Why wasn’t Avram (Grant)ed respect?

Avram Grant has guided Chelsea to a Champions League final and nearly won the holy grail, but he has never been held in the highest regard in world football, despite having a decent CV. Souvanik Seal at Goalden Times analyses the reason behind this.

Roberto di Matteo pulled off what may be regarded as one of the greatest miracles in football’s history- guiding a Chelsea side struggling to find consistency to the holy grail of European football, against all odds. Various commentators have thus described him as ‘the greatest caretaker manager of all time’. Even though he was sacked after just eight months in charge as first team manager, he was and still is viewed in the highest regard by Chelsea fans. Roberto di Matteo is considered by fans as a true Chelsea legend, not just for his brief yet successful tenure as the club’s manager but also for his contribution to Chelsea’s resurgence in the late 90s.

But his status brings home the question – If Di Matteo is held in such high regard by the Stamford Bridge faithful why doesn’t Avram Grant command the same respect? After all, Grant came close to winning the European Cup in 2007-08 after the departure of Jose Mourinho. It should be noted here that Mourinho’s Chelsea failed to reach the finals of the European cup in four attempts. In addition to guiding Chelsea to the finals of the UEFA Champions League, Grant also helped Chelsea to the finals of the League cup in the same season and finished runners up to champions Manchester United in the Premier League. So why is that the man who could well have led Chelsea to a potential treble forgotten not just by football fans in general but also by Chelsea fans?

“So near, yet so far.”
“So near, yet so far.”

The answer may lie in how Avram Grant managed to get the Chelsea job. Few months before Jose Mourinho left the club, he said, “There are only two ways for me to leave Chelsea, one is to finish the contract in 2010 and another is for Chelsea to sack me”. One thing is pretty clear, Jose was never asked to resign on performance grounds. He had the backing of his players. But despite being the manager, he lost control over transfers, a major reason why he couldn’t sign Samuel Eto’o back in 2006. So what could possibly be the reason behind this drift between him and the club? Avram Grant, who happened to be a personal friend of Abramovich was  appointed as Director of Football of the club in July 2007, and it certainly did not go down very well. There was a time when Mourinho was asked to sack one of his assistants and add Grant to his coaching staff, which he clearly refused, thus straining the relationship between him and the club, even further. Few in the camp labelled Grant as a ‘Spy’ from the onset. He’d go around calling players aside and ask them about their problems and the reason why they looked sad and whether they were being properly utilised. Many players complained to Mourinho regarding this and thus, the number of team meetings was drastically decreased. Shortly after Mourinho’s resignation, Grant was appointed as the new Chelsea manager,a move many senior players described as a ‘disgrace’. Supporters branded him as an ‘idiot’ with reference to his lack of top flight coaching certification from UEFA and his lack of expertise in the highest levels of football, though he had done some good work in Israel, both at country as well as club level with the likes of Hapoel Petah Tikva, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Haifa and Maccabi Haifa. Several unnamed Chelsea players have been quoted as saying that “Chelsea deserves a bigger coach”. There were many at the club who agreed to that. Club staff complained to Abramovich regarding Grant’s coaching methods; one of them labelled them as ‘25 years behind the times’. The Israeli did not help his cause either. He used training drills that many players believed to be outdated when compared to the cutting-edge methods they had become accustomed to under Mourinho.

Few in the camp labelled Grant as a ‘Spy’ from the onset. He’d go around calling players aside and ask them about their problems and the reason why they looked sad and whether they were being properly utilised.

In 2009, Grant appeared alongside John Barnes in Sky Sports’ Goals on a weekend and was still very vocal about Mourinho. “After two years [of Mourinho], the team was down,” he declared. “In any aspect: results, atmosphere, image, it was on the way down. When I took the team, it went up, each month was better, the result was very good, we played very good game, especially against the big club, first time we were in the Champions League final.

“I saw we needed to continue with this because every month was better and better. The philosophy had changed, it was completely [the] other way from the coach that was before me. I thought for the club and me it was good to continue in this direction.”

He further added: “He believes in very organised football, not the creative football. The results are important, but also the way to the results, to produce good football.

“People did not look at the facts, we created history, first time in Champions League [final]. We lost against Liverpool [under Mourinho] which was a less better team than we played against. The atmosphere, the image of the team, everything, the performance of the players. Look at the facts, everything was better.”

This was clearly a one-sided account of Mourinho’s first tenure at Chelsea and to an extent, disrespectful which clearly echoed his contempt towards him. Well, Grant did grind out improved results, with an inherited squad full of superstars, but he was unable to surpass Mourinho’s overall winning ratio of 124 wins in 185 games in the latter’s first tenure at the club. Grant’s belief that he injected a more ‘entertaining’ and ‘better’ style of football into the club was again strictly confined to himself. Chelsea scored 58 times under Grant in 32 league games. Under Mourinho, during his first three full seasons at the helm, Chelsea scored 208 times in 114 matches. The scoring ratio achieved by the two managers were therefore, almost identical. Grant has also used the reference of a Champions league semi final; victory over Liverpool in an attempt to stamp his superiority over Mourinho as a manager. Yes, Mourinho failed to get the better of Liverpool in two Champions League semi-finals whereas Grant did it in his first attempt. But his team’s performance in the finals is an altogether different story. Mourinho played three and won three. Grant played two and lost two. At the end of the day, the most important ‘stat’, if any, is the trophy count. In terms of that, the scoreline is pretty emphatic between the two – Mourinho 5 Grant 0.

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Not ‘The Special One’

Speaking of Di Matteo, he is a club legend in the true sense, not just for scoring in two Cup finals for the Blues as a player or for doing the unthinkable as caretaker manager, but also for the little things he did that strengthened his bonding with the players. Here is one such example: having known that Chelsea had lost a Champions League final four years back and with the likes of Cech, Terry, Ashley Cole, Lampard, Drogba, Malouda and Kalou involved in that rainy night in Moscow, he tried to relax the players before the final against Bayern Munich by arranging for their wives and children to talk and say how proud they were of their husbands and fathers. Matteo explained, “I needed something personal, to touch the players, Also, I wanted to take a bit of pressure away from them and it did exactly that.” John Terry, who was suspended for the Munich final due to his red card in the second leg of the semi-final against Barcelona said, “It was such a nice touch, it was one thing that will never leave me from that year. Even the younger players in the dressing room had their parents speaking and welcoming them and wishing them good luck.” Chelsea went on to win the final and after 12 long years of multiple ‘so near yet so far’ moments since he became the owner, Roman Abramovich finally realised his dream of seeing his beloved club lifting the holy grail of European football. The triumph also meant that Chelsea had become the first ever London based club to lift the Champions League, thus giving them the bragging rights over their city rivals.

Champions of Europe against all odds.
Champions of Europe against all odds.

Unfortunately, a slump in league form and a 3-0 loss to Juventus in Turin that all but confirmed Chelsea’s elimination from the group stages of the following UEFA Champions League season saw Di Matteo lose his job. However, that does not tarnish his legacy, not even a single bit. From being ‘The man for the Old Wembley’ to ‘The greatest caretaker manager of all time’, he had already done enough to cement his place in the pantheon of Chelsea legends.

Di Matteo is currently at the helm of Schalke ,where he has done a steady job so far and nearly masterminded the great escape against Real Madrid in the round of 16 of the Champions League. Facing  a two-goal first leg deficit, his team eventually lost  5-4 on aggregate but not before his team heroically defeated the defending champions 3-4 in their own backyard.

Grant, since leaving Chelsea has managed Portsmouth and West Ham in England and couldn’t prevent  either of the two team’s relegation before moving to Serbia where he had a good but short stint at Partizan Belgrade. On November 2014, he was appointed as manager of the Ghana national football team. Grant guided them to the finals of the African Cup of Nations in 2015, where he was on the losing side, with his fate decided on penalties, not for the first time in his career.

Now, whether Grant has prospered in his career post-Chelsea is clearly subject to individual opinions but one point is almost ubiquitous: at Stamford Bridge and for everyone associated with Chelsea, he will just be remembered as ‘The man who pushed aside Mourinho’.

Life From 12 Yards: The Terry “Slip”

Penalty. A term, that can ruffle the feathers of even the calmest of beings.  A term, that in any walk of life, shocks and triggers signals of doom and punishment for some, and  hope  or satisfaction for  others. Football, is no exception. Goalden Times  bring you a series where we look at the more unfortunate events of missed penalties (and their aftermath??). Enjoy the ride with Subhashis Biswas.

Terry Miss

Player : John Terry, Chelsea.

Opponent Goalkeeper :  Edwin van der Sar, Manchester United.

Match venue and date : Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia, 21st May, 2008, UEFA Champions League Final.

Till that night, Sir Alex Ferguson did not have a very good record on penalty shoot-out in competitions other than the community shield. All that was about to change thanks to an infamous slip by a famous player. Ferguson was about to win a penalty-shoot out in any major competition after six failed attempts.

But first, let us lead up to the event. It was a rainy, wet, drenched murky night at the Russian capital, Moscow. After five years, when AC Milan and Juventus did so in 2003, two clubs from the same country – Manchester United and Chelsea of England –were again squaring off in the final. Manchester United were looking to clinch the trophy for the first time in nine years, while Chelsea were making their maiden appearance in the Champions League final.

We are trying to focus on that single moment, 120 minutes and nine shot later from the kick-off, when John Terry was walking to the penalty spot, confidently, taking his usual strides, adjusting his armband, thinking in hindsight that in a few seconds, he will be the first captain in the history of the London club to win the much coveted UEFA Champions League.

Red devil fans were not feeling so comfortable that night. Their team had taken the lead through  Cristiano Ronaldo in the 26th minute only for Frnak Lampard to equalise 19 minutes later benefitting from a complete mishap near the goal. Manchester United faithful saw in disbelief their darling “Ron” missing the penalty in tie-breaker. This gave Terry the perfect opportunity to win the Champions League by scoring from the last spot kick of the penalty shootout.

Life is not so simple. If it had been, problems would not have been plenty.

John Terry is through and through a Chelsea man. Playing at the centre half position, he is one of those old school English defenders who go to the ground every day to come out as winner, no matter if blood runs down his nose or a bone or two is broken. He wanted to win. Chelsea was not exactly the trophy clad club till Russian money and Jose Mourinho arrived in 2004. But they had tasted success in domestic league for two consecutive seasons earlier. Time was perfect to capture some European glory. No better person than John Terry to lift the cup.

Terry is not a natural penalty taker. Didier Drogba slapped Nemanja Vidić in the 116th minute after a little bit of gamesmanship from Carlos Tevez, and was sent off by the referee. Drogba was the destined penalty taker in the shootout along with Michael Ballack, Juliano Belletti, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. Ironically all of these first four shots had been converted, and Petr Cech managed to save Ronaldo’s shot to give Terry the chance to win it for Chelsea.

Reaction

Undoubtedly Terry showed a lot of courage and character by walking up to the spot, but the decision of the coach Avram Grant can be questioned as well. Even with forwards like Solomon Kalou and Nicholas Anelka (he would miss the final penalty in the sudden death) in hand, Grant allowed Terry to take the shot. If you are looking for logic, you can also argue that Terry had more authority over Grant regarding team selection and several other tactics during the latter’s short tenure at Stamford Bridge.

It was raining heavily and Edwin van der Saar was an experienced goalkeeper. He had good reflexes and had taken part in many penalty shoot outs in his career. On the other hand, one has to really dig dip to find the stats for John Terry as a penalty shooter. His strides were confident. He placed the ball in the middle, took a few steps back, and waited for van der Saar to take his place in the line. Rio Ferdinand, from the huddle with his fellow United men in the centre circle, waved to van der Saar and indicated that Terry would shoot to the right of the goalkeeper.

