What will Mancini do with his “Rotten Apple”?

ImageUncoachable, unreliable, unpredictable. For a footballer that hopes to forge a career amongst the very finest talents in the world, those three words can often be riddled towards some of the most gifted players of all time. Cantona. Gascoigne. Di Canio. All capable of enigmatic behaviour on and off the pitch, yet all wonderful talents, even if not always reaching the extraordinary potential that preceded them.

Mario Balotelli is exactly that. A riddle, waiting to be solved, or not.

Whilst we may not be looking at a player who will charge towards a fan and launch himself into a flying karate kick this weekend – despite his newly refined bleach blonde mohawk asking for a comment, or two – I don’t think any of us would be surprised if in twenty or thirty years from now, we read about an erratic Italian ex-pro who approaches an armed gunman with an old fishing rod and a fine bucket of KFC.

The big money question, that would leave most Who Wants To Be a Millionaire contestants stumped at the final haul, is whether or not Mario Balotelli will be pitied by fans after his turbulent yet inspirational career on the pitch? Or will he be cast into a long line of failed hopefuls? Not even Chris Tarrant could answer that one.

So far however, the estimate would not be far from the latter, such is the extent of his appetite for the ridiculous.

In a long line of love-hate clashes between Balotelli and his manager, Mancini’s soft spot for a young boy may be the root problem. Coming out after the publicised training ground scuffle between the two, which saw a pathetic attempt from both parties to imitate a sumo wrestling contest, it was almost laughable to some that the City manager played it down as “nothing unusual”.

“Why Always Me” flung the youngster into the inevitable headlines when helping Manchester City embarrass their neighbours at Old Trafford in 2011, yet since that day in October it’s hard to find any real impact, other than the inexcusable burden he has become for a side hoping to extend its grip on English supremacy. Reflected no better than in a performance against the same team this current season, instead of a rekindled hope of the 22 year old getting closer towards that gifted glow of limelight, this time, he would be seen storming down the tunnel, berated for his lethargic, incompetent display. On this occasion, the dichotomy of their relationship scaled precariously away from the ‘love’ side.

Only time will tell, or Balotelli’s actions will prevail, as to whether or not we see this couple entwined in blissful harmony once again before the end of May.

It should be rather concerning for Manchester City fans however that through the haze of uncertainty surrounding the youngster, they now lie seven points behind leaders United, and await a potentially crucial Super Sunday which could even see the gap widen to ten points. Despite last season’s evidence suggesting this would not be curtains, there would undeniably be a stage hand waiting in the wings for the call.

So then, Balotelli has done nothing more to prove he is worth the hassle. The club should sell him now. Manchester City can focus on defending their title. Doesn’t it sound so simple when written in plain view?

No, no this one is proving to be an enigma, and Mancini has used nearly all of his lifelines. “How about phone a friend?” Tarrant might ask. Ring ring. “The answer is A, Roberto, 100% sell.”

Congratulations, you’ve just become a millionaire.

Struggling Gunners face Bayern Munich in Champions League Second Round

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After the eagerly awaited Uefa Champions League draw had been announced, all the headlines between the sixteen clubs were as expected, dominated by just two teams, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Whilst the red side of Manchester basked in the Hollywood tie between two giants of the continent, North London quietly stirred in the pouring rain, as Arsenal fans quickly forgot their recent thrashing of rock bottom Reading and remembered the truth about their club’s ambitions of Champions League glory. Huh? What? Champions? … Exactly.

Stagnant is the term you could use most to describe Arsenal’s current progress in the footballing world, and perhaps the most appropriate word at this stage for summing up the mood around the Emirates stadium, is bleak. Bleak and stagnant, a football fans dream. Most would say the Gunners are underachieving this season, yet in fact their league position is irrelevant right now considering they are just two points off Chelsea, which would place them third.

When you consider the vast amount of wealth that has been splashed by Abramovich in the Summer, could we even suggest Arsenal are over achieving by the laws of economics? Unfortunately money means nothing to the loyal supporters, unless of course you take pride in the fact that Arsenal are yet to win a trophy in seven years but remain financially well balanced.

No, what is concerning the fans, and most notably one Theo Walcott, is rather the direction in which the club is heading.

The only direction anyone can really be sure about at the minute is their trip to Munich on March 13th. As doubts already begin to swirl around the next Champions League fixture which would be a daunting task for any team in Europe, the nature of this early pessimist view is exactly the kind of evidence needed for Arsenal’s development over the past few years. There’s been none.

