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England World Cup Squad of the Week #2

With only thirteen rounds of Premier League matches left before the 2014 World Cup finals kick off in Brazil, here’s the second in our new weekly series of England squads picked solely on the basis of the English players who perform best in each round of Premier League fixtures until the end of the season. We’re looking for the form players in this final third of the season – previous performances and reputation will count for nothing. By the end of the campaign, we will hopefully have a clear idea of who deserves to be on the plane to Brazil.

Starting off between the sticks, we’ve gone for Joe Hart following his clean sheet against Norwich City at Carrow Road. He edges out his opposite number from that match, John Ruddy. As Celtic’s Fraser Forster was on the end of a beating this weekend, we’ve selected Hull’s Steve Harper as our third choice ‘keeper thanks to his clean sheet at Sunderland.

There weren’t that many contenders for the defensive positions this weekend, especially at fullback, so we’ve taken a risk and only picked seven defenders for the squad and beef up the midfield options. Hopefully Jon Flanagan’s ability to play on both sides would mitigate that risk as Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw are the only other full-backs in the squad. There were good performances for Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Spurs’ Michael Dawson in clean sheet victories for their clubs and they are joined by Crystal Palace’s Scott Dann and West Ham’s James Tomkins to make up a full complement of four London based centre-backs.

There were plenty of impressive English central and wide midfielders this weekend and it was difficult to narrow to selection down to the nine that we have chosen. Liverpool’s line up from their 5-1 crushing of Arsenal has provided Gerrard, Henderson and Sterling, with goalscoring wingers Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Tom Ince also joining the party. Swansea’s Leon Britton, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and Fulham’s Steve Sidwell complete the midfield options, the latter after an impressive display in the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

A few English strikers found the net this weekend, but Darren Bent misses out on the squad in favour of Southampton’s Rickie Lambert, who turned in another fine all round performance, Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, Stoke City’s Peter Crouch and West Ham’s two-goal hero Kevin Nolan.

So our England World Cup 2014 Squad of the Week #2 is:

Joe Hart
John Ruddy
Steve Harper

Gary Cahill
Scott Dann
Michael Dawson
James Tomkins
Jon Flanagan
Kyle Walker
Luke Shaw

Steven Gerrard
Jordan Henderson
Frank Lampard
Leon Britton
Steve Sidwell
Raheem Sterling
Nathan Dyer
Wayne Routledge
Tom Ince

Forwards:Adam Johnson
Kevin Nolan
Daniel Sturridge
Rickie Lambert
Peter Crouch

And our England starting XI of the week would line up something like this:

England team of the week

England team of the week

Do you agree? Who would you have picked on this week’s Premier League performances? You can leave your comments below.

Chelsea end Manchester City’s unbeaten home record

Chelsea have ended Manchester City’s unbeaten home record in the Premier League this season and kept the title race wide open with a 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium. Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic lashed home the only goal of the game in the thirty second minute to lift Jose Mourinho’s team up to fifty three points, leaving them in joint second place with City, only trailing the Manchester club on goal difference. City, who had won all eleven of their previous home league fixtures this campaign, failed to find the net on home turf in the league for the first time since November 2010 and missed out on the chance to go top of the table.

Arsenal have a two point advantage at the top of the table thanks to their 2-0 home win in a London derby against Crystal Palace at the weekend, which came courtesy of two goals from the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. However, things could change at the top as early as next weekend with the Gunners facing a difficult looking trip to Anfield to take on fourth placed Liverpool, who could only draw at West Brom on Sunday, and Chelsea and Manchester City having easier looking fixtures against Newcastle and Norwich respectively.

Premier League 2013-14 Fixtures Announced

The fixtures for the 2013-14 Premier League season have been announced. The season will kick off on the weekend of the seventeenth of August 2013 and will conclude on the weekend of the eleventh of May 2014, with the FA Cup final being played the following weekend. New Manchester United manager David Moyes faces a tough start to the season with an away trip to League Cup holders Swansea followed by games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in his first five league matches in charge. If he’s still in contention for the title at the end of the season then he can look forward to a relatively easy run in with the final three fixtures being against Norwich, Sunderland and Southampton. He won’t return to Goodison Park to face Everton until the weekend of the nineteenth of April unless they meet there in a cup competition before that date.