The teams stand pretty close to each other in the centre circle during penalty shootout, and I do not know if this signal by Ferdinand was result of some conversations that he might have picked up from the Chelsea squad. Nevertheless, the message was given to van der Saar, and when Terry took the shot, van der Saar did dive to his right.

But the story, the comedy or tragedy whatever you want to call it, lies on the moment the shot was taken. If one looks into the statistical possibilities of a shooter shooting the ball in a particular direction, he or she will notice that a right footed player would prefer to shoot the shot to the right side of the keeper to generate more power. Studies have shown that more than 94% of time the ball goes in if a right footed player takes a penalty to the right side of the goalkeeper. From the goalkeeper’s perspective van der Saar predicted the same and dove to his right.

There was an awkward sense of nervousness in his mind as Terry walked to the spot. He adjusted his arm band twice and did not take a long run up. There was hurriedness in all his steps. He took barely three steps, tried to plant his left leg beside the ball and place it to the left of van der Saar.

Van der Saar was standing on the goal line with an outstretched hand, and by moving both sides with outstretched hands, he was trying to put off Terry. Though by the way he dove, it seemed that he had made up his mind to dive to the right (as per Ferdinand’s signal), even before Terry started that run. It is difficult to sense that whether Terry read that movement correctly, but his placement in the end was in right direction, if you want to call that placement.

His left leg slipped when he was about to take the shot. It was actually a commendable job that he managed to place the ball in right direction as he was falling down while taking the shot. Had his balance been a fraction more right, his precision would have been little more and the ball would have been inside the net. But instead, the ball stuck the outer part of the goalpost (left of van der Saar, exactly the opposite side in which he dove), and went wide.

A distraught, broken Terry sat on the penalty spot with his head buried in his knees. Had it not been raining, had the field not been that slippery causing him to slip, it would have been John Terry who would be pumping his fist by then.

But as we all know, there is absolutely no ifs and buts, as far as life from 12 yards is concerned. Terry admitted that even after a year or so, that penalty haunted him. Whether he was taking dinner with his family, or walking back from training ground, or boarding the team bus after a game, those few seconds kept on replaying in his mind. He would rewind them several times, 40-50 times in a day. He wrote an apology letter in Chelsea’s official website, apologizing to the fans for the agony.

Terry kept that shirt he wore and runners-up medal he received in that dreaded night in Moscow, and drew inspiration from it. Four years later, in Munich, at the home of Bayern Munich, Chelsea won the Champions League final … through penalty shoot-out! This time Drogba was present to take – and convert – the last penalty in the shoot-out to give the cup to Chelsea. John Terry was suspended for the match, but he dressed up as if he was playing the match, and turned up for the presentation ceremony to lift the cup. He drew a lot of flak for this incident, but John Terry had waited four long years for this moment. He probably still replayed that “slip” in the rainy Moscow night, as he was celebrating with his teammates after the victory in Munich.

Looking Ahead – English Premier League Season Preview 2014-15

 

As another Premier League season draws near, Goalden Times looks at the potential movers and shakers with Saumyajit Ray and Naman Mehra.

After a three-month hiatus, a brand new season of English Premier League is all set to kick off this weekend. While the World Cup in Brazil provided us enough excitement throughout the summer, the tournament also disrupted preparations for the new EPL season. It cut short the pre-season schedule of all the teams, especially the big guns. As a result, the start of the season is expected to be interesting. We can definitely look forward to some surprising results as the big clubs get their key players match fit and integrate the new signings into the team during the first couple of weeks of the campaign. The last season was a humdinger, with four clubs in the running for the prize till late in the campaign, even as Manchester United, the most successful club in the Premier League era, dropped out of contention as early as the beginning of 2014. As fans all around the world get ready for their weekly fix of football, we try to analyse each team’s prospects for the coming season.

The Title Contenders

As last year, it looks like fierce competition at the top. We start off with Manchester United. Only one man is the talk of the town right now—Louis van Gaal—successful wherever he has managed and, arguably, occupying the biggest post in English club football currently. The experiment with David Moyes failed last season, as United finished seventh, without any major silverware in theirs kitty. Subsequently, the club have no European football to look forward to this year. This might, however, be a blessing in disguise with fresher players during the run-in and clearer targets. Van Gaal has suggested United may try 3-5-2 or its variations (mostly 3-4-1-2) this season, and it will be interesting to see how it fares against the traditional formations of 4-2-3-1 employed by many EPL sides. On the transfer front, the board has realized that they need reinforcements—especially in the absence of a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. So, quite contrary to their transfer market strategy last year, they have not been shy of spending huge sums, even if that means signing a teenage left-back like Luke Shaw for a whopping fee of £33 million. The team has also been bolstered by the long awaited arrival of Ander Herrera to cover the central midfield position—an area where they have been lacking for a few seasons. However, further defensive reinforcements still remain a priority, following the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Nemanja Vidic. After last season’s disappointment, the encouraging pre-season results are sure to bolster expectations this year. Realistically, though, a Champions League spot is probably the most they can achieve, unless the likes of Arturo Vidal are added to the mix or van Gaal has a blinder of a season as manager.

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Arsenal finished last season on a high—ending their 9-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. That sense of euphoria has carried into the transfer window as well, with the inclusion of 25-year-old Chilean Alexis Sanchez in the team. Adept at playing with both feet and able to play on the left, right, through the middle or up top, Sanchez has the potential to bring out the best in Mesut Ozil. French right-back Mathieu Debuchy seems to have adequately replaced his national team substitute Bacary Sagna (on paper at least), and signings of Calum Chambers and David Ospina have strengthened the bench. Joel Campbell, too, should be able to provide the team with more options when the fixtures start piling up. Arsenal’s biggest star could well turn out to be Shad Forsyth, the highly rated fitness and conditioning expert brought in from the German national set up. Injuries have derailed many a season for Arsenal, and it will be interesting to see if his new methods have a positive effect. However, it cannot be denied that the defence looks rather weak, with the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, and the ageing Mikel Arteta showing signs of vulnerability in the big matches last season.  Plugging these gaps in the squad might be the difference between finishing as champions and coming up a few places short.

Chelsea had a Spanish Revolution over the summer.  The side, known for their defensive prowess, have signed on Atletico de Madrid star striker Diego Costa and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. They have also brought back Thibaut Courtois from his Atletico loan spell and he seems set to usurp fan favourite Petr Cech in goal. These attacking additions particularly that of Cesc, might denote a change in tactics from Jose Mourinho, especially against weaker oppositions. Ashley Cole has been replaced by Brazilian Filipe Luis in another raid on Atletico, while the legendary Didier Drogba has also returned to his favourite club. However, at his advanced age, the latter may only be able to contribute marginally to the team’s fortune. The squad looks good enough to win the title, and expectations will be high. Mourinho is also under a lot of pressure after an uncharacteristic barren season last year. If he can get the best out of Costa there might well be blue ribbons around the trophy in May. If not, they may just come to rue their decision to let go of both Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku in the summer.

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Liverpool is expected to be reeling from the loss of their star Luis Suarez, who almost single-handedly carried them within a hair’s breadth of the title last season. The club has invested the money from this huge deal to good use though. There have been six signings in the summer, including the Southampton captain Adam Lallana and compatriots Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, highly rated Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, and Lazar Markovic from Benfica. There’s possibly more to come. If Daniel Sturridge steps up and finds his rhythm with the experienced Steven Gerrard, Liverpool might just be the dark horse in the race once again. A lot, though, will depend on how they can handle the rigours of the European campaign. At this moment, it does seem like an outside chance, and the club may do well to retain their Champions League status and make a push for the title again next year.

Defending champions Manchester City had a quiet summer because of the punishment related to their breaching the FFP guidelines. Still, they have added the experienced Sagna as a backup to Pablo Zabaleta, midfielder Fernando from Porto, and Willy Caballero from Malaga as competition to Joe Hart and Frank Lampard- the latter on loan from the MLS. However, their most important signing could be Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, who is expected to straightaway get into the first team with Vincent Kompany, leaving behind the ageing Martin Demichelis and the inexperienced Matija Nastasic. However, the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in the Community Shield should serve as a wake up call to the team. Their bench strength maybe not as strong as strong as one expect from a EPL winning side. However, with a side that didn’t need much change, there is no reason why they can’t be champions two years in a row. This, though, may also depend on Sergio Aguero remaining fit and in form throughout the season.

Fighting for Europe

Having gotten rid of Tim Sherwood after a slightly disappointing campaign, Tottenham Hotspur will be expecting Mauricio Pochettino to do as well as he did with Southampton last season. Spurs underachieved last season, not able to properly utilise the money from Gareth Bale’s transfer even though they bought almost an entire first team with it. Summer has been quiet for the team, with Michel Vorm and Ben Davies from Swansea, and 20-year-old Eric Dier from Sporting CP the only signings so far. The team still looks incapable of mounting a serious title challenge. However, Erik Lamela has been impressive in his pre-season performance, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is utilized by Pochettino. With last season’s top four teams further strengthening their line-up, and a resurgent Manchester United on the horizon, a Europa League spot may well be the height of their realistic ambitions this time.

Last year, Everton amassed their highest ever tally in the Premier League. The club has done really well in the summer window. They have signed permanent deals with the highly rated Romelu Lukaku and the experienced Gareth Barry, after hugely successful loan spells last time with them. They have also added defensive midfielder Muhamed Besic from Ferencvaros to their ranks. With no major exits, the squad seems settled, and should bear the fruits of stability and familiarity. However, with European fixtures to contend with, Everton might think about adding a bit more depth to their ranks. Once that’s done, it should be ready to pounce on a top-four spot if a couple of major sides slip up. Even otherwise, the team is odds on favourites over other contenders for a spot in the top seven, and a potential requalification to Europe.

APTOPIX Britain Soccer Premier League

Changes.  Huge changes. That’s the way to sum up what Southampton’s actions during the window. Ronald Koeman has taken over as the manager and six first-teamers have left the club. However, till now, major reinforcements haven’t been made. They have picked up Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch league to replace Lallana and Lambert. They have also picked up Fraser Forster, one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe, from Celtic in order to strengthen their goalkeeping area. Ryan Bertrand has been brought from Chelsea on loan to replace Shaw. However, let’s not forget that Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers have not yet been replaced, making the team look weak in their defence. As things stand, it will be difficult for Southampton to match their decent form from last season, where they ultimately finished 8th. However, if Morgan Schneiderlin is retained, the balance from the £105 million collected from transfers used wisely, and additional reinforcements are obtained in the remainder of the window, the club may yet stake a claim for a Europa spot. It will undoubtedly be tough to do that though, as new players brought in from now will take their time to integrate into the team.

French Revolution continues at St. James Park, and with the arrivals of Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Rivière, the number of French players in the Newcastle squad is now 9. The team’s attacking force has also been bolstered significantly, with the addition of Facundo Ferreyra, Siem de Jong, and Ayoze Perez. The only major loss has been that of Debuchy to Arsena. However, he has been replaced adequately by Daryl Janmaat. Hence Alan Pardew’s men should at least be expected to hold on to their top half status this season, but with a decent squad, the team does have the credentials to land a Europa spot. Anything less than that is bound to be a disappointment for the passionate fan base. It’s also worthy to note that keeping Ben Arfa fit and interested may play a huge role in how the season pans out.

The Also-rans

Stoke City had a very impressive season last time, achieving their best ever Premier League finish of  9th, as well as their highest ever points total of 50. Under Mark Hughes, the team has added flair to its customary strong physical game. It now looks a better-rounded team. The style revolution continues this season as well, with impressive captures in the form of La Masia graduate Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover 96. Steve Sidwell, brought in from relegated Fulham, is expected to provide the added depth to the midfield. Given Stoke City probably overachieved last season, any improvement should see them retaining their top half position. If a couple of more favourites slip up (especially Southampton or Newcastle), the Potters might get a chance to get back into the Europa League once again after their 2011-12 campaign. However, it may be a bridge too far for this season, realistically.

