It’s not been a good 10 days for the Premier League, for Richard Scudamore or for their grand plan to take the league to the world. Flak has come in from all comers, from the media hacks working for the reactionary red-tops, all the way up to the top of the tree, where Sepp Blatter has joined Michel Platini and Mohammed Bin Hassan in dismissing the concept of Premiership matches being played abroad in the bid for lucrative sponsorship deals to make the rich richer.
Chief Executive Richard Scudamore is a wanted man for putting forward the proposal, with the press having a field day in pointing out the disregard for the common fan in order to please the masses abroad and the corporate bodies willing to splash the cash to get their product involved. All things told, the masses have voted and the idea, as John Madjeski put it earlier, is “in tatters”. It’s a black mark the head honchos within the committee will have to work damn hard at to remove any time soon.
Despite the furore though, it’s hard to become alienated with the top clubs despite the amoral concepts agreed by all and sundry, because right now the Premier League is in the throes of one of the most exciting seasons in its 15-year history.
You can essentially split the league into three main parts at the moment; the race for the title between Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, which looks set to go down to the wire.
You also have the battle between about eight sides to avoid finishing in the last two relegation spots, with the standard of football not always being of the highest calibre, but the drama being enough to raise the pulses of any neutral.
Most intriguing however may well prove to be the battle between a handful of sides to finish in the last available Champions’ League spot, the best path to the untold riches that the Premier League is seeking in alternative climates.
In all, there’s probably only one, maybe two sides floating around with very little to play for with 12 games left in the season (I can’t see West Ham or Middlesbrough making a push for Europe or sliding into a relegation battle), with plenty left to play for otherwise for the other 18 sides in the league.
The battle for 4th is down to about five sides who could have ambitions on finishing in that last spot, some with a better chance than others, but all of whom can’t be ruled out with about a third of the season left. With a break in league competition for the FA Cup this weekend and European matches to follow in the week, this gives us a chance to take a look at the potential of the sides left in the picture for that last spot, and see who has the best chance of earning that right to play Champions’ League football next season…
Currently occupying the last spot, the Toffees are looking to upstage the odds for the second time in four years and clinch that 4th spot, bu they will hope to go further than last time around, where they were knocked out at the qualifying stage by eventual semi-finalists Villarreal.
Pros: They almost always manage to grind out a result when it matters, irrespective of how poorly they’ve played or how little they’ve created, a staple of their run to 4th the last time they managed it, getting the points when it mattered. David Moyes has produced a side replete with talent, but backed up with a determination to win every challenge and be first to every ball. More often than not, this desire compensates for any downfall in a failure to perform to the standards that the team know they can play to. Their strength comes in their ability to either break down sides through their superior football when it all clicks for them, or to alternatively get a point or three through sheer bloody mindedness. Throw in the fact that a good number of players are left over from the last time around when they finished 4th, providing the experience needed for the battle, and it all adds up to a great opportunity for the club to prove they’re no one-off.
Cons: The record against the clubs around them doesn’t stand up to the standards required. There’s only two wins all season against the other clubs in the top half of the league, with only one point against the “Big Four” from a possible 15, that includes two last gasp defeats, one against Liverpool, the other against Manchester United, with a 4-1 battering from Arsenal thrown in for good measure. It’s all good and well beating the sides in the lower half of the league, something which Everton have all but made into an art form, but when you see their run in and notice that there’s seven games out of 12 against sides in the top half to come, including visits to Anfield and the Emirates along with Chelsea coming to Goodison Park, and you feel that Everton must start getting wins against the clubs around them, otherwise they’ll fall out of the picture for that 4th place quickly and dramatically. Throw in the distraction of the UEFA Cup, and it may all add up to it being a step too far, even for such a talented side.
