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Cole Uses Champions League to Pronounce World Class Quality

Ashley Cole is a player who has often been in the headlines. Whether it was for his personal relationship and its breakdown, his on-the-pitch exploits, his training ground air rifle incident, being banned from driving or his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 he has often dominated front and back pages of the national newspapers.

He burst onto the scene as a professional footballer with Arsenal in the 2000/2001 season, profiting from an injury to Silvinho to show his promise in the Gunners’ first team. He made 228 appearances for Arsenal before eventually signing for Chelsea in August 2006, after a drawn-out affair that involved a ‘tapping-up’ meeting with Chelsea officials in January 2005.

England

He has been a regular in the England set-up since his debut in 2001 and has virtually been an automatic pick for most of the last 11 years. His time with England has also had its ups and downs for Cole. At one time he was booed by England fans at a few home matches at Wembley. And comments that came out in the media quoting Cole as saying “I hate England and the people” didn’t help his cause in 2010. But he has always performed fairly well for England. Perhaps giving his best performances in recent years as he has grown and improved as a player. His athleticism was always strength of his as a youngster, but now he has fused that with excellent positioning, one-on-one defending and timing of his tackles.

Medals

After winning 5 major trophies (excluding the Community Shield) in his 6 full seasons at Arsenal, he has surpassed that in his first 6 seasons at Chelsea with the Champions League winners triumph on Saturday being the 7th major competition’s winners medal he has picked up in that time. Whilst surprisingly he won more Premier League winners medals at Arsenal than he has thus far with Chelsea (two to one), the Champions League victory and the fact that Arsenal haven’t won a single trophy since he left should eliminate any doubt that he made the right decision to switch from North London to West London 6 years ago.

Improvement

There is also no question that Cole has improved as a player as a result of his time at Chelsea. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are said to spend very limited time working on defending in training, which can only be to the detriment of young defenders like Cole was at the time. At Chelsea he has worked under Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink – all known for being fantastic coaches and all known for having well-organised defences. Cole has reaped the rewards of this and has obviously been keen to improve. The young marauding left-back we saw at Arsenal is now a solid, reliable left-back who is rarely beaten, both in the air and on the ground. He still gets forward to support attacks but chooses the time to do it more effectively to ensure it doesn’t imbalance the team or leave them too exposed at the back. He has come up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Theo Walcott, all offering different problems, and has not been outclassed in any of those battles.

Champions League Stage for Excellence

The 2011/2012 season has been a dramatic one for Cole. Chelsea struggled for form under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas in the first half of the season. Cole found himself out of the team as Villas-Boas seemed to want to re-build the Chelsea team with younger players. A key match for Cole was the Champions League second round 1st leg away to Napoli. Cole was left on the bench, along with other experienced players, but was called upon just 12 minutes in when Jose Bosingwa limped off injured. Chelsea went down 3-1 that night in Naples but Cole made a crucial goal-line clearance to keep the score at 3-1. By the time the second leg came around, Villas-Boas had been replaced as manager by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian restored faith in the senior professionals and they all starred in a brilliant 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge to ensure progress to the quarter finals.

Two brilliant defensive performances against Benfica in the quarter-finals were followed by two world class performances against Barcelona in a dramatic two-legged semi-final. Cole was exceptional at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea defeated the holders 1-0 thanks to Didier Drogba’s goal. He was then faultless in the Nou Camp as ten-man Chelsea fought off wave after wave of Barcelona pressure to draw 2-2 and make the final.

In front of a worldwide audience in the UEFA Champions League Final of 2012, Ashley Cole confirmed his standing as a truly world class left-back with another master class performance at full-back. Facing the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lahm, Cole was rarely beaten, made another key goal-line clearance and was fantastic as Chelsea soaked up almost constant pressure from Bayern Munich to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. Cole showed nerves of steel to score a penalty in the shoot-out and help his side on the way to the trophy that has eluded them since Roman Abramovich began to plough his millions into the club in 2003. Whilst he is not perfect and could improve on his delivery into the box when in good positions to cross, he has developed over the years to the point where he can now be considered one of the best left-backs in world football.

Picture courtesy of fansfc.com.

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Phantom goal shouldn’t mask Chelsea dominance

Whilst most of the post-match talk will be of the goal that shouldn’t have been, Chelsea gave their finest performance of the season to show they mean business as they remain in 2 cup competitions and chase a top 4 league finish.

Back to his best?