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QPR have come straight back from the Championship after going down. However, the team should really have no problems in staying up this season. They have retained a core group of very high quality players in Julio Cesar, Loic Remy, Adel Taarabt, and Junior Hoilett, as well as seasoned English campaigners like Karl Henry, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton, and Bobby Zamora. The capture of Rio Ferdinand, Mauricio Isla, and Steven Caulker should ideally see the team return to a comfortable mid-table position. Securing a European spot, though, will most likely be beyond this squad.

Sunderland flirted dangerously with relegation last term. However, one always had a feeling that the squad didn’t do justice to its potential and was helped in no way by Paolo di Canio’s eccentric and disruptive ways. The club has made impressive captures in the form of Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez, and Patrick van Aanholt in the summer. The club also has Gus Poyet, one of the most talented and modern managers, at its helm. He should be able to steer the team well clear of relegation this time.

Crystal Palace was one of the stories of the season last time. After seemingly being down in the dumps following a horrid start, they recovered strongly under new manager Tony Pulis and ended the season comfortably outside the relegation places. But with the sudden departure of Pulis, it will be challenge for them to keep up the good work done by him, but the momentum gathered through last few seasons might just work in their favour. While Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland are the only major additions this summer, the club has managed to retain the core of its last season’s squad. However, if the managerial appointment goes wrong, they might even end up grappling with the relegation.

West Ham have made impressive captures in Carl Jenkinson (loan), Enner Valencia, Mauro Zarate, and Cheikhou Kouyate. Much like Pulis, Sam Allardyce is another veteran who knows the English game like the back of his hand. The Hammers will be looking to break into the top half this season. Even if they don’t, it is hard to see the team doing any worse than their 13th position last season. Fans can expect West Ham to survive comfortably, but if you are a neutral, making other plans for the evening is advisable if they are playing.

Swansea City had a disappointing campaign last time. After making it to Europe and being lauded as the hipsters’ Premier League team playing an attractive continental brand of football, achieving the 12th spot, with an outside relegation threat for most of the season, was the last thing the fans expected.  This time the club hasn’t added too much to its squad. Lukasz Fabianski should be an adequate replacement for the departing Vorm, and Gylfi Sigurdsson should be welcomed back from Tottenham. Jefferson Montero will also undoubtedly improve the team’s attack. The club still needs to replace Jonathan de Guzman in the centre of the park and Ben Davies at left-back. Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez, and Michu have also all gone to new pastures. However, even with the departure of Michu, the team is not expected to lack in goals. With Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes joining the impressive Wilfried Bony, Swansea City should have enough firepower to remain well clear of relegation. Beating back late interest from the likes of Tottenham for Bony may be crucial Swansea.

The Relegation Dogfight

Last season, the relegation battle was as interesting as the fight for the title, with no less than nine teams in danger of slipping down quite late into the season. This season too is set to be as exciting, with very little separating some of the teams at the bottom of the table from each other.

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The newly promoted clubs Burnley and Leicester City should expect a tough welcome. With no real standout talent in their teams and no significant additions in the summer, they will most likely find it hard to survive. Their best hope of survival will eventually be Aston Villa, Hull, and West Brom doing as badly as last time. That situation, though, is not entirely out of question as none of these clubs have done anything significant during the window to suggest otherwise. The fans of these clubs should brace themselves for a nerve-wracking season although there’s still time for things to change in the last three weeks of the transfer window.

Authors’ Picks

  • Champion – Chelsea
  • Champions League spots – Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United
  • Europa League spots (Based on League position) – Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham
  • Relegation – Leicester, Burnley, Hull
  • FA Cup – Manchester United
  • Capital One Cup – Arsenal
  • Signing of the season – Alexis Sanchez
  • Flop of the season – Fernando
  • Pointless signing of the season – Frank Lampard
  • Bargain of the season – Bafetimbi Gomis
  • Player of the season – Aaron Ramsey
  • Top scorer – Sergio Aguero
  • Manager of the season – Jose Mourinho
  • First to get the sack – Alan Irvine

Didier Drogba – The Charity King

 

The best striker of the contemporary era from the Dark continent will no longer be seen in his national colors. Soumyadip Das pays a tribute to him through Goalden Times.

At the end of every World Cup many greats of the game retire from international football. This year too, the trend has continued. Tébily Didier Yves Drogba is one of the players to hang up his boots after Brazil 2014. We won’t be seeing him take the field again wearing the Cote D’Ivoire shirt. Cote D’IvoireWhile he is more famous for his heroics with Chelsea FC, where he spent most of his football career and was voted by fans as their best ever player, he is also a legend in his own rights just as an Cote D’Ivoire player, and possibly their greatest. We look back at the man’s international career and his contributions to his country both on and off the field.

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We start with mapping Drogba’s journey to global superstardom. Drogba was born in 1978 in Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire. Like many African countries, Cote D’Ivoire was and still is a poor country. Drogba and his family were poor and had to work hard for everything. His mother nicknamed him as “Tito”, because his Mother used to admire the then Yugoslavia President Broz Tito. In the early days of childhood, he spent most of his time with his uncle Michel Goba, a professional footballer who was playing in France that time. Drogba started his schooling in France at the age of five and also used to play football there. When he was eight years old, he was sent back to home to his parents. However his parents were not well off financially having lost their jobs. As a result, they again sent him back to France under the wings of his uncle. From there on his journey as a footballer started. In the beginning, he used to play as a right back. But his uncle  advised him to play upfront by saying-“What are you doing stuck back there? Get up front! In football, people only look at the strikers”. He followed his uncle’s instruction (in hindsight it was a sound advice) switched to playing as a Centre- Forward.

At the age of 15, he signed a contract with Levallois where he began his professional career. In 1998, after completing his schooling, he joined Le Mans, a club playing in the French 2nd division. He was 21 at that time. By this age players of Drogba’s ability are already picked up by bigger clubs, hence he’s called a “late bloomer”. In four years he moved to En Avant Guingamp where he scored 24 goals in one and half seasons. His impressive form attracted interest from top clubs and Olympique de Marseille signed him for the next season. There he scored loads of goals and went on to become the Ligue 1 Player of the year. His performances earned him a move to Chelsea FC in the next season for a transfer fee of £24 million. This is a record for any African player which stands till date. This move started his emergence as a global superstar, we all know of his exploits with Chelsea.

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While he was playing for Le Mans, he made his International debut in 2002 against South Africa. He scored his first International goal in 2003 vs Cameroon. He became the Ivorian Captain in the Year 2006 and continued to be so till his recently announced retirement. He took “Les Elephants” to their first ever World Cup in 2006. He has played in three World Cups where he has scored twice (One against Argentina in 2006 and the other one against Brazil in 2010). He has also captained his country in four ‘African Cup of Nations’. In 2006, he scored the winner in their 1-0 win over Nigeria in the Semi-final of African Cup of Nations. He missed a penalty in the Shoot-out in the final against Egypt. He missed a penalty in 2012 African Cup of Nations Final too. In 2014, He made his 100th appearance against Bosnia and Herzegovina (friendly match) and scored a goal from penalty. His last tournament was the 2014 World Cup.

His International retirement will  surely create a void in his National Team. He won 104 caps for his National Team and scored 65 goals, a record for Cote D’Ivoire. He won African Footballer of the Year twice (2006, 2009), Cote D’Ivoire Player of the year thrice (2006, 2007, 2012)..

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Drogba made his mark for Ivory Coast not only as a player but as an individual as well. He played a vital role in bringing peace to his country. After the Cote D’Ivoire qualified for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba made a desperate appeal to the enemies, asking them to put down their arms, an appeal that was answered with an end of five years of civil war. On 24 January 2007, Drogba was selected by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a Goodwill Ambassador. In September 2011, Drogba joined the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission as a delegate to assist return peace to his home nation. His involvement in the peace process led to him being named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2010. Drogba’s charity work continued when, in late 2009, he decided that he would be donating the £3 million signing on fee for his endorsement contract with Pepsi for building a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan. This work was done through Drogba’s “Didier Drogba Foundation” and Chelsea FC announced that they too would donate the fee for the Pepsi deal toward the Foundation’s project. Drogba decided to build the hospital after a  trip to the Ivorian capital’s other hospitals, saying “… I decided the Foundation’s first project should be to build and fund a hospital giving people basic healthcare and a chance just to stay alive“.

Drogba also made an indirect contribution to Levallois SC, the amateur club where Drogba began his career. They used their percentage of his transfer fees £24 transfer fee from Chelsea, to ensure the club’s survival, and then to improve their stadium to incorporate modern sports facilities for the benefit of the local community. They renamed the new stadium Stade Didier Drogba in his honour. He has donated money for sick and poor African Children. He got appreciation for his noble endeavours from former England Captain and Chelsea team mate John Terry-“Didier is doing an amazing job. The way he is affected by the sick children, you can tell that he really cares and that he really wants to help. He loves his country and his country loves him”. Gervinho, his national team mate, mentioned that Drogba has been an example for many Ivorians.  The Sun, an English Daily stated him as “a man who has taken on the responsibility of rebuilding his entire country“.

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Drogba has seen the pain of poor, war-affected people of Cote D’Ivoire. Hence he is determined to do his all to bring to Ivorian children in all that he missed in his childhood in Cote D’Ivoire. He is a symbol of hope and peace in Cote D’Ivoire. He speaks for masses unlike many other influential persons who use their power for political interest. People admire him as their idol. They dress like him, they write songs about him, their life stop when he plays. He has made Cote D’Ivoire a better place to live for common people. His achievements as a player has been great, but what he has done for the poverty-stricken, war torn Cote D’Ivoire will never be forgotten. He is a great ambassador for his country who can justifiably be named as “The Charity King”. He said in an interview, “I have won many trophies in my time, but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country. I am so proud because today in the Cote D’Ivoire we do not need a piece of silverware to celebrate“. We and his country will miss him in international football, but his impact off the field will continue to have a lasting effect on his country. We wish the best to Didier in his journey to make Cote D’Ivoire and the world a better place.

MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Chelsea

It is homecoming for the Special One. He might have become the Happy One but José Mourinho’s tongue-in-cheek attitude has not deserted him. Back in Chelsea with a much younger squad, Mourinho has started to put his stamp on the team. These might be early days, but signs are promising and silverware does not look to be a very far-fetched target. Debojyoti Chakraborty dissects Chelsea under José Mourinho – (happily) re-loaded

Chelsea, under José Mourinho, created history as they won the domestic league after more than half a century. But Mourinho departed after failing to win the continental glory for Roman Abramovich. He returns after six years at Stamford Bridge to complete some unfinished business. Is his squad good enough? Has he evolved enough in these years to rectify his earlier mistakes? Let us have a look.

Last season, Chelsea looked awesome going forward with their array of attacking midfielders. Even with a misfiring front man Fernando Torres, Chelsea were able to create havoc with their three attacking midfielders – Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. But they looked quite vulnerable in the back. This was largely due to the indecisiveness in the centre-back pairing. John Terry looked clueless at times, Gary Cahill simply not able to handle the pressure of playing in a club like Chelsea where every minute mistake is magnified, and with David Luiz – you are just a whisker away from disaster. Nothing much has changed this season, except the captain looking more assured of him. Petr Čech is not the same goalkeeper following his head injury – especially his outing remains questionable – but is still one of the better shot-stoppers in business. Two side-backs have been exceptional – Branislav Ivanović has played in all the games for Chelsea this season while Ashley Cole seems to run the clock behind with every performance. Their effectiveness is not a mere coincidence; it owes a lot to Mourinho’s midfield shape, but more on that later.

