The Great TSA Premiership Preview Thingy!- Part Two
The representation of the north-west of England in this season's Premiership (seven, the largest of any region, and it would have been eight had Preston come through their play-off final against West Ham) speaks of how football continues to carry the imprint of the late nineteenth century working class leisure explosion, when the industrial conurbations of the north of England embraced en mass the burgeoning professional game and created many of the clubs that remain English football's powerhouses to this day.
A season of seismic importance at Old Trafford. The fallout from the Glazer takeover has barely begun, and it will be key for United how much this issue dominates their news agenda. Will the ramifications of the new regime affect matters on-field (the transfer budget being one obvious concern), or will there be a period of boardroom calm to assist Alex Ferguson in his rebuilding process.
It's been hard to escape the sense over the last couple of seasons of an empire crumbling. Overtaken first by Arsenal, then by Chelsea, Ferguson has lost a great deal of his untouchable status in recent times. His awesome record and the scale of his achievements in 19 years at Old Trafford rightly provide a bulwark against the crashing tides of knee-jerk football opinion. However, he has spent a lot of money for diminishing returns, especially, and significantly for the club's prized global eminence, in Europe.
Last season's problem was a lack of goalscoring threat and the seemingly interminable goalkeeping question. Edwin van der Saar should be a shrewd solution to the latter, and an attacking division which includes names like van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs, Saha and Smith, as well as the addition of Soon-Ji Park can surely not continue to misfire.
Wayne Rooney would appear to be poised to reach for true greatness, bearing in mind that this is a World Cup year. How Ferguson blends the young Liverpudlian, van Nistelrooy (whose poor form can surely not continue) and Cristiano Ronaldo will be crucial. Van Nistelrooy's best form with United came when a 4-4-2 system was being deployed, whereas last season saw more of a 4-3-3 being used.
And, as has been the case for the past twelve years, so much will rest on the form of a Cobh Ramblers old boy in midfield, and his ability to drag his wracked body through another season.
VERDICT: 3rd- should be second given Arsenal's transitionary problems, but I'm not convinced United know how to best arrange their artillery up front, and there are rather a lot of questions about the direction of the club, post-Glazer, and in the twilight of Ferguson and Keane.
Makes 'em tick: Roy Keane. Far from going quietly into that good night, Keane continues to rage against the dying of the light. Some of United's best form last season resulted from Darren Fletcher being used as Keane's 'legs' in midfield, so it will be interesting to see if Ferguson persists with this at the expense of more illustrious names further forward.
What he'll say: "See youse, see fitba', see that ref, bloody idiot"
What he means: "Et tu Keano?!"
The latest chapter in a glorious history and a schoolboy's adventure tale made flesh? Or the continuation of the devaluation of the major tournaments following Greece at Euro 2004 and Porto in the 2004 Champions League?
Okay, its generally supporters of those other north-west reds who subscribe to the latter view, but Liverpool's incredible triumph in Istanbul, and the stirring adventure that got them to that stage, were in diametrical contrast to their disappointingly wan league campaign. Where in Europe there was supreme focus, organisation, and at times no little swashbuckling guile, domestically they were generally disturbingly pallid. For example, just days before their comprehensive victory in Leverkusen, they succumbed feebly against Newcastle at St. James' Park. For all the impressiveness of their city rivals' achievement in reaching fourth place, it was a prize that Liverpool handed over with some civic generosity such was the ineffectualness of their league form, their worst since the Evans/Houllier duocracy.
The league, therefore, is the main focus for Rafael Benitez, and there is no doubt that the shrewd Spaniard and his European champions should be well capable of massive improvement domestically. Talk of challenging the top three may be slightly premature, and there are still questions over what their settled offensive unit will look like, as well as back-up for central defence. However, with the Steven Gerrard situation finally sorted, the sublime Xabi Alonso a year further into his English career and the heroic Jamie Carragher marshalling the defence, a genuine challenge might not be too far away.
