Congratulations then to Chelsea, who have emerged as rightful Champions, with 27 wins, 86 points, and 103 goals in the bank. For a long time this looked like the competition no-one wanted to win, but once Jose Mourinho had robbed his former side of a shot at Champions League glory, the west-Londoners revved their domestic engine with impressive gusto.
Along the way, Chelsea were able to afford six defeats. Manchester United, in second place, suffered seven. It is often said of English football that on the day any team can beat any other, and never has that been more true than this season.
Some attributed this concertining of quality to the weakening of the top sides: Chelsea were another year older, whilst United had lost Ronaldo, Tevez, and the attacking zest that had brought them three consecutive titles. Others pointed to a new swarm of threats to the former ‘Big Four’: the likes of City, Villa, and Spurs, who would ultimately usurp a despondent Liverpool by snaring the fourth Champions League spot.
In actuality, the mish-mash of results probably stems from a bit of both. This was an ultra-competitive division, with battles being fought over four key areas.
The Race For The Title
Before the season began, many pundits were tipping Liverpool for the title. As it happened, they weren’t even involved in the battle – their opening day defeat at Spurs was indicative of how their season would progress. Instead a three way fight emerged: United and Chelsea took turns at setting the pace, while the persistent Arsenal nibbled at their heels.
The latter’s challenge eventually fell away – by the final day they required a win to secure third spot and automatic Champions League qualification. Nevertheless, this season represented progress for Arsenal. They offset the loss of Kolo Toure by bringing in Thomas Vermaelen, and the Belgian was voted in to the PFA Team of the Season in his first year here. In midfield, Alex Song emerged as a top-class holding midfielder, whilst Cesc Fabregas overcame several injuries to have his most productive season to date, ending the year with 19 goals.
Yet despite these improvements it was the same defensive frailties that have troubled them for the last five years that saw them fall short. Crucial late goals conceded at Birmingham and Wigan meant that for all their promise, Arsenal found their level. The title chase became a two-horse race.
Back in the summer, Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson controversially decided not to spend the £80m received from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. I say ‘decided’: Karim Benzema elected to join Real Madrid whilst Bayern Munich deliberately priced Franck Ribery out of the market. Ferguson wasn’t too worried: he had Wayne Rooney. With Ronaldo out of the limelight, the British bulldog came to the fore with an accolade-laden campaign.
When you look at United’s scoring charts, it’s no surprise to see Rooney way out in front with 34 goals. The cracks become clearer when you look at the man in second place: the cryptically named ‘OG’. Yes, that’s right: remarkably, United’s second top goalscorer has been the opposition. The likes of Berbatov and Owen have failed to sufficiently replace the departing Latin pair, and a succession of injuries to Rio Ferdinand have left United occasionally vulnerable at the back too.
In the end, they were edged out by a Chelsea side whose resolve was strengthened by a clarity of focus: having gone out of the Champions League, they recovered from a minor blip to show some outstanding form in the run-in. Florent Malouda is a player transformed, whilst Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have been extraordinarily prolific.
For Drogba to end as the Golden Boot winner in a season where he spent six weeks away at the African Cup of Nations is a testament to both his form and fitness. Carlo Ancelotti has claimed the biggest domestic prize on offer in his first English season – a feat which matches his esteemed predecessor, Jose Mourinho. If he can go on to win the FA Cup Final and complete a domestic double, he’ll surpass his old rival.
The Battle For Fourth
The FA Cup is traditionally regarded as the second biggest domestic prize available. However, in his post-match press conference after their final day win against Fulham, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger suggested that after the league title itself, the biggest prize on offer is Champions League qualification. For once, Tottenham fans will agree with him.
Whilst I’d like to wait until Spurs overcome the hurdle of a qualifying round before rubber-stamping their position as a Champions League outfit, finishing fourth is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, and a remarkable two-year turnaround for a team that Juande Ramos seemed to be dragging towards the relegation zone. Promisingly for English hopes at the World Cup, their success is built on a native spine: the likes of Dawson, King, Huddlestone, Defoe, Lennon and Crouch could all feature in tomorrow’s provisional squad.
Spurs’ success comes at the expense of Manchester City – and that’s one cost they can ill afford. Smelling blood from an ailing Liverpool, they ruthlessly sacked Mark Hughes to appoint Roberto Mancini, but the Italian has failed to deliver them to the promised land of the Champions League. There will now be yet another overhaul of their squad: whilst the likes of Tevez and Given have proven to be sterling signings, there are still question marks over big money buys like Joleon Lescott and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill is reportedly considering whether or not he has the energy for another go at fourth spot, and one can understand why he might be tiring after his agitated touchline antics. Of more serious concern, however, is the fact that the rivals around them will have superior resources in seasons to come. The improving form of young talents like Milner, Young and Agbonlahor may not be enough to withstand the threat from moneybags City and a resurgent Liverpool.