Mourinho has always thrived for a midfield supremo to dictate the terms in the middle of the park. He started his Chelsea days with Claude Makélélé who was soon replaced by an incredible Michael Essien. Not sure if he has managed to get a similar sort of player in this Chelsea team. Ramires offers great stamina up and down the pitch. But Ramires is more of a ball player, a box-to-box midfielder than an engine room, and is rightfully playing a bit higher in the double pivot system to utilize his driving runs from deep to greater effect. Frank Lampard is deployed in regista role, but he is yet to make the place his own. John Obi Mikel has been used sparingly in the holding midfielder role, but he certainly lacks the quality.

Mourinho wants his teams to be compact even at the cost of sacrificing his attacking edge. In his previous reign in London, he masterminded numerous 1-0 wins. While people criticized his team’s lack of goals, his defensive stubbornness cannot be neglected. In Inter (Italy) and Real Madrid (playing against Barcelona) Mourinho cherished his counter-attacking style and he looks to implement the same in Chelsea. After tinkering with 4-3-3, Chelsea looks settled in a 4-2-1-3 formation. Oscar is given the pivotal role playing as Number 10. Hazard is tucked in the right while André Schürrle is preferred over Mata in the other flank. Part of the reason might be José wants his wingers to provide width and track back giving cover to his fullbacks. Mata is not exactly proficient at either – even if deployed at the flanks, he tends to cut inside. This makes his side-backs vulnerable against the opposition where they can create a 2-vs-1 situation with a winger and overlapping fullback. One might argue, Mata would have been perfectly suited to play behind the striker, but there is a saying – Boss is always right!

 

Chelsea – looking compact under Mourinho
Chelsea – looking compact under Mourinho

Up front, it has been a strange season so far for Mourinho. He feels, and he might be right, Demba Ba is not able to carry a team to championship on his own shoulders. Fernando Torres has shown glimpses of form but he is far from his own devastating best. So the most likely starter should have been the young and raring-to-go Romelu Lukaku. But he gets loaned out and in comes an ageing Samuel Eto’o. Maybe Mourinho was certain of adding a top striker to his squad before the transfer window closes but now he has to make the best of what he has got.

And it seems, Mourinho is starting to get things right. He started a few games with Demba Ba – especially where his physical presence would be essential (against Norwich). But he has zeroed in on Torres to be his main front man and has tweaked Chelsea’s play to suit the Spaniard’s play. More through balls are being played from the deep so that Torres can run onto them like his Liverpool days and take on defenders on the run. And more often than not, he will find young wingers from both flanks racing with enthusiasm in his support. So much emphasis has been given, quick passing and playing through balls that Oscar, most advanced among the central midfielders, often drops back to control the pace of the match.

A few things have been quite eminent in Mourinho’s tactics so far. His fullbacks are not serving as an attacking option; they are merely the supporting cast. Both Ivanović and Cole are hardly overlapping their respective flank men, rather staying back to keep the shape intact. This adds stability to a shaky centre-half pairing. This in turn frees up Ramires as he has to bother little about spaces vacated by one of his defensive teammates and hence we are seeing a much improved and effective play from the Brazilian. Only thing, he needs to be a bit more consistent with his passing in the final third as shown below.

Ramires against Manchester City (2-1)
Ramires against Manchester City (2-1)

Another aspect of Chelsea’s play has been their discipline. Even though Mourinho has awesome attacking midfielders at his disposal – it would be interesting to see if he jampacks his starting XI with them sacrificing an out-and-out striker somewhere down the line in the season – he has restrained himself from floating them around. Look at Hazard’s movement in the following graphic. He started on the left flank, hogged the touchline and seldom floated elsewhere in the pitch. It was against a weak opposition (Cardiff) – but José’s instructions paid dividends as Hazard scored a brace.

Hazard sticking to the touchline
Hazard sticking to the touchline

There are still a few problems. Defence is not oozing with confidence and any team – like Newcastle – looking to take the game to Chelsea could trouble them. But it cannot be denied that Chelsea is a great team, especially in the attacking sense. Such has been their squad depth that players like Juan Mata, Willian and Samuel Eto’o are warming the benches. José Mourinho is a seasoned campaigner and he knows how to win a trophy. It is no coincidence that Chelsea have started strongly both in the league and in Europe – they mean business this time.

Britannian Fields – A Look into the Future and a Shame of the Present

Krishnendu Sanyal writes about St George’s Park national football centre, opened by the English Football Association in the hope of restructuring English football and the John Terry-Ashley Cole soap opera that has brought shame to English football

A step towards the future

The English national team, if you believe a few, are perennial underachievers and some will say they never even had the setup to be a top international team. The 1966 World Cup at home, was their last success on the international stage and they played some good football in Euro 1996, again held at home. Other than that, they have been a team who play mediocre football and get knocked out on quarter-final and semi-final stages of the big tournaments on penalties (mostly against Germany). The opening of St George’s Park (SGP) national football centre at Burton, on October 9, is a step in the right direction taken by the Football Association to wake English football up from its morbid state.
 
The national football centre was first discussed by the FA in 1975 and the land purchased in 2001 to build this state-of-the-art facility that the FA hopes, will bring out a new generation of English footballers who can bring success to a long suffering national team.

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Roy Hodgson, the current England manager, believes that the FA had its priorities wrong way round in concentration of the £757m revamp of the Wembley stadium before the national football centre. England needed a structure for its game before the New Wembley. Certainly, history will remark that the revamp of the national stadium sucked time, resources and energy of the FA, which could have been better utilised for the national football centre.

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The facilities at SGP are top-notch, including the best sports medicine and science centre in England, 12 full-sized pitches including one indoor, two Hilton hotels with 228 rooms between them, offices of the LMA (League Managers’ Association), the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) among others. Although, the FA admits that the hard work begins now and they need to make sure that it doesn’t become drainage of funds as the Wembley had. For that, they need to make sure that they maintain a steady flow of its own elite coaches but also other sports, who wish to use these facilities.

The FA has finally set up a facility that is consistent with their Future Game rhetoric.

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To make this new and exciting adventure work, FA needs full co-operation from some hostile factions. The FA’s new mantra of coaching the coaches will need to be tailored with the professional game’s elite player performance plan, under which the biggest clubs have invested millions into their own facilities to attract the best young players from around the British Isles.

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Although the FA is gleaming with joy in finally getting the facility out, they know that the facility’s effects on the broader English game will be felt in around a decade. While blowing the trumpet, the FA is playing for time. A cradle for English Football is ready, let us see what the future holds.

Terry and Cole have shamed England and Chelsea

Most public or private corporations would sack a leading figure who was found guilty of racism by an independent commission board as it brings unwanted filth on the corporation itself.

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John Terry was acquitted in a criminal trial at the Westminster magistrate’s court but the judge remarked that Terry’s defence was unlikely but he doesn’t have enough evidence for criminal conviction. The independent commission set up by the FA found him guilty of using racial language against a fellow professional. They concluded that Terry’s defence (that he was repeating Anton Ferdinand’s words) was “improbable, implausible and contrived“. They said there was “no credible evidence” for Terry’s defence.

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Suppose, a CEO of a big corporation was found guilty of saying, “You f***ing black c**t … f***ing knobhead!” to a competitor in public, by an independent commission, what will the corporation do?

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They will sack him.

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Chelsea has other questions to answer too. The independent commission detailed how Ashley Cole’s evidence evolved over time to further support Terry’s defence. The FA is accusing Cole (Terry’s principle witness) of lying in front of a commission. In his first statement to the FA, Cole had made no mention of the fact that he had heard Ferdinand using the word “black”. In a revised statement, he had the word inserted to corroborate with Terry’s defence.

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The club secretary, David Barnard, facilitated Ashley Cole’s change of evidence. The commission remarked that they had “very real concerns” on Barnard’s evidence and said that it was “materially defective”. This is a damning indictment of the club secretary. What would Chelsea do? What would any big corporation do?

English Premier League 2012-13: Season Preview

EPL 2012-13 season is all set to get started with the teams getting their final minute acts right with a host of friendly matches. Sit back, relax and get a season preview predicting the prospect of 20 top-flight teams in English football, with Debojyoti Chakraborty

So, we are all set to start a new season of English Premier League, the most watched football league in the world. Actually we did not have much of a breather after the fascinating and absorbing 2011-12 season coming to a conclusion with virtually the last touch of the campaign when Kun Aguero secured the title for Manchester City on goal difference. After that football lovers were treated to a star-studded Euro 2012. England and Great Britain are still basking in the glory of the ongoing Olympics event and naturally it will take a while for people to shepherd their attention towards the domestic football season. Lack of any major new face in the league can be another reason for such low-key promotional activities so far. Coupled with the increasing economic turmoil worldwide and a fast approaching Financial Fair Play policy of FIFA, there has not been much activity in the summer transfer market so far. Premier league has seen less than 100 new players ready to be inducted in the coming season whereas the figure had easily crossed the 500 mark for the previous few seasons. While some major movements would surely spur up the transfer market as the window approaches its end, let us look at how the teams are shaping up and what we can expect from them.

Arsenal

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Transfers in: Lukas Podolski (Köln), Olivier Giroud (Montpellier), Santi Cazorla (Malaga FC)
Transfers out: Alex Song (Barcelona), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), Manuel Almunia (Watford), Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Ryo Miyaichi (loan- Wigan Athletic)

Repeat telecast. Only the main protagonists have changed. And the poor man(ager) has again lost a bunch of his most prolific players. If last season it was Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, this year it has been Alex Song leaving for Barcelona and Robin van Persie who made no secret of his desire to leave the Emirates before joining archrivals Manchester United. Gunners will hope they will cash in on their star players (and make some good use of it instead of giving their book a healthy shape) and cope just fine as life has not come to a halt after a summer of exodus last time round. Wenger has reinforced his striking forces with two new players and contrary to his style, he has gone for proven goal-scorers in the form of Podolski and Giroud. Another new signing, Santi Cazorla loves to play in the hole and should enjoy life at the Emirates. With his midfield looking settled under Mikel Arteta and as usual a heavy influx of academy players who will be introduced this season, Arsenal’s defensive organization will be something to watch out for. After a horrendous start to the season, to be fair to them, they did well to finish third in the league. This time too they do not look ready to challenge for the title with their 37-goal scoring captain no longer around.

Predictions: Will start the campaign cold, but will eventually hang on to the last Champions League spot finishing fourth

Aston Villa

Manager: Paul Lambert
Transfers in: Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Matthew Lowton (Sheff Utd), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord)
Transfers Out: Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland), Emil Heskey (released)


After a successful stint with Norwich City, Paul Lambert has decided to take charge at Villa Park. He has made some inroads in the Eredivisie, most notably in the form of promising youngster Vlaar. With the tight budgets in place, Lambert may have to use Stephen Ireland, player of the season for Villa last time round, to generate some funds. This won’t be a bad move considering his age and limited impact during the league campaign.

