PSG expose Barcelona’s lack of self-belief

Barcelona and PSG are rightly hailing the decisive impact a footballing force of nature in the form of Lionel Messi made in Wednesday night’s match, but the Catalan side should not let the uncomfortable questions about their self-belief that arose from their performance to be buried under the adulation. Given the success Spain have had in fielding Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield berths behind a roaming Cesc Fabregas in the false nine position, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Barcelona’s struggles against PSG with this rejigged line-up had something to do with a lack of confidence as well as the lack of Messi. Fluid passing football requires a certain assurance in decision-making, a confidence in the pass that is about to be executed, and the way Sergio Busquets constantly ceded the ball to PSG’s midfield and Gerard Pique passed it straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggests this was uncharacteristically missing from otherwise accomplished performers.

Undoubtedly, Messi’s arrival injected a level of unique technical excellence that could be seen in his mazy run which drew and confounded PSG’s defenders before allowing David Villa and Pedro to find the inches of space to create which had been denied them all night, but there were fleeting glimpses that suggested Barcelona had not given a full demonstration of their abilities sans Messi on the night. Interspersed among their struggles to sustain possession, repel PSG and create attacks, was a period at the very beginning of the game when they demonstrated their trademark slick interplay in moving threateningly towards the PSG goal, another fluid play later in the half and then a clear opening to score from inside the PSG penalty area that Dani Alves squandered just prior to the arrival of Messi, after going behind had shook off the shackles of fear that had paralysed them and led to their first period of exerted pressure in the match.

Notwithstanding the technical excellence of PSG’s attack, or the way in which Messi in his false 9 position and the rest of the team have become nearly inseparable, Barcelona still missed a golden opportunity to build additional reserves of confidence in his absence and come up with an alternative tactical plan. The sense that the shadow of Messi has at times threatened to put the lights out on the Barcelona careers of those playing immediately around him – including David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas – could have been snuffed out and, as unique a talent as Messi is, the emboldening of these players could only have served to give Barcelona more outlets for attack in a possible match-up against defensively tight-knit teams such as Bayern and Real who will seek to isolate and suffocate Messi. Instead of grasping one of these opportunities, Barcelona have limped into the top four carrying the sense that they are the most vulnerable, lopsided team of those that remain in the competition.

That said, they still have Messi and where Messi plays, anything in football is possible.

City’s convincing win over United raises further questions about Mancini’s stewardship

If the 2-1 defeat of Manchester United by Manchester City revealed anything, it was the absolute urgency of the need for the club’s Abu Dhabi owners to cast a searching eye on the subject of Roberto Mancini’s future. In contrast to other clubs under the domain of the rich and powerful, Sheikh Mansour has demonstrated an admirable resolve to stick to a long-term blueprint at Manchester City that includes giving his manager time and resources to build a legacy. Yet it is impossible to escape the feeling that, amid the constant emphasis on patience and long-term team-building, City have lost the opportunity to make more of the present.

This is a fantastic, fluid, multi-talented side, as was evidenced by the way they comprehensively beat a United team who are nevertheless on the verge of reclaiming the title from them by a margin that currently stands at 12 points. The incongruity of their triumphant performance yesterday and the wide gap to United in the table brings into focus Mancini’s failure to motivate them for the less high-profile matches that have derailed their bid throughout the season (including defeats to Sunderland, Everton and Southampton), and severely undercuts his regularly voiced conviction that it is the lack of sufficient player resources that has held City back this season. Most of these complaints have centred on City losing out to United in the race to sign Robin van Persie, but it was one of Mancini’s own forwards who has been unwittingly belittled by his constant lament at missing out on the Dutchman who stole the show yesterday with a brilliantly taken goal that made a mockery of his manager’s constant claims that they had not bought well enough to challenge for the title again this season. Taken together with their unburdened schedule after falling at the first hurdle of the Champions League, yesterday’s defeat demonstrated that there can be nowhere for Mancini to hide when it comes to explaining why he was unable to unlock City’s enduring potential to be Premier League champions once again this year.