Will they do it? They could, but I’m sceptical. The record against the sides around them is a major cause for concern, and it must be addressed swiftly, and results must start to come, otherwise it’s curtains for their Champions’ League hopes. A side so talented and so capable are clearly able to get the points when it matters, and nothing can be ruled out at the moment, but I just can’t see it happening. Part of me wants to be proved wrong, but I think 5th or 6th will be the outcome of their season.
Haven’t had a fantastic few months, it could be said. Boardroom unrest, questions over the future of the manager, combined with some dire performances all over the place have resulted in another crisis of confidence at the club, and a genuine fear that they may fall out of the top four once again, an outcome that may have far more repercussion than merely a season in the UEFA Cup for the club.
Pros: Look at the squad, look at the players they can put out every week, and it becomes clear quickly why they are still the favourites to finish 4th. Gerrard, Torres, Alonso, Finnan, Babel, Carragher etc…The names do read like a who’s who in football. It’s always a big if with Liverpool these days, but if they can click like they did early in the season, then Liverpool will start winning games again, and they could quickly put the issue of fourth to bed before it can really gain momentum down the home stretch. It doesn’t matter how badly they played in their last match, you can never, ever write Liverpool off in any match, in any competition, certainly not with the dearth of talent at their disposal.
Cons: Their frightening inconsistency and poor home form for a side that were expected to challenge for the title and for a while looked as if they would. Reading have more home wins than the Reds, and they’re in the relegation zone, with draws against the likes of Wigan, Birmingham and Spurs costing Liverpool precious points, with some of those results being fortuitous to say the least. While on the one hand you can never rule Liverpool out of a game, it’s also rare that you can bank on them to produce a result when it’s required. Their season may well hinge on the outcome of the Inter Milan tie in the Champions’ League. Win it, and it may well inspire them to kick on and finish strongly. Lose, and it would pose many questions about the state of the club and the position of Rafa Benitez, whose position looks more and more unstable with every passing week and every poor result.
Will they do it? Yes, but it won’t be easy. The thing with Liverpool is, they haven’t played a genuinely impressive game since December and the 4-0 win in Marseille, and heaven knows when they last turned it on the league (The 6-0 against Derby in August?), but you can never back against them, because they always seem to pull something out of the hat when it seems unfeasible, especially in Europe (Watch them beat Milan on Tuesday night). You also take a look at their run in and by comparable standards, it’s fairly favourable, so certainly the tools are in place for them to get over the line. It requires an upturn in form and a focus on the task in hand, but knowing Liverpool, they’ll probably render the debate pointless in May when they win the Champions’ League in unbelievable circumstances.
The most entertaining and refreshing of the five sides in with a shout of finishing 4th, Martin O’Neill’s side is based on an attacking ethos with a hubris of young, talented players providing the quality that has seen Villa blow away many a side so far this season.
Pros: They’re the most upwardly mobile side of all five in with a shout, they’re playing the best football and they’re full of confidence. When it all comes together, you have one of the most solid units in the league to contend with. Everything is kept pretty simple by talented players in their roles, some of whom have stood out all season long. Martin Laursen has been one of the best defenders all season, while Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor have terrorised many a Premiership defence with their pace, their skill and their ability to change games and win matches, amongst other names such as Scott Carson, Wilfrid Bouma, Gareth Barry and John Carew. The likes of Chelsea and Newcastle have been put to the sword by Villa in full flow at certain points during the season, getting a good battering while they were at it, an embodiment of the talent in the side and the fearlessness within the team. It’s unchartered territories for these players, and in that respect it may help them to just go and have a crack at it in a bid to surprise many by finishing 4th. If they do, their style of football will merit the final outcome, and few would begrudge them that.
