Built-up as the greatest side to ever be assembled. But it’s been a strange season for the mighty Barcelona.
After relinquishing last season’s league crown to Jose Mourinho and his Galaticos, the new man at the helm Tito Vilanova sought to quickly regain it. Mission accomplished at Christmas with an unassailable lead which stretched to 17 points at one point being achieved.
However, it has all turned sour since then since Tito has been in New York recovering from cancer treatment. His assistant Jordi Roura, once sacked at Hospitalet in the third tier of Spanish football, has looked lost and helpless. It is awful timing to put someone so under qualified in that position during the most important stage of the season especially when they have no ambitions themselves of upgrading from Assistant. Tito could be back in the dugout by April, but the season may already be over at that stage.
This brings us on to this week’s Champions League second leg fixture with Milan. Two down without an away goal to their name, it looks an enormous challenge to overturn one of the form sides in Europe and who defensively looked organized and tight in the first leg.
The old notion of “if anyone can do it Barca can” was true to an extent but not now. The Barca of two years ago was probably the most eye-dropping of the modern era. That night at Wembley they almost literally blew Manchester United away. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, who came up against the great Juve, Madrid and Milan teams of the Champions League era, stated so. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were sublime, Villa and Pedro were experiencing some of their best football in their careers, and Pique was actually a world class defender, not the clumsy confused one we see these days. Messi was, well, Messi.
Now? The defence is a bombscare highlighted by the fact they have not kept a clean sheet in the 13 matches before the two goal win against Deportivo on Saturday evening. Puyol is ageing and doesn’t appear to recover from injuries with great speed, while Pique appears to be more immature than he was during his Old Trafford days. Guardolia was not happy with his fitness and social life last year, and was dropped for crucial games. It looks doubtful if Pique has taken any advice from past or current coaches.
In midfield Xavi is experiencing the similar difficulties to his captain. In recent games the sharpness and control has looked as bad as it ever has been. Known as one of the greatest passers of all time, it is worrying that the skill you are lauded over is becoming a weakness.
In the final third, well Messi is still Messi and some, but apart from he, who is providing help in the goalscoring stakes? Not Pedro and Alexis Sanchez is more concerned with trying to win penalties than having a pop at goal. Villa, it is widely accepted, has to play more often. This is a guy who will guarantee you anywhere between 20-30 goals a season, but appears to have been frozen out the picture the last 18 months stretching prior to his leg break in December 2011.
Of course anything can happen in football. They still have excellent players who are capable of winning any football match. Confidence and momentum, however, is everything in sport and Barca do not have this after the back to back defeats in the Classicos, the first leg loss at the San Siro and their general performances in La Liga.
Defeat, if as expected, will bring an end to the season for Barcelona in mid-March. 3 months of uncompetitive football is not something the Camp Nou is used to. It will, however, give them more time to study and analyse these weaknesses and plan properly to implement their obsessive, yet highly improbable, task of creating perfection.
League reconstruction has been a hot topic in Scottish football since the tail end of last year, but all talk of it been rushed through to next season has surprisingly stagnated.
In January many SPL owners and the now discredited CEO, Neil Doncaster, of the body were telling us of a real appetite for change and this new set-up of 12-12-18 was going to transform the landscape of the game here. A new dawn was about to arise.
It is rare for a body to rush through proposals as early as the next season, but then again not many organisations are as desperate as the one here. Without a sponsor, and the risk of losing SKY as a major broadcaster since the financial suicidal decision to kick Rangers to the fourth tier, all means a slow lingering death awaits.
There are little doubts the financial impact to the top clubs would be disastrous if something is not in place for next season. It was, though, their own self-interest that put them in such a precarious position in the first place.
David Longmuir, the CEO of the SFL, made an interesting comment published in some of the Sunday rags today. He stated that the SFL teams need to decide sharpish whether 12-12-18 or a 12-12-10-10 is more beneficial to them.
So from a 12-10-10-10 to basically adding two new clubs in the second tier is the new radical proposal that seems likely to get the green light. The only difference to the existing set-up would be the ridiculous play-off system being introduced which will cause there to be three leagues of eight for about one third of the season. This is a system that has been tried and abandoned already in Austria and Switzerland little over a decade ago.