Last season’s runners up Manchester City and their new manager Manuel Pellegrini host Newcastle United on the opening day followed by a trip to last season’s Championship winners Cardiff City, who start their own campaign away at West Ham. Fellow promoted sides Hull City and Crystal Palace face tricky starts with Hull the visitors at Chelsea for Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge and Crystal Palace hosting Tottenham in a London derby. New Everton boss Roberto Martinez will be taking his team to Norwich City on the opening day and another new manager, Mark Hughes at Stoke, has to negotiate a trip to Merseyside to face Liverpool. The other fixtures from the first round of matches are Arsenal versus Aston Villa, Sunderland against Fulham and West Brom against Southampton.

The exact dates and kick off times have yet to be confirmed as the television rights holders – Sky and BT – now have to select which matches will be screened live on TV. Along with the Premier League fixtures, the Championship, League One, League Two, Scottish Premier League and Scottish lower division fixtures have also been announced today. The French Ligue 1 fixtures were released last Thursday as the calendar for the new season starts to take shape around Europe.

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Moyes to take over at Manchester United

Manchester United have announced that David Moyes will be their new manager, taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of this season. Sir Alex Ferguson announced his shock retirement yesterday morning and United were quick to confirm that the Everton manager will be his replacement. It is believed that Ferguson strongly endorsed the candidature of his fellow Scot for the post.

Moyes has been in charge at Everton since 2002 having previously managed at Preston North End. He has never won a top level club trophy as a manager and has no experience in the Champions League but was highly respected for his long term consistency and over-achievement on a tight budget at Everton. He did win a third tier league title with Preston and took Everton into the UEFA Cup/Europa League on three occasions. His highest league finish was fourth in the 2004-05 season, which qualified Everton for the Champions League preliminary stages but they lost to eventual semi finalists Villareal 4-2 on aggregate.

Moyes, who has won the LMA Manager of the Year award three times, has signed a six year contract with Manchester United and will hope to build the sort of dynasty associated with his predecessor. His first task at Old Trafford will be to resolve the future of England international Wayne Rooney who has reportedly handed in another transfer request. Before then he has two final matches to oversee as Everton manager starting with his swansong at Goodison Park against West Ham on Sunday followed by a trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea seven days later.

Benítez aiming to build bridges at Chelsea

As a Liverpool fan, I have been asked several times over the last couple of days “How do you feel about Rafael Benítez joining Chelsea?” It’s a good question…


My initial reaction was one of antipathy. I still try and kid myself that football operates on a different level to real life. I’d like to believe that once a player or manager has a synonymous association with a club, it would be unthinkable for them to join a major rival. However, football is no different to life in general. People move on.


When Benítez left Liverpool by mutual consent in June 2010, he departed with dignity and the respect of the fans who had grown to love him during his largely successful six year reign. Not least for his final act before departing to Internazionale. He personally delivered a cheque for £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. It was a touch of class from a very genuine man.


Two years on, seeing Benítez at Chelsea is difficult to swallow. It just doesn’t look right. Whilst the appointment will take some getting used to for Liverpool supporters, the real challenge for Benítez is to win over his new faithful. The majority of media coverage I have witnessed over the last two days seems to suggest that Chelsea fans are in agreement with their Liverpudlian counterparts. They appear far from happy with the appointment. Benítez’s trophy winning credentials seem to count for nothing. It’s proving difficult for the blues fans to look beyond the fact Benítez was their arch enemy. During his reign as reds chief, Benítez’s Liverpool faced Chelsea a staggering 26 times (winning 7, losing 12 and drawing 7). There was a dark sub-plot to many of these encounters, fueled in the main by a prickly relationship between José Mourinho and Benítez. During this time, Rafa’s name was taken in vain in many a Chelsea chant. Particular favourites cast him as an overweight Spanish waiter and ‘the bloke off the Go Compare adverts’!


