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.

Agassi serves up a fault with claim that men’s tennis has never been better

The great Andre Agassi passed some interesting remarks on the lavish state of men’s tennis currently, and in doing so, effectively dismissed his own era as not comparable in quality. This was some judgement to pass, considering that his era contained players of the talent and imagination of Pete Sampras, Agassi himself, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten and Michael Chang, and so his comments beg closer scrutiny.

Agassi drew a fascinating tactical comparison between how the game was played in his day, and how the range of shots that players can pull off now has rendered those tactics redundant and triggered an “evolution” of the game:

“In my day, somebody who ran well was [Michael] Chang,” Agassi said. “He’s just going to get to one more ball, but that’s his problem if he wants to run one more time, you know. It’s not mine.

“And then you saw it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who would move even better. If you just were off on one [shot], he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. Now you got problems if you don’t keep him on the defensive. And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably moves even better than Hewitt ever moved and doesn’t need to turn a point around. When he’s on defence, he can actually win the point with one shot. That’s an evolution of the game.”

Such insight from the eight-time Grand Slam winner suggests he is a fantastic pundit in the making, and the sight of his familiar shaved pate at Melbourne Park as prize-giver to the finalists was a stirring and timely reminder of an era of men’s tennis that could certainly hold its own to this one when it came to dynamic personalities and compelling rivalries, as well as perhaps providing ample ammunition against the growing number of claimants – Agassi now among them – that it was impoverished in comparison to the modern day in its standard of tennis. For while few would argue that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s 2008 Wimbledon epic stands head and shoulders above most other claimants as the purest display of tennis excellence in the modern era, who could equally say that the latent enmity detectable in every match-up between two players and people as markedly different as black and white as Sampras and Agassi were was anything short of pure sporting drama? The quality of matches they put on also challenges the notion that anything Nadal and Federer produced in their titanic clashes was somehow on another plane; Sampras’s straight-set evisceration of Agassi at the 1999 Wimbledon final had commentators ooo’ing and aaah’ing far before Federer elicited the same sounds from them, and the two Americans’ five-set clash at the very same Australian Open where Agassi was consigning his era to the ashes of memory still stands as a shining monument to how sport played between the very best can thrill and inspire. Agassi was dressed in black that day, Sampras in white and the two knights of American tennis duelled back and forth with their unforgettable confrontation of imaginative shot-making of the highest order (Sampras) and nearly inhuman returning and retrieving capabilities that stretched each point to fever pitch (Agassi).

It is the way this generation, led by Djokovic, has improved on the retrieving capabilities that he was so famed for and upon whom Andy Murray, among others, modelled his game that Agassi has now settled to pitch his argument that tennis has moved on. Michael Chang used to be able to return one well-struck ball with his athletic ability, Lleyton Hewitt pushed that further to being able to return and move forward, and now Djokovic can simply reach a potential winner and smack a winner back from an impossible angle with his dizzying mix of athletic ability and shot-making talent. In Agassi’s eyes, the difference between offence and defence has therefore narrowed, and the game has become nearly impossible to plan in a tactical sense. One explosive winner may simply be returned by another explosive winner, and so players stop thinking about dictating points and more about hitting off pure instinct. His theory is borne out by what we saw in the men’s final yesterday, which was a continuation of the mind-blowing, hit-first-look-later, ping-pong rallies that have characterised Djokovic and Murray’s recent encounters.

Agassi’s analysis of the game and its changes is as shrewd as you might expect from one of the most gifted tennis players of the last twenty years; where he falls short, however, is in his attribution of the causes for this “evolution.” In only fleetingly attempting to shed light on what has been behind the change – his remark that he would “have had to have a different body [to play now]” alone pointing the way to the vast improvements in sports science and recovery potential that form part of the reason – , he leaves us with the impression that it is largely to do with the inherent quality of this generation’s set of players over any other factor. Indeed, he even distinguishes between the big four, claiming that while “Fed raised [the standard]”, Nadal “matched and raised it, [and] Djokovic, for that intense period of time, even raised it.” To suggest that Nadal and Djokovic have somehow taken tennis to a level that even Federer could not reach, and that a pattern of constant improvement in the quality of players will be evident so that those following the Big Four will be even better than them (“Something tells me it’s not going to stop here…every five years it seems to click up a different level”) should give everyone pause for thought. Is Agassi not doing a disservice to every great in the history of a great game – including, in that penultimate quotation, Federer, by suggesting that they bear no comparison to anything the latest in the game can produce? Is he not, in fact, talking about the changes that technology and sports science have foisted on tennis, and how it is this, rather than any gigantic leap in the quality of individuals that has transformed the face of the game?