Rather than accepting blithe platitudes about the time it takes to accrue trophies, Abu Dhabi should instead consider whether Mancini has been unreasonably tardy in guiding City towards their ultimate goal of becoming a top footballing team and global brand. After failing to progress in the Champions League and making the Premier League race a non-event earlier than expected, the only claim City have on the hearts of neutrals and potential fans around the world is their stylish football. Yet even there the suspicion remains that it has more to do with the innate gifts of players such as David Silva, Carlos Tevez and Aguero than any firm philosophy of the manager. As with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Mancini’s most important task would have been to imbue a set of lavishly gifted players with the hunger and drive required to bridge the gap to glory; this understandably surfaced in City’s players for a marquee match such as at Old Trafford yesterday, but his crucial inability to rouse them for matches against smaller teams means he failed in this department too.

It may be that City missed a trick by not approaching and wooing Pep Guardiola. An arch-motivator of men, he would have refined the team’s natural inclination for attractive football whilst adding a hunger to them that meant their battles with Manchester United would take on a much greater significance than they do at present. As much as City have emphasised the fact that the team wins or loses with more members of its staff than simply the manager, the role of the footballing figurehead still remains pivotal and Guardiola would have ticked all the on-pitch and off-pitch boxes that would usher City closer to their dream of becoming a genuine footballing force on the world stage. Instead, after Mancini’s public tussle with Balotelli, fall-out with other key players, failure to inject his team with sufficient enthusiasm, and increasingly tetchy public persona, they risk becoming a parody of blundering incompetence and foolhardy governance.

Dignified Benitez growing in stature as a result of his Chelsea trials

Amidst the recurring malcontent that has peppered Chelsea’s season, there has been one man who has stood firm to enhance his interpersonal and managerial skills under the sternest tests, and that is Rafael Benitez. No manager facing the overwhelming pressure that stalks big clubs can also claim to have had to deal with a hand of cards as difficult as Benitez’s – including those held by his much-vaunted nemesis at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, whose deific stature in the eyes of Chelsea fans trips the Spaniard’s every forward step even now. Benitez has been buffeted at every treacherous twist and turn by slights and insults as varyingly vilifying as being jeered by Chelsea’s fans at every opportune moment in a match, greeted by silence whenever his tactical switches induce a positive turn in events, being forced to bear the emasculating title of “interim manager” despite carrying the CV of a Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner with one of Spain’s “other” clubs, enduring his own fans teaming up with those of the opposition to abuse him in songs, and having a fellow colleague in charge of a great rival completely ignore his offer of a handshake at the beginning of a game.

Throughout this steadily growing flood of insults and invective aimed at him from every angle, that would have tormented and broken the spirit of a lesser man, he has displayed an admirable resolve not to let his personal hurt get in the way of his professional job. As provoking as it must be to have his weight and entire personality dissected by wanton abuse on a weekly basis for six months – and we need only recall Emmanuel Adebayor’s knee-jerk reaction to Arsenal fans who had been abusing him for 90 minutes against Man City to acknowledge the tolerance threshold of lesser men– his steady resolve to resist the invitation to lash out at his abusers in interviews has given him an aura of quiet dignity and increasing authority. Goaded repeatedly and insolently by Geoff Shreeves to react to the catcalls that greeted his first match in charge and express his disappointment (view it here), Benitez diplomatically chose to explain that he had not heard them and his only disappointment stemmed from the draw that hurt Chelsea’s cause. This was of course necessitated by a realisation that fanning the flames of the fans’ anger could result in an even shorter stay than originally intended, but as the weeks went on and the abuse became more virulent, his ability to stay on message displays both the greatest professional steel and reserves of character, patience and equanimity that not enough people have given him credit for.

