Is Paolo The Man?

March 31st 2013 is the date Paolo Di Canio officially returned to the Premier League.

Ellis Short, the Chairman and Owner at Sunderland made the decision to appoint the Italian as successor to Martin O’Neill following the latter’s departure from the Stadium of Light on Saturday. As a result, David Miliband the former Foreign Secretary, resigned from his post as Vice Chairman and Non-Executive Director. So if the board are split over the decision, how should the fans feel?

His first managerial appointment, at Swindon Town, ended in rather acrimonious circumstances. Despite this, his results speak for themselves; 54 wins in 95 games and just 23 losses make for good reading, especially when you add in the promotion form League 2 as Champions and a Runners Up medal in the Football League Trophy final all in his first season. The former West Ham striker left Swindon with the Robins pushing for automatic promotion from League 1, so it has been no surprise to see him constantly linked to managerial vacancies. But many eyebrows will be raised at this appointment.

Controversy follows the outspoken Italian everywhere he goes, from his playing days to the present day; his past political statements being a key factor behind Miliband’s resignation. In August 2011, Di Canio had a much publicised pitch-side altercation with then Swindon striker Leon Clarke, a brawl that continued into the tunnel and dressing room. The striker soon departed the County Ground. Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham was another player involved in a bust-up with Di Canio after the manager substituted him early in the first half of a league match, due to two goals being conceded from goalkeeping errors. The young ‘keeper later apologised. All this amongst various media and touchline outbursts can barely be excused at a League club but for his success.

Though with this controversy comes commitment; Di Canio offered to pay £30,000 to keep 3 loan players during Swindon’s cash-strapped season. In January, he turned up at the County Ground to help 200 supporters clear the pitch of snow in order for the game against Shrewsbury Town to pass a pitch inspection, before buying pizza for all those that helped.

Overall, Paolo Di Canio was mistreated at Swindon Town towards the end; not being informed of star player Matt Ritchie’s departure to rivals Bournemouth, being the final straw. But will a Premier League club stand for the unpredictability of a young, relatively inexperienced, but controversial manager? Only time will tell.

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How the luck changed for the Black Cats

Martin O’Neill’s sacking as Sunderland manager on Saturday evening marked an extraordinary turnaround from the appointment of the “Messiah” 15 months ago.

Avid Sunderland fan O’Neill, was the man Niall Quinn & Co chose to succeed the departed Steve Bruce, and push the Black Cats to the next level. Few would have blamed them for making the appointment; in fact, many would have been envious of the club appointing a man with such an outstanding C.V. Leading Celtic to 3 Scottish Premier League titles, 3 Scottish Cups and a League Cup is no mean feat after years of Glasgow Rangers’ dominance, as well as reaching the UEFA Cup final. In England he led Wycombe Wanderers to 4 trophies in 5 years and then Leicester City to 2 League Cups and promotion to the Premier League. But it was his work at Aston Villa that really caught the eye; a League Cup final defeat to contentious penalty against Manchester United, and regularly challenging for a top 4 finish with UEFA/Europa League qualification almost a definite. Failing to reach the Champions League was a minor, if at all, blemish to his excellent Villa era.

So with all that experience, in Europe and domestically, it was seen as a real coup for Sunderland to get their man. So what went wrong?

His impact on arrival was instant, with the Black Cats picking up 13 points from his first 6 games. Seeing off eventual champions Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Day and collecting the Manager of the Month award for December were great catalysts for steering the club away from relegation and to safety. O’Neill was getting the best out of the young crop of players that failed under Steve Bruce; Stephane Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and James McClean were firing on all cylinders, and the team looked to be enjoying their game once again. 

In the summer, big money acquisitions Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson arrived from Wolves and Manchester City respectively. The expectance of the fans were growing, a European place at the end of the season seemed inevitable.

After a great goal scoring start to the season, Fletcher has suffered a real dip in form, as well as niggling injuries. The pressure of being the only top marksman at the club is taking its toll. Danny Graham’s arrival from Swansea was aimed to ease Fletcher’s burden, but with little success so far, and Connor Wickham’s integration has slowed to a level so far away from his early promise. James McClean’s form has been near non existent from the level of performances he terrorised defences with last year. The same can be said with Sebastian Larsson, Craig Gardner and the experienced back line. The only shining light has been the form of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, heavily tipped to leave the Stadium of Light this summer.

So with a healthy mix of youth and experience, Premier League and Champions League winners amongst their ranks, the real issue at Sunderland is the confidence. At its lowest, it is the most difficult emotion to counteract in sport, especially in team sport. When one or two players start losing confidence, it quickly moves around the rest of the team like the common cold. Restoring that confidence though, is down to the Manager and his man-managing skills. Winning just 7 games in 31 was just too far from where the club were looking to be, with no signs of the slump ending. Failing to add more attacking options in January may just be where the luck ran out. If Martin O’Neill can’t get the team he loves, playing with confidence again, then maybe Ellis Short made the right decision. And for the fans, just don’t look towards Wolverhampton Wanderers for inspiration.

