‘Brexit’ gives Blues & Reds EPL ad­van­tage

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS -

BREXIT is the word of the year – ahead of even Trump­ism, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who call them­selves lex­i­cog­ra­phers – and is about to spread to foot­ball: just look at who is oc­cu­py­ing the top two places in the Premier League ta­ble.

Chelsea and Liver­pool have been in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked in re­cent times. They went toe to toe in the Cham­pi­ons League, both won it in epic style and both have en­dured tur­bu­lence off the field. Now both can laud the ad­van­tages of be­ing out of Europe.

While ri­vals are hang­ing about at air­ports, check­ing into ho­tels and en­dur­ing the mind­numb­ing de­lays of mod­ern travel, the Blues and the Reds are on the train­ing ground, ben­e­fit­ting from the tac­ti­cal tu­to­ri­als given by two of the finest brains in the game.

An­to­nio Conte and Jur­gen Klopp are also among the more ‘hands-on’ man­agers who, be­sides hon­ing their play­ers’ fit­ness to com­mando stan­dard, make it en­joy­able and have them gag­ging for more. In short, both are mak­ing the most of play­ing fewer games and hav­ing fewer dis­trac­tions.

The Cham­pi­ons League is the holy grail of Euro­pean foot­ball, but it is also comes with a health warn­ing: all those bor­ing air miles, se­cu­rity searches, dis­rup­tions to diet and rou­tine from which even de­signer shades and dan­gling head­phones af­ford scant in­su­la­tion.

The Europa League may be the low tar ver­sion but it can be even more irk­some – more games, more dis­tance to the colder, nether re­gions of Europe and the grave­yard Thurs­day/Sun­day shifts. All fac­tors to af­fect the fine mar­gins.

We knew this Premier League sea­son would be tight, but not this tight. Just four points sep­a­rate Chelsea in first and Spurs in fifth, a bunch­ing not seen at the top for al­most 20 years. You do not need to be a jet-set­ter to ap­pre­ci­ate the ad­van­tages of spend­ing most of the week at home.

In these days of huge squads and ax­is­wob­bling ro­ta­tion, it is worth not­ing that Chelsea have used just 16 play­ers and Liver­pool 17 in the Premier League so far this sea­son. These are the lowest in the league and ex­tol the virtues of play­ing your best team. Mir­ror The

The days when such num­bers could clinch the ti­tle may be over – Liver­pool were cham­pi­ons with 14 first-team­ers un­der Bill Shankly and Forest used 16 to win it un­der Brian Clough – but they do suggest that fa­mil­iar­ity may be an over­looked com­po­nent in a suc­cess­ful team.

Con­versely, over-ro­ta­tion can bring in­sta­bil­ity as Forest graph­i­cally il­lus­trate: not even shad­ows of their for­mer selves, they have made a manic 64 changes to their side so far this sea­son and lan­guish in the depths of the sec­ond tier hav­ing kept just one clean sheet.

Ac­cord­ing to Omar Chaud­huri, who stud­ies these mat­ters for a foot­ball in­tel­li­gence con­sul­tancy, the main first-choice play­ers for both do­mes­tic and Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tions will play 20% more matches than the rest. He told The Guardian: “It’s not straight­for­ward to turn this into a points value, be­cause it will de­pend on how far a team goes, how much they ro­tate in each com­pe­ti­tion and so on.

“But we es­ti­mate the cost of play­ing in Europe can be as much as six points to a team over a sea­son; and even if the typ­i­cal ef­fect is smaller for most teams it is cer­tainly non-neg­li­gi­ble when the league is so tight.”

Cham­pi­ons Leicester City would cer­tainly vouch for that. Thrilled to have achieved the holy grail, they put all their eggs in the Euro­pean bas­ket and have all but qual­i­fied for the knock­out phase. But in the Premier League, it’s a case of “Be care­ful what you wish for”. They sit a lowly 14th and are not safe from rel­e­ga­tion. They won it by 10 points last sea­son.

Fur­ther ev­i­dence of the ad­van­tages of such home stays – how­ever re­luc­tant the big clubs may be to make them - was pro­vided by Liver­pool in the 2013-14 sea­son. Bliss­fully un­af­fected by Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion, they over­came a slow start (and a late one by Luis Suarez) to take the league by storm. Bang­ing in 101 goals, they were de­nied the ti­tle only by an in­fa­mous slip by Steven Ger­rard. Of course, big clubs as­sume it is a birthright to be in Europe and Real Madrid and Barcelona al­ways are. How they deal with it is to buy the best play­ers and use big squads, but there are no guar­an­tees – as Chelsea and Liver­pool have dis­cov­ered. What­ever hap­pens, we can as­sume that at least one of them will be back on the Euro trav­e­la­tor next sea­son – in­deed they’d be pretty up­set if they weren’t – while for clubs like Southamp­ton, even the Europa League is a dream come true – they took 7,000 fans to Mi­lan re­cently. But on those oc­ca­sions a club doesn’t make Europe at all, it is not the end of the world. In fact, it can be an ob­vi­ous, if un­der­es­ti­mated, ad­van­tage not to be there and could even per­suade up­per mid-ta­ble hope­fuls to back off from the grave­yard shift. It is a co­nun­drum that nei­ther Chelsea nor Liver­pool will want to face again, but one both are de­ter­mined to make the most of this time – and why they are likely to sus­tain their ti­tle chal­lenges all the way to next May.

MANCH­ESTER UNITED and Chelsea are re­port­edly keep­ing tabs on San­tos mid­fielder Thi­ago Maia, 19, but could miss out to Paris St-Ger­main.

WEST HAM hope de­fender Reece Oxford, 20, will fi­nally sign a new five-year deal within the next 10 days – snub­bing both Manch­ester United and Manch­ester City.

MERSEY­SIDE ri­vals Liver­pool and Ever­ton are eye­ing a move for 16-yearold South Amer­i­can striker Gus­tavo Viera.

LEICESTER man­ager Clau­dio Ranieri is con­sid­er­ing drop­ping 25-year-old winger Riyad Mahrez to help the reign­ing PFA Player of the Year re­dis­cover his best form.

RANIERI is tar­get­ing Olympiakos’ Ser­bia in­ter­na­tional mid­fielder Luka Milivo­je­vic, 25.

MAN­AGER Jose Mour­inho is set to hand 35-year-old mid­fielder Michael Car­rick a one-year con­tract to ex­tend his Manch­ester United ca­reer into a 12th sea­son.

DE­FENDER Jon Flanagan, 23, has his sights set on re­gain­ing a place in Liver­pool’s start­ing XI when he re­turns from his loan spell at Burn­ley.

HULL striker Abel Her­nan­dez, 26, is ready to quit the club in Jan­uary to be re­united with ex-Tigers boss Steve Bruce at As­ton Villa.

EVER­TON will not hesitate in send­ing their young play­ers out on loan in Jan­uary - de­spite hav­ing to re­call 21-year-old Conor Grant from Ip­swich this week be­cause of a lack of game time.

PREMIER LEAGUE foot­ballers took to Twit­ter en masse af­ter see­ing Andy Mur­ray de­feat No­vak Djokovic in Lon­don on Sun­day to end 2016 as world No. 1, with Stoke’s Char­lie Adam and Leicester’s Robert Huth even call­ing for a knight­hood for the Scot.

LIONEL MESSI has stepped in to cover the un­paid wages of the Ar­gentina na­tional team’s se­cu­rity staff.

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