Another flaw would be adding in two new teams. One: There are too many clubs in Scottish football already. Two: These two new clubs will have to apply, be accepted into the league. Since we are already well into March, this is cutting it a bit fine.
It is easy to criticise, especially when blogging, but there aren’t many positives from a fan’s perspective, and the clubs have already set a precedent last summer over listening to their fans as they are the ‘lifeblood of the club’.
Neil Doncaster, it was revealed recently, received a 16.5% increase in salary last year, taking his compensation to £200,000 basic. It is of little wonder why he is desperately holding on to this position by coming up with such confusing schemes.
Sunday’s CIS Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers was never going to decide the destination of the SPL title, but it has told us that we are in for one hell of a battle between now and the end of May.
Before the match most commentators had already wrote Rangers off. Injury ravaged and finished was a common theme amongst the red tops. Weir is too slow, Edu is like a man down and Smith’s negative approach has sapped out any confidence his troops once had.
How wrong they were.
Rangers looked quicker, fitter and more determined than their great rivals, which surprised even the most optimistic of the Ibrox club’s manic support base.
Thursday’s exit in the Europa League to PSV Eindhoven may be, to descend into cliché mode, the blessing in disguise they needed. Not only does it allow the champions to wholly concentrate on domestic matters, but the second half performance, despite failing to score, gave everyone at the club the belief that exciting, positive football is their best chance of success this season.
This new wave of optimism was brought onto the field at Hampden Park on Sunday, giving The Gers a 2-1 despite playing with a makeshift defence.
Steven Davis probably played his best game all season. In actual fact, the only performance which could come close was the second half on Thursday. Maurice Edu was anonymous as usual, but Davis still managed to win the midfield battle with his guile and pace, despite being up against Kayal and Ledley. If the Ulsterman can perform to such high standards for the rest of the season, then he could well play the protagonist role in the title chase.
Nikica Jelavic is another one who will surely have a massive say on this year’s finale. He bullied and bossed Celtic’s centre back paring of Thomas Rogne and Charlie Mulgrew, and was rewarded with his somewhat fortuitous winning goal. The Croat clearly has the touch and ability to add to his 11 goals already this season. A fully fit Jelavic will do some damage to SPL defences.
Although the two aforementioned drew most of the headlines, the likes of Steven Whittaker, Davie Weir and Gregg Wylde all played important parts in securing Walter Smith’s 20th trophy in his two spells as Rangers manager.
Momentum and confidence are everything in sport when the difference in quality is miniscule. Rangers now have it after losing their way in recent months. It is, however, too early to say the pendulum has swung back to the southside of the city, just as it was naïve to declare Celtic treble winners a few weeks ago before they had even won a trophy.
There is obviously a lot of tough matches and many nervy moments on the horizon, but in Smith Rangers have the experience and the nohow when it comes to winning championships. Most of his players know what is expected of them, having proven it over the last two or three years, and which is something Neil Lennon must try to transmit to his young but ambitious squad.
Another matter of significance is they now have as many games to play as Celtic, excluding a potential Scottish Cup Final for the latter. And because of the International break, with injuries to many in the squad (Ness, Bougherra, Weiss, Davis and Naismith to name a few), it allows them time to recover in what will surely be a punishing but intriguing April.
The final Old Firm fixture at Ibrox, whenever it is played, will be vital. A win for either side and they are massive favourites to secure the title. However, if Rangers play the same positive approach they adopted on Sunday, their once seen diminishing chances will increase tenfold.
When the sunset over Mount Florida on Sunday night, the big prize was still up for grabs, but what it has done is make us all think twice.
Never write off The Rangers.
When hearing the news that Rangers had accepted a bid of around £700,000 from Birmingham City for striker Kenny Miller, my initial reaction was not of surprise but of acceptance and apathy.
I would, however, be shocked to see Miller move to Birmingham, especially with the likes of Fiorentina and Marseilles reportedly linked with the SPL’s top goalscorer. If it were me, an offer abroad to France or Italy would seem far more attractive than moving down south in what will most probably be a relegation battle.
Miller has been to England twice, with mixed success, and it would be good at this stage of his career, in what is probably his last contract, to try something new. Also the prospect of European football would remain, with Championship football being a distinct possibility next year at Birmingham.