“I am professional”, he said in a recent attempt to gain more crowd support for Chelsea’s cause, and “will do my best until the last minute.” Even following Sir Alex Ferguson’s puerile decision to snub his offer of a handshake, Benitez largely contained his understandable affront by tactfully asking journalists to redirect the question of why the handshake failed to take place to the Manchester United manager instead.

Benitez has always been credited with tactical acumen that is in keeping with the mind of an avid chess player, and his decision to introduce John Obi Mikel to free up Ramires to make his rampaging forays towards the United penalty area in their FA Cup clash flummoxed the home team and nearly claimed a glorious comeback. Yet in being forced to summon up hitherto unnoticed qualities of diplomatic tact and personal restraint to deal with the bear pit at Chelsea, he has finally added stature to his tactical skills to emerge as a firm and fair leader of men who puts to shame those who characterised him as a “fat Spanish waiter” for so long. Only Benitez knows how much he has learnt about himself by coming through his siege at Chelsea with flying colours, but this stiffest character examination may have just invaluably enriched his skills as a manager and provided him the means to unlock far greater success in the future. Would this reborn Benitez, in possession of a fine tactical mind along with the ability to inspire his players through his new statesmanlike example off the pitch, have succeeded where the old one failed at Inter Milan? Are Chelsea not in fact missing a trick by opting against helping a highly able manager who has demonstrated an admirable – and hitherto unnoticed – capacity to endure the worst dirt people can throw at him and emerge stronger for it weather the storm and work with a talented squad that has many Spanish speakers at its core for longer?

Observant clubs across Europe would have done well not to miss the way Benitez bravely plunged himself into the fire at Chelsea and is emerging stronger and better than before as a result. If he does end up at Real Madrid, his stoic, remarkable ability to conjure up positive results and build personal authority in the face of an avalanche of political intrigue, boardroom machinations, and reckless populist barracking may stand him in good stead to add the proudest chapter to his CV yet. Wherever he goes, and whatever he does next, this dignified man may find that his sincerest efforts at a difficult posting will end up enhancing his career from this point on and ironically, he may have Chelsea’s fans to thank for that.

Barcelona’s human brilliance against Milan rouses the soul

Barcelona’s heroic 4-0 dismantling of AC Milan will go down in their annals and indeed, the annals of the great matches of European football, as a moment when a great team reaffirmed why it deserves its place at the head of football’s pantheon. The sumptuous football has rightly been acclaimed before, and will be acclaimed again, but what was so uplifting about this particular victory was the way it stemmed from the other, human qualities of a magnificent set of individuals. From the outset, they made a mockery of their many admirers’ pessimism by tearing into Milan with a hunger and passion that cast them and their magical play in a glowing halo in those first thirty minutes. Lionel Messi’s ethereal chip-shot within the first five minutes of the match, recalling a similar goal by Ronaldinho for Barca against Chelsea in the same tournament, was summoned up by his rare genius yet also by his magnificent determination to seize his moment and not see his glittering team cast into darkness; Xavi ran through injury and pain for ninety minutes because he possesses that same innate drive that lifts men to greatness and nothing typified his spirit more than the sliding tackle, followed by the kick of the ball he made from his prone position on the floor in the second half – when the pressure was at its height – to disarm Milan’s attack.

Indeed it was the hovering threat of an away goal that severely tested the nerves of Barcelona and their 90,000 magnificent fans – resplendently heralding their intentions to back up a great team with great support through their banner “Som Un Equipo” (“we are a team) – but which also cast them in the sort of heroic light we rarely get to appreciate. Dominating teams so easily, almost in a somnambulant fashion, has led some neutrals to the erroneous conclusion that their play is either monotonous or less worthy of praise. Last night Barcelona walked a tightrope from first minute to the last, and the fact that they chose to answer the daunting challenge of overturning a 0-2 lead with a style of play as beautiful as it was vulnerable, and perhaps even ill-suited to the task, brilliantly illuminated the heroic aspect of their endeavour. It is under extreme stress that the true face of a man’s character is revealed, and Barcelona demonstrated a rousing faith in their beautifully fragile style of play at a time when it was questioned most, in the face of an increasingly nerve-wracked ninety minutes, that will burnish their legend for decades to come.