Didier Drogba reminded us all of what he can do with a fantastic goal that was a throw-back to the Drogba that physically dominated opposition defences prior to his malaria scare in late-2010. Holding off ex-Chelsea defender William Gallas, Drogba pulled a long ball from Frank Lampard out of the sky and rolled Gallas beautifully before lashing an unstoppable shot past another former blue Carlo Cudicini in the Tottenham goal. This has become an increasingly rare sight in the last 18 months as Drogba doesn’t seem to bully centre-halves or have the explosive burst of acceleration that he did before suffering from the disease. But he showed he still has the ability to score goals in the big games with one of the best goals to grace the new Wembley stadium.

That goal came two minutes before half time and gave Chelsea a lead they deserved after seeing off an enthusiastic start from Tottenham and eventually controlling the pace of the game. Tottenham’s only effort on goal in the first half being a Rafael van der Vaart header cleared off the line by John Terry.

Second Half

As the second half began it was Chelsea who started quickly and looked the likely team to score the next goal. They couldn’t have predicted that it would come in such controversial circumstances though, as replays showed the ball hadn’t actually reached the goal-line before it was cleared. Referee Martin Atkinson, who was in charge at the Emirates Stadium one week ago and failed to punish Mario Balotelli for a dreadful tackle on Alex Song, gave the decision without the help of his assistant and awarded Chelsea their second goal.

Initially, that goal seemed to spark a bit of urgency into Tottenham. And they pulled a goal back 7 minutes later when a Scott Parker through ball found Adebayor one-on-one with Chelsea ‘keeper Petr Cech. The Togolese front man rounded Cech and was brought down, but referee Atkinson rightly waived play-on as Gareth Bale was there to pass the ball into an empty net unchallenged. There was then a lengthy delay before the action re-started, as David Luiz received treatment before eventually leaving the field to be replaced by Gary Cahill. This allowed emotions to simmer down on the pitch and the momentum that the goal would have given Tottenham had lessened somewhat when the action did re-start several minutes later.

Spurs began to throw more bodies forward in search of an equaliser. But Chelsea still looked the more likely scorers, looking dangerous on the counter attack with Kalou, Ramires, Mata and Drogba all looking dangerous. A spell consisting of 4 successive Tottenham corners was about as dangerous as Tottenham looked as they struggled to test Cech enough in the Chelsea goal.

Spurs Collapse

With 15 minutes remaining, Harry Redknapp replaced Dutchman van der Vaart with striker Jermain Defoe and as such changed to a 4-4-2 formation. This proved to be part of Tottenham’s downfall. Although they had to do something to try and rescue the match, this change allowed Mata, who had become more influential in this second half and had outshone Luka Modric all afternoon, to get on the ball a lot more and find space in between the Tottenham midfield and their under-performing defence. It was Mata who, after playing a simple but effective one-two with Frank Lampard, advanced towards the Spurs goal unchallenged through the centre of the pitch and lofted a brilliant ball for Ramires to lift over the advancing Cudicini to make it 3-1 on 77 minutes.

Frank Lampard added a fourth for Chelsea with 9 minutes left. Hitting the back of the net directly from a free kick, although questions should be asked of Cudicini as the ball sailed into his net at a good height for a goalkeeper and into the side of the goal he was covering. Chelsea then brought on Malouda for Ramires, and shortly after Torres for Drogba, as concentration on the Blues bench undoubtedly turned to Wednesday evening’s clash with European Champions Barcelona. The one blemish on this Chelsea performance was John Obi Mikel’s kick out at Scott Parker for which he was lucky to only receive a yellow card. Parker was uncharacteristically enraged at this, perhaps showing his frustration as it dawned on Spurs that they would face a fourth successive trophy-less season, and was booked for his reaction. Sandro then replaced Parker in the 90th minute to prevent the situation escalating.

The scoring wasn’t finished yet though as Mata capped a fine second half performance by playing another lovely ball through to substitute Florent Malouda to slot past Cudicini to ensure the final score was Chelsea 5-1 Tottenham.

Mata and Drogba will have to be at their very best if Chelsea are to have any chance against Barcelona over two legs. But this dominant and clinical victory means they will appear in at least one final this season when they return to Wembley in three weeks to face Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

Bravery and Belief The Missing Ingredients For Fulham

Fulham have earned a lot of plaudits for their performances in recent weeks. Two matches in particular stand out when The Cottagers played well against higher-placed opposition but only came away with one point out of a possible six from the two games. The games I refer to are the 1-0 defeat against Manchester United and the 1-1 draw with Chelsea. With more belief in their own ability and bravery to take the game to their opponents, Fulham could well have come away with anything up to six points from these two games.

