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Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005
Premier clubs playing not to lose, instead of trying to win
LONDON -- Last Sunday I watched the penultimate day of what has been an enthralling series between England and Australia when the Aussies, the best cricket team in the world for two decades, were finally beaten by their oldest rivals.
The five tests were played in the most sporting of fashions with opponents respecting each other and the umpires.
When bad light stopped play I switched over to Bolton vs. Blackburn, a brute of a match and we must hope what these two Lancashire teams dished up never replaces football.
It should have carried a government health warning and a PG rating. Tackles were flying in, players were diving all over the place in an effort to get an opponent cautioned, there were snarls rather than smiles and after 90 minutes the game ended 0-0 -- a third zero could have been added for entertainment.
Both managers, Sam Allardyce and Mark Hughes, were probably happy with a point but the match left a nasty taste in the mouth, a footballing halitosis.
A new trend seems to be developing in English football with teams going out not to lose rather than to win, a fashion which is not exclusive to clubs who breathe a sigh of relief when they reach what is regarded as the 40-point safety barrier.
Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal has played champagne football during his time in charge, is concerned by the change of emphasis and said: "The cautious approach teams have in the Premiership this season is worrying. If everyone refuses to play we'll get nowhere in the league. I believe you must have a positive attitude and try to win games.
"I don't want to accuse other teams but there is a trend towards playing more cautious football and there are fewer goalscoring chances being created."
Last Tuesday, Wenger chose to watch Olympique Lyon against Real Madrid rather than Chelsea against Anderlecht as the Champions League kicked off.
Lyon demolished Real 3-0, even missing a penalty in a magnificent contest.
In contrast Chelsea beat Anderlecht 1-0, another routine ground-out victory for the Premiership champion, a match erased from the memory by the time most had left Stamford Bridge.
It is always easier to stop opponents rather than create and if the champions are the trendsetters, then Chelsea has made defending a lead almost an art form.
Wenger is a romantic who loves speed and flair, while at Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson has to continue the traditions of a club built on attacking football.
Without a title for 50 years, Chelsea supporters were less worried how success came to Stamford Bridge as long as it did and, taking a pragmatic approach, Jose Mourinho delivered the silverware with just a single defeat in 38 Premiership games.
If winning is the ultimate form of excitement then Mourinho and Chelsea are the great entertainers.
Yet as Roman Abramovich has dipped into his seemingly bottomless pockets to invest more than £300 million on talent it is reasonable to expect Chelsea to hit the high spots regularly rather than occasionally.
In 43 Premiership matches under Mourinho, Chelsea has opened the scoring and failed to win only twice.
What it has, it holds and nobody does it better.
After the win over abysmal Anderlecht, Mourinho was asked why his team didn't push on more.
"Why?" he asked almost in astonishment. "Why should I? No. The supporters are happy with three points, they would prefer 1-0 to 1-1. I told my players 'we cannot lose the ball, we cannot give them space behind our defense.' The players did what I wanted them to do. The result is justified and I am happy."
Make up your own mind whether this can be interpreted as giving a team that arrived at Stamford Bridge having lost its previous seven Champions League ties too much respect, but pulse-rates remained constant on a night to forget.
SATURDAY SEES an unlikely top-of-the-table clash when Chelsea visits Charlton, which is a role model for smaller clubs wanting to survive among the bigger teams in the promised land that is the Premiership.
Alan Curbishley, 47, celebrated his 600th league game in charge of the southeast London club with a 1-0 win at Birmingham last Saturday and has long been respected as one of the most talented of English coaches.
The 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland inevitably prompted questions about Sven-Goran Eriksson and Curbishley's name was on most lists of potential successors to the Swede.
Curbishley has done a superb job establishing Charlton as a Premiership club but has never managed a side in a European competition and apart from the "you don't know until he's given a chance" theory, his CV is not really one of a potential England manager.
However, Charlton chief executive Peter Varney has every reason to be proud of his manager's achievements and said: "I'm not surprised Alan's being linked with the England job -- it's a great reflection on him and Charlton. I would personally like to see an Englishman as the next England manager, and the fact is that Alan's one of the best English coaches there is -- but he's got a job to do here at Charlton and I hope he finishes it."
THE RED CARD shown to Wayne Rooney during Manchester United's 0-0 Champions League draw away to Villarreal was as surprising as night following day. For all his talent and potential Rooney is a sending-off waiting to happen and Kim Milton Nielsen may have done the England forward a favor -- if Rooney doesn't start learning from his excesses he will become a disciplinary liability for club and country.
Sir Alex Ferguson claimed the original foul on Quique Alvarez was wrong and Rooney "reacts to injustice a bit."
Rooney had two lunges at Alvarez and despite Ferguson's view, the Danish referee would have asked himself if Rooney could win the ball cleanly from his position.
The answer was no and the initial yellow card was correct, while not even Ferguson argued with the second yellow and then the red card after Rooney had sarcastically applauded Nielsen.
As Rooney walked past Ferguson the United manager did not look at the player, who was being watched by Sven-Goran Eriksson. Both Rooney's managers have defended him, but privately they know he is a time-bomb ticking away, his temper rarely more than what he perceives as one bad decision from boiling over.
His career stats show 28 league goals, 26 yellow cards and one red -- one more goal than cards.
There is passion and there is petulance.
Rooney appears to have little respect for authority and on Sunday, when he goes back to Merseyside for the Liverpool-Manchester United game, rest assured most in Anfield will be baying for his blood. It will be a huge test of his temperament, though the suspicion is the only flying colors he will pass with are yellow and red.
Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.