All the wishes that a neutral harbours in following one of the great sports teams in history, all the inspiration they might wish to gain from watching them summon up their boundless strength and character to produce their magical best to overturn a formidable lead in historic and unreal fashion – in short, many of the dreams one hopes to find fulfilled by watching sport and then to carry the spirit of into life were realised by this fantastic Barcelona team on Tuesday’s magical night at the Camp Nou. Even if they do not go on to win the tournament, they have rendered football and the watching world another invaluable service whilst creating a night that will live long in the memories of all lucky enough to see it.

Ferguson and his lionhearted team suffer tragic travesty of justice

If ever there was a moment when the so-called guardians of football, in the form of UEFA and their angelic referees, shamed a great game and drained the joy out of it for its millions of adoring acolytes, it was in the fifty-sixth minute of the second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid yesterday. For in choosing to utterly reject his duty to uphold the spirit and occasion of one of football’s most sacrosanct events – the meeting of two torch-carriers of the game in Manchester United and Real Madrid -, in favour of enforcing a crassly pedantic interpretation of the rules, referee Cuneyt Cakir committed blasphemy against the sport. What other phrase is there to bestow on such a capricious, careless act undertaken by a match official on as big a night as this which at a stroke neutered one team, pre-determined the outcome and destroyed one of the greatest spectacles football has offered for years?

If Cakir so reprehensibly failed to grasp the significance of the occasion, and importance not to let unnecessary refereeing interventions cripple it, others did not. Sir Alex Ferguson as good as admitted in his programme notes that the biggest source of kindling that keeps his hunger burning bright for the game at 71 was the prospect of grand European duels on nights such as this, with “a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.” For fifty-six minutes, the game between these two great clubs lived up to every one of those hopes and dreams evoked by Ferguson above, and it would have delighted him that his players were largely responsible for that. From first to fifty-sixth minute, they put in a performance of such warrior-like commitment and panache that it adorned football in a magnificent light before one of its largest watching audiences since the last World Cup. These were players who were deservedly etching their names in history with giant-sized performances to match the greatness of the occasion, and who were doing a sterling job in conveying Manchester United’s name as a vehicle for all that is good and inspiring in the game.

How galling, when such stirring footballing lore was in the midst of being created, that a pint-sized insurance agent with an inflated sense of his own power should step in and decide at the injudicious stroke of a card what would happen instead. How galling that one man should wipe out the greatness of United’s performance from the history books, with no consultation of his linesmen in making his decision, nor admittance of the need not to despoil the occasion unless it was absolutely necessary. Ferguson did not prolong his career to have the night which was promising to bring the sum of his labours together in thrilling apotheosis on the pitch, and rank alongside his finest achievements, ruined in such an unnatural way. United had forced Real into a corner through a stunning array of the most fundamental sporting values – competitiveness, tactical ingenuity, physical stamina, lionheartedness – only for that to be rendered null and void by a decision that corrupted the occasion.

