At Tottenham, he was the pivot around which the team operated. He was the lynchpin in attack and all moves went through him. His style is usually to drop deep, keep the ball, make a quick pass and get the ball back. At United, he has been doing the first three parts but seldom does he get the ball back immediately. Usually, Fletcher or Carrick or Scholes receive the ball and look to the wings to expand play rather than giving it back to Berbatov and build play more centrally. Now, I’m not in the least suggesting that this system is wrong and detremential but merely stating the difference in the styles between United and Tottenham.
‘Welcome to Manchester’ read a blue poster with the image of Carlos Tevez on it. A clear indication to their cross-town rivals and indeed the rest of the premier league that Manchester City had arrived; and not just to make up the numbers. Manchester was well and truly divided. The battle lines were drawn, the swords unsheathed; it was time to play.
As expected, with the backing of their phenomenally rich owners, Mark Hughes brought in massive names: Tevez, Adebayor, Santa Cruz in attack, and Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott in defence. With an expenditure of more than a hundred million pounds, City were making their intentions clear. A top-4 place was expected and many even tipped them to be challenging for the title.
They started off in fine form with 5 straight wins that included a win over Arsenal. They went on to win 7 of their first 8 games with the only defeat coming in the controversial Manchester derby at Old Trafford. Then came the run of 7 successive draws that ultimately signaled the end of Mark Hughes as manager of Man City. Results did improve in December with back to back wins over Arsenal in the Carling Cup and Chelsea in the league but Sparky’s days were quite clearly numbers. His replacement was the suave Italian former Inter manager, Roberto Mancini.
Hughes’ unceremonious dumping and the appointment of Mancini was met with a mixed reception with many players publically coming out in support of the ex-boss. Clearly loyalties were divided in the dressing room but Mancini was adamant that he could make them a success story. His reign started off with 3 wins on the bounce. Then came the ill-tempered 2 legged semi-final affair against their Mancunian rivals which they ultimately lost.
February and March were mixed with draws and losses interspersed by good wins. Stoke dumped City out of the FA Cup and come the end of March, the only focus was now on the elusive 4th champions league spot. January was a relatively quiet month in the transfer window with only the arrivals of former Arsenal skipper, Patrick Viera and the relatively low-key Adam Johnson. January also saw the departure of the club’s most expensive player Robinho; no he wasn’t sold, merely sent out on loan to former club Santos.
With the race for the 4th spot heating up, Man City went all out. There were good wins against Burnley, Birmingham and Villa but were either side of a loss in the Manchester derby and a draw at the Emirates. It all came down to the showdown at Eastlands and the Lily whites came up trumps. Manchester City are consigned to the Europa League next season.
The story of the season is merely a sub plot to the revolution at City. For the first time in recent memory, a team has actually emerged that is a genuine threat to the established big guns. A club with the financial muscle to genuinely give the big boys a run for their money. The spending power and the utter nonchalance towards the very concept of money is a frightening thought. The loaning out of the club’s most expensive player is case in point. Any other team, possibly even Real Madrid would think twice on a decision like that but to Man City, it seems like just another day at work.
With Roberto Mancini seemingly with the owners’ backing, in spite of not delivering the Champions league spot, and backed by the near endless cash reserves, a top 4 place is most certainly on the cards next season and possibly a strong challenge for the title as well. The biggest problem with City this year has been that on many an occasion, they’ve played as a bunch of 11 individuals rather than a team. Mancini has an entire summer to think about that particular problem, and we may well see a different Man City next term.
There is talk of dressing room unrest and the likes of Carlos Tevez leaving but the club will ensure that if indeed they do leave, able replacements will be recruited, at any cost. As the close season nears, City are inevitably linked to most of the big names of world football. Insane amounts of money are mentioned but it wouldn’t in the least bit be surprising if these massive-money deals did indeed materialize.
People will question the appointment of Roberto Mancini. After all, Mark Hughes won a total of 32 points in his 16 games in charge while Mancini has won 34 in his 21 in charge. Since Mancini took over though, City have looked a lot more organized and that instilled discipline is evident. With Mancini at the reins, and given time to build a team, there is every chance that Man City will be a force to be reckoned in the very near future.
Arsene Wenger told the world “Watch out for us this season”, and so the world watched. Being his usual astute self, Wenger forayed into the transfer market and bought only Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgian defender from Ajax. Naturally eyebrows were raised on the lack of “big name signings” but Wenger, in his normal manner, brushed aside the thought, instead, reiterating his faith in the young guns.
Arsenal started off in the most brilliant fashion, disposing of Everton and Portsmouth 6-1 and 4-1 respectively, an in the meanwhile eliminating Celtic from the Champions League with the minimum of fuss. With 15 goals in the first 4 games, it looked as if Wenger had been vindicated. Then came back to back defeats at the two Manchester clubs but these were followed by a remarkable run of 11 wins and 2 draws in the next 13 games. Arsene’s men were well and truly on their way to something special; or it would seem.