Verdict: 4th- but if the wheels come off at Old Trafford or Highbury, Liverpool could be ideally placed to take advantage.
Makes 'em tick: Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard was a revelation last season; one Liverpool fan described him to me as "the best player I've ever seen in the flesh". His presence was the main reason for many Liverpool fans' relative sanguineness about Gerrard's possible departure.
What he'll say: "It is great that Stevie has stayed"
What he means: "Would have preferred the £35 million though"
Its all gone a bit flat at Goodison Park since last season culminated in the wonderful achievement of fourth place by a side many had earmarked as possible relegation candidates. The oft-repeated fallacy that fourth place equals Champions League was shown up again by Everton (unseeded and hampered in the draw by their non-existent co-efficient) drawing Villareal, to whom they promptly lost the home first leg of their qualifier on Tuesday night. Add the frustrating summer David Moyes has had in the transfer market, failing to sign the likes of Craig Bellamy and Scott Parker, and it seems that Everton may have missed their chance to step up a level.
However, they will have the consolation of the UEFA Cup should they fail to overturn Villareal's lead, and will continue to display the resilience and spirit which brought about last season's feats. Phil Neville and Simon Davies are good signings, and the effervescent Tim Cahill is a real talent. Moyes will be praying for James Beattie to justify his £6 million transfer fee, something which he never managed in the closing months of the season.
There is almost no chance that Everton will repeat last season's finish, with Liverpool, Spurs and Middlesbrough looking to have much stronger squads and all almost certain to improve. In a way a European run could be a bad thing for Everton, as one would imagine that their small squad would be incapable of competing on two fronts. Still, the top six is achievable, as they've been over course and distance at the top end.
Verdict- 7th. They could be squeezed down a few rungs by the greater improvement in their immediate rivals
Makes 'em tick: Tim Cahill. Showed there are still diamonds to be hewn from the rough of the Championship, Moyes best signing consisted of extending the Australian's contract.
What he'll say: "We're a decent footballing side"
What he means: "Get it long to Big Dunc!"
Judging by the slapstick conclusion to Manchester City’s 2004-05 season, when Stuart Pearce sent David James up front for the end of what was virtually a UEFA Cup spot play-off against Middlesbrough, in an effort to score a vital winner, Manchester City’s image of being a rollercoaster club, with thrills, spills and heartaches the recurring theme, seems set to continue.
One thing that has changed is that City have become a genuinely defensively secure outfit. Much of this is due to Pearce’s work in his previous role as defensive coach under Kevin Keegan, and also the startling renaissance of Richard Dunne as the lynchpin. Dunne appears to be recovering from the foot injury sustained in a pre-season fracas involving Joey Barton. Barton has been Stuart Pearce’s biggest headache, the aforementioned incident in Asia followed by his brother’s arrest in connection with the murder of a black youth in Liverpool bringing wholly unwanted attention to City’s doorstep.
If Barton is Pearce’s biggest headache, life after Shaun Wright-Phillips is his main challenge. £21 million is a handsome transfer fee however, and with Wright-Phillips’ promising brother Bradley coming through, along with the signings of a still goal hungry Andy Cole and Darius Vassell, City could have the blend just right.
Verdict: 8th. Still not enough all round quality to progress further.
Makes ’em tick: Richard Dunne- most improved player in the Premiership and the bedrock of City’s heroic defensive showings against Manchester United and Chelsea last season.
What he’ll say: “Jamesy, get the gloves off!”
What he means: “Well they do call me Psycho!”
The Reebok Home for the Elderly and Infirm it may be, but Bolton are a bona fide Premiership success story, Sam Allardyce’s clever transfer dealings and a policy of full on commitment making the Lancastrians one of the toughest assignments in the league, especially at home. Qualification for European football this season adds significant extra kudos to the manager’s achievements.
