Andre Villas-Boas

Hold your horses!


Now the manager at Chelsea, the Portuguese heir to Mourinho will be watched to see just what he will bring to a West London side used to instability at the helm. Chelsea are almost certain to start the league off strongly; what they’ll need to do around Christmas time when United are usually at their peak is an altogether different matter. Andre may have disappointed spring-cleaning enthusiasts everywhere with his insistence on continuity. Choosing to retain bit-part players and aging stars, while also making a couple of reasoned purchases will add to the squad strength – an area Chelsea were unforgivably deficient in under Ron Gourlay’s cost-cutting spree last time.

A lower-than-expected yield of silverware might paradoxically see Andre’s position strengthened vis-a-vis Chelsea’s spine. It’s safe to assume that he will be handed 2 seasons, at the least, while Lampard, Drogba and Terry will see their influence curtailed. Torres will be a long-term project of his, because setting the Spanish star aside might invite a certain Russian’s wrath. Villas-Boas has made the right moves thus far in the transfer market, even if he hasn’t exactly set it alight. Romeu might be joined by Lukaku and even Modric while McEachran will finally take the field with greater regularity. If Mourinho’s purpose was to infuse self-belief, Avram’s and Hiddink’s was to salvage pride and Carlo’s was to bring in the magic. Villas-Boas is here to remake the squad, slowly, quietly but surely, in the image of the club’s future. He is certainly not responsible for the many ills that plague the squad, but as the Pottery Barn rule goes – if he breaks it (further), he’ll own it.

Watch him, especially in late November.


Gian Piero Gasperini

Gasper The Friendly Coach


What Gasperini’s fate will ultimately be at the end of next season, depends not so much on what he achieves, but what Internazionale deems appropriate. Do the Nerazzuri truly believe they are up to the challenge, and capable of unseating AC Milan at the top? Or do the former champions of the Serie A secretly worry that AC Milan are now top dogs in the Italian league for the foreseeable future? Gasperini may be new at the helm of Internazionale, but he’s not a new face to some of its stars such as Diego Milito who is clearly excited to be reporting to Gasperini in a déjà vu moment from their days in Genoa. After the chastening pre-season loss to AC Milan in Beijing, Zanetti on the other hand seemed far from a believer, as he called for time to adjust to Gasperini’s strategy.

Whether the new boss has one, is a different matter altogether. Choosing to field a convoluted 3-5-1-1 at first, in a bid to draw on the famed 3-4-3 he rolled out at Genoa, and then shelving it in favor of a more traditional formation, betrayed signs of a man not entirely accustomed to his new role. Gasperini has made that most predictable of mistakes – the cardinal sin of not taking the pre-season game seriously. AC Milan may have bounced back sooner from a loss to Inter than the other way around, considering the latter are short on confidence after a terrible last season under Rafa Benitez, that Leonardo failed to salvage completely.

Talk of Sneijder’s impending departure has also not done Gasperini any good, at a time when he should have been boosting team morale. The falling out with Samuel Eto’o, and subsequent transfer rumors are something Gasperini will work overtime to deal with. Inter Milan, individual brilliance notwithstanding, is a side clearly in decline and you’d be hard-pressed to favor them against AC Milan for the league. Gasperini may have more than his fair share of admirers, but may not be the man for the moment.

Watch him, to see if his tenure will mirror that of Roy Hodgson at Liverpool.


Kenny Dalglish

Back To The Future


The pick of the managers to watch, as far as TheHardTackle is concerned. King Kenny, that reviver of fortunes, turned Liverpool’s fate around in the space of weeks. Imagine what he could potentially achieve with a whole season to do as he sees fit. Easily having had the pick of the transfer window thus far, Dalglish has bolstered his already impressive squad with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Alexander Doni. With Suarez and Carroll barely having had a chance last season to ply their trade as a deadly duo, Dalglish can expect to count them as two fresh signings.

What gets the rest of us salivating is the prospect of Kenny leading his men into battle against the man who knocked Liverpool off its perch, Sir Alex Ferguson. Not only did Dalglish get the better of the United boss, he did so in emphatic fashion at Anfield with thousands cheering on his name. Their jousts in the past have been replete with legendary quips, and while Sir Alex has been at the receiving end of some of the more notable ones, you can expect him to swat away the Kop boss with the same disdain he showed United’s noisy neighbors.

The onus is therefore on Dalglish to give the Barclays Premier League observers their dose of sound-bites, not seen since the Special One departed English shores. If Kenny defies the odds and gets Liverpool its 19th, it well and truly will be game on. The only visible chink in Kenny Dalglish’s armor remains the continued absence of Steven Gerrard from the team. While Kenny can be expected to get the rest of the squad to perform better than expected, Gerrard’s continuing absence from the squad could cause problems on the merchandising front. Come mid-season, and if that remains his only worry, Dalglish will count himself fortunate.