In terms of their general feeling, I can totally understand where the Chelsea fans are coming from. Putting myself in their shoes, I would probably feel the same if Liverpool appointed the self professed ‘special one’. However in the interests of their club, the sooner they get beyond this stage of resistance the better. I truly believe Chelsea are a more dangerous outfit with Benítez in charge. He will take what is an already accomplished side and add an extra layer of solidity and tactical nous. Expect to see ‘Zonal Marking’ and ‘Squad Rotation’ trending on pundit’s cue cards in the coming weeks!


Much has been said about Benítez’s arrival being the catalyst for Fernando Torres’ long overdue renaissance. I believe his arrival will help but not necessarily for the technical and tactical reasons I have read elsewhere. I believe it is more of a personal issue. Torres trusts Rafa and more importantly, Torres knows that Rafa trusts him. He feels comfortable and at home with Rafa and this will enable him to shed some of the psychological burden that he has exerted on himself since his transfer from Liverpool. If he scores against Manchester City on Sunday, I sense a rapid improvement in form will be just around the corner.


While both sets of fans try to come to terms with the appointment, the man himself seems to be taking it all in his stride. He appeared his usual confident and measured self at the unveiling press conference on Thursday. His motivation for taking the job, albeit on a short-term basis is clear. It gives him the opportunity to work in a league he obviously loves with a crop of very talented players who have a genuine chance of winning silverware this season. If Benítez thrives in his post at Chelsea, his CV will require another coat of gloss and the possibilities for his career will multiply.


His ambition and determination, whilst being amongst his greatest strengths, can also manifest themselves as his biggest weakness. Stubbornness. During his times in charge of Valencia, Liverpool and Internazionale, he had open disagreements with each club’s hierarchy. The core of these disagreements was control of the playing staff. Benítez wanted total football ownership including player transfers. He will not get this at Chelsea. If owner Roman Abramovich wants something (or someone), he bypasses the club structure and he buys it. (Fortunately for Benítez, I don’t think Roman is a fan of Robbie Keane!) This may not become an issue due to the temporary nature of the relationship but, with a January transfer window to negotiate, the Spaniards patience may be tested.


Whilst he has been installed as ‘Interim Manager’ ®, the true length of Benítez’ stay at Stamford Bridge will be determined by his success between now and the end of the season coupled with the ability of Chelsea’s hierarchy to lure Pep Guardiola away from his sabbatical. If Guardiola is willing to join Chelsea, Benítez would be disposed of regardless of achievement. He could in theory land the Premier League, the Champions League/Europa League (delete as appropriate), the FIFA Club World Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup and still be looking for a new job come June.


To coin a footballing cliché, at the end of the day both Liverpool and Chelsea fans alike must accept the situation. Rafa’s reign was an important chapter in Liverpool’s past but for the next seven months he is Chelsea’s future, whether any of us like it or not. I for one am not entirely happy with it but life goes on.


United hit top spot

Manchester United overhauled their cross-town rivals Manchester City to take top place in the Premier League table with ten games remaining in the 2011-12 season. United eased to victory against West Bromwich Albion with a goal in each half from the on-form Wayne Rooney. The first was diverted in after good work from Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez in the 35th minute and the second was from the penalty spot in the 71st minute. West Brom’s Jonas Olsson was dismissed in the 66th minute for a second bookable offence.

Meanwhile, Manchester City were going down 1-0 against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium. City domainated possession for long periods but were unable to find the net and succombed to an 83rd minute strike from substitute Luke Moore, only four minutes after he had come off the bench to replace Danny Graham. The Swans could have taken an early lead when they won a penalty in the 7th minute, only for Scott Sinclair’s effort to be well saved by City ‘keeper Joe Hart. It was mainly one-way traffic after that but, for once, City couldn’t find their cutting edge.

In the other game of the day, bottom of the table Wigan Athletic rescued a point from their trip to Carrow Road, having been 1-0 down against Norwich City. Wes Hoolahan gave the Canaries an early lead but the Latics came back strongly after the interval and replied through Victor Moses in the 68th minute. However, time ran out before Wigan could find a winner. The point leaves Wigan at the foot of the table but keeps them in touch with the rest of the teams struggling against relegation.

Manchester United’s win moves them on to 68 points at the top, one clear of Manchester City on 67, although City’s goal difference is still eight better than United’s. There is now a 13 point gap back from City to Spurs in third place.

