The managerial revolving door, an FA Cup fallacy, more EPL thoughts
1. The managers merry-go-round. While Sir Alex Ferguson bid farewell to United fans amid an orgy of adulation at Old Trafford on Sunday, the other Manchester manager, Roberto Mancini, was left squirming in front of the television cameras at Wembley on Saturday among reports that City had interviewed Manuel Pellegrini of Malaga for his job. Mancini might have been the only person who believed it when he insisted he would still be City manager at the start of next season. It turns out that he wasn't even City manager by the end of Sunday.
While Mancini bowed out as a loser in a game that mattered, beaten in the FA Cup final on Saturday, Ferguson won his last game at Old Trafford, 2-1, against pesky Swansea. It was an afternoon for Fergie's old guard. Paul Scholes, also retiring, started. Ryan Giggs, who played more games for Ferguson than anyone else, came on. The third-oldest player, Rio Ferdinand, thundered in the winner to become United's 20th scorer in the league this season. Meanwhile, Fergie might have exacerbated one of the problems he is bequeathing to David Moyes by neglecting to invite Wayne Rooney to his farewell party, leaving the star to try to look as if he wasn't sulking as he sat in the stands.
This promises to be an unusually active summer for the top managers of the seven clubs in Western Europe's super-wealthy elite. Like United, Bayern has already named a new manager. City reportedly fired Mancini on Sunday. Chelsea has made clear that Rafa Benítez isn't staying. Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho appear to be on the way out at Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid (perhaps swapping places). Barcelona may have no choice but to enter the market as it faces the continued uncertainty over Tito Vilanova's health.
Bayern, which has gotten so many decisions right recently that it deserves credit for seeing the carnage coming, acted early and snapped up the most attractive brand on the market in Pep Guardiola. That also may have had the beneficial effect of inspiring Jupp Heynckes, who only seems to win trophies when he's being fired.
United has gone a different route.
One mark of a great king is guaranteeing the succession, and Ferguson seems to have done that by picking his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Moyes. Yet United's other great, long-reigning Scottish coach, Sir Matt Busby, seemed to oversee a smooth transition when he left his team first to his right-hand man, Wilf McGuiness, in 1969, and then, after returning to right a sinking ship, to Frank O'Farrell in 1971. When Busby finally moved permanently to the boardroom, he bequeathed a team whose veteran core was reaching the end of its United career, whose youngsters were not as good as advertised and whose great star, in this case George Best, was in the process of squandering his talent with a playboy lifestyle. O'Farrell, and the three men who followed over 15 years without winning a league title, were hindered, not helped, by the presence of Busby at their shoulder.
Like Busby, Ferguson is joining the board. He has handpicked a fellow Glaswegian with whom he has good relations. But Ferguson, who first toyed with the idea of retirement in 2002, has, over the years, groomed a series of younger assistants. The relationships have often ended badly.
Ferguson said in his speech after the game that "my retirement doesn't mean the end of my life at the club." Moyes knows the situation. But, like Ferguson, he is a feisty man who has his pride. Sparks could fly. They could also fly when Moyes is reunited with the underachieving Rooney, a player he once sued for libel.
Ferguson also told the fans "your job is to stand by your new manager." We will see how long he can follow his own advice if Moyes doesn't hit the Old Trafford turf running.
As for Mancini, his time at City, capped by Saturday's loss, has reinforced the strange reputation he built at Inter Milan as a coach who wins trophies while leaving the distinct feeling that he should have won more.
No coach wants to discover that his bosses have gone behind his back and offered his job to someone else. If City's brass thought that, in modern soccer, it was possible to negotiate with a high-profile coach and keep it secret they were deluding themselves. With so many jobs potentially available, Pellegrini, who learnt about the fickle impatience of big clubs in his brief time at Real Madrid, could find himself happily in the middle of a multi-club bidding war.
Modern coaches, once they reach a certain level, are like rubber balls. They keep bouncing back. (Or, as Chelsea fans seemed to feel when Rafa Benítez took over, they're like bad pennies that keep turning up). Whatever happens this summer, or next summer, or the summer after that, one thing is certain: Mancini, Moyes, Mourinho, Benítez and Ancelotti will manage. Fergie will have to learn not to.
2. Dempsey saves Spurs. Andre Villas-Boas has not yet turned Tottenham in a purring soccer machine. Indeed, sometimes his tactical preparation seems a little sketchy.
On Sunday at Stoke, the manager brought in Steven Caulker, a 6-foot-2 center back, and shifted Jan Vertonghen, who is 6'1", to fullback in place of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who is 5'8". Clearly he was trying to add strength and height to counter Stoke's famed aerial power. The manager, and the team, knew what was coming. So why was no one screening the near post after three minutes when Charlie Adam swerved in a free kick into the empty space and Steven Nzonzi ran unchallenged to head the ball tpast a flailing Hugo Lloris?