The ‘old codgers’ label is probably a fair cop, but Allardyce deserves huge credit for getting the best from these experienced players, not necessarily an easy task when you consider that most of them (the likes of Djorkaeff, Campo, Hierro) were wealthy men who would not, you would imagine, be hugely hungry, or enthusiastic, about the prospect of fetching up at Bolton after the previous postings in their C.V.s.
Allardyce also managed to turn El Hadji Diouf from the most loathed man in football into a Bolton folk hero, a sign of the manager's impressive adeptness at man management, key for any club wishing to punch above its weight. The signature of Jared Borghetti, the Mexican international who scored the winner against Brazil at the Confederations Cup in June is another coup. Borghetti is physically robust enough to adjust well to Bolton’s prosaic style of football, even if cultural acclimatisation from Guadalajara to Lancashire might be more difficult. The likely signature of Hidetoshi Nakata could be another masterstroke.
Verdict: 9th. While they shouldn’t be detained by European duties for too long, the distraction will not be something they are familiar with. Another season of solid, tough competitiveness though.
Makes ‘em tick: Could be Borghetti. Key member of a decent Mexican side, and Bolton could do with a goalscorer
What he'll say: “That ref’s cheated us out there”
What he means: “That ref’s cheated us out there”
Not going to be anyone’s second favourite team this season are they? Sparky Hughes was a narky player, for all his talent, and with the triumvirate of Bellamy, Savage and Dickov in his squad, as well as Andy ’Elbows’ Todd, Rovers will not be making any friends amongst neutrals.
That won’t bother Hughes of course, who will be the subject of scrutiny as to whether he can carry on from his impressive international career with Wales into club football in his first full season. The recruitment of Savage and Bellamy speaks volumes for his popularity with his countrymen. Savage engineered his move from Birmingham with now infamous excuse of wanting to be nearer home, while Bellamy eluded seemingly better placed suitors to sign for Blackburn in one of the summer’s best transfer coups.
Bellamy is regarded as a risk due to his temperament, as well as the fact that he is injury-prone. However he showed at Celtic that if he is happy in his environment, and of course with his manager, he can be a perfectly well behaved boy, and his football benefits as a result. Rovers poor season in 2004-05 was brought about by their lack of goals, and if Bellamy stays fit he could help make them a real surprise package.
Verdict: 10th. Hughes’ team will be hard to beat and if Bellamy fires, Blackburn could turn over a few bigger names.
Makes ‘em tick: Robbie Savage. For all his odiousness, teams that he plays on do not go down easy, and his feistiness makes him as popular with his own fans as he is loathed by others. And that’s a good thing.
What he’ll say: “None of my boys would deliberately hurt another player”
What he means: “I told him- not the face!”
Now will they get a few punters through the turnstiles? The archetype of grim northerness take on the ultimate in cosmopolitan sophistication when Chelsea come to town on the first Sunday’s baptism of fire for Wigan, a contest which should see a rare full house. In fact, they have more in common than first appears the case. For Abramovich and Mourinho, read Dave Whelan, the sports goods millionaire to whose largesse Wigan’s success is owed, and Paul Jewell, the shrewd Scouser who built a team to achieve the impossible.
There is almost no chance of Wigan staying up. Unable to attract much in the way of quality signings (the wandering Henri Camara makes his latest stop at the JJB Stadium and Arjen de Zeeuw returns from Portsmouth), the Latics will hope that their all-conquering strike force of Nathan ’Duke’ Ellington and Jason Roberts can do an Andy Johnson and take the top flight by storm. Not likely.
The presence of the resolute de Zeeuw and Graham Kavanagh in midfield will stiffen them to a degree, but it will take a miracle greater than the one Jewell pulled off in keeping Bradford up for anything other than an immediate return to the Championship to occur.
Verdict: 20th. Bit of a no-brainer this one.
Makes ‘em tick: Brian Kerr will be delighted to see Graham Kavanagh at the highest level at last, and he should hold his own against more illustrious names.
What he’ll say: “I thought we were still in the game at 4-0, but all credit to Chelsea, they’re a decent side”
What he means: “Can’t we play Rotherham next week”