Of course, a Liverpool resurgence would require a degree of change. This has been a disastrous season for them, in which the high hopes of the previous year crumbled as the team suffered 19 defeats in all competitions. With a potential buyout on the cards and the futures of Benitez, Gerrard and Torres all unclear, this has been a campaign to forget for the Merseysiders. The one saving grace is that they managed to stay just above rivals Everton, whose injury problems prevented them from challenging quite as significantly as they otherwise might have done.
The position of mid-table side in the Premier League is an odd one. It is not something you aim for: the teams who make up this pack are often forced to start the season with survival as their main goal. Anything higher than 17th represents a progressive increase in pride and prize money. That’s not to downplay the achievements of the teams who make up this group: in fact, the managers of these sides often deserve most acclaim. Operating on limited resources they navigate their sides clear of the drop and steer them not just to safety, but to a degree of success and continued stability.
Birmingham and Blackburn will both be proud of their top-half finishes, and managers Alec McCleish and Sam Allardyce will both point to their solid back-lines as the cornerstone of their progress. McCleish in particular has achieved wonders with a newly promoted team and a backfour made up of signings from the Championship and the once-retired Steven Carr.
Stoke added some flair with the likes of Tuncay Sanli, but it was their direct physical approach that assured their continued comfort in the Premier League. The Britannia has become a fortress, and the only real threat to Stoke’s continued success is the squad’s internal bickering.
Fulham’s league place would undoubtedly be higher were they not the oustanding British performer in Europe. Roy Hodgson’s men have faced 19 Europa League fixtures – half a Premier League in itself – so one wonders what they might have achieved had their resources been less stretched. Bobby Zamora’s form and a stirring victory over Manchester United will live long in the memory.
The most disappointed of this group will be Sunderland. They spent hefty swathes of cash in the summer, and whilst the likes of Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole and Darren Bent have all impressed individually, a rotten mid-season run saw the Mackems flirting with relegation. Perhaps next season Steve Bruce will look to place more faith in an impressive youth system, with Martyn Waghorn returning from a loan spell at Leicester and Jordan Henderson continuing his development in to an all-round midfield maestro.
Fighting The Drop
Every year, three sides face the ignominy of relegation. Owen Coyle jumped ship from Burnley to join Bolton, who he rightly judged to have a better chance of staying up. The canny loan signings of Jack Wilshere and Vladimir Weiss have helped instigate a new style of football for The Wanderers. Burnley, meanwhile, appointed Brian Laws for his points p/pound spent ratio at Sheffield Wednesday. The move has shown that statistics mean little in football, as the Clarets have slunk disappointingly back to the Championship.
Mick McCarthy has had a far happier time in the Premier League with Wolves than he did with Sunderland – a mid-season switch to 4-5-1 providing the defensive stability the midlanders needed to survive. Wigan have paid the price for their adventurous style of play, with crushing defeats by the likes of Chelsea and Spurs, but have also won admirers for their flair and fair play. Left-back Maynor Figueroa probably scored the goal of the season – a 55 yard wonder strike at the Britannia.
With the exception of Burnley, the bottom four are all notable for being hampered by financial problems. West Ham escaped relegation, but only just. The buyout by Gold and Sullivan didn’t precipitate the cash injection many hoped for, and instead the new owners set about undermining Italian manager Gianfranco Zola. In the end, however, their scattergun approach to signing strikers paid off, as veteran Brazilian forward Ilan popped up with some crucial late strikes to secure survival. Mido, who took a wage of just £1,000 p/week to play for the Hammers, looked expensive at the price.
I wonder how Phil Brown feels about Hull’s relegation. Still technically the manager, he’s had to watch from his gardening leave, secateurs in hand, as the exotically-titled ‘management consultant’ Iain Dowie takes the team he built down. Brown, by all accounts, had lost the dressing room, but it doesn’t look as if Dowie’s particular brand of consultancy did much to win them over. The trapdoor to the Championship, and with it more financial difficulties, awaits.
And finally, Portsmouth. What a nightmarish struggle of a campaign they’ve had. A succession of broken promises and increasingly elusive owners saw them become the first Premier League club to enter administration. In the same situation, one suspects any other club would have imploded, but such was the courage and determination shown by the Pompey players, unlikely hero Avram Grant, and their extraordinary supporters that Portsmouth have staggered to the end of the season with both their club and dignity intact. If there was a trophy for effort in the face of adversity, then Portsmouth would deserve it. In fact, just call it ‘the FA Cup’.
And there we have it. Another Premier League year done and dusted, and much like in the general election, although it was close, the numbers show that the Blues edged the Reds. If the balance of power continues to shift to the Premier League’s new order of Champions League-chasers, however, things could get very interesting. Roll on 2010/11.
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