For every time we see Djokovic miraculously sliding across the surface to smack back a ball seemingly already past him to the opposite side of the net with interest, or Murray make a dramatic forehand pass down the line whilst on the run, we marvel at what these players can do and inevitably allow the talents of the Sampras-Agassi generation to dwindle by comparison in our impressionable minds. However, it is abundantly clear that these scarcely believable feats of athletic prowess and tennis ability have almost as much to do with the most dedicated professionals amongst today’s batch taking full advantage of the gargantuan leaps in sports science and racket technology as inherent ability. A cursory glance at the eclectic combination of sprints and tailored weights that comprise Murray’s fitness regimen reveals the extent to which fitness trainers have zeroed in on the kind of body the tennis player of today requires: 4/10’s sprinter (explosive speed), 3/10’s footballer (sudden changes of movement), 3/10’s boxer (cardio and upper body strength). In Sampras’s day, a player would perhaps travel with his coach but now two or three fitness trainers can sometimes be seen sitting in Murray’s box and the benefit of these additions is reflected in the additional balls he reaches from the back of the court in such superhuman fashion.

Once he gets there, however, he still has to make the shot and that is where the racket comes in. Christopher Clarey of The New York Times has reported on how “strings are the real breakthrough in the past decade” and specifically, how “the development of polyester strings has changed the game by allowing players to take bigger cuts without bigger risks.” Thus all those shots that have audience members gasping out loud – Djokovic running like lightning across the baseline to smack a backhand winner that lands flush on the line, or Murray taking an explosive swing at the ball to increase its pace but still landing it in the corner – must be taken with a pinch of salt. How do they reproduce the impossible on such a regular basis, the audience wonders? How have they improved tennis so much? Players from the 90’s may have had access to the same wide frames characterising Djokovic and Nadal’s rackets that also help improve margin for error on shots, but polyester strings have apparently taken it to another level. The game has become punishingly athletic as a result, with stronger athletes being allowed to smack the ball back without finesse to destructive effect and those favouring shots such as the one-handed backhand being forced to discard it simply because the ball is coming back quicker, and net play becoming redundant as coming forward risks being passed by another polyester-aided, perfectly placed pass.

This is not to detract from anything that Djokovic, Nadal and Murray are producing now; given their gifts and searing ambition, they would have adapted and succeeded in any era, just as Sampras and Agassi would have moulded the quantum leaps in rackets and sports science to their inherently superior advantage if they were playing now. However, dubbing any era as a “golden age for tennis” has to speak for human qualities alone, and there is no doubt that people’s perception of soaring standards has been deceptively skewed by factors that are anything but. Shot-making is at an all-time high, but it is also easier to strike a ball with the perfect combination of power and accuracy than it was ten years ago. Players from outside the Big Four are able to produce great shots without necessarily being great, thus devaluing the art and our ability to distinguish true genius or improvisation from that which has been powdered over by technology to appear so. Any comparisons of Nadal and Djokovic to previous generations would therefore have to accept the premise that they are benefitting from a perfect fusion of (admittedly unique) sporting talent with significant breakthroughs in racket technology and sports science to a much greater extent than anyone before them. They are both tennis player and athlete, and it is becoming increasingly hard to separate the two. The aesthetic change accompanying the evolving landscape may not be to everyone’s taste either –  yesterday’s match between Murray and Djokovic was stunning, but also brutalizing; finesse was lost in the constant barrage of shots, and the everyday tennis player might have felt alienated from the turbo-charged game they were watching on television. It was a far cry from the purer form of the game that was practised in Agassi’s time, and it is worth bearing this in mind as we shower unchecked praise on the feats of the modern generation.

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.

Blundering Mancini continues in relative security

So Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has now met with representatives of Falco to discuss a possible future deal for the £45 million pound striker. One might think that a manager who is in charge of four world-class strikers and struggling to get enough goals out of them might consider such a move a damning indictment of his managerial qualities, but apparently Mancini has no such qualms. His attempts to dress up the naked poaching of any player who seems to provide a stop-gap solution to his problems as long-term team-building may find approval with his patient owners for longer than it does with others. However there’s only so long a man can pull wool over people’s eyes, and failure to get out of the Champions League group stages for two years in a row has nothing to do with inexperience and everything with incompetence – as does the failure to make the most of the lavishly gifted squad already at his disposal.