If UEFA think there is no need to offer so much as a platitudinous apology for what was allowed to pass as footballing justice yesterday, they are grossly mistaken. Their democratic policy of choosing referees from a variety of countries with different interpretations of the rules has belittled a competition that is supposed to represent the apex of the game in every sense. Juventus were allowed to grapple and manhandle Celtic’s players at every opportunity at set-pieces in their first leg, in full view of the much-vaunted extra referees; but in last year’s competition, AC Milan were reduced to ten men against Barcelona for doing the same thing. In 2011, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and his marching orders against Barcelona for an offence as trivial as kicking the ball following the referee’s whistle at a point when Arsenal were ahead in the tie, which meant the referee effectively guaranteed a Barcelona comeback; Chelsea suffered much the same against them last year when John Terry was sent off for an offence that an official more in sync with the occasion could easily have issued him a yellow for. Chelsea were also denied a place in the Champions League final of 2009 by a referee who seemed determined not to award them a single penalty despite the evidence piling up to the contrary in their semi-final. Greater consistency in decisions, more merit-based election of officials and, above all, an appreciation that they are there to protect the spirit of the occasion rather than dictate its outcome with heavy-handed decisions is sorely required if fans are not to begin growing disillusioned with the tournament. For there is no doubt that plenty of neutrals would have woken up this morning feeling that Manchester United had been denied their rightful place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the cruellest manner possible, and that the lack of any correction of these grievances will lead to some adopting a resigned, apathetic attitude to this tournament in the future.

Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Arsenal missing out on plenty if they let Sagna fly away

Arsenal can seemingly never free themselves from the merry-go-round of mediating with players who are approaching the final year of their contracts, and Bacary Sagna’s name is next up on that wearisome list. Whether through some form of fatigue with this issue, or failing to fully appreciate the contribution that an experienced Sagna could make to this regenerating Arsenal side over the next five years, the fans have remained conspicuously silent up to now over Arsenal’s reluctance to tie him down to a new, long-term contract.

That is a mistake. If there is one player who can offer a convincing deconstruction of Arsenal’s blanket policy of viewing all players over the age of thirty in the same diminishing light through offers of one-year contracts at most, it is Sagna. Arsenal fans have spent so long lamenting the loss of a succession of key players that they have blinded themselves to the richly satisfying fact that one player worthy of comparison to those that jumped ship chose to remain behind and dedicate his career to the club. Before his leg breaks, there was a compelling case for Sagna to be compared to the best right-backs in Europe, but he has never once shown a hint of the disaffection that players giving the impression they had outgrown the club regularly displayed. Until injury and uncertainty over his contract status began afflicting him this season, there had never been so much as a waver in the consistency of his on-pitch excellence. Arsenal have been crying out for legends, for players of stature and wholehearted devotion to grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them closer to glory once more, and Sagna has grown into those shoes.

It was in the fraught 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few weeks ago, where Arsenal stood firm against waves and waves of pressure after Carl Jenkinson had been dismissed on 56 minutes, that Sagna both confirmed his status as a sportsman of the finest competitive breed and offered a glimpse of the benefits Arsenal could gain from trading their veterans’ policy for a more meritorious, case-by-case approach. Shifted to centre-back right before kick-off following Laurent Koscielny’s injury in the pre-match warm-ups, Sagna came to Arsenal’s rescue time and again through an outstanding display of last-ditch tackling, towering headers and perfect positional sense. As Sunderland sent yet another threatening cross into the box in those nerve-wracked final few minutes, and Sagna rose yet again to thump the ball clear with a towering header, there was the sense of a player whose excellence was the product of commitment to his club’s cause and regret at time lost to two broken legs as much as through innate ability. It is these kind of qualities, alchemised to such perfection on the football pitch, that have the ability to win the hearts of fans, raise the young nucleus of Arsenal’s squad to greater heights, and forge the intangible spirit around the club that has been so sorely lacking in recent times.

Other clubs have recognised the important role that older players of the finest professional instincts play in creating a spirit around the club that breeds excellence. Barcelona have Carlos Puyol to embody Herculean drive and devotion; Chelsea have long thrived behind the siege mentality so defiantly heralded by John Terry; and Manchester United have Ryan Giggs to put any one below his age at the club to shame for so much as taking a breather during such sacrosanct rituals as training, recovery and on-pitch commitment. Rather than force Sagna to reassess his loyalties by failing to offer him anything more than a one-year contract, Arsenal could seal a warrior for life by giving him a five-year contract to play at both right-back and, increasingly centre-back, and demonstrating that their loyalty to him is bound by something more than concern that the player may be slightly more susceptible to injuries following two broken legs. Their reward for such a faith-based gamble would be the potentially crucial role that Sagna would play on the pitch in forging the type of spirit around the club that makes champions out of their growing stable of young starlets. As Arsene Wenger seeks to build yet another Arsenal team brimming with youth and talent out of the ashes of the last one, he would do well to consider these benefits before ushering Sagna out of the door when he still has much to offer.