Miller can pick and choose his clubs. He has earned the right to do so after two and a half excellent years at Ibrox. This season, in particular, has been fruitful for the ex Celtic man. 22 goals at the half way stage of the season has seen him in strong contention for the golden boot, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo his main challengers.
Whatever Miller does, though, it is not good news for Rangers fans. They cannot afford to give Miller a new contract. It simply is impossible for a club in Scotland to offer the £30,000 a week Miller is reportedly looking for. However, would it not be sensible to keep Miller on for the rest of the season and let him do what Kris Boyd did last year and leave on a Bosman?
£700,000 is not a lot of money and Rangers are going to struggle to get someone near Miller’s quality for even double that amount. The financial problems have been well documented at Ibrox, but surely keeping Miller could bring in more than his potential transfer fee?
Firstly, Rangers are still in Europe. Progression into the last 16 of the Europa League will mean more games, and the TV money and gate receipts alone would amount to more than £1 million.
Without Miller, Rangers do not have any suitable forwards to lead the line domestically and in Europe. Nikica Jelavic is cup tied which means the much maligned Kyle Lafferty is the likely candidate to replace him.
Steven Naismith can also play there but the squad is already too small at Rangers to contemplate losing its best player this season. If they could bring in David Goodwillie for around £1 million it would soften the blow, but he is potential and not someone to rely upon to fire the goals towards a third consecutive domestic title.
Secondly, another title gives Rangers a chance at Champions League qualification and a possibility of £10 million. The SPL winners would be pitched in with champions from other small nations, like Romania and the Czech Republic, but they will be seeded, giving them a favourable draw.
Is the gamble that much to take? £700,000 is not a lot of money in today’s mad football world, even with Rangers debt.
The problem, of course, is it’s not football people running the club but bankers. You do wonder what kind of influence absentee owner Sir David Murray has over transfer policy. He still owns the club and should be taking far greater responsibility than he currently is over the financial mess that was allowed to engulf on Scotland most successful sporting institution.
It was him, after all, who ran up debts of £80 million chasing an unrealistic dream. Then, after a share rights issue of over £50 million, he ran up more debts. This is mismanagement at best. Murray may have been a good thing for Rangers initially, and he has overseen some fantastic moments with the club, but his legacy is fast becoming known for financial ruin and embarrassment.
The decade of downsizing continues for Rangers with Miller’s expected departure. How long for and to what extent is now the real worry for everyone connected with the club.
Celtic’s victory over Rangers in the New Year’s Old Firm derby suddenly poses some serious questions that need to be answered about the destiny of the SPL title.
While everything had appeared to be going all so smoothly for the champions, with Celtic anything but consistent in the month of December, most observers had already made their minds up that 3 in a row was already in the bag.
It’s amazing that one result can swiftly change public opinion, with Celtic now right back in the race. Not only them, but it is hard to ignore the possible threat of Hearts, who are now only three points behind Rangers, albeit having played two more games. Jim Jefferies’ squad is also big enough to cope with the inevitable injuries and suspensions a demanding 38 game season will bring.
However, Walter Smith’s side should not be discounted after one abject performance. They have been through the course of a full season before and know what it takes to push through the finishing line. There are, of course, reservations whether his thin bread squad can cope with the forthcoming fixture pile up in the next few months. An extended European run in this year’s Europa League will dent their SPL chances. It did in 2008 and it should again. This is the sad truth success brings.
It is important Walter Smith adds to his squad in this January transfer and if he can’t then prioritising is of great importance. The league, obviously, is number one on the list, and Europe is always a great adventure and challenge for one of the Old Firm. However, can the same be said of the two domestic cups? It is difficult to imagine any Rangers side not taking a competition seriously, but a chance of qualifying for the lucrative Champions League again next season is a slightly more exciting prospect. The financial ramifications are far too damning to ignore.
Everyone connected with Celtic will naturally be delighted with only their second victory at Ibrox in five years. There has been much criticism coming Neil Lennon’s way recently, most of it justified especially after drawing three consecutive home matches.
The Old Firm win will give his squad some much needed self belief that they can go all the way and challenge Rangers to the end. A four point lead this stage, albeit having played two games more, is a great position to be in and they can really strengthen their grip on top spot by going on a run of victories in the remaining winter months. This is what the Parkhead faithful will be hoping for, and if a win at the home of your rivals can’t push you on to some good form, then nothing can.
