English Premier League: Race to the Title

Mid-way through March, and May beckons. Most clubs have only eight or nine games left, and the top four is separated by only six points in what is one of the closest finishes to a season in recent memory.

Manchester United have presumably now accepted this season as a write-off. It was always going to be ‘a transitional period’ (a football phrase that is fast becoming as cliche as “at the end of the day”), but this season has stretched the patience of most United fans to say the least. Losing 3-0 to any team at Old Trafford would have been unthinkable just half a year ago, but losing to Liverpool will be all the more bitter considering the evidence of their development. Transfers have also been a slight cause for concern, although Fellaini has been unfortunate with his injuries since his arrival, and has looked good in recent games. Mata has not quite had the desired impact out wide however, with Mourinho showing just how right he was. A summer departure for van Persie may be just the thing Mata needs, freeing up the no. 10 role as Rooney is pushed up front.

Everton look as if they will miss out on a Champions League spot this year, although they will hardly see this as a poor season. Martinez has settled well, again showing Bill Kenwright’s nous for appointing managers, and Martinez’s fresh tactical changes have been positive for the most part, although a number of results in the past few months have exposed certain inadequacies. Barkley’s poor run of form since his return from injury hasn’t helped either, but at 20 years old he can be forgiven for patches of inconsistency. Transfers have also proved shrewd, with James McCarthy having an excellent debut season, and the loaning of Romelu Lukaku an early coup. The summer window will be telling of their progress.

Tottenham also look set to miss out on a Champions League spot, with results such as their 4-0 thrashing from Chelsea and a 1-0 home loss to Arsenal not helping. These results will also cast doubt on the long-term future of Tim Sherwood, who has recently come under pressure, and Louis van Gaal expressing his interest will not help him as Daniel Levy narrows his eyes. Ultimately, it will be a case of the opposition proving too strong, with results against rivals deciding Tottenham’s season for them. Many of their summer transfers have simply not lived up to expectations, and a clear-out will be at the front of the manager’s mind in summer, whoever might be in charge.

Arsenal’s title hopes have faltered since their strong early season showing, with a lack of depth up front and an over-reliance on Ozil and Ramsey proving telling over the course of 30 games. Losing Walcott hasn’t helped either, although this will give Oxlade-Chamberlain the perfect chance to prove his England credentials; nothing sharpens a footballer’s focus like a World Cup. With the Emirates now paid off, the summer window will be vital to building a title-winning team, and Wenger is excellent at picking out his man (admittedly sometimes to the point of over-cautiousness), never spending for the sake of it.

Liverpool’s season has been a joy to behold, with the exception of green-eyed Manchester United fans enjoying their excellent brand of attacking football, a belief in winning by simply scoring more than the opposition. This is in part due to their lack of depth at the back, especially on the flanks, although with the prospect of Champions League football next year, they should have no lack of suitors. For this season however, it looks as though Manchester City and Chelsea will prove too much to cope with, their relentless performances proving too much as Liverpool occasionally slip up in a high-scoring draw. Good to watch as a neutral, though, and though they do have to be considered as title-challengers at this point, others have stronger cases.

Manchester City were expected by many to win the league, with most pointing, quite rightly, at their sheer strength in depth. Yet, minor negatives have added up. Aguero’s injuries would hinder team, and City have looked a little bereft of quality up top in his absence, despite Negredo’s impressive debut season in the Premier League. Pellegrini’s lack of experience in England must be taken into consideration as well, as he unfortunately looks set to carry on his reputation as a nearly-man. City will hope that Aguero comes back as soon as possible as they look to take advantage of their games in hand on Chelsea. Their future is in their hands in a finish that looks to be every bit as dramatic as their stoppage time title-winning goal from 2011-12.

Chelsea are still many people’s favourites at this point despite City’s games in hand, and there is only one reason for this: Mourinho. The man has the ability to conjure something out of nothing, with his tactical decisions bordering on genius (see this for evidence). He has quickly changed the side into his own, offloading Mata and de Bruyne in favour of others who fit his system, with great results. Selling the club’s Player of the Season was never a gamble in his eyes, and his performances at United thus far will only add to that twinkle in his eye. His tactical masterclass over City (in the league) shows why they are the team to beat, despite his infamous mind games denying this, although they have at times become over-reliant on their brand of quick counter-attacking football.


St. George’s Park: England’s footballing future


St. George’s Park officially opened earlier this week, and is intended to be as impressive as the intention behind it. Following the success of certain footballing academies, such as La Masia, the heart of Barcelona’s youth system which has so carefully ingrained their footballing ideologies at as early an age as possible. Quite simply, England are attempting to copy what has been so successful for others. A number of national teams have taken notice of youth development, and at this point it’s almost cliché to point out the revitalisation of the German national team roughly a decade ago.

Yet England have taken it a step further with this giant 330 acre construction. Costing upwards of £100 million, hosting more than fifteen football pitches, and boasting state-of-the-art everything, the aim is to create technically stunning generations of footballers, and a sense of belonging.