Cons: Remember what happened with Spurs two seasons ago? You can spot the similarities in Villa’s season now. Just thinking off the top of my head, I can remember 6 games (The two against Arsenal, Bolton away, West Brom away, Fulham away and West Ham at home) where Spurs dropped points where they shouldn’t have, and it ultimately cost them that 4th spot. I can think of five games already this season where Villa might feel that should have taken more out of the game (Chelsea away, Fulham away, Spurs away, Arsenal at home and Liverpool at home). Those five matches equates to nine points dropped from good positions, and with those nine points, they would be six clear of Everton and Liverpool by now. It’s all ifs and buts, but those points will be crucial at the end of the season, no doubt. They cost Spurs a Champions’ League spot, and they could well cost Villa a Champions’ League spot. If they continue to drop points in such a fashion from here to the end of the season, it will be their downfall.
Will they do it? You’d love to see it, purely to justify Martin O’Neill’s bold policy of basing his team around youthful players with heaps of ability but no experience for such a battle. Their football is breathtaking at times, their confidence is sky high and they have been a revelation this season. You just feel that it won’t be quite enough to allow them to finish 4th though, simply due to a lack of a killer instinct and also, paradoxically, a modicum of inexperience that comes with youth. Of all the sides in the fight, they may well deserve 4th more than any other, but there’s a difference between being the fans’ favourite to finish 4th, and being the best side in the race to finish 4th.
Transformed in hardly no time by the money of Thaksin Shinawatra and the guile of Sven Goran Eriksson as a tactician and talent-spotter, City stuck around with the big names at the top for a while, but in recent weeks have found their place.
Pros: The element of surprise, the wealth of experience that is Eriksson, and the handful of top class Premiership players in their ranks. One loss at home all season has been the bedrock of City’s success, founded initially on a free-flowing attacking style aided by the skill and unpredictability of Martin Petrov and Elano, although in recent weeks the style has been toned down somewhat, replaced by a grittier edge to their game, and a desire to grind out results rather than dazzle sides off the pitch. Teams are still by and large trying to work out how to handle City, and as long as they can continue to pick up results at home, they’re in with a decent shout, although that would become a great shout if they added a few more away wins to their name, like last week at Old Trafford. When you also factor in the sheer ability of Micah Richards, Petrov, Elano, Benjani and the superb Richard Dunne, with Valeri Bojinov and Nery Castillo to return from injuries soon, and City have what it takes to shock a few more sides this season.
Cons: The novelty of surprise on the same vein is beginning to wear thin, while the away form has been bad all season long. They have the worst away record in the league, with results like a draw away to hapless Derby, along with a failure to win from 3-1 up at Fulha early in the season and that 6-0 gubbing at Stamford Bridge also not helping matters. Sven’s negativity away from home stifles a side brimming with attacking ability, and while you can’t blame him in some situation for employing the tactics he does, it’s not befitting of a side with City’s personnel and it has not produced the desired results, with only 14 points picked up from a potential 39 on the road. That’s not Champions’ League form by any stretch of the imagination. The home form will only last so long as well before that comes under scrutiny, so unless City start to play in the style that best suits them on the road as they did early in the season at home, then they will not be finishing anywhere near 4th.
Will they do it? Don’t rule it out, but don’t rule it in either. City have the potential and the players to finish fourth, and Sven has once again gone out and spent wisely in the January transfer market (Benjani at around 3 million, bum knee or no bum knee, is the buy of the window, given his scoring form). However, their form isn’t good enough at the moment to allow them a genuine run at 4th spot, which sounds absurd given they’re only three points away from Everton. But when you consider that they have nasty visits to the likes of the Stadium of Light, the Madjeski and Anfield to come before the end of the season, you feel that they don’t quite have enough in the tank to finish 4th.
Buoyed by superb away form and brimming with talented players, Harry Redknapp’s side have surprised a few with their form this season. But in truth the club has been building towards a season such as this for a while now. With financial backing the compliment the talent of Redknapp as a manager, Portsmouth may well continue on their upwards curve for a while to come yet.