Old Trafford

In both matches, Fulham played with their 4-2-3-1 formation. Although the three attack-minded midfielders were so deep it practically made it a 4-5-1 set-up that began both games. At Old Trafford against United, there is still a certain fear that exists amongst visiting teams that prevents them from really believing they can get a result at the biggest club ground in England. I wouldn’t say Fulham had too much of this fear as such, more a lack of belief in their own ability to take the game to United without allowing the champions to take control of the game. Fulham played some nice football in the first half and were unlucky to go in at half time a goal down after Wayne Rooney struck three minutes before the interval. Dembele and Dempsey in particular had caused the United midfield problems with their movement and Pogrebnyak ensured it wasn’t an easy night for Ferdinand and Evans despite not having many chances himself. In the second half, United began to dominate possession but without really threatening to add to their one goal advantage. But Fulham still didn’t throw caution to the wind against a United side clearly not at the races.

It wasn’t until Martin Jol sent on captain Danny Murphy with just under 20 minutes to go that Fulham began to play higher up the pitch and get more bodies forward in support of the previously isolated Pogrebnyak. In the dying minutes, United were hanging on against a side that suddenly had the belief that they could get something out of the game. And a Michael Carrick tackle on Danny Murphy as the former Liverpool midfielder surged into the penalty area failed to make contact with the ball and was wrongly ignored by referee Michael Oliver. That was a huge let-off for United. The closing stages must have left Fulham fans thinking if they had gone for it a little earlier in the game, that United were there for the taking and their side could have managed to rescue at least a point.

The visit of Chelsea

For Chelsea’s visit to Craven Cottage, Fulham were missing Pavel Pogrebnyak. Clint Dempsey played the lone striker role just a few days after becoming the club’s highest scorer in a single Premier League season. Fulham again started the game very cautiously, having good spells of possession but not really testing Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal or getting their attacking midfielders high enough up the pitch to do any real damage to their West London neighbours. As at Old Trafford just a few weeks previously, Fulham found themselves on the wrong end of a questionable penalty decision. Despite replays suggesting he might have been wrong to do so, referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Chelsea a penalty which Frank Lampard tucked away just before half-time.

As the second half progressed Fulham still seemed reluctant to come out of their shell and let their talented attacking players – Dembele, Frei and Duff – push further upfield and have a little freedom to roam and find space. Again, Fulham showed themselves to be very comfortable on the ball and not afraid to keep possession when put under pressure. In the final 15 minutes, however, the home side seemed to consciously begin to attack Chelsea. Perhaps finally sensing that this is not a great Chelsea side and that they possess enough ability in their own ranks to go toe-to-toe against anyone when they are on form, especially at Craven Cottage. Riise began bombing forward from left full-back, as he had become famous for earlier in his career at Liverpool, and Damien Duff played ten yards further forward and pinned Ryan Bertrand back for the first time in the match. The crowd could sense an equaliser was on the cards and after a run of corners were Chelsea were uncharacteristically poor at dealing with, Dempsey managed to head home for his 16th goal of the season. By this time Martin Jol had sent on Orlando Sa to add a physical presence to Fulham’s attack – further evidence of Fulham’s growing belief during the game. Fulham were still the better side in the closing stages and were looking more likely to find a winning goal. As Chelsea brought Drogba on and moved Torres to the right hand side, Ivanovic was left exposed several times, no longer receiving the support that Ramires had offered him for the first 83 minutes. This was an avenue Fulham exploited as they pushed for a winner but they eventually had to settle for a point as it finished 1-1.

What might have been

This is not intended as a criticism of Fulham or their manager Martin Jol. The Dutchman is building a good team that plays football the right way and is still in transition from the Mark Hughes team he inherited. The change in the forward line of Zamora and Johnson in front of a midfield four has been changed for the continental-style 4-2-3-1. A change which isn’t always successful straight away. Fulham now appear to be getting to grips with it and are showing they can match the ‘bigger’ clubs in the league on their day. But if Fulham had been a little braver in believing in the talent in their team, they could have come away from Old Trafford with at least a point and could easily have beaten Chelsea. Maybe next season, as Jol’s players become more and more comfortable with their formation, the manager himself will believe in his team a little more and be brave enough to take the game to the opponents in games like these.

Why Chelsea Need To End Reign Of Player Power

When Andre Villas-Boas took over as Chelsea Manager in June 2011, he probably didn’t envisage the club’s dressing room being his biggest problem during his first season in English football. A dressing room filled with international footballers and seasoned professionals would surely have been an attraction for any potential Chelsea manager following the ruthless sacking of Carlo Ancelotti. The unfortunate truth is that ever since Jose Mourinho left the club in 2007, ‘player power’ has grown to the extent that it is now too powerful at a club where it is clear to see that senior players have an influence on the rich Russian who writes the cheques.

