Sunday February 7th, 2016

If there was one guaranteed loser as Chelsea hosted Manchester United on Sunday, it was José Mourinho.

If Chelsea continued its revival, that would only reinforce what a mess its former manager had made of the first half of the season. If Manchester United ended its recent bad run at Stamford Bridge and won, that would only strengthen Louis Van Gaal’s frail grip on the reins at Old Trafford.

The match ended 1-1, but was not an advert for Mourinho.

United played with the kind of brio its fans crave. It scored with a clever team goal finished with a flamboyant flourish by Jesse Lingard. A very United goal. 

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"We were superb until the last quarter," Van Gaal said after the game.

Chelsea, overwhelmed in the first half, fought back with a fire that had died under Mourinho. Diego Costa, revived under Guus Hiddink, leveled in added time with cool aplomb. Wayne Rooney and Costa both conjured excellent chances for winners in the dying seconds but could not quite take them.

“Not boring,” as Van Gaal said of United’s midweek victory over Stoke.

Van Gaal has been galled by the persistent stories that Mourinho is about to take his job. The BBC and the Manchester Evening News reported on Friday that Mourinho and United are holding negotiations. Before Sunday’s game, Van Gaal said the reports were lies.

“I cannot believe that,” he said “There has been such nonsense created about me.”

United is now in fifth place, 12 points behind leader Leicester City and looking at a third straight season without a top-three finish let alone a sniff of the title. A quick fix no doubt appeals.

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Everything about Mourinho’s career suggests that if he wins, it is quickly. He is not a builder.

If he comes in, spends large amounts of cash, neglects the youth system, fails to win and alienates fans with his defense-first approach, United will be far worse off in two years than it is now.

After Alex Feguson took over in 1987, the club was prepared to wait six years for him to deliver a league title. Six seasons is probably unacceptable to United’s fans, its owners and their bank managers. The risk is a repeat of the long, downward cycle of uncertainty that preceded Ferguson’s appointment.

After Matt Busby quit, for the first time, in 1969, United went through seven managers before appointing Fergie. The best they could do was one second-place finish. That experience showed how an obsession with finding a quick fix only led to long-term problems. Last time, it took United 17 years to work that out.

Wenger's view — The joke about Arsène Wenger’s selective vision is so old and well-known that even the Arsenal manager, despite the eccentricities of his eyesight, seems to have heard it. His ears, it seems, work.

Arsenal ended a poor streak in the Premier League on Sunday with a 2-0 victory at Bournemouth. The Gunners hadn't won in four Premier League games and had not scored in three. It broke that drought with two goals in 90 seconds midway through the second half. They then sat back and allowed Bournemouth little flurries of pressure at the start and end of the second half. In the end, however, this was the sort of routine victory over a promoted team that title contenders should pile up. It lifted Arsenal back into third just as Leicester and Tottenham, seemed to be breaking away.

Yet the game could have been different if Mathieu Flamini had been sent off for a lunge at Dan Gosling after nine minutes. Flamini went to ground and raised his studs so early, that Gosling had time to take evasive action and avoid damage. Perhaps that’s why Kevin Friend only showed a yellow card.

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“I thought it was a red,” Eddie Howe, the Bournemouth manager told Sky Sports. “I had a good view. It looked like it was two footed and potentially off the floor.”

Wenger took a different view. Last week he complained that the officials had cost Arsenal victory after a 0-0 draw with Southampton. This week, the Arsenal manager failed to see that Friend might have erred in favor of Arsenal.

“Honestly live, I thought it was a foul for us,” Wenger told Sky. “I thought he was first on the ball.”

When the interviewer expressed incredulity, Wenger laughed. Victory puts any manager in good humor, but Wenger is smart enough to know his reputation. He knew viewers would be laughing and he joined in before adding some qualifiers.

“Was his foot high? Certainly, because the referee gave that. Was it a red card? I think it would have been a bit harsh.”

If Arsenal was unlucky last week, it was fortunate on Sunday. These things even out, though of course Wenger, like quite a few other coaches, believes that in a fair world, all marginal decisions should go in his favor.

Walk out! Walk out! — After 77 minutes at Anfield on Saturday, the home fans sung a rousing chorus of “Walk On, Walk On” and then started leave. They did not walk out alone. The BBC estimated that 10,000 left. They were protesting plans to increase the top ticket price to £77 ($111.7).

Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain, insisted that the empty seats were no excuse for the home team throwing away a two-goal lead and drawing, 2-2, against struggling Sunderland. He said the players were “professionals.” They are very well paid professionals too. Henderson earns a reported £100,000 a week. That is the root of Liverpool’s dilemma.

Henderson’s implicit argument that the absence of fans should not influence performance goes against one of the Premier League’s great selling points: its passionate and noisy fans singing their clubs to victory.

The domestic TV contract for the Premier League will jump 70 percent next season. If past patterns repeat, the international contracts will show a similar rise.