Pros: The away form is the obvious starting point, as has been mentioned many times over this season. They have the most wins on the road along with Chelsea in the league, and it’s been the foundation for a challenge for 4th. Pompey are also in a similar position to Manchester City in terms of the talent now at their disposal, with quality running through the side like never before. David James, Sylvain Distin, a rejuvenated Glen Johnson, Niko Kranjcar, Sulley Muntari, Papa Bouba Diop, with the promise of Lassana Diarra thrown in for good measure. Initially I balked at the 5 million tag for the player when he was bought, but given his form in recent weeks, he could well turn out to be one of the buys of the season. You always question Redknapp’s policy in the transfer market, and yet he always seems to prove you wrong…the sign of a good manager, who has worked hard over the last 5 years to produce one of the best sides the club has had in nearly 60 years.
Cons: They’re good, but they’re not Champions’ League good, not yet anyways. The home form has been too suspect all season for Portsmouth to mount a serious, sustained challenge and it will have to become as good as the away form before they could even consider getting near 4th, something which you can’t see at the moment. Also consider the distraction of the FA Cup, and what Redknapp’s motives may be. He’s already come out and said how the FA Cup is a major target for Pompey this season, and in some respects you can’t blame him. However, it’s going to have to be a choice between going for the FA Cup and potentially guaranteeing a European spot along with some silverware, or the lure of challenging for that 4th spot and achieving what would probably be the ultimate prize for the club at this moment in time. They’re not good enough to do both, and in any case, fatigue from the African Cup of Nations will put paid to one before too long.
Being hypocritical for a second as well, I have to question Redknapp’s decision to sell Benjani and bring in Jermain Defoe on big money. Benjani is in the form of his life at the moment, and if he had stayed, could have made it 20 or even 25 for the season and propelled Portsmouth to 4th. But he’s not at rivals Man City, and while Defoe’s ability as a striker cannot be doubted, his form can. The man can score 10 goals in 10 games, but will then inevitable go 10 games without a goal. The question is, which Jermain Defoe will turn up in the last 12 games for Portsmouth? If it’s the latter, they can forget about any possible challenge for 4th.
Will they do it? In short, no. It’s a long shot at best, and some will undoubtedly question why Portsmouth are here and Blackburn are not (It’s because their form is just flat out not good enough to mount a challenge), but I felt that the club was worth a mention at least, because ealier in the season they looked like real contender for the 4th spot. They’ve slipped down the pecking order in the last few months, but if the away form continues and Redknapp manages to turn Fratton Park back into a fortress and get the right Jermain Defoe playing for him, then who knows? It’s a long shot, but it was probably a longer shot that Everton would finish 4th a few seasons back, so you can’t completely rule them out at this point anyways, even if it’s more than likely not to happen.
It’s all up in the air at the moment in the race for 4th, even though almost by nature, you have to fancy Liverpool to steal the last spot, simply due to the standard of players within their squad and their ability to pull it out of the hat when it matters. However, it’s a sign of how much certain teams have improved in recent years in the league.
Yeah, you can cite the fact that four of the five sides in the hunt have been taken over in recent years, but you’re then going to tell me that the same four sides filling up the Champions’ League spots every season is fine by you, because you can’t be doing with the entertainment that comes in the race for 4th? In recent seasons it’s been extremely rare that a side comes close to challenging the big names for a Champions’ League spot (Everton and Spurs are the only examples in around a decade) so for four teams to be challenging the hierarchy this season provides a pleasant change and a sign of the increased competitiveness of sides in the league, something that never hurts, because it raises the standard every season in order for sides to remain in that battle for the last spot.
The Premier League doesn’t need to be championing the allure of playing games abroad, rather it should be focusing on promoting one of the more open title races in recent seasons, the battle for sides to avoid the drop and the highly competitive race for 4th. That is where the real attraction of the Premiership lies.
So in chasing the riches that comes in the potential for the 39th game in far flung places, Scudamore and his cronies on the Premier League committee have managed to take the focus away from what promises to be the most exciting run-in to a Premiership season for many a year, for many a reason. With the potential drama surrounding the race for 4th, you feel as if it should be getting more attention from all and sundry, but when you’re dealing with idiots and idiotic decisions, it always managed to take away from the football, no matter how good or how exciting it may be.