…and Arshavin’s little cameos also worth keeping an eye on

One more player to keep a close watch on is Andrei Arshavin. Any player that gifted who also finds and starts burning reserves of determination and commitment is bound to shine, and Arshavin sent out a positive signal by electing to stay at Arsenal – despite being out of contract in 2013 – in the face of positive overtures from wealthy Russian suitors in preseason. He has since provided a string of important and eye-catching moments that helped Arsenal’s cause, and proved he still has a valuable part to play for the club – whether from the bench or starting matches. One was the cross that led to the winning goal in the last ten minutes against QPR, another his positive performance in the 7-5 comeback against Reading in the Capital Cup, and he also weighed in with the assist for Santi Cazorla’s damage-limitation goal against Manchester United that was important from a psychological standpoint. He then created the penalty that gave Arsenal a chance to win the match against Fulham yesterday afternoon that was subsequently passed up by Mikel Arteta. If Martin Jol’s allegation that Arshavin deliberately struck the ball against Fulham right-back Riether to get the penalty is true, it will only add to the estimation of some that he is a true original, a player whose quick thinking and off-pitch humour and interests manifest charmingly in his play. While it is a shame that his Arsenal career has not gone as well as some may have hoped after he announced himself with four goals in a single match against Liverpool, there may be yet be a final chapter to the Arshavin story waiting to be played out. If he joins Wilshere, Cazorla et al in hauling Arsenal up from the abyss they are currently staring at, he will be remembered for more than just fleeting moments of magic and brilliance.

Wilshere’s comeback a cause for real optimism amidst the doom and gloom

If there is one reason for beleaguered Arsenal fans to refrain from completely losing hope over Arsenal’s chances this season, it is the return of Jack Wilshere. His comeback brings more with it than the addition of a very good player, and one who will help Arsenal regain a modicum of the composure in possession that was once their hallmark and was alarmingly bereft in the crazed draw with Fulham yesterday. He also brings qualities of passion and fearlessness to his play that have too often been missing from Arsenal’s players in recent times. In the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, there was nothing more exasperating than the sense that Arsenal’s players – apart from a brief ten-minute spell at the start of the second half – were too afraid of their opponents to rise to the occasion and play their best football. While they were cautiously passing the ball from side to side near their own goal in the first half, perhaps more worried of making a mistake than of daring to take a positive step forward, there was only one player who remembered what it meant for Arsenal to play Manchester United and what it demanded: when Jack Wilshere wholeheartedly crunched into a tackle on Robin van Persie, he displayed a stirring sense of pride in his club – all the more heart-warming because of how absent it was from his team-mates’ play –  alongside a determination to correct their slide into impotence. It was a lionhearted tackle from a player who may yet become a lion-heart for his club and provide the missing spark of inspiration to jolt a group of players paralysed by fear into action. Their performances in recent weeks may have understandably led them to privately lower their sights but Wilshere was having none of it, talking this week of how Arsenal may need “a miracle to win the Premier League”, but they now needed to treat each fixture “as a cup game” as his club are too big to abandon the hunt for the big trophies. That tackle and that determined statement from a player who bristles with pride and commitment were rare, and significant, moments of optimism in the troubled last few weeks for Arsenal and throw into stark relief just what a gem of a footballer and personality he could be for the club.

At this stage, where his devotion has also not been tempered by the more career-focussed considerations of older players, one also detects that he will not let the failure of many at Arsenal to match his quality and commitment lead to a change of heart on his long-term future. For the time being, he will do everything in his power to haul Arsenal up to where they need to be and, if that crunching tackle and those stirring statements were just the beginning of a long and fruitful re-acquaintance with Arsenal, its fans may have reason to look to the future with a little more excitement and hope than they had previously thought.

Celtic’s passion reverberates around Europe as they revel in Glasgow rain on big night

From first minute to last, and probably well before and after kick-off, Celtic’s fans and stadium were a sight to behold and chorus to listen to in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona on Wednesday. Recalling the resplendent way in which they decorated themselves with the green-and-white colours of their crest, and the soaring volume with which they sang throughout a cold Glasgow night flashing with rain, brings goosebumps to the skin now just as it brought a smile to the face then. Here was a crowd that appreciated the convergence of Celtic’s 125th-year anniversary with the arrival of Barcelona’s majestic team of artists, and willed their team on to rise to the occasion with the same magnificence as they were doing. Here was a crowd, in short, who love the game with a passion and positivity that radiates even through the television screen and left a notable impression on Barcelona. Xavi and Pique’s fulsome, awestruck tributes to the Celtic crowd were perhaps made in the rueful acknowledgement that the Nou Camp never quite gets up to salute its players and the game in the same ravishing way. Would that a deserving team like Barcelona could experience the joy of playing a team like Celtic before supporters like those at Celtic Park every week. The wonder of British football’s culture was communicated to them loud and clear, and Celtic’s contribution on Wednesday night served to enhance the Champions League in an unforgettable way. Well done Celtic, well done Scotland, and here’s to another 125 years of raw passion and moments like Wednesday night that will live long in the memory.