December rolled onto January and defeat in the Carling cup was one of the series of mixed results that saw Arsenal keep pace with the leaders and even top the table on occasion. February came and Arsenal’s good run continued with progression to the next stage of the Champions League, after an utter demolition of Porto. Next in wait – the champions. March was again mixed with good wins marred by the draw against Birmingham and the remarkable come-from-behind draw against Barcelona. This game though, would turn out to be one of the most significant of the season, not so much for the result as for the injury to Cesc Fabregas, their talisman.
Come April, and Arsenal were very much in with a shot at the title in what has become perhaps the closest title race in recent memory. April, was where it tailed off. After a scrappy 1-0 against Wolves, they were handed something of a lesson by Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The diminutive Argentinian scoring all four goals in what was a virtuoso performance by the European and World champs. With just the Premier League to play for, Arsene Wenger knew that if his side put in a decent string of performances, the title could well be back at North London. What transpired though was a string of poor results with reverses at Tottenham and Wigan and draw at Man City. Arsenal are no longer in the title race going into the last day of the season, and by the looks of it, even third place is not guaranteed.
What happened then? It was all going so well and then … implosion! To start off, the summer signing of Vermaelen was an inspired one with the Belgian becoming one of the signings of the season. Eduardo, Bendtner and Vela were touted to be the main support cast to the main man, Van Persie but somehow they failed to deliver. The midfield was overflowing with options and Song has been the absolute unsung hero this season (no pun intended). The problem then, as it has been for a few seasons now, was injuries. Far too many players played far too less to really maintain that coherency and chemistry. Wenger was forced to play players out of position and this had a telling effect. The defence was also hampered by injuries and the only replacement Wenger brought in the transfer window was an ageing Sol Campbell, who though, has been one of the stand-out performers in the run in. Ramsey’s breakthrough season was also cut short by a horrific injury that will see him miss the first half of next season too. Add to this the fact that Van Persie was out for a major part of the season and the lack of firepower becomes evident.
Another problem, and an even bigger one has been the attitude. As has been the case over the past few seasons, when faced with crunch situations and high pressure, they’ve often bucked under it. Much as they are the best “footballing team” in the land, they too lack that all important Plan-B when things don’t go according to plan. Often, they’ve been outmuscled and roughed up by physical teams.
With Chamakh confirming that he will be joining the Gunners at the end of the season, their striking options should be bolstered. Arsenal’s midfield certainly has a lot of options but many are too similar. Most of them tend to play the same game. Song, for all his defensive qualities, is still a touch player. What is definitely needed is steel in the middle of that midfield. Someone like ex-captain fantastic, Viera. Also, with Gallas’ contract running out at the end of the season and there still ebing question marks about his temperament, another quality center back to partner Vermaelen is most definitely needed. All said and done, one of the most pieces of business that Wenger has to do is to tie down his captain and shield him from the Catalan advances.
“In Arsene we trust” reads many a banner at the Emirates and it’s a sentiment echoed by many Gooners. It’s been FIVE seasons now without a trophy now and even the most ardent fans are beginning to raise a question or two. Arsene Wenger is no longer just the manager; he’s much more. He is building not just a squad but a football club. Arsene must realize that his footballing philosophy is great but he definitely need that extra bit of quality, grit and determination. Now rid of all debt and armed with a transfer chest of more than 50 million, there will be no question of a lack of funds next season. It’s time for the professor to go forth; to splash the cash and bring glory once again.
When Jamie Carragher said before the start of the season, “This is our year!”, people, for once, took him seriously. Coming off the back of a brilliant season where Liverpool, after years of making up the top 4, genuinely challenged for the title, they were expected widely to challenge for the title and perhaps finally win that elusive 19th title that would again see them as the undisputed kings of England. What transpired though, was a season that was marred with poor displays and inconsistency on the pitch, and a storm off it, in the boardrooms.
The off season was an interesting one with the sale of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa to Real Madrid and the major signings of Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Aquilani’s signing was ans especially intriguing one because he was signed for a fee in the region of 20 million pounds and was going to be out for the start of the season for sure. Nevertheless, the core of the squad that had come so close to winning the title last season was maintained and it was “all hands on deck” to the title hilt.
The early season form was patchy with fantastic wins against the likes Stoke and Hull interspersed by a defeat against Villa and scraped-out wins against Bolton, Debreceen and West Ham. The next 10 games was what probably defined Liverpool’s season. The 10 games resulted in 6 losses, 3 draws and only a solitary win, albeit against bitter rivals Manchester United. Come November end, Liverpool’s title challenge was all but over and their qualification to the knock out stages of the Champion’s League hanging by a thread. This 10 game spell was probably the club’s worst in recent times.
The first half of December brought with it heartbreak; Liverpool were knocked out of Europe’s elite and were consigned to a season in Europe’s Tier-II competition. The players tried to put up a brave face by saying that “winning the Europa League will put a different gloss on the season” but it was there for all to see that they were desperately disappointed that they had let themselves and the fans down. The next few months were again mixed with Liverpool now struggling to hold onto a Champion’s League spot. Their form in the Europa League was marginally better though and they went through to the semi-finals without much difficulty. It was in the semi-final though, that their only chance of silverware was also taken away from them – a strike from Manchester United old boy, Diego Forlan, sent Liverpool out of the Europa League and extinguished hopes of any sort of silverware this season. With last weekend’s loss against Chelsea confirming that there will be no Champions League football next term, 2009-’10 is officially the worst season for Liverpool FC in recent times.