Of course Wenger’s team can still pull off a big result, and we bask in their resilience and hail the almighty character shown to defeat such odds. The spending power that looms from the East is shot down by the beautiful game, orchestrated in elegant fashion by a North London club and its sensible wage structure. Oh how football has changed since ‘the invincible’ days.

But the question of Arsenal winning the Champions League, let alone getting past Bayern, again lies in bleak territory.

In recent years, their record has become patchy, and the latter stages of this competition have been rare. The quarter finals is their best attempt in the last four years, despite being knocked out by Barcelona twice, and the only real stand out results are the resounding 5-0 win at home to Porto after losing the first leg 2-1, and the incredible victory against Barcelona at the Emirates before being cruelly knocked out in the away leg. But how long can this become acceptable for?

Arsenal could well pull off a stunning result against Bayern over two legs and have us all once again praising their spirit and style, but winning this trophy is a whole different ball game for this current side. Once again I have absolutely no doubts about Wenger’s ability to place his side in the top four domestically and secure qualification for next year’s European entry, and claim his seventh successive ‘trophy’ in as many years – Finishing in the top four of the Premier League only counts as a trophy for you Mr Wenger. But somehow the Frenchman needs to break the mould and achieve something more, before we all get sick of the term ‘de ja vu’.

The manager, the fans, and most importantly the players, need a sign of life from the Arsenal board. You can say what you like about Roman Abramovich elsewhere in the capital, his questionable and erratic control over Chelsea has more often than not become a negative impact on club stability, but at least the Russian owner shows a passion to win.

The board don’t necessarily have to spend, though that would help, considering the vast amount of money they’ve recruited by selling their biggest stars over the last two or three seasons. What would really boost the club would be an evident desire to win trophies again. Of which, their first signs of a pumping heartbeat showed this week when they signed the highly talented Jack Wilshere and four other team mates to long term contracts. Though I doubt the stalling Theo Walcott has the quality to take Arsenal back towards the ‘winning’ side of competitions, tying him down to a contract also in 2013 would certainly help put things back on track.

A club with a rich history such as Arsenal’s settling for the ‘taking part’ accolade is disappointing, but to continue that way into the New Year and beyond would really be a tragedy.

Will QPR’s road to stability come crashing down?

There’s something quite strange happening in West London this year, so much so that whilst we have become accustomed to the short life span of managers in the modern climate, Tony Fernandes and his relentless backing of manager Mark Hughes has become an almost positive backdrop to QPR’s struggling start to this year’s campaign.

For the previous nine managers of the club over the past five years, one would be entitled to question where this fierce support was whilst they themselves took control of the R’s. But potential bitterness aside, for the fans this new found loyalty around a financially heavy football club must come as a breath of fresh air after years of change and instability.

Loyalty is a rare term in modern football, patience even more so.

Whilst not always the case, results tell the story in sport more often than not, and whilst Hughes has been in charge this season, the story for Rangers so far is borderline crime fiction, inadvertently becoming a Stephen King horror masterpiece. For a club looking towards stability, relegation would be the equivalent of coming out of rehabilitation and heading straight towards a crack den.

So is Hughes the man to drag Queen’s Park Rangers away from the foot of the Premier League, ultimately heading towards a bright and stable future? Or is Fernandes blindly following a new code of morals based upon past deficiencies and unrest amongst the supporters?

Mark Hughes has made it clear he won’t quit his post, vowing to fight on with his club’s cause. Whether he is sincere or not, respectively it’s not exactly a decision the manager can control. Sooner or later, respect and loyalty dissolve in the modern game, and as in any ‘business’, if an organisation starts moving backwards change is inevitable.

So far QPR have 4 points to their name, just one win, and a lot of disappointing defeats. After the influx of twelve arrivals and countless departures to their playing staff, the Ranger’s squad theoretically has improved significantly in quality. Over the summer we saw Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung arrive, Real Madrid’s Granero, the highly professional Julio Cesar from Inter Milan, as well as Chelsea’s Jose Bosingwa. Players from giant clubs, all seemingly sharing a common desire to take part in the next chapter of QPR’s ‘four year plan’, or fill their pockets some more (that’s another topic).

Hardly the stability Fernandes so often talks about, but this is a work in progress; the question is what’s going wrong? Whilst having everything off the pitch in place is the ideal setup, the Premier League survival comes down to one thing only. What happens on the pitch is the most important.