Perhaps only bringing on a couple of players in he transfer window, instead of repeating the last few windows and signing masses of unknowns, will help bring stability, not insecurity?
Lennon needs to get it right this window. Either way, it’s going to be an exciting end to the season with not only two but three teams all vying it out to be Scotland champions for 2011.
Sunday’s Old Firm victory should finally wrap up the championship for Rangers, in what has been a fairly dominant season for the Ibrox club.
League number 53, and a world record at that, is a remarkable achievement considering the last time Walter Smith was able to pay a transfer fee for a player, who ironically, was Sunday’s match winner Maurice Edu.
Nobody expected the Gers to win the league with such a lightweight squad, let alone run away with it. They have suffered only one defeat all campaign, which has propelled them into a healthy ten point advantage over Celtic with a game in hand.
Spirit, courage, resolve and fight are looked upon as factors why Rangers are on the cusp of winning back to back titles for the first time in a decade.
Here, I take a look back at six days or nights the fans could proudly sing, ‘that’s why we’re champions.’
Hearts 1 Rangers 2 (23-08-09).
It was only the second week of the season, but the clash in Edinburgh proved crucial in the long run. A man down after twelve minutes when Kevin Thomson was harshly sent off, Rangers then fell behind just before half time. With the game seemingly lost, a battling performance allowed Lee McCulloch to equalise, before a Kris Boyd penalty in injury time was enough to complete a remarkable comeback.
Steven Davis and McCulloch were immense that day, and have carried on their good form since. Rangers put down a marker that day, telling Celtic they would fight for their title.
St Johnstone 1 Rangers 2 (17-10-09).
In similar circumstances to Tynecastle two months earlier, Rangers looked shaky at the back, and Colin Samuel put the Saints ahead early on. Despite being on the back foot for the majority of the game, Kris Boyd, predictably, equalised before half time, and then Sasa Papac struck from twenty yards with seven minutes remaining.
In what was a poor display, Rangers were able to go home with all three points. Again, the fighting spirit was on show, and having drawn the last two matches away from home, it was imperative Rangers got their campaign on full flow.
Hibernian 1 Rangers 4 (27-12-09).
At this point Hibs were seen as genuine title challengers, but Rangers were in the midst of their best form for years. December was a productive and exciting month that put them well clear at the top before the New Year.
Hibs took the lead after only twelve seconds, an SPL record, but, thanks to a calamity goalkeeping performance from Yves MaKalambay, goals from Boyd, Miller (2) and Novo helped complete the rout.
The result was important as it showed Rangers had the ability and bottle to see of the most challenging of matches, and with it, killed of any realistic championship hopes the men from Leith had.
Celtic 1 Rangers 1 (03-01-10).
Despite the derby resulting in only a draw, it was evident to everyone who the happier team was. Injuries and suspensions robbed the Gers of their best players, and were forced to camp inside their own half for the majority of the game.
Celtic were wasteful in front of goal, but were finally rewarded when substitute Scott McDonald headed home with ten minutes to go. Game over it would seem. However, straight up the park Rangers went, and Lee McCulloch’s bullet, Lyonesque header gave Rangers an underserved, but priceless point. Cue bedlam from the away support as they realised the significance of the outcome. This, for many, was Celtic’s final chance to claw the gap back, However, it remained seven points, and, in truth, they have never fully recovered from that demoralising blow.
Tony Mowbray took it on the chin and moved on, or so he said.
St Mirren 0 Rangers 2 & Celtic 1 Hibernian 2 (27-01-10).
This was a fairly comfortable game for Rangers, with goals from Steven Davis and Nacho Novo securing the points in Paisley, but it was at Celtic Park where the drama fully unfolded. Despite taking the lead, Anthony Stokes equalised for Hibs. Then in injury time, Danny Galbraith fired past Artur Boruc to steal the points. In Paisley, the Rangers support went wild, the Hibs support went loopy and there was despondency among the Parkhead faithful.
Another lead was flittered away, while Rangers were dogged enough to win their game. This was seen as a significant moment in the title chase, as Rangers moved ten clear.
Tony Mowbray took it on the chin and moved on.