But when it comes to hunches, Villas-Boas has begun to show an uncanny knack for picking the right player. On Wednesday at Chelsea, the manager started Emmanuel Adebayor, who quickly scored a brilliant goal, and in the second half brought on Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored a sharp equalizer to earn Tottenham a draw.
On Sunday, Villas-Boas rewarded Sigurdsson and Lewis Holtby, who had started at Chelsea, by dropping them to the bench. He started playing Clint Dempsey instead, and Dempsey proved his manager right. After 19 minutes, a hurried Stoke clearance fell to the American. He instantly spotted that Asmir Begovic was off his line and, falling as he lunged for the ball, Dempsey manufactured a first-time scoop over the goalie and into the net from more than 35 yards.
After Stoke was reduced to 10 men when Adam received a second yellow card essentially for being Charlie Adam, and Spurs laid stodgy siege to the Stoke goal.
With just seven minutes left, the ball deflected off Gareth Bale. Dempsey was again the first to react, pouncing on the ball and picking out a pass across the goal which found Adebayor alone at the far post to slot home and make it 2-1. Tottenham thus eked out another one-goal victory to climb, perhaps briefly, above Arsenal and into fourth place.
Villas-Boas then immediately yanked the Yank and brought on Sigurdsson. Once again, Dempsey had contributed little apart from winning the match.
3. The magic of the Cup. Wigan's victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup final was an affirmation of the legend of the world's oldest soccer competition. The team in 18th place in the Premier League largely outplayed the high-priced stars of the reigning English champion and scored a deserved and dramatic goal in added time to win, 1-0.
The Cup's legend is all about upsets and underdogs. The problem is that the gap between the legend and reality has grown as wide as the difference between the payrolls of Wigan and Manchester City.
Even the knockout format and the habit of some big clubs of resting players for cup ties has not prevented the FA Cup becoming the domain of the elite. Between 1989 and this year only one winner, Portsmouth in 2007, came from outside the group of clubs that will fill the top seven places in the Premier League at the end of this season.
The Cup Final has long acted as a shop window. The Sunderland team that was in the old second division when it won the FA Cup in 1973 was strip-mined by top-flight clubs. Wigan could find its victory makes James McArthur, Arouna Koné and Callum McManaman, to pick just three, even more alluring to richer rivals.
For Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner, the triumph settled an old debt. His playing career ended when he broke a leg appearing for Blackburn as it lost the 1960 Cup Final. He clearly relished Saturday's victory, and he should enjoy it while he can. By soccer standards, Whelan is a pauper. His team's victory is a rare setback for the big clubs. For Whelan, Wigan and the FA Cup itself, Saturday was as good as it gets.
4. The reality of the league. No team has ever won the FA Cup and been relegated in the same season, but that became much more likely for Wigan as a golden Saturday in the Cup turned into a black Sunday in the league. With two games left, Wigan needs to climb one place to escape the drop.
On Sunday, the bar moved a little higher as the four teams immediately above Wigan all picked up points. Sunderland and Southampton drew, 1-1. Newcastle clung on after goalie Rob Elliot was sent off to win, 2-1, at QPR. Norwich crushed West Brom, 4-0.
Wigan has 35 points. The clubs above it have one match left. Sunderland has 39 points. Aston Villa, which threw away a victory over Chelsea on Saturday, Fulham, which lost, 3-1 to Liverpool, and Southampton all have 40. Even though Wigan can reach 41, both Southampton and Fulham are almost certainly safe because of their goal difference. That is because Wigan's last game is at home to Aston Villa, so only one could get more than 40 points.
Sunderland also has an 11-goal edge over Wigan. Its point on Sunday took it to 39, and it can only be caught if Wigan wins both its games. Like Villa it could be spared a stressful final Sunday if Wigan fails in the league game that was postponed this weekend. This is where things get interesting.
In their remaining games, Wigan, Sunderland and Villa all face teams that need the points as badly as they do. Apart from the potentially decisive Wigan-Villa showdown next Sunday, Wigan's game on Wednesday is away to Arsenal. Next Sunday, Sunderland also visits North London to play the other club chasing the fourth Champions League spot, Tottenham.
5. Bowing out in style. When Frank Lampard struck his second goal for Chelsea at Aston Villa on Saturday, his joy was rapturous. With just two games to go in the season, Lampard had first equaled, then broken Bobby Tambling's club scoring record. The problem is that, in so doing, Lampard might have made it easier for the club to let him go in the summer.
On Saturday, Chelsea struggled against Aston Villa, particularly after Ramires was sent off. When Villa too was reduced to 10 men, Lampard exploited the extra space as he once again rode to the rescue. Twice he joined the attack late to run unmarked onto passes in front of goal and finish with icy accuracy. The two hallmark goals took his Chelsea tally to 203, one more than Tambling. They also gave Chelsea a 2-1 victory that pretty much guarantees Champions League soccer next season. Lampard, who is 34, is unlikely to be at the club to enjoy it. The 203rd goal felt like the end of a chapter. For the club, it is much easier to say goodbye to Lampard with the record than to force out a fan favorite one goal shy of breaking it.