Chelsea’s treatment of Benitez worthy of boos

If heaping abuse upon Rafael Benitez before he had even been given one match to prove himself was bad enough, Chelsea fans have now come out and said that they will continue to vilify him in the future. At a club whose capabilities to shock with their flagrant disregard for good conduct and good football people have been in the spotlight in recent times, this still stands out as an egregious injustice capable of showing yet another aspect of their multifaceted ugly side.

If there was more than the thinnest wisp of substance behind the campaign to deny Benitez a chance, neutrals may grudgingly turn the other cheek to the rampant humiliation of him that was on display on Sunday. Yet Benitez’s crime extends to nothing more than ousting a Mourinho-led Chelsea in two titanic Champions League tussles in 2005 and 2007 as well as 2006’s FA Cup, and offering some platitudes implying that nothing – not even Chelsea’s flag-waving fans – could match the passion of the supporters of the club he was in charge of before a particularly important match between the two. It is understandable that the manager of a club would have wanted to rally its most important constituents – players and supporters – before a match by choosing fighting words, and one need scarcely remind Chelsea’s fans of the scandalous lengths Jose Mourinho would go to in his attempts to rally them. Such attempts led to one referee retiring to protect his family, after receiving death threats from Chelsea fans whose anger had been stirred by their manager’s vapid accusation that he had colluded with Barcelona to oust Chelsea from the Champions League, and also included complaining bitterly about Liverpool’s “ghost goal” that led to Benitez triumphing over them in one of the Champions League semi-finals. Was it the then-Liverpool manager’s fault that the lack of goal-line technology had claimed another victim, or was Mourinho’s subsequent sniping at Benitez the product of a man who has never known how to take defeat and the vacillating fortunes of a game hostage to human error in the right spirit?

All Benitez did in those duels with Mourinho was prove himself a manager capable of holding his own against the best, and offering some stability to the steering wheel at Chelsea. Instead he has been greeted with the seething and spitting venom of a crowd who were given a lesson in bitterness and shifting blame from their most famous manager in the Abramovich era that they have been only too happy to display frequently. In the malicious mocking of every fan on Sunday one could see the evidence of Jose Mourinho’s legacy at Chelsea, and one reason why that club have become such a symbol of scorn and recrimination in the Premier League. Rafael Benitez is merely a very credible manager with an impressive track better who deserves better, and no amount of digging up the past history of Liverpool and Chelsea will point to anything more than the fact that their fans are acting out of a sense of spite and hate that was taught them by Mourinho and which they have proved reluctant to relinquish since.

Premier League forwards serve up wonderful entertainment, and Suarez is pick of the bunch

The Premier League has been lavishly gifted this season with the array of talented forwards that its top clubs have put together. On any given weekend, fans can marvel at the sight of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck causing spontaneous combustion at Manchester United. Fernando Torres may be struggling to remember what a great striker he was, but that hasn’t made seeing the slick interplay of Chelsea’s talented triumvirate behind him any less compelling. Olivier Giroud is beginning to find his feet at Arsenal, his demonstration of quick thinking allied to remarkable strength in the manic 3-3 draw with Fulham hopefully the first of many to come, and who cannot fail to feel fortunate to be watching the Premier League when two of the best Argentine forwards in the world are strutting their breathtaking stuff in every match for Man City?