Premier League Saturday Afternoon Round-Up

Goal line technology was once again in the headlines following the early kick off at the Reebok Stadium, where Bolton Wanderers beat Queens Park Rangers 2-1. However, QPR manager Mark Hughes was left fuming after his side had an opening goal from Clint Hill incorrectly ruled out after the officials failed to see the ball crossing the goal line. Darren Pratley then gave Bolton the lead but QPR got back on level terms just after half time following another dubious decision from the officials, who allowed Djibril Cisse’s goal to stand despite replays showing him to be offside. However, Bolton super-sub Ivan Klasnic sealed all three points for the home side with an 86th minute winner, but it could have been a very different game had Clint Hill’s ‘goal’ been allowed to stand.

That result lifted Bolton out of the relegation zone and there was a similarly good outcome for fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers in their own ‘six-pointer’ against Wolverhampton Wanderers. A brace from Junior Hoilett secured a 2-0 away win for Rovers and piled the pressure on Wolves’ caretaker manager Terry Connor to leave the home side winless since they dismissed Mick McCarthy.

Goals were scarce in the other three Premier League matches of the afternoon, with a trio of 1-0 home wins for Chelsea, Aston Villa and Sunderland. Roberto Di Matteo continued his efforts to salvage Chelsea’s season by guiding them to victory against Stoke City, who played with ten men for over an hour following the dismissal of Ricardo Fuller. Didier Drogba’s 68th minute strike secured the points for the Blues in their first league game since Villas Boas’ sacking.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa managed a rare home win courtesy of an injury time goal from Austrian substitute striker Andreas Weimann and Sunderland moved to within two points of visitors Liverpool by beating them 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. Nicklas Bendtner scored in the 56th minute but was later carried off injured.

The Saturday evening game see Everton host Spurs and Manchester United, Swansea and Norwich host West Brom, Manchester City and Wigan respectively on Sunday, with Arsenal facing Newcastle United on Monday evening.

Premiership Debate: How did Manchester City’s new signings fare against Bolton?

Roberto Mancini elected to start his two new acquisitions in the transfer window in the Premiership victory against Bolton Wanderers. reviews how Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira got on.

 After a month of frenzied transfer speculation surrounding Manchester City, the arrivals lounge at Eastlands was actually rather under-populated with just the two new names: Patrick Vieira and Adam Johnson, one a midfielder approaching the veteran stage of his career and the other something of a rookie from the Championship. 

 Both made their debut as substitutes at Hull City at the weekend, and both started against Bolton Wanderers.  Furthermore both introduced themselves to the City fans with a significant part in the two goals that their side scored.  However, their overall impact differed significantly.

A changed Vieira?

The decision to start the former Arsenal midfielder alongside Nigel de Jong at the heart of the City midfield prompted the question whether both were required in the starting XI of a game deemed an easy home win.  Many felt that Vieira’s presence in the midfield (in contrast to Ireland, de Jong and Barry against Hull) put too much emphasis on defending rather than going forward. 

However, noticeably Vieira spent much of his time the other side of the half-way line, leaving de Jong with the majority of the covering duties.  Whilst many City fans will recall the Patrick Vieira of Arsenal with part grimace and part grudging respect as something of a midfield enforcer, he returns to the Premiership after a spell in Italy a slightly changed character in terms of his role on a football pitch.

His evolution started under Roberto Mancini at Inter, who often played him in a similar three-man midfield setup alongside the Argentine pair of Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti. Both are more comfortable on the back-foot, so much of the responsibility to get Inter moving forward from midfield fell to Vieira.  This subtle shift in emphasis in his game was quite evident against Bolton, as the Frenchman’s forward passes were of a significantly higher standard than his defensive contributions.

His through pass for the second goal was quite magnificent: the perfect amount of back spin applied for the ball to hold up and fall neatly into the path of Adebayor to smash home.  The finish caught much of the media attention, but the pass through from Vieira went rather unheralded, which was a pity because it was a fine ball.

The rest of Vieira’s passing was somewhat understated and not overly ambitious, but tidy enough.  Nevertheless his defensive contribution was a little lacklustre.  He was caught in possession a couple of times during the game, on one occasion in the first half hesitating on the ball outside his own area seemingly uncertain what to do with the ball.  His tackling and closing down will also need to be improved – Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba unleashed a long-range effort from outside of the box at one point, and he really should have been picked up quicker by Vieira and closed down.

