I refrained from writing about the title race until it was done and dusted – and there’s plenty to talk about, from pre-season predictions to key battles where the title was won and of course, what the future holds for the ‘big’ teams.
What a joke! It’s easy to blame the Alonso-Aquilani ‘swap’ as the key reason for Liverpool’s failures this season or maybe the lack of a sizeable transfer budget, but the reality was apparent even at the end of last season – having over-achieved in the previous season, Rafa knew that a) opposition teams would learn to counter his tactics and b) he needed to spend the 20-25m he had on strengthening the squad, not in signing one marquee player.
You don’t know where Liverpool would have been if the money spent on Aquilani had gone to two players (a midfielder and a striker), or if he had been able to coax better performances out of Babel better, or a dozen other what ifs. What we do know is that Liverpool weren’t in any shape to win the title as things stood in May 2009, and 12 months on they’re still stuck.
Then there were the ABU predictions on Manchester United finishing 5th…FIFTH!…in the league. For a team that’s never been outside the top 3 for longer than I can remember, and for a team that won three league titles in a row, that was insulting, but of course, you go where the story takes you, right?
Wrong – United finished 10 points clear of third spot, and just a point behind the eventual winners, Chelsea. Some ‘demise’.
And before Wenger or the Arsenal apologists point to injuries and the unfair tactics of opposition teams as the reason Arsenal lost, think of this – the problems Arsenal had in 2006 are still present today. They lack a proper successor to Lehman, a proper successor to Vieira and a proper successor to Henry. RVP IF fit is there and thereabouts, but they missed Adebayor this season and for their sake maybe Chamakh can fill that void. And this is before we mention the holes in central defence or the mental block that led Arsenal to fall ten points behind the leaders not once but twice in the same season.
Arsenal lost the title back in January, just like United lost the title in April and once you lose that chance, there’s precious little you can do to win it back.
It would be churlish to suggest that Chelsea only won because their rivals kept losing. Nevertheless, it’s an alternate perspective that’s brought up every season to belittle the eventual winners. United had that said about them for the last three seasons, but it is as true of Chelsea as it was true of United – the best team won at the end.
Any team that outscores their rivals so heavily during the course of a season, any team that ends with a near perfect record against it’s title rivals and any team that can hold their nerve and win key fixtures (Arsenal, United and Liverpool away) deserves to win. Chelsea can take the credit for delivering the knock-out blows to their rivals when it counted the most, and to their credit we’ve finally seen their bench strength shine through and produce results on the pitch (instead of damaging news off the pitch).
You can make excuses about injuries to Arsenal, United and Liverpool – and there’s been plenty of press coverage to that respect – but each team had their chance to wrest the momentum from Chelsea (especially United and Arsenal), and they didn’t take their chances.
Was it because Ronaldo and Tevez were absent? Was it because of Berbatov, or Fergie’s lack of signing a replacement for Hargreaves when he’s so bloody unreliable? I don’t think so, and if you asked the United players they’d say the same thing – at the end of the day, United didn’t do enough in one or two matches and that’s where Chelsea got the edge.
And you shouldn’t forget – this was a title won by a single point. Not to take the gloss off Chelsea’s 8-0 win, but it was close and it suggests that the Big Two will both need to improve over the summer or else they will be overtaken by the other side.
The Big Two? Yes – the ‘big four’ moniker is a Big Joke. Liverpool had never been a part of it apart from a handful of years, and United and Chelsea are so far ahead of Arsenal that they shouldn’t be counted in any list of ‘elite’ Premier League teams. Unless of course they prove it on the pitch. Which they haven’t.
Old age, maturing players and transfers will all play a big role on who wins the title next season. It’s a given that Fergie will look to shake up things by shipping out a couple of players and bringing in fresh blood, while Arsenal and Liverpool both desperately need to strengthen their ranks. Chelsea already have a strong squad capable of winning the title and they’ve publicly stated that they want to bring through players from the youth ranks, but you can expect a couple of sales and a potential big money signing there as well.
But you know what? Unless things change massively at Arsenal, and unless Liverpool go under a complete overhaul, I don’t see either of them challenging United and Chelsea for the title. It comes down to the club’s character (an extension of what I talked about here) and right now those two clubs just don’t have the character to handle title races.