However, even in that daunting cast, there is one man who is rising head and shoulders above every one with his exhilarating mix of sheer brilliance and individual fortitude and he is Luis Suarez of Liverpool. The hat-trick against Norwich was the first sign that a player who could score thirty goals a season if he took more of his chances was finally becoming more clinical, but in then single-handedly hauling Liverpool from defeat to the brink of victory against Newcastle, Everton and Chelsea with five goals across all three matches he proved that his talent knows no bounds. It is launched from the springboard of a strong-willed, indivualistic personality with fire in his belly, as proven by his wonderfully cheeky dive in front of David Moyes after scoring a goal, in response to criticism of his antics from the Everton manager, and by the plays he attempts on the pitch. When faced with a defender, he without fail turns to improvisation and attempts a trick that re-creates the childlike joy of football from the street or playground – and which is recognisable to every fan – in the professional theatre of the Premier League. It is a delight to see him mug a well-honed defender who has been prepped with tactical knowledge with a trick that has been invented on the spot and strips the sport back to its basics, just as it is a delight to see how often he looks to bring his teammates into play with inch-perfect passes that are every bit as good as his runs and skills. He radiates brilliance just as he hustles with grit and determination, and this effort is endearing to fans who recognise that his inimitable talent nevertheless draws upon his insatiable work ethic and proud, wilful determination to give everything in service of the cause. It is not just Liverpool who are indebted to him, but every single viewer who is in love with football and recognises the wider zest for life and activity in his play that holds the key to mobilising one’s talent and creativity.

There was an altogether different thrill associated with watching Robin van Persie materialise in Arsenal’s penalty box as if out of thin air to poke home a lofted ball from Patrice Evra in Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat of them two weekends ago. Van Persie failed on that occasion, but the movement was so ghostlike, so sudden, as to be barely believable. Premier League fans should celebrate the variety on display between a van Persie, with his invisible, wraith-like movement and a Suarez or Aguero, who combine outstanding talent with the endearing hustling qualities from the streets of the continent they come from. At this moment in time, Suarez occupies the number one place in many fans’ affections, and perhaps this has something to do with his multi-layered, compelling personality as well as the way his character shines so clearly through his football (much like an Andrei Arshavin as well). One writer imagined the damage Suarez could wreak playing for a Chelsea or a Manchester United, but there is a more tempting hypothesis. What if Barcelona had not bought the faltering Alexis Sanches for the purpose of running at defenders and creating havoc alongside Lionel Messi and Pedro, but Suarez instead? With his intelligence and box of tricks, Suarez would have taken to the task like a box to water, benefitted enormously from the service of Xavi and Iniesta and the glow cast by playing with Messi, and Barcelona would have found the key to unlocking stubborn defences that sit back as most obviously displayed by Celtic a few weeks ago. A player of Suarez’s heroism and talent deserves the stage and acclaim of a club like Barcelona, but Liverpool’s struggles and the way it perhaps elevates his efforts, mean that he is certainly not under-appreciated in the Premier League. Sergio Aguero may be snapping at his heels, and Fernando Torres may be a sad warning sign of how many twists and turns a player can take throughout the course of his career, but right now Luis Suarez is playing at a level and with a determination that will even cause those who claim he is a curse upon the game to reluctantly admit there is something special and likeable about this boy.

Lloris dilemma of Levy’s making, rather than Villas-Boas’s

The subplot of Hugo Lloris’s restlessness continues to destabilise Andre Villas Boas’s attempts to impose his authority on Tottenham, and the blame for such an unwelcome situation lies entirely at the door of the club chairman David Levy. Just this week Lloris spoke out once again about his unhappiness with the situation at Tottenham, and Villas Boas was again forced to pull off the difficult job of appearing in command whilst being repetitively pestered about when Lloris will get his chance in his Friday press conference.