After playing the full ninety minutes, something he hasn’t done too much of in recent months at the San Siro, Vieira looked increasingly tired as the game progressed, but at 33 should still be more than able to complete games for City once his full match fitness comes to the fore. 

On the evidence of the performance against Bolton, it looks like he may also have a slightly more attacking role at Manchester City, and if he produces quality through balls like the one for Adebayor on a regular basis, he’ll quickly have Arsenal fans wondering if Sol Campbell wasn’t the only ex-Gooner their side should have picked up in January.

A bit of a wide boy

Whilst Patrick Vieira’s home debut was a bit of a mixed bag, Adam Johnson’s was eye-catching to say the least.  The former Middlesbrough player looks like he might have been a bit of a bargain at £6 million on the basis of the game against Bolton. 

The one time England U-21 international looked a constant menace on either flank and won the penalty from the right side after driving into the Bolton penalty area before being tripped by Paul Robinson.  Interestingly for a wide-man Johnson was equally happy to cut in to the centre of the pitch as try his luck by going down the line, leaving both Bolton full-backs uncertain as to his intentions.

Used as part of a three-man attacking line, Johnson was free to concentrate on influencing the game in the final third, and was at the heart of everything City did positively in the first half.  Employing players with natural width was never part of Mancini’s game at Inter Milan, the Italian preferring a narrow formation that used someone like Dejan Stankovic as a play-maker in the traditional tre-quartista role, what we would refer to as the hole. 

The acquisition of Johnson to come in alongside the existing options of Petrov and Wright-Philips, suggests that Mancini may be prepared to eschew that for an approach based on flank play.  There is going to be plenty of competition of places on the flanks with Johnson’s arrival.  After Shaun Wright-Philips’ rather wild contribution as a second half substitute, it looks like Johnson may be the natural choice to partner Adebayor and Tevez up front, at least for the time being. 

Indeed such was his impact if he can maintain it, then he may be an outside contender for a place at South Africa in Fabio Capello’s England squad.  Quite a change over the course of a season for a player who spent the first month of 2009/10 playing Scunthorpe United and Doncaster Rovers!

Both Vieira and Johnson look like they may have a role to play for City as they look to try and muscle their way into fourth place, or better, for Champions League football next season.  With critical fixtures coming up against both Liverpool and Tottenham in the next five games, not to mention a clash against Chelsea and an FA Cup match against Stoke for a place in the quarter-finals, there will be no shortage of incentive for City to do well.  Adam Johnson in particular could have a key role to play as the final and decisive stages of the season are entered into.

Premiership Debate: Did Arsenal lose against Chelsea because of Arsène Wenger?

Arsene Wenger: "D'oh??"

The flag often seen in the background at the Emirates Stadium proclaims: “In Arsène we trust!”  A bold statement, but as Arsenal slump to nine points off the pace set at the top of the Premiership and Chelsea and Manchester United ease themselves away again, looks at whether Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is as much the cause and solution to Arsenal’s problems.

 The conundrum was perfectly summed up by Homer Simpson in one episode of The Simpsons when sat at Moe’s Tavern and about to start the umpteenth beer of the night he mulls: “Ahh beer…the cause and solution to all of life’s problems”.  Perhaps if one subbed Arsène Wenger for beer, and despondent Gooners for Homer Simpson there might be quite a parallel today.

Right from the outset of this piece it should be pointed out that the recent success enjoyed by the club combined with the flamboyancy that Arsenal play with is entirely down to Arsène Wenger and the rest of his backroom staff, who have instilled a playing ethos that makes the club one of the most attractive in the world. 

By almost any measure Arsène Wenger is one of the greatest managers that, not only Arsenal, but the entire English league has ever witnessed.  Furthermore whilst recent silverware has been thin on the ground, Wenger’s overall record is still pretty decent: played 772, won 443, drawn 190 and lost 139, a winning percentage just under 60%, and less than one in five ending in defeat in all competitions. 