Prediction: Seriously lacking in quality, will be tough season for them. 18th

Chelsea

Manager: Roberto Di Matteo
Transfers in: Eden Hazard (Lille), Marko Marin (Werder Bremen), Oscar (Internacional), Cesar Azpilicueta (Olympique Marseille), Victor Moses (Wigan Athletic)
Transfers out: Didier Drogba (released – Shanghai Shenhua), Jose Bosingwa (released – QPR), Romelu Lukaku (loan – West Bromwich Albion), Salomon Kalou (released – Lille)

Roberto di Matteo did himself no harm by winning the coveted Champions League trophy for Chelsea. Roman Abramovich has trusted him on a permanent basis this season which marks a transition phase for Chelsea. With talismanic Drogba and other senior players out (and some counting their days in the club) it is time for Chelsea to start afresh. Cash injection has never been a problem for the Russian billionaire and RDM has utilized it well to bolster his squad – specifically the midfield. While Fernando Torres will get another season to impress as the only top class central forward in the squad, new signing Marko Marin will slowly be drafted in the squad as an understudy to Franc Lampard. The other big money signing, Hazard will be positioned in the left wing to partner Juan Mata in the opposite flank. This is a fresh look to the team and they would compete hard for the automatic Champions League spot. But unless they make some movement late into the transfer market, lack of perpetual strikers could haunt them.

Prediction: Third

Everton

Manager: David Moyes
Transfers in: Steven Naismith (free – Rangers), Steven Pienaar (Tottenham Hotspur), Kevin Mirallas (Olympiakos)
Transfers out: Jack Rodwell (Manchester City), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), Tim Cahill (NY Red Bulls)

After losing Mikel Arteta last season, Everton have bid adieu to another influential star player – Tim Cahill. But David Moyes is used to it and one hopes he will be just fine. Only if they can get rid of their perennial poor start to the season, Everton will stand in good shape this season. With Cahill gone, Moyes would like to bring in a new target man up front to support Nikica Jelavic. A decent striker would do justice to their disciplined and hardworking midfield. The cash is available with the sale of young midfielder Jack Rodwell to the Champions. While Rodwell is quite talented, cashing on an injury prone greenhorn and bringing in a proven creative midfielder (Steven Pienaar) is not a bad move. With teams improving around them a top half finish would be a decent result for Everton, especially as they are running in a shoe-string budget.

Prediction: Eighth

Fulham

Manager: Martin Jol

Transfers in: Hugo Rodallega (free-Wigan), Mladen Petric (free-Hamburger SV), Sascha Riether (loan- Köln)

Transfers out: Andrew Johnson (Queens Park Rangers), Danny Murphy (Blackburn Rovers), Diskson Etuhu (Blackburn), Pavel Pogrebnyak (Reading)

Martin Jol has quickly realised that there is severe lack of quality in his squad and thus he is crying for more quality players. It does not seem likely that his wishes will be fulfilled and that spells doom for Fulham. More crises are expected as their star forward Clint Dempsey is set to leave to a bigger club. Consolidating their position at home in Craven Cottage will be their solace this season as they will start as underdogs in their away matches. Still Jol is a good enough tactician to instil some grit and determination to his team and a mid-table finish away from the dreaded drop zone would not be a far cry for them.

Prediction: Will be occasionally dragged into the dogfight. 14th

Liverpool

Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Transfers in: Fabio Borini (Roma), Joe Allen (Swansea), Oussama Assaidi (SC Heerenveen), Nuri Sahin (loan-Real Madrid)
Transfers out: Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Craig Bellamy (Cardiff), Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbache), Maxi Rodriguez (Newell’s Old Boys), Fabio Aurelio (released- Gremio)

Liverpool are on a rebuilding course and they start the season under a new man at the top, Brendan Rodgers. After an eye-catching season for the Swans, Rodgers would like to emulate his free-flowing passing style for the Reds. He has not made any major changes to the squad except for some fine-tuning. Joe Allen has come in to re-unite with his old manager but he will have to fight for his place in a jam packed midfield. With Alberto Aquilani, Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez – all big name players gone, Rodgers would like to concentrate on a much precise core team. Considering how much the teams around Liverpool and above them have improved since the last few seasons, even a Champions League spot seems unrealistic for them. That is good in a way as it takes off any pressure from them. It will not be surprising to see Rodgers concentrate more on domestic cups this season for silverware.

Prediction: Don’t bet against them finishing below their Merseyside neighbours again; Seventh

Manchester City

Manager: Roberto Mancini

Transfer in: Jack Rodwell (Everton)

Transfers out: David Pizzarro (loan – Roma), Owen Hargreaves (released – QPR), Emmanuel Adebayor (Tottenham Hotspur), Stuart Taylor (released- Reading), Adam Johnson (Sunderland)

The reigning champions have made news so far simply by not bringing in any star player this season. Mancini has been frustrated at the lack of funds made available to him and has only brought in Jack Rodwell who may not feature in the bench regularly, leave alone first team. This has nothing to do with their spending prowess rather the dreaded Financial Fair Play policy. Still with their squad depth, Manchester City is a force to reckon with and they would be contending for the title, come the crunch time in May.

Prediction: It will be a second season syndrome for them. Second

Manchester United

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

Transfers in: Nick Powell (Crewe), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Alexander Buttner (Vitesse)

Transfers out: Fabio (Loan – QPR), Ji-Sung Park (QPR), Michael Owen (released), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Tomasz Kuszczak (released – Brighton), Ben Amos (loan- Hull City)

Manchester has made their intentions clear after signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal – they want their crown back. With Dimitri Berbatov all set to leave, it is a fascinating move to rope in the highest goal-scorer in EPL. After a hiatus of five years, Manchester United have brought in a central midfield player in the form of German Champion’s best player last season, Shinji Kagawa. Expectations are high that he would re-ignite the United central midfield which still has to rely on Ryan Giggs and give an SOS for Paul Scholes to come out of retirement. These two captures might well prompt Ferguson to deploy a 4-3-3 formation with Wayne Rooney partnering RVP Danny Welback upfront with Kagawa featuring in his preferred central role in the top of midfield. Last time Manchester played with a three-pronged attack they claimed back-to-back leagues, won Champions League once and reached the finals the other time. Losing the crown on goal difference last season has surely hurt them and it has been a while they have not won the EPL for two successive seasons.

Prediction: First. Just for their hunger to win

Newcastle United

Manager: Alan Perdew

Transfers in: Romain Amalfitano (free – Reims), Vurnon Anita (Ajax), Curtis Good (Melbourne Heart), Gael Bigirimana (Coventry) 

Transfers out: Alan Smith (released – MK Dons), Danny Guthrie (released –Reading), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers), Peter Lovenkrands (released – Birmingham City)

Newcastle had a very good last season and they narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification spot. They would like to do better this season and so far they have done well to keep their squad intact. After a superb season, their players – most notably Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse – are in huge demand but Perdew has not been tempted by any offer so far. He is a shrewd businessman and as he has done in the past, he would ensure no player is gone for cheap. That allows him to bring in reinforcements if needed. They look in good shape and there is no reason why they cannot emulate their previous season’s success.

Prediction: So close, yet so far. Again, fifth

Norwich City

Manager: Chris Hughton

Transfers in: Steven Whittaker (free – Rangers), Alexander Tettey (Rennes), Sebastien Bassong (Tottenham Hotspur), Javier Garrido (loan- Lazio), Michael Turner (Sunderland), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds United), Jacob Butterfield (free- Barnsley), Steven Whittaker (free- Glasgow Rangers).

Transfers out: Adam Drury (released – Leeds)

Chris Hughton returns to Premier League with an impressive record as a Newcastle manager. This will surely please fans who saw their influential manager Paul Lamber depart after an impressive return season to the top flight where they finished 12th. He has already done remarkably well to hold on to want away talisman forward Grant Holt. Norwich has a strong setup with their defensive organization earning praises from pundits. Hughton is known for his possession based, attractive and attacking style of play. It will be interesting to see what impact this combination yields.

Prediction: 11th

Queens Park Rangers

Manager: Mark Hughes

Transfers in: Andy Johnson (free – Fulham), David Hoilett (Blackburn Rovers), Fábio (loan – Manchester United), Ji-Sung Park (Manchester United), Jose Bosingwa (free – Chelsea), Robert Green (free – West Ham), Ryan Nelsen (free – Tottenham Hotspur)

Transfer out: Paddy Kenny (Leeds United)

By far the most active club in the transfer market, QPR looks set to avoid last day tension for survival like last year. Mark Hughes has strengthened his squad across the pitch by bringing in experienced shot-stopper Robert Green, centre-half Ryan Nelsen and full-backs Fabio and Jose Bosingwa, midfield work-horse Ji-Sung Park and striker duo David Hoilett and Andy Johnson. On paper, they look much stronger and should aim for a top half finish. But, so many new players would take time to get galvanized in the team which may lead to a slow start to the campaign.

Prediction: 10th

Reading

Manager: Brian Mcdermott 

Transfers in: Danny Guthrie (free – Newcastle United), Nicky Shorey (free – West Bromich Albion), Pavel Pogrebnyak (free – Fulham), Stuart Taylor (free-Manchester City), Chris Gunter (Nottingham Forest), Adrian Mariappa (Watford), Pierce Sweeney (Bray Wanderers), Garath McCleary (free- Nottingham Forest)

Transfer out: Mathieu Manset (FC Sion)

Reading qualified for the top flight by winning the Championships. It is their back-to-back promotion in consecutive years and they could find the gap too much to handle in the top flight. Man in charge, Brian McDermott has put together a steady unit which will be difficult to break down but doubt remains wherefrom they will find the goals to win matches. Pavel Pogrebnyak will be under pressure to deliver for the whole season as a lone man up front and it will depend very much on him how Reading fares this season.

Prediction: Touch and go. 17th on benefit of doubt

Southampton

Manager: Nigel Adkins

Transfers in: Jay Rodriguez (Burnley), Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace), Steven Davis (Glasgow Rangers), Paulo Gazzaniga (Gillingham),

Transfer out: Ryan Doble (released – Shrewsbury)

They seem like a cannon fodder for other teams in the Premier League. There is shortage of top-flight experience and lack of their squad depth will surely be exposed during this long season. They have an ongoing youth project with the aim of fielding at least half of their squad from their homegrown players. This could just be a tough reality check for this ambitious club.

Prediction: 20th

Stoke City

Manager: Tony Pulis

Transfers in: Jamie Ness (free – Glasgow Rangers), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Michael Kightly (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Transfers out: Jonathon Woodgate (released – Middlesbrough), Salif Diao (released), Ricardo Fuller (released)

There is nothing new about Stole City. They will be physical, rely on set pieces to find an opening and would defend with their lives when the need be. Considering the positive movements shown by their competitors around the mid-table group, it will be hard for them to finish anywhere near the top half.

Prediction: 13th

Sunderland

Manager: Martin O’Neil

Transfers in: Carlos Cuellar (free – Aston Villa), Louis Saha (Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Steven Fletcher (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Transfers out: Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain FC), Craig Gordon (released), Michael Turner (Norwich)

Another club stuck in mediocrity. Sunderland may cause a few upsets down the road but they would largely be unimpressive like last season. They have not added anything to their squad  – other than the tried,  tested and failed Louis Saha – and have done away with Asamoah Gyan who had openly expressed his desire to seek fortunes elsewhere. So, Martin O’Neil’s side will play the same way but an improvement in the quality of the league may cause them a couple of places.

Prediction: 15th

Swansea City

Manager: Michael Laudrup 

Transfers in: Chico (Genoa), Michu (Rayo Vallecano), Ki Sung-Yeung (Celtic), Kyle Bartley (Arsenal), Itay Shechter (loan-Kaiserslautern), Jonathan de Guzman (Villarreal)

Transfers out: Gylfi Sigrudsson (loan term finished), Joe Allen (Liverpool)

Swansea had stunned one and all with their refreshing football last season. So rare for a newly promoted side, Brandon Rodgers opted for a short passing style which saw them finish a respectable 10th position. Much of the credit should go to on loan midfield maestro Gylfi Sigrudsson, who have since then moved on like the manager himself, and another star midfielder Joe Allen. What is worrying is that they have failed to add to their squad despite having some cash to spend in the market. Michael Laudrup has been roped in but going by his dismal managerial record so far, he might just be the first casualty in this cut-throat league.