One reason the FA has pushed this project ahead, after temporarily cancelling it in 2003, is due to the lowering percentage of English to foreign footballers in the Premiership. Estimated at around 35%, an influx of foreign money and a surplus of foreign talent has led every manager to look abroad for cheaper, and often better players. Many people have complained about the reduction in home-grown talent, but the answer is startlingly obvious: there are few, if any world-class English players, with the exception of Wayne Rooney, and Joe Hart in a couple of years. The FA wants to better their European rivals in terms of numbers of officials and players, with Spain’s La Liga serving as a prime example: the vast majority of players in the league are Spanish, with many more being Portuguese, a close equivalent.

The focus isn’t just on players either, but on training referees and coaches. The FA’s intention is to make St. George’s Park the home of English football, incorporating classrooms to literally teach football, embodying the Park as a university of the game. The benefits of this gargantuan scheme will be substantial in the build-up to Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup, but the effects won’t truly be felt until the next generation of English footballers comes through. At which point, they’ll play a shit country and still get beaten.


Barcelona 2 – 2 Real Madrid (07 / 10 / 2012)

I haven’t written one of these for a while. There hasn’t been a match that interested me enough; you only have to look at the Arsenal / Chelsea game a week ago to see my point. A game decided by three goals, and yet nothing really happened. It never came alive, grabbed you by the balls and forced you to watch, because you daren’t look away.

One such game however was played tonight. It was easily the best match I’ve seen for some time, and the best argument you could give to convince me that La Liga is better than the Premiership. I still don’t think it’s better as a league, but El Clasico might be the best match the world has to offer. Undoubtedly, it has the two best players in the world right now, and two of the best teams. The other players aren’t bad either.

I’ll tell you why the Premiership is better than La Liga, and it’s an argument you’ve no doubt heard before but still rings true. Let this be written proof that I will sacrifice my left testicle to the gods if any team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid win their league. But, who do you think will win the Premier league this season? You’re wrong unless you said Chelsea. Or United. Maybe City. Arsenal could sneak it actually. Tottenham might have a good run.

If Ronaldo returns to English soil, and he’s been hinting again recently, then it would be interesting to see which club he joins. United is an obvious guess, yet one more unlikely than you’d think.  Would Fergie want him back? He’s hardly one to forgive and forget. Would United spend nearly £100 million bringing him back? City would, and Ronaldo doesn’t seem the type to care about possible hostility; rather, he’d thrive on it like El Hadji Diouf  at a bellend convention. Chelsea would also come knocking.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to anyone but yourself which league you think is better. Like Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters said: “If you like Kesha, listen to Kesha.” But for fuck’s sake, don’t listen to Kesha.

Liverpool 1 – 2 Manchester United (23 / 09 / 2012)

Didn’t see that coming. Well, first I didn’t see Liverpool being the better team, but as I watched the first half unfold, with Liverpool hounding United all over the pitch, I thought it was only a matter of time until they scored and won. Half-right isn’t too bad.

The only thing less consistent than my match prediction was the refereeing. Evans should have been booked. Evra should have been booked. Shelvey should have been booked, and been shown a second one shortly after, rather than a straight red. Valencia’s penalty was laughable, given for a tackle that never came. It’s debatable whether Liverpool should have had one too in the dying minutes.

Liverpool need two things. I’ve lost count of the number of football conversations I’ve had which mention Liverpool’s need for a proper finisher, because if Borini is meant to fill that gap, Rodgers should be sectioned. The other thing they need is luck. They barely did anything wrong today, attacking the game with a ferocity United couldn’t match, and it’s rare to concede two goals that you can’t do much about.

I also like how Rodgers is giving youth a chance, though I suppose when your other choice is Stewart Downing, you’d play anybody instead. Suso was particularly impressive, popping up everywhere, just running and running. Allen also impressed by actually running with the ball, rather than just squaring it to a man ten yards away.

Given time, Liverpool will be successful again, but I think it will take longer than the board are willing to give Rodgers, and then they have to do it all over again. Here’s hoping I’m wrong yet again.

Chelsea 2 – 2 Juventus (19 / 09 / 2012) [For Rick Peters]

Well I can’t bet for shit. My initial one went down last night because of some crap European match that I can’t even remember. I had Juventus to win in that one.  Then, in a moment of madness tonight, I foolishly bet on Chelsea to win when they were 2-1 up. £9.30 may not sound much, but when it’s all you’ve got in your account and you’re £1100 quid overdrawn, trust me, it’s heartbreaking. A bet ‘slip,’ if you will. God, that’s awful. A better man than I would ignore the match-fixing scandal surrounding Juventus of late.

To be fair, Juventus deserved to win. They were the dominant team from start to finish in my eyes, yet a deflected goal and a wonder strike, both from young playmaker Oscar, caused me to lose my senses. I knew that Torres had been isolated all game, and looked like he’d do anything but score; in his efforts to replicate Drogba’s form at Chelsea, it seemed he had taken it upon himself to drop to the floor at every viable opportunity. Hazard was quiet, for a change, and never looked like replicating his Premier League form. Bertrand was once again brought on, to do an as yet unspecified job; he just wanders up and down the left wing, occasionally getting forward but never coming back. And David Luiz! Gary Neville got it spot on when he said Luiz played like he was being controlled by a kid with a Playstation.