Yesterday’s reverse against Chelsea was in many respects entirely unjust.  Arsenal played the best football and dominated much of the match, something that is backed up by the stats in terms of possession, territorial advantage and attempts at goal.  Which makes the 2-0 loss all the more difficult to stomach, especially amongst aesthetes of the game.  Not that Chelsea won ugly, but Arsenal in many respects played the better football.

Nevertheless the result, which is ultimately what counts, rendered the excellent performance and the largely positive football somewhat meaningless.  Having had a day to contemplate defeat perhaps Arsène Wenger would have approached things differently.

The sum of the parts

An attacking line of Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin and Sami Nasri is obviously lacking any sort of physical prowess.  It’s a point that has been made countless times before, but Arsenal against Chelsea lacked any sort of cutting edge or presence in the opposition penalty area.  This meant that any ball into the attacking line had to be absolutely perfect.  Cesc Fabregas managed one such weighted pass, which Arshavin volleyed over in the first half, but asking the Spaniard to repeatedly attain such technical brilliance is too much.

The lack of an obvious centre-forward also meant that whilst each Chelsea player looked like they played with a shared sense of purpose, Arsenal seemed occasionally uncertain what they should be doing when in possession.  Should the ball go to Fabregas in midfield, to Walcott down the right or instead up to Arshavin somewhere in the middle?  Chelsea certainly didn’t lack for that thrust on their decisive counter-attack for the second goal, but somehow one sensed that Arsenal were never capable of springing such a move in reply. 

The answer to Arsenal’s problems may have been closer to Arsène Wenger than he realised. Whilst Nicklas Bendtner may not be the most talented player in the squad, what he brings to the team in the absence of Robin van Persie or Eduardo is the willingness to show for the ball with his back to goal.  Starting with the Danish forward would mean having to leave an arguably more talented player on the bench, but such is the lot of a Premiership football manager.

Fabio Capello has the courage to play Emile Heskey, despite the Aston Villa forward almost polemically dividing the English football watching public as to his effectiveness in the side.  Nevertheless the Italian recognises that whilst Heskey might not be as talented as other strikers at his disposal, the role he performs in the team is no less valuable. 

Arshavin has proved that he can make a worthwhile contribution to Arsenal, but not from a centre-forward’s position, a role for which he lacks either the bravery or the movement.  John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho has the relatively straightforward task of keeping the former Zenit man in check, where they would have been far more troubled if he could have started from a wider position and attacked balls provided to him by the like of Bendtner.

Sticking to his guns

Wenger has so far stuck doggedly to his guns down the years refusing to adopt a more pragmatic approach to the beautiful game.  It has brought Arsenal success by degrees, but in this age of power, so dramatically highlighted by both Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks, it may be time to consider a tactical tweak.

In truth, despite the concession of five goals to two of their direct title challengers, Arsenal aren’t that far behind their rivals.  Whilst the nine point gap to Chelsea as we enter the final third of the season is probably insurmountable from Arsenal’s perspective there is no reason why they can’t start next season in excellent shape.  That would require using the rest of this as an extended test starting each game with at least one dedicated centre-forward be that Bendtner, Eduardo or once fit van Persie, and making the acquisition of a top-quality striker a priority when the transfer window re-opens at the end of the season. 

Arsène Wenger stated pre-season that he didn’t feel his Arsenal side were the perceived soft-touches that some thought, and yesterday’s excellent response to going an early goal down proved that.  The Gunners have worked on their resilience in the face of adversity, but now must work on this aspect of their play. 

If the Arsenal management team headed up by Wenger fail to acknowledge this need, then it may be a while before they are in any sort of position to challenge the duopoly of Chelsea and Manchester United.

Super Sunday? …More business as usual. Predictability in the Premier League title race.

