West Brom Manager Steve Clarke One of the Unsung Heroes of the Season

Steve ClarkeIt was a season where many fans and clubs across the country began to celebrate the end of something come May. It was the end of an era at Old Trafford as Sir Alex Ferguson finally stepped down as manager after 27 years in charge. Long-time servant Paul Scholes also announced his retirement after 19 years at the club.

It was a similar story just down the road on Merseyside. Liverpool bid farewell to club legend Jamie Carragher after 737 appearances, while Everton will have to come to terms with life without David Moyes, who left Goodison Park to become Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United.

However, this wasn’t quite the case for all the clubs in the Premier League. Further south, down at The Hawthorns, West Brom seem to be looking forward to a new era of promise and stability in the top flight. Under Steve Clarke, in his first managerial role following an impressive career as an assistant, the Baggies thrived and impressed many observers throughout the 2012/13 season.

The Midlands’ side secured a more than respectable eight place finish in the Premiership, a place below Liverpool and one above Swansea, who continued to attract many admirers with their style of play under Michael Laudrup. While the end of the season may have been dominated by tributes to Ferguson and Carragher, credit must also go to West Brom and Clarke for a hugely successful and potentially pivotal year.

For years, West Brom were the yo-yo team of the top flight, constantly drifting between the Premier League and the Championship. Despite some notable promotion campaigns in the second tier, they never seemed able to gather any momentum or consistency once they reached the promised land of the Premiership. Promotion to the top flight in the 2001/02 and 2007/08 seasons was followed my immediate relegation the following year.

West BromAnd while a final day victory in the 2004/05 ‘great escape’ campaign saved their Premiership status on that occasion, it was simply delaying the inevitable as they suffered a second relegation in four seasons a year later. But since promotion was secured yet again in 2009/10 under Roberto Di Matteo, fans have seen a transformed Albion team.

Although outrage at the Italian’s dismissal in February 2011 threatened to dismantle West Brom’s progress, his successor, Roy Hodgson, continued where Di Matteo left off, leading the club to final league positions of 11th and 10th in his 15 months in charge.

So Clarke could not really have asked for a more ideal beginning to his managerial career, taking the reins of a decent Premier League side where good foundations had been laid by the likes of Hodgson. But there were still a certain amount of pressure on both Clarke and the club.

West Brom did take a gamble by appointing an unproven candidate like Clarke following a solid spell under the vastly experienced Hodgson. Of course, the curse of promoting an assistant to the top job is one that has been felt by a number of clubs up and down the country. Sammy Lee and Chris Hutchings are just two more recent examples of long term assistants who have had brief and forgettable spells in the hot seat.

And there were still expectations that Clarke had to live up to. While it wasn’t essential that he delivered a trophy or European football, he still had to build on Albion’s recent development while at the same time establishing a realistic outlook on the club, something that is easier said than done in modern day football.

Steve ClarkeProgress and success can do peculiar things to a club’s approach to the game, which was highlighted through Di Matteo’s dismissal two years ago. However, Clarke has done a superb job in his first year at the Hawthorns. Though they never looked like troubling Liverpool in seventh place, they did have some notable highlights throughout the season.

An opening day 3-0 thrashing of Brendan Rodger’s side was certainly one of these highlights, as was the 2-0 victory in the return fixture at Anfield in February. And the epic comeback in the 5-5 draw with Manchester United on the final day, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game as manager, emphasized the ruthless but professional environment Clarke has helped establish at West Brom.

So while the Midlands as a whole might not have been a hotbed of enthralling football this season - West Brom’s local and former Premiership rivals Wolves will play League One football next season following a disastrous year - there is a feeling of anticipation around The Hawthorns that West Brom will at last become full time, rather than part-time, members of the top flight.

Written by Andrew Crawley

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Chelsea Appoints Rafael Benitez as New Manager

Roberto Di Matteo’s time as Chelsea manager was suddenly ended when he was fired on Wednesday. Di Matteo, who had guided the Blues to a surprising Champions League victory just 6 months ago, was sacked in an emergency mid-night meeting at Cobham Training Centre.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich felt that Di Matteo’s removal from the squad was their only choice after Chelsea’s unsuccessful start to the season. The meeting came almost immediately after an upsetting 3-0 loss to Juventus in the Champions League, putting the squad in jeopardy of becoming the first reigning champions to be eliminated from the group stage now that they are in 3rd in Group E. Chelsea will play FC Nordsjaelland next in the Champions League, but if Juventus gains even 1 point in their final group game with leaders Shakhtar Donetsk, Chelsea will be eliminated.

In the Premier League, Chelsea had been on top for much of the season, but they had fallen to 3rd behind Manchester United and Manchester City after taking only 2 points from their last 4 games in the league. They face a difficult challenge this weekend as they prepare to face undefeated Manchester City in a game that could very well help or hurt their chances for winning Premiership this year.