How refreshing it is to see the likes of Cardiff, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley and the likes in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, making a pleasant change from the monotonous dominance of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, even though it’s likely that the winner of the competition will come one of the former two. I’m a shameless romantic in circumstances like this, so I’ll be rooting for the lesser lights and praying for a Barnsley or Bristol Rovers to make it all the way to Wembley. It may not add up to much of a spectacle on the big day, but would you begrudge any of those players a place in a FA Cup in order to watch another Chelsea-United final in the same vein as the one last season?
So, Giovanni Trapattoni is the new Republic Of Ireland manager, bringing the whole sorry saga to an end on a pretty positive note, the fact that we didn’t give Terry Venables a chance to make us the laughing stock of European football. Trapattoni is an experienced, wily coach with an ingrained style of playing who should at worst solidify a defence that leaked 5 in Cyprus, at best could lead us to the World Cup, although it will be through the trial that is the play-offs.
As a natural cynicist though, doubts still persist over this appointment for me. Firstly, Trapattoni’s utmost reason for taking the job was that the deal was too good to turn down, a potential sign that he’s in for one last big paycheck and out the door in two years time, a paycheck that is coming mostly from the coffers of Denis O’Brien, the Irish businessman, rather than the FAI themselves. Secondly, his record with the Italian national side when it came to the big competitions was frankly crap, in a playing style that the Irish will be based around.
Now, consider the players that Trapattoni had at his disposal in 2002 and 2004, and consider the players we have available, and notice the gulf in class. The question is, if that style didn’t work for such a talented group of players such as Italy, how is it going to make us so significantly better? There’s questions that need to be answered, but I can’t be too pessimistic. All things told, it’s as good an appointment as we probably could have hoped for.
Jamie Redknapp, in the aftermath of another superb performance to keep Portsmouth in the game yesterday, claimed that on current form, David James was the best goalkeeper in the world right now. It’s a lofty appraisal of a man commonly known as ‘Calamity James’, and it’s also an inaccurate one (Iker Casillas is the best in the world right now) but in all fairness, he’s not too far off the mark. David James has been the best goalkeeper in the Premiership for the last 18 months, and he is England’s undisputed Number 1 on merit. Rob Green is not too far behind him in the pecking order for the national side, but right now given the form James is in, and considering the number of times he has saved Portsmouth this season, there should be no question over who wears the ‘keepers jersey for England.
If you asked me at the start of the season what I thought of Emmanuel Eboue, I’d have said he’s a pretty good player, solid, reliable dependable, with a bit to learn, but the potential to be a top player. That still more or less stands to this day, but while you’re at it, add that he’s a nasty, disgusting, cheating little prick. Saturday’s reckless challenge in the wake of Arsenal’s gubbing at the hands of Manchester United was the sign of a kid throwing his toys out of the pram, unfortunately he managed to get away with it last time when following through on John Terry to break his foot. One of these days, you get the feeling someone will turn around and give him some of his own medicine, which wouldn’t come a day too soon, in all fairness. Eboue has the potential to be a class act on the pitch as he develops, and I’m sure he will, but his snidey antics in lashing out at players also marks him out as an arsehole, a far more indicting approach to the player.
So Liverpool got beat by Barnsley in the FA Cup, and the fans still trust Rafa….with many more results like that, it won’t be long before that partnership begins to dissolve. I criticise now, but I know tomorrow night I’ll be shut up well and truly when Inter Milan get beaten at Anfield. It shouldn’t happen, many people won’t believe it can happen, and you can probably include a fair old batch of Liverpool fans in with that, but it’s the exact same story as with Barcelona, Juventus and Chelsea in seasons gone by. Liverpool always pull it out of the hat in the Champions’ League, somehow, someway.
Tomorrow night and the tie in general is no different.