What’s the Mata with Juan?

It’s voting time for the PFA & Football Writer’s Player of the Year awards. With all the talk surrounding Gareth Bale, Robin Van Persie & the controversial Luis Suarez, are we forgetting about other potential candidates, with voting being so early before the season’s end?

Juan Mata has arguably been Chelsea’s outstanding player of the 2012/13 season, with 50 appearances in all competitions and 18 goals to show for it so far, all from midfield positions. Mata’s versatility means he can play virtually anywhere in the midfield and forward positions, with his speed and quick thinking an exceptional asset to his and Chelsea’s game play.

Domestically, Chelsea have struggled in the mid to latter stages of the season, after an outstanding start to their season. Managerial changes and other controversies around the club have not helped a squad seriously lacking depth and experience, not to mention lack of goal scoring from a £50 million striker. But despite these flaws in the season, two players have shone through the haze; an out of contract Frank Lampard and Spanish wizard Mata.

It is not just Mata’s excellent goal return that has impressed, he also has 16 assist to his name, 10 of which have come in the Premier League.  In 27 league games he has been directly involved in 20 goals, not bad for the 5ft 8in midfielder competing with summer acquisitions Eden Hazard & Oscar, bought for a combined fee of £54 million, as well as Chelsea’s 2nd top scorer of all time, Frank Lampard.

Whilst Hazard & Oscar’s form have dipped and peaked at various points in the season, Mata has been the most consistent player in a Chelsea shirt. Though Chelsea are out of the Premier League title race and Champions League, if Juan Mata can spearhead their quest for FA Cup & Europa League glory, adding a few more goals & assists along the way, he will surely be talked of in the same breath as Bale,Van Persie & Suarez,  in England at least.

Underestimated United

Sir Alex Ferguson claims his current Manchester United squad is stronger than the Treble winning squad of 1999. So is this really the strongest Manchester United of the Premier League era?

During his 26 years in charge, Sir Alex has arguably built 6 title winning sides, with a 7th in the not too far distance. Currently, Manchester United are 15 points ahead of rivals Manchester City who are struggling in 2nd, with just 9 games of the season left to play. No team has ever won the Premier League by 18 points or greater. City face some tricky ties coming up against in form teams Tottenham Hotspur & Swansea, as well as a resurgent Newcastle and teams fighting relegation. City also have the daunting task of travelling to Old Trafford next weekend, a game United will look to extend their lead even more. No team has accumulated more points at this stage of the season as Manchester United have now. They have conceded just 31 goals in 29 Premier League games from a defence that has been so heavily criticised at times early in the season, and a goal difference of 15 more than nearest rivals Man City. So why are United deemed “not a great team” by the press and pundits?

The forward line is easily one of the strongest in Europe. Van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck are definitely challenging with the stars of 1999. And though the midfield is deemed weak in comparison to past squads, they still boast the speed and skill of Nani, Valencia & Young on the wings, whilst £19 million Shinji Kagawa is integrating better with every game he plays. Michael Carrick oozes class and his passing ability rivals that of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez in todays game. The centre back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Captain Nemanja Vidic is one of, if not the best in Europe when both fully fit. Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are coming of age and will be challenging for a regular start very soon.

Rafael is a promising full back with still a lot ot learn. Patrice Evra’s performances have not been outstanding, at 31 years old he is struggling to match the performances of 5 years ago. Any emergence of young left backs Alexander Buttner and Fabio Da Sliva could jeopardise Evra’s position at Manchester United. Questions have been raised about David De Gea’s performances in goal, but at 22 years old he is still learning the English game. Goal keepers tend to peak a lot later than outfield players, take for example Edwin Van Der Sar, Gianluigi Buffon and Peter Schmeichel.

Overall, on paper this Manchester United squad doesnt even come close to the glamour of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney or Cole, Yorke and Sheringham. But as a squad, the strength in depth is probably the best seen at Old Trafford in the Premier League era. The 1999 and 2008 multi trophy winning teams only really had a 1st XI with maybe a couple of top players that could deputise. This season, United could field 2 seperate teams, with the “2nd string” still challenging for a top 4 finish. United could break some records by the season’s end, so will they still be criticised then?

Reading Sack Brian McDermott

What do Reading FC think they will achieve sacking Brian McDermott with just 9 games remaining of the Premier League season? No one can come in and learn the club & players as well as turning their results around in that space of time. There’s only one man that could get them out of the relegation zone; the man who got them promoted, the man they have just sacked.