QPR on the pitch are beginning to look devoid of belief, and we haven’t even reached December.

As Tony Fernandes continues his twitter reinforcement for Hughes’ position, the inquisitive neutral can merely watch on in fascination. The cloud around QPR’s isolated demise can either sink slowly into the Championship next season, or soar high towards a remarkable restoration in faith. Unfortunately with Hughes still in charge, a squad lacking cohesion and belief, and an owner intent on continuity, QPR are in serious danger of dipping helplessly back towards the second tier.

Faith? They may need a miracle.

VAN PERSIE LIGHTS THE WAY AS UNITED POWER THROUGH TO THE NEXT ROUND

Manchester United again had to come from behind against Braga as they overcame a 1-0 deficit and a bizarre floodlight power failure to emerge 3-1 winners and book their place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

United fell behind early in the second half but a fault in the power generator controlling the floodlights left half the stadium in darkness, causing a twelve minute stoppage in the match. It was the red devils however who capitalised on this break to come from behind, scoring three late goals with substitute Robin Van Persie coming off the bench to lead the reds to their fourth successive victory in Group H.

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Braga began the match the more brighter side, just as they started two weeks ago in Manchester, looking the livelier team in and around the final third, with Alan first running beyond a slack Jonny Evans after just five minutes, firing narrowly wide from a tight angle. Micael, on loan from La Liga’s Atletico Madrid, also had two good attempts for the Portuguese outfit in the opening twenty minutes, including a sumptuous volley, but the midfielder failed to test David De Gea on both occasions, both efforts just wide of the goalkeepers right post.

 The first real wake up call for United came on the twenty minute mark however, when Hugo Viana delivered an early cross dangerously towards United’s penalty spot. Jonny Evans was again at fault for allowing Eder far too much room, and the resulting diving header was unlucky to rebound off the away side’s post.

 As the game began to open up, Ferguson’s men began to look increasingly uncomfortable with Braga’s swift counter attacking play, whilst Anderson and his team mates were often guilty of giving the ball away cheaply numerous times in the first half.

The second half saw the reds come out hoping to finally mark their presence on the match, but it was the Portuguese side who got the first break, coming just four minutes into the second half, as Custodio tumbled over Jonny Evans’ outstretched leg inside the box. With the penalty awarded, it was the Brazilian, Alan, who stepped up, confident from his two goals in the reverse fixture last time out, and he coolly dispatched from the spot to hand Braga the lead.

 After 56 minutes however the contest was temporarily abandoned due to a floodlight failure, allowing Ferguson vital time to refocus his side on the task in hand.

 As play resumed twelve minutes later, Ferguson replaced the disappointing Jonny Evans with Ferdinand to bolster the backline. It wasn’t until the 64th minute however that Ferguson turned to his most lethal goalscorer, and Robin Van Persie’s arrival signalled a change in the away side’s approach immediately.

 Switching to a conventional 442, allowing Rooney to drift on the left and Hernandez to partner Van Persie up front, Sir Alex played his final hand as the yet again lacklustre Nani made way for full back Rafael, allowing Antonio Valencia to play further forward in his favoured position on the right wing. As great managers often do, Ferguson got it spot on again.

 A quick free kick in the 79th minute taken by Anderson, gave Giggs the time to send the Dutchman on his way in behind the home side’s defence, and as the oncoming goalkeeper Beto hesitated in comical fashion, Van Persie made no mistake in netting his 11th goal for his new club this season, with a composed effort to curl past the keeper off his line.

 After the goal, United looked a different side, and despite only needing the point to progress, the Red Devils hunted more goals.

 And quickly they followed, with yet another pinpoint pass from the veteran Ryan Giggs setting off Hernandez, the Mexican had time to control the high ball and close in on goal, only for Beto this time to pull out a fine save. But it was Rooney who latched onto the follow up and found himself tumbling courtesy of a last ditch tackle inside the Braga box. As play went on and the referee hesitated to blow his whistle, the fourth official signalled contact in the box and referee Felix Brych finally pointed to the spot.

 Rooney missed from the same situation at the weekend, but there was no error this time as he confidently drilled his penalty into the top corner, completing yet another remarkable Manchester United turn around sending them into the last 16.

