Friday, August 12, 2011

The more things change the more they stay the same

Premier League Preview 2011/12...

Talk of fate and destiny is all too commonplace in the world of sport but there was a certain irony in Manchester City finally ending their thirty odd year wait for a trophy within hours of their more illustrious neighbours securing a record breaking nineteenth league title. Having had this barren period continually rammed down their throats by United fans it was almost inevitable that their celebrations at finally capturing a major trophy were somewhat tempered by the record breaking exploits of United. But in many ways it has always been thus. Although City were for certain spells before the war perceived as the 'bigger club' of Manchester the arrival of Matt Busby and his revolutionising of United cast a long shadow over the blue half of the city. Busby's holy grail as United manager was of course the European Champions Cup and upon finally reaching his summit and leading his side to glory he secured their place in the annals of history as the first English club to win the biggest prize in club football. But once again City's feats found themselves overlooked as despite becoming English League Champions for the first time in over thirty years their achievement paled in comparison to that of their local rivals.

But now over forty years later with City having endured year after painful year in the background as United swept all before them it seems that thanks to the dollars, pounds and roubles of some mysterious benevolent Arabs the noisy neighbours may finally be ready to step out of the shadows. Thanks to a level of investment scarcely seen before in the English game Manchester City find themselves installed as third favourites for the ultimate prize behind United and another team not shy of splashing some unearned cash Chelsea. Much is expected of Mancini's men having had a bedding in period which yielded the prize of a place amongst Europe's elite in the Champions League, but for those behind the scenes at Eastlands this is what they believe to be just the beginning of a period of glory unprecedented in the club's history. With a squad starting to look like a cohesive unit of athletes rather than an assorted bunch of misfits, mercenaries and morons they seem well placed to make a concerted tilt at toppling United from the top of the pile.

However just as all seemed rosy at City so a spanner is thrown in the works. Although their talismanic captain Carlos Tevez is still officially a City player and a replacement in Sergio Aguero has been procured it's difficult to surmise how much of an impact the inevitable departure of the want away Argentine will have. A City side which, up until now, has performed in a manner best described as perfunctory may find that they suddenly have to express themselves and go out and win games rather than simply play to avoid defeat. This is particularly true of their approach to games against the traditional big four where City will have to learn that self preservation is simply not enough and that victories in these games are crucial towards league success. So with the blues of Manchester seemingly ready to break into the elite what of the other sides that have made the top four spots their own in recent years.

In securing United's nineteenth league title Sir Alex Ferguson finally made good on his claim of knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch but where to next for a man about to enter his eighth decade on this earth. Following their humbling at the hands of Barcelona in the Champions League final Fergie could have been forgiven for thinking that his most imperative task was assembling a side capable of toppling the Catalan maestros but he would do well to take heed of the growing threat from his 'noisy neighbours'. In the aftermath of that Wembley humiliation and the subsequent retirement of Paul Scholes it was clear to even the most narrow sighted United fan that one area of the team in particular needed immediate surgery. That we now sit here on eve of a new season and United have thus far failed to embellish their midfield options may be down to a multitude of reasons but if Ferguson wishes to fend off the challenges on the domestic front and overcome the obstacles he faces in Europe then it's imperative he land Wesley Sneijder or a similarly capable midfield general.

Aside from his midfield dilemma Sir Alex has spent wisely with the only question mark hovering over new goalkeeper David de Gea following a less than steady debut against City in the Community Shield. However Ferguson's relative problems pale into comparison when put up against some of his contemporaries. Over the last trophy-less 6 years Arsene Wenger has gradually begun to resemble a man slowly but quite steadily heading towards severe dementia. Having seen his young team capitulate on more occasions than a child taking it's first steps, culminating in an embarrassing Carling Cup Final defeat to relegated Birmingham, Wenger has spent this summer fending off the inevitable interest in not only his captain, Cesc Fabregas, but also the gifted young Frenchman Samir Nasri. With the likelihood being that he will eventually lose both of these crucially important players before the transfer window closes pressure will be at an all time high for a manager second only to Ferguson in Premier League longevity. For some time now it has seemed almost disingenuous to suggest that Wenger could ever be sacked but depending on the state of his squad come the 1st of September and the early displays of a team shorn

Across London Chelsea have never been shy in tearing up the script and starting all over again and their latest change in management sees Portuguese rookie (sound familiar?) Andre Villas Boas take the helm. At just 33 Villas Boas becomes the youngest boss in the league, rather ironic when you consider that the team he inherits is one that has been gradually aging together for some time now. After a stirring start to the season the West Londoners ended their campaign rather tamely bowing to United in both Europe and at home. For many it seemed like the end of an era as long standing lynch pins Terry, Lampard and Drogba seemed to be playing only from memory such was their inability to affect things in the manner we'd become accustomed to seeing. All of this pointed to a busy summer at Stamford Bridge with some wondering whether a complete overhaul was required if Roman Abramovich was ever to fulfil his dream of winning the Champions League. But save for a couple of low key signings and their continual, fruitless pursuit of Luka Modric Chelsea appear content to stay with what they have and rely on their new young manager to wring one last season out of those declining legs.