What then is the reason? On first glance, FOOTBALL seems to be the most obvious. What could possibly have gone so badly wrong with the core of the team still intact? The loss of one player could not have hampered them that much, could it? Xabi Alonso was massive for Liverpool, no doubt, but surely his departure was not the only reason. Of the 2 big signings, Glen Jonson really came into his own and has cemented his position as first choice for both club and country. Aquilani, however, is a different story. Heralded as a playmaker with great vision and a fantastic shot, he never really sparkled; probably because he never really played! He was out for the early part of the season with an injury but even after he was fully fit(or seemingly so), Rafa still limited him to 10 minute cameos. With Torres’ hamstrings and knees playing up from time to time, and him unavailable for a lot of the season, Liverpool were pretty toothless in attack with N’Gog hardly a replacement for the brilliant Spaniard. Gerrard too has had an ordinary season with off-field allegations clearly taking their toll.
All through the season, the boardroom battles have waged on with the owners publically disagreeing and sparring. They appointed Martin Broughton to sell the club which was for sale anyway. Rafa too got involved in these boardroom battles and took his eye off the ball – literally. He got in the mix of the power struggle and wanted more autonomy and so on when the focus should have been on the field. Also, the master tactician’s on-field tactics too left many a Kop supporter baffled. His insistence on playing 2 defensive midfielders against even lesser opposition left many shaking their heads. And with Rafa’s future looking cloudy, Liverpool FC supporters are looking at a long summer ahead.
All’s not doom and gloom though. If Rafa does stay, he will probably be working under new management, who will back him in the transfer market and he can get those couple of missing pieces of the jigsaw. With Torres likely to be fully fit and Aquilani beginning to look like the prospect who everyone thought he was, Liverpool could yet put a disastrous end to the noughties and begin the new decade with what may well be the 19th title and with Chelsea looking good to deny United their nineteenth, Liverpool could yet be the undisputed kings of England come May 2011.
The Italian invasion of West London was greeted with a great deal of expectancy. After the Brazilian fiasco followed by the Dutch revival of last season, Stamford Bridge was buoyant after the appointment of one of the foremost tacticians of Italian football. The summer was relatively quiet with the only big money signing being Yuri Zhirkov, and Daniel Sturridge and Ross Turnbull bolstering the English options.
Chelsea started off with a win in the Charity shield over Manchester United on penalties. Carlo’s diamond was unleashed on an unsuspecting premier league and Chelsea romped their way past teams in the early part of the season with hardly a hiccup. The group stages of the Champions league too seemed a breeze with 4 wins and 2 draws in the group stages. They looked unbeatable at times and were ruthless in attack and miserly in defence.
Then came the proverbial “blip” with inconsistency raising its head. Unexpected draws at Everton, West ham, Birmingham and Hull. The turn of the year saw Chelsea sitting atop the premier league perch and looking good for their first title post Mourinho. January and then Februaury rolled on with a few mixed results but Chelsea still held the edge. Then came the heartbreak. Carlo was out thought by his former cross-town Milan rival, and predecessor, The special one. Another year gone, another year Roman has to wait for his elusive Champions League.
The season has almost ended and Chelsea are in it for two major titles; They currently hold a single point advantage over Manchester United going into the last day of the season and they play Portsmouth in the FA Cup final. The double is very much on the cards.
Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond was the story of the first half of the season when it cut through all in its path but as the season progressed, loss of form and fatigue soon caught up with the ageing Chelsea squad and led to inconsistency. Going into the business end of the season, Chelsea look to be in a fantastic position with most of their players peaking. Drogba is the joint top scorer in the league and “Super Frank” has just had another 20 goal season. Yet, Chelsea’s main man this season has been Flourent Malouda. At the beginning of the season, many were questioning the Frenchman’s value to the team and there was even the talk of an exit at the end of this season. Employed by Ancelotti in both a wide position and in a more central role, he has reveled and has contributed not just to the scoring charts but in the assists column as well. The return of Joe Cole too bolstered the options but Essien has been a big miss with everyone else who has occupied his position struggling to show any sort of consistency.
With both Bosingwa and Ashley Cole out for long periods, Ivanovic has stepped up to the plate and has established himself as first choice. John Terry has not been at his usual brilliant best, off field problems and losing the England captaincy might be the contributors there, but has done well enough to steer the Chelsea ship through.
Two games left in the season now. One’s a cup final and the other may well be called a ‘League final’. Carlo’s team have to now show that they do indeed possess the nerves of steel and the suave that have made them the top scorers in the league. It may not have been a vintage season in terms of consistency but come the end of the season, they are exactly where they wanted to be; challenging for trophies.