 Hernandez then in the final minutes added gloss to the result, following a driving Valencia run and cross, met by a brilliant Wayne Rooney flick on in the box. The ball fell to Hernandez who somehow danced his way past desperate Braga defenders, before falling to the ground with the ball at his feet, just managing to poke the ball into the back of the net, leaving the away support delighted as their team ran out comfortable victors.

 With two games remaining and already through to the next round as winners of their group, United’s clinical response was exactly what Ferguson and his coaches would have wanted.

 “We were disappointing last year and I think the supporters wanted a reaction to that,” said Phelan after the game.

 Ferguson’s assistant added, “I think it was important we got into it quickly and we have done that – four games gone and we are more than happy.”

 Meanwhile Braga are left bottom of Group H on three points, and desperately need two good results in their remaining fixtures to have any hope of reaching the knockout stages.

 Despite progressing comfortably into the Champions League Second Round, Ferguson will likely still be concerned though with his side’s defensive frailties, knowing they’ll need more than just Van Persie’s goals in the later rounds to progress further. But with Chris Smalling back in action tonight, Phil Jones and club captain Nemanja Vidic to come back still, United fans must be hopeful their team can go far in this year’s competition.

All or nothing for Europe’s finest

With the busy Christmas schedule approaching ever nearer, we are also coming towards the business end of the Champions League group stages, with each game in the competition now pivotal on who progresses to the knockout stages, determining who is dumped out of Europe for another year, or who will be playing their trade in the Europa League.

As we look onto Wednesday’s fixtures, there’s a couple of must win matches lined up tonight. For the Champions League holders, Chelsea host Shakhtar Donetsk at Stamford Bridge which could see the most fascinating entertainment of the night. With Chelsea so easily outplayed by the same side only two weeks ago, Chelsea have just four points from their first three games. Another loss tonight would leave them requiring a result against Juventus in Italy, or they could be facing a surprise early exit this season. The likes of Hazard, Mata and Oscar will need to be at their very best. The other game of Group E also sees Juventus at home to struggling Nordsjaelland, and with the hosts desperately needing to take all three points, Chelsea would be sitting nervously in the Europa League spot come the end of the night if they fail to take maximum points and Juventus win.

Group F is also looking very competitive for those two qualification spots, with Bayern, Valencia and BATE all locked on six points. Bayern’s home match against a Lille side who have yet to win their first point this season, seems a better chance than most for Bayern to kick on and put themselves in a strong position within the group on nine points. Meanwhile Spanish outfit Valencia will entertain surprise package BATE at the Mestalla stadium tonight, with victory for either side a huge step towards qualification. While both sides aim to dent each other’s qualification path, Bayern will certainly be looking to capitalise on one of their easier looking fixtures tonight.

After last game’s heartache for Celtic away at the Nou Camp, tonight sees the chance for them to do it all again, with Barcelona this time heading to Celtic Park. The Spanish giants will be hoping for a more comfortable nights work than last week, which saw them steal the three points in the dying minutes of the game. Any sort of result tonight will cement their place in the last 16, but for Celtic this is a chance to make their mark on a tightly poised Group G where second spot appears to be up for grabs. With the Scots currently occupying second place on four points, they are closely followed by Spartak Moscow on three points, whilst Benfica lie bottom with a point. Benfica incidentally play host to Moscow this evening in what must be seen as a last hope for the Portugese side. With just one point to their name, a loss tonight would see that second place spot move at least five points away, and with Barcelona still left to play, their chances of playing further in this year’s competition would seem slim.

And finally Group H’s viewing will undoubtedly be drawn towards Manchester United who travel to Portugal tonight to face Braga, two weeks on from their memorable comeback at Old Trafford which saw United come from two goals behind to grab a vital 3-2 win. Although losing out last time to Manchester United, Braga certainly showed they are no pushovers and will be looking to launch an upset tonight, whilst searching for their own qualification spot. For United their path to the last 16 looks almost sealed with a 100% win record so far, but nonetheless Ferguson will take nothing for granted after last year’s embarrassing exit. Elsewhere Romanian side Cluj prepare for life under new coach Paulo Sergio, and will be hoping for a home win against Galatasary who have struggled to make a stamp on this group thus far. With Paulo Sergio taking part in his first Champions League match, the Romanians will be looking to get off to a good start and take charge of that second qualification spot.

After tonight there will be only two fixtures remaining in each group, and with points up for grabs across Europe, this evening may just become all or nothing for those clubs looking to edge their way into the Champions League second round. Ready yourselves for a frantic ride.

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