It seemed no coincidence that on the same day all-time tennis great Roger Federer wrapped up his 16th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, in two other continents high-profile footballing results would have had book-makers and armchair pundits smiling with a knowing told-you-so satisfaction alike. Egypt completed a hat-trick of African Cups back to back in Angola, while in London Man Utd overcame serial ‘bottlers’ Arsenal in a ‘crucial’ game in the race for the Premier League title.  All over the world on the 31/1/10 it seemed like a day to represent the predictability of modern football. Some aspects and results seem just too unsurprising to the seasoned viewer and  sustained dominance by some sides is surely good for no-one. ‘Viva la status quo’ may be an uninspiring sentiment to live by. Depressing? Maybe. But maybe not… 

It is beginning to look increasingly likely now that the 2010 Premier League trophy will (once again) be placed in either of the already aching cabinets of Manchester United or Chelsea this summer. While that obviously brings frustration to the legions of the other eighteen who occupy the same division, can there still be any entertainment or comfort in the predictability of the Premier League title race? And does the drama suffer because of it?

Fans of England’s Premier League often cast snide glances at their neighbours in the Scottish and French leagues, scoffing at the apparent lack of domestic competition, but upon face value England’s top tier looks almost equally uninviting to those seeking capriciousness and a competitive edge at the top end of the league. Manchester United have won eleven of the seventeen titles on offer since the Premier League was set up in 1993. And on top of that, there has only been three other winners. Two of those with the help of drastic sudden investment.

Fans learn early not to expect too much of their team, if they exist outside the pantheon of the ‘big four’. Avoid relegation, steady progress, stability and a chance at Europe (in a competition that no-one gives a toss about) are the base aspirations of many of the remaining sixteen.  Few pile into a new season with the intrepid hope (or expectation) that this season will be a realistic chance at the title. And if they do, their fragile dreams are soon crushed by the consistency of their own inconsistencies, as they are inevitably turned over by the usual suspects with the ease and disdain with which Gary Neville might flip someone the finger.

You might argue I am reducing the point of the league to its base function (to determine a winner), over simplifying it to make a tired point and ignoring the subtle nuances and individual battles and struggles that make the Premier League so interesting.  However, we still complain when Man Utd win again, when the ‘big four’ remain the ‘big four’ and the only way to get anywhere near the dizzying, nose-bleed heights of Europa League qualification is to spend until you go into administration. 

Yet despite all this, the English Premier League is the most watched league world-wide and widely regarded (albeit debatably) as the most entertaining place to watch club football. The German Bundesliga, over the last couple of years at least, has boasted new competitiveness and unpredictability. With more surprise packages than an Al Qaeda mail room, six or more teams have put themselves within more than a shout of achieving first place. However, outside its own borders (where to be fair it has the highest average attendance league of any football league in Europe) the Bundesliga has nowhere near the same interest levels as Man Utd et al. in the Premier League. Although this has a lot to do with marketing and money, most overseas fans may watch top English sides for their supposed quality and consistency. Their predictability of success, as it were, hoping to see some of the very best athletes in the world playing at their finest.

It would be an impossibility to make the Premier League an even playing field for so many reasons it is not worth going into. Even the new trend of vast investment will not help. Continued success and indeed dominance by any team throughout an overly prolonged era is at times beyond tedious. However without it we would not enjoy the giant killings and upsets so much when indeed they do come along. In many newer leagues around the world where the idea of football as a professional sport is still younger than an Arsenal Carling cup team, where dominators and club identities have yet to be established (Australia’s A league, for example), some fans struggle to become fully immersed in the sport without the prospect of upsets or giant killings, without leaders to aspire to and pantomime villains to loathe. In a league where all are equally good, they can also be equally bad.

The likes of Man Utd perhaps serve as an example of this aspiration and a pantomime villain rolled into one. Many fans can at least (at times) admire their brilliance, while revelling (some more than others) in their occasional failures. Even if the table after thirty eight have been played shows less anomalies and plot twists than we would like, there is still entertainment to be had along the way in the individual games and moments which make our seasons as supporters.

In the Premier League, undoubtedly some remain more equal than others for various reasons, but it could be argued that the necessary evils of the sustained rulers of the division help raise the games of the others and inevitably also attracts some of the best talent to the country, raising the quality (if not the surprise aspect) of the league.  On top of that, nothing lasts forever (other than Ryan Giggs it would seem) and who’s to say in a few years time Man Utd versus Arsenal won’t be a relegation-battling six-pointer rather than a Super Sunday title decider. Maybe. But maybe not. Last Sunday anyway it seemed more ‘Ski Sunday’ than super Sunday for Arsene’s team… It all went a bit downhill…

Too predictable?

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