side, while missing out on the huge increase of money being put into the Premier League next season is huge for this club.

So many mistakes have been made since Martin O'Neill left the club and it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost for Aston Villa.

Leicester City and Chelsea, What a Difference a Year Makes!
Go back to December 13th 2014.

Here is one club leading the Premier League table having earned 39/48 points and three points clear of the second placed team.

The other is bottom of the table with just 10 points earned and five adrift of safety.

The tables have really turned for Chelsea and Leicester City since with the roles reversed in one calendar year.

Ok, Chelsea are not bottom of the table, but how many would have predicted the reigning Champions would have lost nine times by this stage of the season and be down in 16th place with a point separating them from the bottom three? And how many would have doubled that up with Leicester City leading the Premier League heading towards Christmas?

Leicester City beat Chelsea on Monday Night Football to retake their place at the top of the pile and not many would argue they didn't deserve that. Even Jose Mourinho admitted his team didn't deserve anything less than what they got and the pressure has built on the Portuguese manager.

In fact there has been a board discussion about Mourinho's future in the wake of that defeat and his criticism of his squad and the feeling of 'betrayal' he has. There is even some suggestion that Mourinho won't make it to Christmas as manager of Chelsea and this is a club that looks like it is being ripped at the seams.

On the other hand Leicester City couldn't be closer together as Claudio Ranieri has continued what was a very good job to end the last campaign by Nigel Pearson. Ranieri hasn't changed too much, but he has given his players a new level of belief and Leicester City have to begin thinking about the top four now and a Champions League place.

Keeping hold of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy through January is key and Leicester City might even add a couple of players to increase squad depth. Some have suggested that might rock the boat a little with new characters being brought into the squad, but I think Ranieri has the personality to integrate new members for his squad and Leicester City might just be ready to have the best season in the club's history.

Euro 2016 Finals Draw
I don't think I have ever been truly convinced about the increase of the European Championships to twenty-four teams, but you can't help but be excited about a major international tournament to fill in the summer void we have every other season.

Maybe the Group Stages will be less exciting than in previous years with only eight of the twenty-four nations involved being knocked out at that Stage.

However, there are enough games to look forward to even that early in the tournament which will get the fans up for the event, mainly those involving the Home Nations.

England were inevitably going to be paired with one of the other Home Nations considering Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were in Pot 4. It was Wales who came out and I think both England and the Welsh have to be confident of getting out of their Group.

That isn't the case for Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland who both received daunting tasks. Even the additional four places offered to the best third placed sides might be beyond them, although I would give Northern Ireland half a chance to be able to get the results needed.

Martin O'Neill admitted he didn't enjoy the draw as the Republic of Ireland were placed in the 'Group of Death' alongside Italy, Belgium and Sweden, and they will do well to get anything out of that. At least Northern Ireland can look at Poland and Ukraine and perhaps think they are good enough to earn some kind of win from those games which could be enough to move into the Last 16.

I did also go through a quick breakdown of the draw and ended with Spain, Portugal, France and Germany as the final four with England going out at the Quarter Finals Stage. However, the tournament is still months away and will be re-evaluated closer to the time once injuries, form and other factors are considered.

Champions League and Europa League Knock Out Draws
It still grates that Manchester United are out of the Champions League, but it won't be a big surprise if two more English clubs exit at the Last 16 Stage after the draw was made on Monday.

Both Arsenal and Chelsea had their 'worst case' scenario come true as they were paired with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. It is hard to see either improving on their Last 16 showing from last season in those ties if everyone is fit going into those games in February and March.

Barcelona look the team to beat and PSG are earning more and more experience at this level while they looked superior to an in-form Chelsea last season, let alone a Chelsea team that is out of sync this time around.

Manchester City should be the most pleased as they drew Dynamo Kiev, a team Chelsea took four points off in the Group Stage, and I think City will progress fairly comfortably over two legs. This could be a huge moment in their European development getting into the Champions League Quarter Finals for the first time and Manchester City could be a dangerous team to face as the competition goes on.

Oh, and just to really rub in Manchester United's defeat, Wolfsburg managed to draw the weakest team in the Last 16 when they face Gent in the next Round.

Manchester United fans might not want to be in the Europa League, but this looks a competition that might produce some big games as the teams are whittled down. The draw to face Midtjylland over two legs in the Last 32 looks like one Manchester United should be able to progress from, although no one will take anything for granted after the failures in the Group Stage of the Champions League.

Both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur might be disappointed they didn't pick up an 'easier' tie than Augsburg and Fiorentina respectively after winning their Groups, but I would expect Jurgen Klopp's knowledge to help the former through.

Tottenham Hotspur might have been beaten by Fiorentina last season at the same Stage, but having the home fixture second is important and they might be able to reverse that result. However, that looks a tough tie for a Spurs team that is also battling in the Premier League for a top four spot.

There are other big ties to look forward to in this Round: Borussia Dortmund v Porto; Villarreal v Napoli; Shakhtar Donetsk v Schalke; Galatasaray v Lazio; Sporting Lisbon v Bayer Leverkusen; Marseille v Athletic Bilbao.

Those show the strength left in the Europa League and the potential for some huge matches later in the tournament.

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