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According to Deloitte’s soccer “Rich List”, last season only 19 percent of Liverpool’s £391 million revenue came from match-day sources. The vast bulk came from TV and sponsorship. If match-day revenue stayed at that level, the percentage of the club’s revenue generated by home games would fall to 11 percent with the new TV contract in place.

Deloitte’s survey shows why Liverpool has a problem. In the Socialist Republic of the Premier League, TV revenues are distributed fairly equally. The difference maker is match-day revenue. The team one place above Liverpool in the rich list, Arsenal, made £435 million last season. That gap is entirely down to the fact that the Gunners generate 30 percent of their revenue on match days at the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium where the highest ticket price is £97.

That is why Liverpool has spent £260 million on redeveloping the main stand at Anfield. The new building will open next season, adding 8,500 seats and taking the capacity to 54,000. Some of those seats will cost £77. And that has the fans mad.

The problem is the North-South wealth divide in England. Arsenal can charge its fans more because those fans earn more, on average, than those in Liverpool. The other two big London clubs, Tottenham and Chelsea, are working on redevelopments that will push their ground capacities past 60,000. Expect ticket prices well beyond £90 at both grounds. Meanwhile, the British taxpayer is making a gift of the London Olympic Stadium to West Ham. It will hold at least 54,000 for soccer games.

Of the Northern clubs, only Manchester United has shown it can fill a huge stadium while charging high prices. Cynics might argue that is because so many United fans are rich Londoners.

Brendan Rodgers, fired as Liverpool manager in October, said on British TV on Sunday: "The club needs to look at it and decide whether they want a business model or a winning model.” The problem is more complicated. Unless the Fenway Sports Group finds it can afford to lose money at the rate Manchester City do, Liverpool needs to increase revenue to stay competitive.

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By the time Henderson’s five-year contract expires, £100,000 a week will be small change to the four London clubs in their shiny stadiums. Liverpool needs to find a way to compete. Yet it cannot afford to damage one of its biggest assets: the special aura of the Kop.

One of the advantages the privately owned English clubs have always had over fan-controlled rivals in Germany and Spain is that they can charge what the market will bear, even if that prices out “traditional” fans. The walkout at Anfield and the refusal of Arsenal season-ticket holders to pay a supplement of £30 for the upcoming game against Barcelona, which will likely be Arsenal’s last home match in the lucrative Champions League this year, show that English fans are finally willing to object.

The ultimate protest, of course, is simply staying away. That would hurt English clubs in every market. For the global viewers who fund those huge TV contracts, full grounds are reassurance that they are seeing worthwhile events. If the local fans aren’t watching, why should they? Premier League clubs cannot risk empty seats. The eerie last 13 minutes at Anfield on Saturday were a chilling warning of the dangerous tightrope English clubs walk, even if the sight of Sunderland scoring twice provided a satisfying slice of both entertainment and karma.

Experience not necessary — Ever since he cheated on Tottenham and ran off with the neighbor, Sol Campbell has tried to justify his behavior by telling everyone who would listen how unattractive his jilted ex is.

Campbell was at it again this week in a blog on sports site.

“I think the same can be said of Spurs as that of Leicester - experience under pressure could be key to success,” he wrote.

Campbell tried to anticipate those who might want to point out that Tottenham has four players, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Erisken, who have won at least one Dutch league title and one, Alderweireld, who has a Spanish league winner’s medal. The former England center back added:  “They don't have players who have experienced success in a league of this quality.”

One answer to Campbell is that, while it might be true that there are some players who do repeatedly crack under pressure, it’s impossible to know who they are in advance. For even the most successful player, there is always a first trophy.

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The other answer is: Watch Leicester City. The core of the Leicester team is made up of players who had never played top-division soccer anywhere before the start of last season. They include N’Golo Kanté (who was promoted with Caen in France in 2014), Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan and Jamie Vardy. Kasper Schmeichel had played just eight Premier League games for Manchester City. It took most of them almost a season to work out that they could play top-division soccer. Leicester’s successful battle against relegation last year was proof that they don’t crack.

On Saturday, Leicester looked better under pressure at the Etihad than the home team, twice champion in the last four years. The Foxes showed no nerves as they outworked, outfought and out-thought Manchester City to win 3-1.

But maybe the victory also proved Campbell’s point. Not counting backup goalie Mark Schwarzer, who was a Premier League winner without playing a minute at Chelsea last year and might do the same this season, Leicester have one Premier League Champion: that deeply unlovable thug Robert Huth. Huth won two Premier League titles with Chelsea in 2005 and 2006, though he made only a total of only 23 league appearances in those two seasons. He joined Leicester at the start of last February, when the Foxes were bottom of the Premier League with 15 matches left. It picked up 24 points in those games. In recent weeks, Huth has been making the difference in opposing penalty areas in  big matches.  

On January 13, Huth scored the late winner from a corner as Leicester ended a three-match scoring drought and won, 1-0, at Spurs. On Saturday, he scored the first and third goals from set pieces as Leicester beat City. On both occasions, Huth was the difference between a victory and a draw.

Maybe he would not have scored those goals if he had not played in a league-winning team. Or is that putting too much faith in the mystical power of previous success?

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