In a statement, Chelsea said, “The team’s recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season. The club faces a difficult task ahead in qualifying for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League as well as maintaining a strong challenge for the top of the Premier League while competing in three other cup competitions. Our aim is to remain as competitive as possible and challenge strongly on all fronts.”

Because Abramovich has a history with sacking managers, this being his 9th in 9 years, Di Matteo’s demise did not come as a surprise to many people. He acted fairly quickly and remorselessly with Di Matteo, who had replaced Andre Villas-Boas in March of last year. Against all odds, he had led the team to their 7th FA Cup title as well as their 1st Champions League trophy following wins over Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Soon after landing in England, Di Matteo was told of Chelsea’s decision to fire him at the 4 a.m. meeting on the training ground. He had reportedly said goodbye to the team in the dressing room after their Champions League loss to Juve.

Without even meeting Abramovich, Chelsea welcomed unpopular Rafael Benitez to be their new manager just 24 minutes after the controversy began. In his time with Liverpool, Benitez led the squad to the top of the Champions League, FA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and FA Community Shield. He has been without a job since his removal from Italian side Inter Milan in the middle of 2010. His contract with Chelsea lasts until the end of the season, as Abramovich hopes to see Pep Guardiola, who is currently taking a 1 year break from football in New York, manage the team next season.

Chelsea has found themselves in the center of 2 racism scandals in the last few months, but now their focus has switched to Benitez. Although people believe Abramovich is just holding the place for Guardiola, Benitez still has time to prove that he can push Chelsea to the top.

In a press conference, Benitez said, “I don’t care about the short-term deal, what I have in my head is to win every game. We will see what happens - in seven months we can win some trophies.”

Written by FutbolPulse

Chelsea 1-1 Liverpool: Draw Puts Chelsea in 3rd on EPL Table

For their 3rd Premier League match in a row, Chelsea was unable to record a win to put them back on top of the league. At Stamford Bridge, they managed a tie against Liverpool in a game that should have awarded the Blues an easy 3 points. Despite being down 1-0 thanks to John Terry’s 20 minute strike, Liverpool exhibited a huge improvement and scored a late equalizer that ended the game in a well-deserved tie. For the 4th time in succession, the Blues couldn’t win against Liverpool on their own turf.

Liverpool had dominated possession early on, having the ball nearly 70% of the time. The first half saw few chances on target and only 1 goal, which was scored by Chelsea captain John Terry. Terry, who had just returned from a racism ban, found the back of the net on the 20th minute after missing Chelsea’s 4 previous matches. The English defender netted his 50th goal in the Premier League following a corner from Juan Mata. He judged the ball just right and headed it in beyond goalkeeper Bradley Jones’ reach. But Terry’s return to the team did not last long. Just 15 minutes later, Terry took a fall on his right knee after a collision with Liverpool forward Luis Suarez. After several minutes of treatment, Terry, who was in a lot of pain, was taken off the pitch on a stretcher and was replaced with Gary Cahill just minutes before the break. Another few games will probably pass until Terry recovers from his injuries and returns to the team for good.

Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo, who was frustrated with Terry’s removal from the game, said, “He has just got into the team after the ban … we just hope it isn’t a serious injury and he is back soon.” The extent of the injuries will be assessed in the hospital on Monday as well as an estimate for the duration of his recovery.

The second half had clearly taken a turn in the Reds’ favor, primarily the final 20 minutes of the match. They were constantly on the attack and harbored a strong defense that Chelsea was unable to penetrate. Liverpool’s substitution of Suso for Sahin had finally paid off just 17 minutes before full time. This time, it was Luis Suarez who scored a header for his team. Suarez found Suso’s accurate corner in the air and sent a powerful ball past world-class goalkeeper Petr Čech. But Liverpool was not done yet. They were eager to snatch a victory after firing shot after shot in the final minutes of the game. Suso’s ball went just wide while Ivanovic sent a powerful header just high over the crossbar. Suarez could have easily secured a win for the Reds after racing toward the goal, clear of any defenders, and shooting a ball that Cech just managed to save. In stoppage time, Cech once again rescued Chelsea from a loss after a vital save following Enrique’s powerful shot, ending the game in a 1-1 tie.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was happy for his squad and with the results of the match. “That was our sixth draw, and in a lot of those games we’ve come back from being behind. We’ve got great character and resilience and survival instincts in the group, and we’re dominating games with the ball, but you need materials.”

The draw puts Chelsea in 3rd with 24 points, trailing Premier League leaders Manchester United by 3 points and 2nd place holders Manchester City by 1. Chelsea had remained on top of the league for 2 months, but a loss to Manchester United put the Red Devils in the lead. Manchester City recorded a much-needed win against Tottenham today, placing them in 2nd. Meanwhile, Liverpool is in the 13th place on the table, currently with 12 points after today’s match. This far into the season, it is unlikely for Liverpool to become this year’s champions, a feat that they have not been able to accomplish since the founding of the Premier League in 1992.

Written by FutbolPulse