Only the players within the club will know how it has developed to the stage that it is now at. It appears the Chelsea players, as a collective, became victims of their own success under Mourinho. The success they enjoyed on the pitch under his leadership became a new level of expectancy that had to be replicated and surpassed on a yearly basis. Since Mourinho departed, the Chelsea players have been the architects of their own downfall, seemingly clinging to the idea that the only way they can be that successful again is to do it ‘the Mourinho way’.

The Exceptions Explained

‘Player power’ at Chelsea saw an end to Felipe Scolari’s attempts at transforming the team into a more fluid, attack-minded team and the same problem seems to be rearing its ugly head again this season as Villas-Boas attempts to rebuild the side by altering its character, mentality and style. The only managers to have enjoyed any success since ‘The Special One’ are Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti. Hiddink lead the club to FA Cup glory in 2009, and Ancelotti lead The Blues to a domestic League and Cup double in 2010. But when you look back, the changes these managers made to the set-up of the team were minimal. Hiddink was only ever intended to be in charge for a short time following Scolari’s short reign and so just used the system best suited to the squad of players he inherited – which was Mourinho’s 4-3-3 system with generally the same game plan. Ancelotti’s Chelsea generally also played a 4-3-3, with Anelka forced to operate from a wider starting position, although the Italian would often use the narrow diamond midfield in a 4-4-2 that he had success at Milan with. But the temperament and approach to games of his Chelsea team consisted of the same deep defensive line, a strong spine of the team that didn’t venture out of position and counter-attacking style that typified Mourinho’s Chelsea. So the influential Chelsea players were ‘on board’ with the Italian.

Change of Style

Scolari looked to play a quicker, shorter passing style and be much more open in terms of fluidity and movement. Unfortunately he was trying to do it with what was still predominantly the Mourinho squad. A squad full of players with different capabilities and attributes compared to the Brazil and Portugal national sides that he had previously managed. Ultimately he wasn’t afforded the time needed to implement such drastic changes successfully and rumours of player revolts and key players being unhappy with the Brazilian’s plan lead to his dismissal.

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Villas-Boas is now attempting something similar all over again. He wants his team to defend higher up the pitch, press the opposition, move the ball quicker and be better in possession. As with most managers post-Mourinho, he has not had the funds to buy enough players to implement this successfully immediately. He does, however, have first-hand experience of the squad having previously worked as Mourinho’s assistant at the club. I’m sure he would love to have the same £120million transfer budget that was afforded to Claudio Ranieri in 2003 to be able to transform the squad. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, Mr Abramovich doesn’t appear to want to throw such huge sums of money around in transfer fees in support of a Manager any more (not counting the 2011 transfers of Luiz and Torres which did not appear to be signings that the manager at the time had asked for). This forces Villas-Boas, as it did Scolari before him, to do it gradually over time, possibly having to take one step backwards in order to later make larger strides forward.

Players Resisting Change?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/mihirbose/2008/05/final_proves_premier_league_cl.html

Reports of a row between players and manager in the wake of a recent defeat at Everton and the ever-growing rumours of unhappy players and the manager ‘losing the dressing room’ all suggest that ‘player-power’ at Chelsea could be about to see to another manager trying to bring change being sacked before being given a fair opportunity to do it. Maybe questions should be asked why this ‘player power’ tries to resist change. Is it because the slower-paced players such as Terry, Lampard, Mikel, Ivanovic and an ageing Drogba fear that such a change in style will result in them being shown the door? They would struggle to get a salary equal to their current contracts elsewhere after all. Or is that too cynical a suggestion? Either way, Abramovich paid FC Porto £13million in the summer to acquire his services. The least he should do now is back him, both publicly and in a meeting with the key Chelsea players who have come to believe that they are bigger than any manager of the club.

A Stronger Abramovich Needed?

Abramovich needs to be stronger. He is unquestionably a hugely successful man having amassed the personal fortune he has in business. So there is no suggestion he is a pushover or easily swayed by others. But there should be serious questions asked of him why he has previously expressed a desire for Chelsea to play a more expansive and entertaining game, yet sacked the first manager he employed to execute that and is in danger of allowing the second attempt to become an equally short affair.

The Russian billionaire should tell the Chelsea players in no uncertain terms that Villas-Boas is there for the long haul, and that they can work hard to adapt and play the way he wants them to play, or be replaced. To reinforce that support I believe he should then provide substantial funds for Villas-Boas to go out and buy a few players of similar ilk to Juan Mata in the summer.

The bottom line for me is that no group of players should ever become more important, or believe that they’re more of an indispensable commodity, than the manager. It simply isn’t a recipe for success and until Chelsea sort out their internal problems and inevitably begin to replace some of the ‘old guard’, they will struggle to move forward to the level Abramovich demands.

Written February 20th, 2012.