Watch him, because he will have a trick or two up his sleeve and will make for some fun feuding with Fergie.


Manuel Pellegrini

Arabian Knight


Never count out a man with a vengeance. Memories of his departure from Madrid were soon forgotten, as Malaga CF’s owner came calling. Qatari Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani entrusted Pellegrini with turning around the fortunes of his club, after a disastrous term under ex-Porto manager Jesualdo Ferreira. For a while, it looked like Pellegrini had hit the jackpot, starting off with a win against Levante.

But then it all went awry; so bad were things after Christmas that Malaga were firmly stuck in the relegation zone and almost certain to get the drop. Fortunately, the new owner was no mug with the wallet. Splashing money around, Malaga CF relied on Pellegrini’s ability to engage in transfer market machinations to give themselves a new foothold. The Chilean brought in Julio Baptista, Sergio Asenjo and Martin Dimichelis as reinforcements, and the club soon rewarded him by finishing a creditable 11th.  Sheikh Al Thani needed no further proof that Pellegrini was their man. Soon players such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Joaquin Sanchez, Sergio Sanchez, Jeremy Toulalan and others arrived at La Rosaleda, thanks to a shopping spree worth over 60 million Euros. Malaga’s Qatari owner will expect even greater returns, but it remains to be seen if Pellegrini is as astute on the field as he is in the transfer market.

Even as Pellegrini inevitably wrangles with the right formation for the job, he will need to keep a sharp eye behind his shoulder for any signs of displeasure from his new employers who expect to do better than 11th. Is a top 4 finish on the cards, or will that be a fairytale beyond even the wildest of Arabian dreams?

Watch him for that.


Jose Mourinho

Bound, Not Gagged


Last season was a watershed in Jose’s career, even by his own incredibly controversial standards. Here’s a guy who managed to induce in Spain, the level of animosity not seen since the Inquisition. Mourinho, never one to shy away from a ruckus, took on his old adversary from his Chelsea days, Barcelona. When the 5-0 thrashing Real Madrid received trying to play Barcelona at their own attacking game saw the wheels come off his train, Jose went about doing what he does best. Once he turned that razor-sharp ability to infuriate anyone he chose to, towards Guardiola and his men, you knew it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose.

There was the crazed lone-ranger (or so Jose would hope) who tried to stab him at the airport, and ended up getting the bodyguard instead. Then there was the usually composed Guardiola losing it at a press conference and calling Mourinho what many believe to be the literal translation of that incredibly versatile four-letter word in the English language. The flipping of the bird, the one-fingered salute, the opposer of the opposable thumb. Yes, that word.

Mourinho did eventually manage to get under the skin of Barcelona enough to effect a famous victory in the Spanish King’s Cup. Despite the Champions League loss to the Catalans, Jose’s emerged from last season stronger, and not just in the personnel department. The thorn in his side, in the form of Jorge Valdano was plucked out and done away with. Valdano, who had once ripped into Liverpool and Mourinho’s Chelsea as wrecking the beautiful game, saw himself emerge the weaker in the latest epic tussle at the Bernabeu.

Mourinho, having got what he wants, is now in an incredibly critical position. You might be tempted to see his position as having been strengthened with Madrid’s first silverware in recent years, after beating a vastly superior Barcelona side. But it also means Jose is now solely in charge of his own fate and the quest to  break Barcelona’s vice-like grip on the title.

Watch him because now there will be no one else to share the blame, should his grand experiment fail.


Arsene Wenger

Oops, I did it again!


With Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur all now capable of staking a claim to the Top 4, Arsenal will find the going even harder with a squad stuck in perpetual adolescence. After a magnificent win over Manchester United to set up a mathematically possible three-way title charge, even if only for a week, Arsenal then crashed ever so reliably in the end. And now with both Fabregas and Nasri poised to quit, Wenger is well and truly staring down the abyss.

Strengthening a squad is a relative phrase, and while Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are good signings, they do nothing to improve Arsenal’s odds. What’s questionable is whether they can keep it tight at the back where Arsenal have been more porous than a crumbly piece of Swiss cheese. The Frenchman’s disdain for spending was evident when he let the attempted purchase of Jagielka peter out and looked at Chris Samba and Scott Dann instead. Arsenal start off the Champions League qualifying campaign facing off against one of the toughest opponents in the ring, Udinese. This season will be crucial in determining whether Arsenal choose to hold on to Wenger’s principles. For someone used to running the club’s matters with a free rein, Wenger may be surprised to note the greater roles that Stan Kroenke (and Ivan Gazidis) have taken up in the Fabregas drama.

Is this a sign the American is keen to step into a potential power vacuum with Wenger’s power on the wane? Another season without silverware will see Wenger, for once, forced to comply with decisions other than his own. He might choose to leave, rather than live down that ignominy.

Watch him, simply because this could be his last season in North London.