It is one of the mysteries of the Premier League that Levy’s record at Tottenham has not yet been held up under a spotlight and examined with a clear, objective eye. Yet even a cursory glance will reveal that he has hired wrong managers for wrong reasons, fired right managers at wrong times, attempted to take control of football affairs out of managerial hands to devastating effect, and treated players with a heavy-handed contemptuousness that benefitted neither party. People praise him for holding Dimitar Berbatov back from Manchester United’s clutches for long enough to extract the maximum possible price, without remembering that the consequences of such a protracted saga were Tottenham failing to sufficiently replenish their strike force before the transfer window shut and spending half the season in last place until Harry Redknapp arrived to bail them out. Similarly this year, he chose to play hardball with Luka Modric and Real Madrid and perhaps let his desire to preserve his reputation as a hard negotiator get in the way of the need to ensure that such lengthy negotiations did not deprive him of enough time to replace Modric or Van de Vaart. True enough, Tottenham’s dragging of their feet in the transfer market led them to miss out on a player who would have lent assurance to their faltering performances  and provided the creative missing piece to the jigsaw in Joao Moutinho.

Yet to discuss Levy’s failings in the transfer market is to only look at one aspect of his defects as chairman of Tottenham. His rearrangement of the traditional dimensions of the relationship between a chairman and manager, where the manager spells out players he wants based on his football knowledge and the chairman sanctions the acquisitions after rigorous financial checks, has been behind many of Tottenham’s on-pitch woes. It is made worse by the fact that Levy overrides his manager’s better judgement by acting on a peculiar mix of vanity and self-regard that permeates Tottenham’s club culture, rather than from the conviction that his decisions will reap clear footballing benefits. All the peculiar, illogical footballing decisions Tottenham have taken over the last decade can be attributed to Levy’s desire to attract big, exotic names that resonate with his vain image of his club. Jacques Santini and Juande Ramos must have come across as sophisticated foreign managerial imports, and associating the club with Brazilian names such as Sandro and Willian must have carried the same sense of self-gratification. Equally, what footballing logic was there in recruiting Hugo Lloris when Brad Friedel was still performing an admirable job and a goalkeeper was not high on Tottenham’s list of transfer priorities? Villas Boas’s actions in keeping him on the bench seem to suggest he would not have sanctioned the decision, so it is plausible to imagine that a man with as big an ego as Levy might have taken to Lloris – French captain and established European name – because he still yearns to associate his club with the glamour of their bigger rivals.

That decision has now backfired as Villas Boas is forced to confront a challenge to his authority that reappears every week, and has the potential to escalate if results don’t go his way. Yet the man who will be forced to take the fall if such a decision contributes to Tottenham’s season continuing to go off course will not be the one who made it, but the manager. There has been one constant in the fifteen years in which steady and tangible improvement has largely eluded Tottenham, and it has not been any manager but an overweening chairman. Levy is the managing director of ENIC International, who own a controlling stake in Tottenham, but his close business and personal links to ENIC’s majority owner Joe Lewis ought not to give him free rein to arbitrarily rule Tottenham as he pleases. He seems to have forgotten that, unlike an Abramovich who can do what he likes to an entity he fully owns no matter how ill-advised or unhelpful, his decision-making as a chairman can be held accountable to the club’s fans and shareholders. Creating transfer committees that take the recruitment of players out of Villas Boas’s hands and force him to deal with big names he never asked for should be warranting scrutiny from fans right now. Yet Levy carries on unaffected, with most people praising him for suddenly terminating the four-year reign of Harry Redknapp that coincided with the best period of stability Tottenham had seen for a while and already turning against a successor who has been deprived a balanced squad as a result of his chairman’s desire to redirect money to the addition of an unnecessary big name. At the same time, the narrative of closing the gap to Arsenal – a team whose slide from grace means that any comparison will be deceptive – continues unabated and Tottenham’s fans continue to shun the hard, inward-looking questions required to achieve real progress rather than the odd season featuring in the Champions League. The good work that was largely attributable to Harry Redknapp has dried up with his departure and Levy’s subsequent missteps in the transfer market, and if this season does not result in an acceptable shoring up effort, it should be Levy rather than another manager with exotic currency in Villas Boas who will have more questions to answer.