Kilmarnock 1 Celtic 0 (02-02-10).
Although Rangers were not directly involved, the media and fans alike realised the SPL trophy would be staying at Ibrox for another year.
The previous day’s headlines were dominated by the capture of Robbie Keane. It was, as some Celtic fans boasted, the signing that would win them the league. Their optimism dramatically fell when Chris Maguire took advantage of some shoddy marking to give Killie a famous win. Keane had his chances, but missed. Celtic failed to take advantage of their game in hand, and they remained ten points behind.
Tony Mowbray, yes, you guessed it, took it on the chin and moved on. Where exactly he moves on to is the next big question for the Celtic boardroom.
Another transfer window winds up, and Rangers appear to have weakened rather than strengthen their already modest squad.
The departure of Pedro Mendes and Jerome Rothen gave the fans some hope that new faces would arrive before last night’s deadline. Sadly, this was not the case, and it will now be two years this summer since we bought a player – Maurice Edu for £2 million in August 2008.
This is a depressing statistic, but is hardly surprising considering the financial hardship created by owner Sir David Murray. He has stripped the club bare, and it is left to the heartless bankers of Lloyds Group to get their £31 million back from the club.
The way they are doing this seems to be by downsizing every transfer window. Last January they tried to sell one top player, which looked to be Kris Boyd, but thankfully he rejected the move. Despite a remarkable SPL title in May, and with it the jackpot from Champions League revenue, Rangers lost around 10 players, mainly fringe one’s I may add.
Now the most recent transfer window has seen further cut backs, as mentioned above. The only player to arrive in all this time is Jerome Rothen on loan, but he has since moved to Turkey after an uninspiring stay.
For the moment, it is frustrating being a Rangers fan, especially when you look across the city and see that Robbie Keane has signed for Celtic for the rest of the season. He will be on wages of around £65 thousand a week, and they have spent numerous amounts of money on other players. Although not at his peak, Keane is still a good player and will not find it too difficult to score in the SPL.
The saving grace right now is they are still 10 points behind, with a game in hand, and they have the problem of trying to get nearly a full team settled and playing together straight away. If they can’t, then Rangers should be consistent enough to capture 2 in a row.
Another plus is Tony Mowbray appears to be out of his depth. His ramblings to the media show a man failing to deal with the pressure.
However, even with all these new signings, it does not make the likes of Motherwell and St Johnstone any stronger. These are the teams Rangers will be playing, and we only face Celtic twice. Celtic may now be stronger and might not drop as many cheap points, but they have to put a long winning run together to stay in touch. If Rangers can win the Old Firm game at Ibrox at the end of the month, it will go a long way to determine the outcome of the title.
One thing we do seem to have is a great team spirit, which helps to win points when seemingly impossible. Celtic, on the other hand, will not have this yet, and are unlikely to until their players gel and form relationships.
I still think Rangers will win the league, but it will be far tougher than I imagined. While, before, only a fool could say we had already won it, I was as confident as I could have possibly been at this time of the season. Now it is going to be a huge battle, and the old saying of taking each game at a time is more appropriate than ever.
Even if we do secure title number 53 in May, the close season is a worry for the bears. A takeover is vital before then, or we may see further asset stripping from the bank. If Lloyds are still in full control, you can bet your mortgage on Bougherra and McGregor leaving with no adequate replacements found. Boyd, Beasley, Novo and Broadfoot are all out of contract in the summer as well, and they are likely to leave because of the refusal of Donald Muir to sanction new deals.
Where would this leave Rangers?
Well, Celtic would easily run away with the league because we would be full of journey man players added by even more youngsters. The likes of Fleck, Wilson and co appear to have massive futures ahead of them in the game, but it is asking way too much of them to step up to the plate and challenge for the title.
This is a worry for all connected with the club, and it makes a buyer so important before then. Right now, I cannot see one. I keep on hearing stories from the media and those supposedly ‘in the know’ that we are close to a consortium buyout, but I have been hearing this for months and nothing appears on the agenda.
I really hope I am wrong, as it is worrying times for Rangers in the long term. I really don’t know what we will have left at the start of the next season. If we fail to take advantage of our position this year, and lose the Champions League money, it could get a lot worse.
Still, as bad as it gets, I would much rather have this than waking up for a day wearing the green and white.