Prediction: Life will be difficult for the Swans. 12th

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Andre Villas-Boas

Transfers in: Gylfi Sigrudsson (1899 Hoffenheim), Jan Vertonghen (AFC Ajax), Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City)

Transfers out: Ledley King (retired), Louis Saha (released – Sunderland), Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kyiv), Ryan Nelsen (released – QPR), Steven Pienaar (Everton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow)

It is like a great vendetta movie right out of Hollywood. A young man humiliated from his throne return to rule the city as the opposition leader. Only thing, like it happens in most of the fairy tales, a Happy Ending is not so obvious here. AVB is back at London with the Spurs after being shown the door at Chelsea barely six months ago. He has made two great signings by roping in Jan Vertonghen to replace Ledley King and Gylfi Sigrudsson to replace want-away midfield lynchpin, Luka Modric. But injuries have hit Tottenham hard in the last season and AVB will hope he gets some luck his way this time. Still, it will be too much to ask for him to guide the team through to top four finish on his debut season.

Prediction: Will give the top teams a good run for their money but would fade away in the second half of the season. Sixth

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Steve Clarke

Transfers in: Ben Foster (Birmingham City), Romelu Lukaku (loan- Chelsea), Claudio Yacob (Racing Avellaneda), Yassine El Ghanassy (loan- AA Gent), Marcus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)

Transfers out: Keith Andrews (released – Bolton), Nicky Shorey (released – Reading), Paul Scharner (released), Somen Tchoyi (released), Lateef Elford-Alliyu (released- Bury), Joe Mattock (released- Sheffield)

Steve Clarke had joined Liverpool last year as an assistant to Kenny Dalglish after Roy Hodgson was sacked. He joins West Bromwich Albion as the main man after the same man has vacated the space to answer call of nation. Clarke has to cope with high expectations following some fine back-to-back seasons by the Albions. With not much change to the squad he gets a neat core group which is very organized defensively, something Clarke himself masters in. With sound knowledge of English football aplenty in the squad, WBA will look for another strong showing.

Prediction: Ninth

West Ham United

Manager: Sam Allardyce 

Transfers in: Alou Diarra (Olympique Marseille), George McCartney (Sunderland), James Collins (Aston Villa), Jussi Jaaskelainen (free – Bolton), Mohamed Diame (free – Wigan), Matt Jarvis (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Stephen Henderson (Portsmouth), Modibo Maiga (Sochaux)

Transfers out: Abdoulaye Faye (released – Hull City), John Carew (released), Papa Bouba Diop (released), Ravel Morrison (Birmingham), Robert Green (released – QPR)

West Ham is the third team to be promoted from Championship this year through play-offs. They have trimmed their squad substantially but it is interesting to see how they have added some meat to their structure. In comes some known faces, with grit and determination and out goes some players who are just not good enough to fit into plans of Big Sam. A dogfight awaits them. Big Sam seems to be their biggest hope and they might just escape it in their debut season.

Prediction: 16th

Wigan Athletic

Manager: Roberto Martinez

Transfers in: Arouna Kone (Levante UD), Ivan Ramis (RCD Mallorca), Ryo Miyaichi (loan-Arsenal), Fraser Fyvie (Aberdeen).

Transfers out: Chris Kirkland (released – Sheffield Wednesday), Hugo Rodallega (released – Fulham), Mohamed Diame (released – West Ham), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Steven Gouhuri (released)

Each season it is the same story. Pundits write them, and they prove them wrong by somehow surviving in the topflight. Just like last season, I am taking my neck out to forecast their relegation. They could not negotiate terms with key personnel like Hugo Rodallega and their star player Victor Moses also leaving. There has not been any major addition to the squad and it looks like there is no hope this year, they cannot do it again. Or can they?

 

Prediction: They have outlived themselves. 19th

EPL Season Review

A look back at the 2011-12 season of the EPL where drama found a new home. Debojyoti Chakraborty relives the season with the top flight teams’ performances

 

So, we have witnessed yet another dramatic season of English Premier League. Is it the best ever? Pundits will keep on arguing but surely this edition will feature right up amongst the top contenders in terms of drama, excitement and performances. From the abysmal start of the campaign by Arsenal to their third spot finish, from enthralling performances of Premier League newbies Swansea and Norwich to the usual scramble of a bunch of teams to fight out relegation, from Liverpool’s wooden love to Manchester City’s last kick of the match sealing the title in the extremes of Fergie Times – this season had it all. Goalden Times would like to bask in the spirit of this glorious past nine months and review each team’s performance.

Arsenal

The season started with a humiliating 8-2 loss by bitter rivals Manchester United. Everyone feared for one of the worst seasons following the summer sale of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy. There were very few in and around the Emirates who were not asking for the head of Arsene Wenger. Yet, The Professor managed to march on with a very young squad and achieved a remarkable third spot ensuring a direct entry to Champions League next season.

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He scores whenever he wants to

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One of the unsung heroes for Arsenal this season has been Mikel Arteta. The ex-Tuffey man arrived in summer and quickly established himself as the lynchpin in midfield. But his contributions have been overshadowed by the talismanic Dutchman Robin van Persie. Top scorer with 30 goals, he found the net against seventeen different teams during the campaign. Only a close offside call and a couple of shots striking the woodwork prevented him from scoring against Manchester City while a last gasp goal line clearance against Fulham denied him an entry in the score sheet. There have been other strong performances throughout the season with the likes of Alex duo – Song and Oxlade-Chamberlain – and Theo Walcott making good progress, but none have been able to match their influential skipper.

Aston Villa

Alex McLeish joined the Midlands club from rival club Birmingham City in summer. Fans were sceptical and the man at the helm had not done any favours to himself. A poor run of form towards the end of the campaign saw Aston Villa languishing at the bottom, only twopoints clear of relegation. The team lacked ideas going forward and lapses in concentration cost them dearly at the back. Seven wins – better than only the bottom placed Wolves – in the league should see a new manager for the forthcoming season.

Darren Bent is their only prized possession. A busy summer seems on the cards mainly in the form of some young and fresh talents. A complete overhaul may just change their fortunes. One also hopes that their stalwart captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with leukaemia during this disappointing season, comes out victorious through this turbulent time.

Blackburn Rovers

It is really strange – and inexplicable – that Steve Kean has survived the season even after the ever growing wrath of the club faithful. Blackburn did not have such luck and they were relegated eventually, a fate many predicted within barely a few weeks of the campaign. They spent most of the torrid campaign in the relegation zone. The sale of Phil Jones in the summer and Christopher Samba in January, following his differences with the management, have hit them hard as they succumbed to defeat a record 23 times this term.

There were very few bright spots in the form of striker Junior Hoilett giving an impressive string of performances while Yakubu showed some sparks reminiscent of his past. With the former’s contract expiring this summer and Blackburn no more in the top flight, it is time for him to move on.

Bolton Wanderers

It was surprising to see the usual tenacity missing from a Bolton side. Throughout the campaign they seemed lost for ideas and eventually they succumbed on the final day of the season. TheTrotters lacked the quality to remain afloat in the top division and it will be a good opportunity for Owen Coyle to harness a new team in the Championships. They might have to do away with a lot of their most valuable players but fresh faces would be more than welcome.

Bolton’s highlight of the season was rather a tragic as well as inspirational one. They were stunned by the on-field collapse of Fabrice Muamba due to cardiac arrest in March. Prompt medical attention ensured he somehow survived after being medically dead for minutes.

Chelsea

The first casualty occurred in the form of much-hyped Andre Villas-Boas – AVB, as he is popularly known – when he was sacked ruthlessly by the billionaire owner Roman Abramovich barely months into the job. A dramatic turnaround under the supervision of interim caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo saw them competing for the top four finish but they eventually ensured a Champions League entry next season through their Cup winning heroics. Chelsea should feel more than satisfied after their seemingly dismal campaign ended with another Cup glory as they lifted the FA Cup at Wembley.

There has been growing debate over the influence of senior players in the Chelsea dressing room. It is going to be an acid test for the newly appointed manager Roberto Di Matteoin his first season in the permanent role. Nonetheless a string of summer exits looks inevitable – with the likes of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Jose Bosingwa topping the list – in the wake of a dismal league campaign.

Everton

It has been long argued that David Moyes is the best manager in England as he has managed to deliver within a shoe-string budget. This time they finished seventhinthe table, even above their bitter Merseyside rivals. Following a poor start to the season, David Moyes and his troops have turned things round since January to mark his first decade in premiership with yet another top half finish.

The turn of events was sparked by the arrival of Serbian Nikica Jelavic in January who has shown a good knack for scoring goals.If he continues to shine this time round, Everton can surely hope for finishing higher in the table.

Fulham

Fulham finished strongly with a top half  finish, level on points with Liverpool. They have played some good football throughout the year and their form especially at Craven Cottage was exceptional. Martin Jol would love to build on after an impressive season in 2012.

Much of Fulham’s good showing is due the USA international star Clint Dempsey. After an excellent season where he topped the club’s goal-scoring chart with 17 goals and openly admitted his desire to play in Champions League, Dempsey is all set to leave. It will be interesting to see how much Fulham can get out of the sale of their star performer and how wisely they can use the cash.

Liverpool

Miserable. The one word to describe The Reds’ season. A lowly eighthplace finish, a defeat in the final of the FA Cup and a (Carling) Cup win which failed to make any kind of headlines – Liverpool is certainly happy that the season has finally ended. Kenny Dalglish brought in some really average players who have failed to deliver and as a result have upset a settled side which was trying hard to climb up.

Matters worsenedwith an eight-match ban on Luis Suarez due to his alleged racial scandal. Liverpool was the unluckiest side as they hit the woodwork a record 33 times during the campaign but this cannot be counted as even a consolation. With the appointment of Brendan Rodgers, the Kops would like to see an attacking flair of football which would propel them to Champions League once again.

Manchester City

It took the last kick of the match to seal the title for them. Goalden Times, however, had long back predicted the silverware for them in the midseason review. Their first title since 1968 would surely inspire them for bigger things in the next season. And yes, they could do with a little less footage of Sunderlanddue to their off-the-field problems.

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The New Champions

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Roberto Mancini has successfully marshalled a troop which has looked invincible at times. They should have won the league rather convincingly but there is no denying the fact they were by far the best team in England. A star-studded line-up featuring Joe Hart, David Silva and Sergio Aguero was ably led by Vincent Kompany. No one will be surprised to see a few more big names joining them next season.

Manchester United

With aneight-point lead in April, everyone thought it was United’s title to lose. And lose they did. Squandering a two-goal advantage twice at home against Everton proved to be decisive as they had to see drama on the final day of the season taking the Cup to the Blue side of Manchester, albeit on goal difference. Sir Alex Ferguson must be credited for fighting it out till the very last with a below par squad, but the shrewd tactician knew deep inside that he had blown it off this time.

A midfield featuring Ryan Giggs and coming-out-of-retirement Paul Scholes with a combined age of 77 would be too much to fathom next season. The Red Devils badly need some creative spark in the midfield and it remains to be seen whether they splash the cash to do so.

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The veteran red devils


Newcastle United

For many pundits, not the team of the season. Nor was it for us at Goalden Times at the start of the season, but we had forecast a strong finish for them and they did oblige. At the start of the season no one had predicted a fifthplace finish and they did push for a Champions League spot for a considerable time in the campaign. Alan Pardew should be lauded for his vision. He has not hesitated to iron out trouble between star players and has struck some good bargains to build a really strong squad.

A settled team, the Magpies were led by Demba Ba in the first half of the campaign. It speaks volumes for his teamsmanship when he sacrificed his striking role to the January signing fellow countryman PapissCisse. The Senegalese star went on to become the new sensation in the league with 13 goals in fourteenappearances.

