Sunday, 19 March 2017

Mourinho's change of heart, why Wenger has to go now and the anatomy of John Stones in our weekend review

Chelsea’s relentless march towards the Premier League title continued with their 2-1 win at Stoke on Saturday, yet the focus of attention this weekend was not trained on Antonio Conte’s champions elect.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has made no secret of his disdain for the Europa League, so he would never have believed he would sit in a press conference and claim he has decided to make Europe’s second tier competition his priority ahead of his Premier League targets. Mourinho belittled Chelsea’s success in lifting the Europa League the year before he returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013 and he has made it clear that United should not be mixing it with the continent’s also-rans during this season’s competition. Yet now that he is eyeing up a Europa League quarter-final tie against Anderlecht and with a place in next season’s Champions League on offer to the winners, Mourinho made something of a surprising claim after his side’s 3-1 win at Middlesbrough on Sunday. “I prefer to win the Europa League because it gives us the same, Champions League football,” declared Mourinho. “It also gives us a trophy, prestige, a European Super Cup final. “But we still have two doors open to play Champions League football next season and that’s the good thing.” United’s win at the Riverside Stadium coupled with a 1-1 draw between Manchester City and Liverpool has opened the door for Mourinho’s side to leap into the Premier League’s top four if they win their two games in hand. Yet with Mourinho determined to pedal his story that his players are being drained by the demands of their hectic fixture schedule, he seems to be preparing the narrative for a failure to secure the league finish that would have been expected from him in his first season as United manager. It may also be that this serial trophy winner is relishing the prospect of silencing his doubters by adding a European trophy to the EFL Cup he won at Wembley last month. As ever with this captivating manager, trying to uncover the messages he is trying to get out in his cryptic media moments adds to his mystery.
 It was a surprisingly jovial Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who faced the inevitable questions about his future as he faced the media after a 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, with most present convinced this veteran tactician had decided his time was finally up with the Gunners. When Wenger confirmed he had made a decision over his future after months of increasingly fractious speculation, it seemed inevitable that he had decided the time was right to step ahead. Yet the latest reports suggest Wenger will inform the Arsenal board that he intends to remain in charge at the club next season, in a twist that throws up so many unknown subplots that could unfold in the next few weeks. The Arsenal board would not be forced to sack the club’s greatest manager of all-time as his contract expires at the end of this season, but withdrawing the two-year extension they offered him some time ago would be a sad end to his reign. Staying for a final stab at glory while a successor is identified is another option that has been mentioned, yet this debate has long since become redundant and this great football man should appreciate as much. The game has been up for Wenger at Arsenal for a few years and his desperation to cling on to power now is merely chipping away at a legacy that has already been tarnished by the last decade of false hope and promise. Walk away with dignity before it is too late Arsene. Meanwhile, amid the chaos of a crisis that saw planes carrying banners offering conflicting stances on Wenger’s future, the always reliable Arsenal fan TV threw up another gem as one of their contributors suggested a change of manager would not result in success unless he encouraged his players to embrace the use of shinpads!
 Pep Guardiola’s colourful praise of his £50m defender John Stones following Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Sunday inevitably became a hot topic on social media. “John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room. More balls than everyone here,” stated City manager Guardiola. “I like that. I love him. Under pressure, the people criticise him, so I am delighted to have John. With all his huge amount of mistakes. I love him. I love guys with this personality.” This was a manager backing up a player who has been criticised time and again this season and it was entirely justified, as Stones turned in a much improved performance in a thrilling draw against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Guardiola was clearly in joyous mood as his team responded well to their Champions League defeat in Monaco on Wednesday, as he suggested their battling effort against Liverpool provided him with one of the proudest moments of his decorated career. He even had time to praise City fans who he claimed were ‘sometimes a little bit quiet’ at their Etihad Stadium base and yet also confirmed he will look to make ‘big changes’ at the club this summer. Faint praise indeeed.
 Robbie Brady appeared to have sealed his dream return to the Premier League after his move to Burnley in January was quickly followed by his memorable free-kick goal against Chelsea on his home debut for the club. Yet Clarets manager Sean Dyche is not warming to the Dubliner’s talents instantly, with the star crowned as Ireland’s best player of 2016 at the FAI awards on Sunday night he was left on the bench once again for the 0-0 draw with Sunderland on Saturday. “I spoke to Robbie, he's still new to it, still picking up how we work, how the team shape works, so that was my decision on that one,” was Dyche’s explanation for Brady’s omission, but it must be a concern to the Dubliner after his big-money move from Norwich.

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