Having welcomed back their very own messiah in January of this year Liverpool embarked on a run that saw them shoot up the table and qualify for Europe when at one point relegation had been mentioned in dispatches. A large part of this strong finish to the season was the form of recently acquired Uruguayan Luis Suarez who has proved something of a revelation and is already looking a bargain at the price of £22 million. This summer Dalglish has chosen to stay closer to home with his signings and although Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam are not the kind of names to striker fear into Europe's elite the Merseysiders have every right to believe that a return to the Champions League is a realistic target for the season. Having excelled in their first taste with Europe's elite Harry Redknapp's Tottenham found the dual tasks of competing with the very best in midweek and maintaining a challenge on the domestic front too much to handle and ended up having to settle for a place in the Europa League by finishing fifth. Redknapp, usually so active in the transfer market, has bullishly rejected Chelsea's advances towards Modric but with time running out and neither club willing to budge he will be braced for ever more desperate measures as Chelsea aim to bolster their squad. Redknapp being Redknapp will surely have contingency plans in place should he lose the vivacious Croatian and if there's one place to be on the eve of August 31st then it's surely White Hart Lane.

Of the clubs hoping to threaten the supremacy of the coterie quickly becoming known as the Big Six only Sunderland have shown any real ambition in improving on last year's performances. The loss of Darren Bent saw Steve Bruce's men go into freefall having at one point looked odds on to secure a European spot and with Danny Welbeck returning to his parent club, Manchester United, it was up to Bruce to begin something of an overhaul at the Wearside club. Having brought in enough players to field an entire new starting eleven his main challenge will be ensuring harmony and unity in the dressing room. Everton who have so often relied upon David Moyes to work the oracle with little or no resources are once again entering a new season without any notable new recruits and you have to wonder just how long Moyes can continue to deliver this level of consistency under such trying circumstances. Aston Villa, so often the League's underachievers, looked like a team heading in the right direction towards the tail end of last season. In Darren Bent they had one of the League's most reliable goalscorers and a promising young squad looked ready to blossom together once the right man could be found to lead them. It's fair to say that most Villa fans didn't consider Alex McCleish to be that man but when have the fan's opinions ever been considered? The sales of wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing did little to appease the grumbling masses but the astute snaring of Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given means that already Villa look to be in a position where manager and support can pull in the same direction.

Every Premier League season has a crisis club and this year that unwanted title looks like heading to the North East and Newcastle in particular. With home favourite, Andy Carroll, long departed and the funds for that transfer seemingly vanished the Geordie's must have thought things couldn't have gotten any worse. Wrong. The sale of captain Kevin Nolan to Championship side West Ham United was galling enough but as Luis Enrique and Joey Barton look set to follow him out the door it's hard to imagine anything other than a relegation battle for the Tynesiders. Alongside them are likely to be the usual suspects with both Wigan and Wolves preparing themselves for another hard year of scrapping tooth and nail for every available point. Ordinarily the promoted clubs are predicted to have a brief stay in the top flight but this season QPR will hope to buck that trend given the way they swept all before them in the Championship. Holding on to Adel Taarabt will be crucial to any success the one time founder members of the Premier League will have but most fans will be glad to see the return of one of English football's most atmospheric grounds, Loftus Road, if nothing else. Joining them from the Championship are Norwich City, another Premier League founder member, and first timers Swansea City. With squads consisting of players largely untried at this level it could be a long hard season for two clubs who pride themselves on playing the game in the right way, they would do well to take heed of Blackpool's example who also boasted such purist beliefs.

And what of the rest? The clubs who may occasionally flirt will relegation throughout the season and at their most giddy moments believe Europe is a certainty. Fulham will continue to be the League's most inoffensive team and more than likely blitz the opposition at home while meekly surrendering on their travels. West Brom look poised to do the unthinkable and establish themselves as a Premier League club following years of occasional visits, with a manager well versed in controlling mid size teams and a forward line looking increasingly menacing following Shane Long's arrival things are looking rosy at the Hawthorns. Stoke are the antithesis of Fulham in that barely a week goes by without someone complaining about the over eagerness of Tony Pulis' men, this is unlikely to change this season and The Brittania will continue to be a visit endured rather than enjoyed. Bolton Wanderers, under Owen Coyle, have undergone something of a transformation in recent years and now exhibit the kind of football implausible under Big Sam's reign. The big fear for Wanderers at this moment in time must be holding onto a manager whose stock has risen immeasurably over the past twelve months. Blackburn Rovers have reverted to type following a spell when bids for the likes of Ronaldinho had us all guffawing in disbelief and signings more in keeping with a club of their stature should ensure another season of mid table security for the Lancashire side.

So there you have it a season which promises much and one that Sky will have you believe will be the bestest most exciting one ever is almost upon us. Despite proclaiming throughout the summer that I for one wasn't really looking forward to it all that much and I could take it or leave it, I now have that giddy feeling in the pit of my stomach which can only mean one thing, the roller coaster is about to start all over again. Whatever does happen I can assure you that when I read back on this article come the middle of May I will have a wry smile as each and every prediction contained within will in all likelihood have proven way wide of the mark. But when all's said and done isn't that why we love the game?

My Premier League table for 2011/12

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Liverpool
5. Arsenal 
6. Tottenham
7. Sunderland
8. West Bromich Albion
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
11. Bolton
12. Blackburn Rovers
13. Queens Park Rangers
14. Everton
15. Fulham
16. Norwich City
17. Wolves
18. Newcastle United
19. Swansea City
20. Wigan Athletic

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