But I don’t want to detract from the performance of Juventus. Vidal’s weak-foot goal, and Quagliarella’s finish, both of which were excellent goals, didn’t do them justice. Quagliarella, whom I have been a big fan of ever since his lobbed World Cup goal in 2010, did everything right, and took advantage of some lax defending.

Still, to use yet another cliché, anything can happen in football, and I, and Chelsea in fact, paid the price tonight.


Oldham 1 – 1 Scunthorpe (18 / 09 / 2012)

Going 1-0 down after only three minutes of play can be a sad sight for some teams, but not for an Oldham fan. You’re cheering that it’s not two or three already. Especially in home games. I didn’t watch it myself, seeing as I can only think of two occasions in recent memory that Latics have had a match broadcast, but I did follow the online commentary. Starting Matt Derbyshire after signing him on loan was a surprise (granted, not as much of a surprise as actually managing to sign him), but I was further shocked to find out that he’d equalised on the stroke of half-time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always hold out hope that we can pull off an unlikely win, which unfortunately is every week. It’s just that you learn to see the truth instead of the mindless optimism. With this result, Oldham have gone three games unbeaten in a row now. Or, as I now see it, Oldham have gone three games without looking like they could win.

It’s not Dickov’s fault; without him, they wouldn’t be able to sign as many or as quality youngsters on loan from Man City, which Oldham so desperately need. I don’t even think they play particularly bad football. Perhaps it’s because whenever someone has a good season, a little bit of money is thrown at them from elsewhere and cash-strapped Oldham are powerless to resist.

That’s why Man City signing Maicon could save Oldham. With Micah Richards now pushed even further down the pecking order, despite being one of England’s quality right-backs, he may seek a move elsewhere. Undoubtedly commanding a transfer fee of at least £10 million and with a 20% sell-on fee for Oldham, the best move for City, Oldham and himself could be if he left. Actually no, the best thing for Oldham would be if Richards came back to Oldham, but somehow I doubt that will happen.

Real Madrid 3 – 2 Manchester City (18 / 09 / 2012)

Just as I was ready to finish writing about an underwhelming match I’d just watched, football showed me why I love it so much. There’s nothing quite like watching it with your mates, sunk into your chair and waiting expectantly for something, anything exciting to happen. Then three goals come in the last five minutes of a game, and you find yourself shouting at the telly, cheering and jeering depending who you support.

Madrid had hardly been in great form in La Liga, and Mancini isn’t known for his attacking mentality, especially in European competition. I’ll admit I didn’t think it would be a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. I’m glad I was proven wrong, and I’m also glad I didn’t follow through with my betting instinct.

Why did City start Nastavic ahead of Lescott? Why doesn’t Micah Richards play any more? Why does Mancini feel the need to bring off attacking players for defenders when he desperately needs goals? City only had three shots on target in the match, compared with Madrid’s twelve. I don’t know any of the answers, and if anyone else does, please enlighten me, because there don’t seem to be any reasonable answers.

Highlights of the game have to be Kolarov’s fluke of a free-kick goal, Benzema’s inch-perfect finish, the crazy dip on Ronaldo’s game-winning goal, and Mourinho’s subsequent slide across the pitch, on his knees, in a tailored Italian suit. He epitomises the passion and emotion of football for me.


Everton 2 – 2 Newcastle (17 / 09 / 2012)

Football doesn’t need yet more evidence for goal-line technology, but here it is. I’m a huge advocate for it, it can’t come quickly enough in my eyes. No point harping on about it though; the goal wasn’t given and that’s that. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the result here didn’t matter as much. Granted, Everton will be angered by not walking away with a win after battering Newcastle in the first half, but it’s the performance tonight that means so much more.

Being notoriously slow starters, they should feel ecstatic at starting the season this well – including beating United 1 – 0 in their first game. Without wanting to wade into the quagmire of football cliché, it is a 38 game season, and dropping two points tonight means nothing compared to the tens of points they’ve dropped at the beginning of previous seasons.

For Newcastle, a draw means it’s not quite time to panic yet, but they haven’t started too well by any stretch of the imagination. They beat an out-of-sorts Tottenham 2-1, yes, but so they should have. They lost 2-0 to Chelsea, which considering the form the London club was in, it was probably a relief not to concede more. But drawing 1-1 with a Villa side that frankly look ready for the drop is not a result which shows the intent or ability to match last seasons final position. But again, it is a 38 game season. Excuses could be missing out on signing Debuchy from Lille, or the uncertainty surrounding a possible transfer of key players over summer, but these are just simply excuses, and Newcastle have to move on.

It was a good game though as a standalone feature, and one where the controversy actually made the game better rather than detracted from it. It was slowly coming to life in the second half, but the game just exploded with the non-goal and it was end-to-end from then on. Leighton Baines once again reminded people why, I think, he is the best left back in the premiership. Cap it off with two late, late goals, and what you have is one of the best games of this year so far. Roll on next week.