Norwich City

Promoted to the top flight, Norwich never looked out of place. A mid-table finish gives them great hope for the next season and what is the most exciting factor is that they rarely relied on a single or couple of players to deliver the goods. Their work ethic and team game has been applauded by all.

Paul Lambert presented the viewers with some excellent football and they were never really in danger of going back to the Championships. It is a blow for the Canaries to lose him to Aston Villa but they should hold on to their star striker Grant Holt and influential Anthony Pilkington if they are to catch the eyes once more next season.

Queens Park Rangers

In spite of breaking the hearts of the millions of Red Devils’ fans, Mark Hughes’s side just about held on to the top flight. But it is not ideal when one has to wait for other results to go their way to guarantee survival on the last day of the season. They have looked vulnerable during their away trips and major reinforcements are needed for next term’s survival.

QPR has looked better under the astute Mark Hughes. But their summer recruits – Bobby Zamora, DjibrilCisse – have all been tested and tried in English football and may not have much more to offer. With a temperamental and self-destructing Joey Barton leading the troop, the Hoops should count themselves fortunate to be still in the top flight.

Stoke City

Stoke City had an average season. They were quite physical, they dug in and remained in the comfort of mid-table for the entire campaign – nothing exceptional about their journey. They had the privilege of playing in Europe but that could have cost them couple of places in the league table.

Peter Crouch has had a decent season at the Britannia stadium but his lack of goals proved critical to his omission in the Euro 2012 squad. Dead ball specialist Jonathan Walters did show some spark at times but nothing much to write home about.

Sunderland

A poor start to the season saw Steve Bruce being replaced by Martin O’Neill who did a commendable job especially in organizing a tight defensive unit. They did have their good days during this campaign but the bad days far outweighed them.

Only bright point for them was the arrival of StephaneSessegnon. He sparkled in his first full season for the Black Cats with the most number of assists (9) and a decent number of goals (7). O’Neill may look to strengthen his defence this summer by stamping his authority over the club.

Swansea City

The surprise package. Unlike any other newly promoted team, Brendan Rodgers opted for a refreshingly attacking brand of football. Naturally their fan base increased many a fold worldwide. It does not mean that they were vulnerable at the back as their shot-stopper Michel Vorm kept an impressive 14 clean sheets.

TheSwans played a high tempo open passing game, that spoke well of the excellent team they are, but one player stood out tall amidst them all – loan signee from Hoffenheim, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Arriving in the January transfer window, the playmaker produced an incredible five goals and 7 assists. Swansea will be disappointed that they have been unable to make him permanent and they have to bid adieu to their star manager too.

Tottenham Hotspur

It was a heartbreaking season for the Spurs. For the large part before Christmas they looked like the only team to realistically challenge the Manchester sides for the title. Then came January and Harry Redknapp’s distraction for the national team. Spurs slipped out of the title race but looked certain to hang on to the thirdspot for an automatic Champions League place. Then came a series of disastrous results in February which ensured they could only get a fourthplace. Then a certain RDM masterminded Blues’ victory in the Champions League final to leave Tottenham lamenting outside the top tier competition in Europe.

Redknapp has been sacked and the search for a new manager is underway with the likes of David Moyes tipped heavily to take over. Whoever it is, without the prospect of Champions League, it will be very hard to hold on to their star performers like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. And with Chelsea, Newcastle, Liverpool and others looking to get stronger, a top fourfinish will be an even bigger challenge.

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A dejected spurs journey

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West Bromwich Albion

Roy Hodgson has been in an ideal club with no pressure of winning day in and day out. This is also proved by the fact that they have fared far better on their away matches this season. With a comfortable top 10 finish, Hodgson has shown that he knows how to get the most out of limited resources and this quality has landed him England’s top post.

The Hawthorns club has made some good progress for the last few seasons and it will be a challenge for them to carry on in the similar fashion. They need to find a manager first and then some solidity at the back. Also the services of Peter Odemwingie, the star performer amongst a bunch of enthusiastic and young players, must be ensured before he is snatched away by some other club.

Wigan Athletic

Critics and pundits had written them off but the Latics rose like a Phoenix and Roberto Martinez should be applauded for how he turned the fortunes of a club that looked certain for relegation. Scalping for the likes of Manchester United, Newcastle United and Arsenal, they have finished at a respectable 15th place against all odds.

Shane Long has had an injury-prone season but he rose to the occasion when it mattered the most by scoring against the big boys. Victor Moses is another player who made good progress this season. Their strategy will be simple – look for some cheap buys and fight again against the odds.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Their fate was sealed way back in April. After the sacking of Mick McCarthy, they failed to win a single league match and they might find even the Championships too hot to handle. The squad looked down and out, dispirited for the major part of the season which saw only five wins for them.

It will be no surprise to see the better players – Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle – leaving very soon and a rebuilding phase start for the Molineux outfit. Stale Solbakken, the new manager will have a tough season ahead and it may take them some time to get back into the top flight once again.

Team of the Season

Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker        Vincent Kompany            FabricioColoccini               Leighton Banes

Antonio Valencia              YayaToure           Clinton Dempsey             David Silva

Robin van Persie              Sergio Auguero

UEFA Champions League Final Preview

The biggest club team honour has reached its finale. Get the showdown of the Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

May 19, 2012

14:45 ET

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 20, 2012)

 

After two contrasting semi-final ties, we have the two finalists for UEFA Champions League 2012. Bayern Munich, playing at home, will take on the surprise opponent in Chelsea. Not a line-up many had expected, rather another El Clasico was being anticipated as soon as the road to final was clear following the quarter-final draw. Purists may argue that the best team in Europe, or possibly the best team ever, has not featured in this year’s final. But one must remember that the finalists have come thus far by knocking out the so-called best teams. Chelsea have shown us what a strong, determined and organized defence can achieve even against the fearsome display of attacking football. The two matches of Chelsea against Barcelona, especially the away leg once their inspirational captain John Terry was sent off for an off-the-ball incident through a straight red card, showcased an amazing strength of character. It established the fact that defensive tactics can also be engrossing, a team can fight against all odds as well as the statistics if they can keep their shape. It also proved that there is no point having the lion’s share of possession with more shots on target, during a match, if you fail to do the single most critical thing – score a Goal. Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo had admitted that his side would require a bit of luck to upset Barcelona and there is no denying the fact that Chelsea have been fortunate. The Catalans  hit the post four times over the two-legged tie besides missing lots of clear cut chances to add to the penalty miss by Lionel Messi. But Chelsea took the opportunities when presented. Playing with 10 men away from home, in front of a buoyant Camp Nou crowd, they took the lead through an audacious Ramires chip – no mean feat that. They might have been criticised for sitting back and hoping for the best, but their tactics have worked and they are in the Final of the Champions League – who cares how!

Stand up and be counted

Homecoming

 Bayern Munich on the other hand continued their fine showing in the competition. They have picked up at the right time and have been lethal as the tournament reached its knock-out stages. One has to think deeply amidst the hue and cry surrounding the goal-scoring duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that how can a player possibly score 40+ goals in domestic league? Surely the league is not sound in defence; Bayern surely caught Real Madrid off guard there. The German team showed no mercy for any defensive lapses Real presented them with and kept a tight back line – something the Spaniards are not used to back home. Besides, the Bavarians were proactive and took the game to the opponent even when 0-2 down at the Bernabéu. The German determination prevailed and they got one goal back which took the game to the penalty shoot-out. It is irony of fate that in one semi-final the better team over the two legs had to wait till the lottery of spot kicks to go through whereas in the other, the clear cut underdogs won easily – at least as per the score books (3-2 on aggregate).

Pressure will be on Bayern Munich as they enter their home turf at Fußball Arena München, to lift the biggest club team honour. The last time this had happened was way back in 1957 when Bayern’s semi-final opponents won the European Cup at the Bernabéu. Bayern’s midfield is in superb shape and it is vindicated by the fact that even a bad day in office (Franck Ribery at the Bernabéu) did not deter their chances too much.

 

Bayern will like to play a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which would change to 4-3-3 while not in possession of the ball. They have a makeshift centre-back pairing where Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is expected to start in the absence of suspended Holger Badstuber and injured Daniel van Buyten. This coupled with the suspension of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo would make Toni Kroos to sit deeper as a safety valve in front of the back four. The lynchpin in the midfield will be the stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger – he will be responsible for dictating the tempo of the game and supplying the ball forward. Thomas Muller will be the most advanced among the midfield trio and would like to pressurize the Chelsea defenders as much as possible. The lone striker upfront, Mario Gomez is in superb form flanked by two deadly wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, in particular, has been lethal this season and the opposition wing-back will be in a dilemma to launch forward in presence of the Dutch assassin.

Chelsea will again enter the final on May 19 as underdogs – this might just suit them as there will hardly be any pressure to deal with. Following a season which has seen their domestic campaign fall apart, reaching the finals of the Champions League in itself is a massive achievement, that too under the  supervision of a caretaker boss (Avram Grant, anyone!).

 

With Captain John Terry, Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires missing through suspension, it won’t be surprising if Chelsea adopt a very defensive 4-5-1 approach once again. Garry Cahill is also a major doubt following his hamstring tear against Barcelona at the second leg of Champions League semi-final. If he fails to make it, Paulo Ferreira – with only one and a half Champions League games under his belt this season – might partner David Luiz, who is himself expected to be fit and available for the Bayern match. To shield the makeshift centre-halves, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel would be deployed as the holding midfielders who will complement each other in a double pivot role. Frank Lampard would like to link up with the front men whenever possible. But owing to injuries and age not being on their side, the midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are not the same players they used to be. It is likely to be a misfit against the superb Bayern midfield even in the absence of suspended Luiz Gustavo. On the wide right, Juan Mata would like to exploit any possible weakness in the German armour in the absence of Gustavo (left-sided midfielder), Alaba (left-back) and Badstuber (left centre-back). The opposite flank would be a toss-up between Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Up front, the work-horse Didier Drogba would be fighting for everything with Fernando Torres being used as an impact player. It will be very interesting to see how Chelsea can keep a clean sheet. And if they happen to concede – which if they do, won’t raise many eyebrows as they are fitted against a well-oiled German horse – will they be more adventurous and push more bodies forward? If this happens, spectators will be in for a very open game of football.

Both Chelsea and Bayern have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the season. Chelsea is still not sure if they would qualify for the next season’s finals. There is a controversy over dominance of senior players in the dressing room which has allegedly led to the premature sacking of former manager André Villas Boas. In a strange turn of events, the club which was heavily criticized for trying to buy a trophy is drawing unparalleled sympathy – for their underdog sticker as well as suspension ragged squad – at this stage of the campaign.

 

The Boss

Listen to me

Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have had to deal with egos of superstars for quite a while now.  Der Kaiser has often criticized the current bunch for their failure at the bigger stages. In a way he was asserting the glorious achievements of his own playing days. The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not far behind in blowing his (full) trumpet and that is not helping the team any bit but bogging them down with enormous pressure. Things have gone worse for them after surrendering the Bundesliga for two consecutive years due to some indifferent form. Their players are also nothing close to being innocent – Franck Ribery was recently involved in a brawl with Arjen Robben over a free-kick during the half-time of a match – which does not augment good team spirit.

Bayern Munich

Status

Chelsea

Status

Holger Badstuber (DF)

Suspended

David Luiz (DF)

Injured

Daniel van Buyten (DF)

Injured

Branislav Ivanovic (DF)

Suspended

Breno (DF)

Injured

John Terry (DF)

Suspended

Luiz Gustavo (MF)

Suspended

Ramires (MF)

Suspended

David Alaba (DF / MF)

Suspended

Raul Meireles

Suspended

Absentee Table

 As both the teams are hampered due to injuries and suspensions – mostly in the defence or defensive midfield position – goals are to be expected in the final showdown. With a compact and well organized midfield, supported by greater threat going forward, I would like to put my bet on Bayern to win the trophy at their backyard.

UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup Semi-Final Preview

The biggest club team honour is reaching its finale while the second-tier club competition in Europe is gathering momentum too. Get the showdown of the semi-final encounters with Debojyoti Chakraborty

The quarter-final stage of the Champions League 2011-12 got over without much brouhaha. A Milan faithful may not agree, but Barcelona was a clear favourite for this tie. Real Madrid surged past APOEL FC leaving them looking rather distraught. Their opponents, Bayern Munich also eased their way through to the last four after seeing Marseille off. Chelsea had to endure the toughest of the ties as they shook off a strong fightback from a 10-man Benfica. Teams to feature in the semi-finals have been really consistent throughout the tournament as is evident from the fact that they have topped their respective groups. Spain continued its dominance here as well while Real and Barcelona established themselves as the two top club teams. Italy have lost out on one Champions League spot to Germany from next season and they should not feel hard done by as none of the Serie A teams could make it to the last four whereas German Champions Bayern Munich look to challenge the Spanish Armada. The biggest surprise in the lineup is Chelsea, who have managed to come so far this season. So after a roller coaster ride, it is that time of the season when finally men are separated from the boys. Now let us prepare for the last two-legged encounter of the season.

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FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs Real Madrid FC (ESP)

April 17, 2012

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

April 25, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

Olympique de Marseille (2-0, 2-0)

Apoel FC (3-0, 5-2)

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)

PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group A Winner

Group Stage | Group D Winner

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

SSC Napoli (H) 3-2

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

Manchester City (H) 2-0

Villarreal CF (H) 3-1

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

SSC Napoli (A) 1-1

Manchester City (A) 0-2

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

There is no bigger incentive for Bayern to win this tie than to feature in their home turf for the final on May 19. They face a mighty Real Madrid, a record nine-time conquerors of the continent. While many are preparing for another El Clasico in the final, it is the German Superpowers who seem to have a realistic chance of preventing that from happening. They had to come through the rigours of play-offs but they have looked sharper and clinical as the tournament approaches its crescendo. The Bavarians then topped the Group of Death before annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home in the Round of 16 following a shock defeat in the first leg. A typical professional German display saw them ease past Marseille thereafter. Now they find themselves in a proper Big Match, and anyone can win it. Mario Gomez vs Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery vs Kaka, Philipp Lahm vs Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer vs Iker Casillas – it is perfect show time. These two superpowers of Europe have locked horns quite a few times resulting in almost even honours. Real has been in superb form from their group stages where they secured a perfect win record – only the fifth club in the history of the tournament to do so. A creditable draw in the freezing Moscow turf set them up nicely for the Round of 16. Los Blancos followed it up with bidding adieu to APOEL FC from little Cyprus – story of the season so far. Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading his counterpart in La Liga in terms of goal scoring but he is still some way behind in Europe. It will be a good stage for him to set the records straight as the competition nears its business end. Real has a star-studded side which is performing like a well-oiled machine – they have top two assist providers in Kaka and Karim Benzema, 3 out of the top 5 scorers are from Bernabéu (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José Callejón). Coupled with a compact defence which has conceded the least number of goals so far, this is a mouth-watering tie.

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Chelsea FC (ENG) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)

 

April 18, 2012

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

April 24, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Runners-up – 1

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

SL Benfica (1-0, 2-1)

AC Milan (0-0, 3-1)

Round of 16

Round of 16

Napoli (1-3, 4-1)

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)

Group Stage | Group E Winner

Group Stage | Group H Winner

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

AC Milan (H) 2-2

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

AC Milan (A) 3-2

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Chelsea seem to have over-achieved this season in the Champions League considering their woeful domestic form and unrest in the dressing room. They saw off Valencia in the last match day in a must-win encounter in some style before staging one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of Champions League against Napoli in the Round of 16. Another tough nut waited in the quarter-finals and Chelsea rode their luck a little to knock out a resolute and gritty Benfica side. They would be determined to keep their continental form going as automatic Champions League qualification from the EPL is uncertain and hence winning this year’s Cup would be their only hope. They face the mighty Barcelona in a repeat fixture to 2009 edition. That time, Barcelona advanced on away goals and Chelsea would hope to do it one better this time.   Chelsea seem to be the weakest of the surviving teams – they have hardly been able to hold on to the ball, rarely threatened the goal mouth, scored the least and conceded the most number of goals. Add to that the quality of opposition over the two-legged semi-final tie – possibly the greatest club team ever to have played the game – and Chelsea seem down and out. But matches have never been won on paper and Chelsea would dearly love to prove this once again. Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of this competition fifth time in a row. By doing so, they have equalled the feat set by their archrivals Real Madrid in the late ‘50s – then known as the European Cup. And they would like to match another envious record held by their quarter-final rivals – win consecutive top European Club honours. Records are nothing new to the man named Lionel Messi. He became the youngest man, and fourth overall, to score 50 Champions League goals and also bettered his own Cup record of 12 goals in a season. The little magician has netted only 56 times so far this season and there will be hardly anyone who would bet against him scoring in this tie. People mesmerised by the tiki-taka brand of football often fail to appreciate their tight defence – Barca have not lost at home in Europe since 2009. They have some problem against aerial balls, but they more than make up for it through their defensive organisation. Except for Milan in the group stages, the Catalan side have conceded only 3 goals while scoring a staggering 28 in seven matches. They do keep the ball well – better than any other team in the competition – and make good use of it as they have outscored everyone else. This should be a good test for Barcelona, but not likely to be much more than a good warm-up for the impending final.

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The Europa Cup Previews

Some call it the poor cousin of the Champions League, but the teams vying for the Europa League would strongly object to that. After much blood, sweat and rigour of the horrific schedule, four teams survive to fight it out. The all-conquering Spanish dominance is even more evident here as we have Sporting Clube de Portugal sandwiched between three clubs from Spain. Some may argue that the competition is dampened by the reluctance of top clubs to compete in this demanding tournament and they have preferred to focus on their respective domestic leagues. But this, in no way, can undermine the achievements of the semi-finalists. Let us build up to these matches.

Club Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF

In their last meeting in Europe, Atletico Madrid edged past Valencia on the basis of away goals in the quarter-finals of Europa League in 2009-10 and went all the way to lift the trophy. This time they will host Valencia on April 19 with the away match a week later. The club from Madrid has failed to score against their La Liga counterpart in the domestic season and they would surely love to break the shackles this time. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been in superb form under the bars for them – taking over from the now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea – conceding the least number of goals in the competition. Up front, Falcao Garcia, the leading goal scorer in the tournament, has impressed some cash rich clubs in Europe and he would surely like to prove his worth. Not only him – Adrian Lopez, Eduardo Salvio – Atletico have quite a few options going forward and they are clear favourites to clinch it.  They have shown the desire by eliminating Manchester United from the tournament. On the other hand, Valencia are the only team to have come from the Champions League, having been eliminated on the last match day of the group stages in the hands of Chelsea. They boast of a strong defence consisting of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami. They have a free-flowing approach to the game, reminiscent of any modern top Spanish side. They have netted 4 goals in two consecutive home matches and they would look to hone their goal scoring skills once again against their Spanish compatriots.

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Sporting Clube de Portugal vs Athletic Club

Only non-Spanish team left in the competition, Sporting Club will entertain Athletic Club on April 19 in an Iberian derby. They are enjoying their best season in Europe since 2005. History favours the Portuguese side in this tie as they have beaten – that too after trailing in the first leg – Athletic Club in their only meeting so far, way back in 1985-86 season. But they will have to go past a fantastic Gorka Iraizoz who has made the most number of saves (37) in the competition. Sporting is inspired by the ex-Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua who is having a tremendous season. Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front also has performed beyond expectation. They are up against an Athletic team, which is the only team to compete with Atletico de Madrid in terms of goal scoring. Diego da Cunha is leading the pack in the midfield as he leads the assists chart with four of them while chipping in a few on his own. They have come back from behind twice against FC Schalke 04 to clinch the tie which shows their hunger for success. In fact, they have had the most number of attempts – 67, close to six per match on an average – in goal amongst the teams surviving in the competition. Markel Susaeta has orchestrated the midfield quite well and he will have a major part to play in this tie as well. But they have leaked quite generously in the back and this is one area where they would like to improve. They will be further handicapped as star defender Javi Martinez has been suspended. This should be a fierce battle as both the teams rank right up there in terms of fouls committed throughout the tournament. Nonetheless, this promises to be an enthralling contest – plenty of goals, some shrewd tactics being employed and a nail-biting finish.

A Touch of Flair

Who else to feature for today’s Page 3 entry other than Chelsea’s creative spark Juan Mata – who netted the injury time winner against Wigan to keep Chelsea for the Champions League fight. Undoubtedly Blues’ best creative weapon this season has scored already 12 goals and 15 assists in his very first season in England. Enjoy his Flair photo shoot for Esquire to celebrate the late winner !

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Those who missed the Goal against Wigan have a revisit –

If André Villas-Boas was a Soufflé…

A unique take on the André Villas-Boas sacking where Gino de Blasio shows his culinary expertise while dissecting the reasons behind AVB’s rise and fall

I like a good soufflé. I mean, I really like a good soufflé.

The thing with a soufflé is, you get many flavours. Some are timeless classics, some are flavours of the day; and some have the potential to be good, but they aren’t just ready, yet.

Is this the soufflé AVB could be?

Strange to think that I can compare a manager to a soufflé, but the similarities are more than the untrained eye can strike. For fear of the Goalden Times staff locking me up until I come off my soufflé high, here’s my reasoning.

Preparation

Michel Roux

Michel Roux, the man who has written all there is to write about soufflés will point to three very specific elements of a soufflé. To begin with – La Préparation.

You can’t rush a soufflé. You SHOULDN’T rush a soufflé.

Under beat the eggs and you don’t have a binding agent, over beat, and the air is gone. If you mix rather than fold, you lose precious air and the chance for your masterpiece to really shine.

The overall result? A soufflé that won’t reach the table looking greater than a puddle at the bottom of a well prepared ramekin.

Why’s that any different with a manager? Why should they skip the preparation phase of their training, or indeed preparing the players for the match moment?

Sure, they will probably have elements that will hold their own, but preparation is key. As my grand-dad always used to say, “Failing to plan, is planning to fail.” (Well, in Italian at least, but the translation should be significant).

Ingredients

The next thing Roux points to is Les Ingrédients.

Are they fresh? Can they hold their own? Do they mix well to be a harmonious, well risen taste?

In our manager analogy, these would be your players. The players you select, or are left with. Can they perform to the levels or the standard you expect of them, are they right for your team? It is important to note that just like you need to mix and match ingredients (for not everything goes right when not done in order), so do the players. Would you add white truffle to any soufflé? Adding the league’s most expensive player is as comparable to soufflé success.

Time

Roux is adamant on this. You need Le Temps to create the perfect soufflé. Have you practised enough to master the art of the soufflé? It’s simple yet complicated; one element will affect another and so on and so on.

This is to do with how long you are allowed to make the soufflé. If you want a quick-fix, try the burger, ladies and gentlemen. But to really make a soufflé, you got to be patient.

So what’s André Villas-Boas?

It feels at the time of his appointment, he was the flavour of the moment, a chocolate mint and gran marnier served at Le Gavroche. Why not, his credentials to that point (winning every competition that his Porto team had entered that year), pointed to the man in form aside from perhaps Pep Guardiola.

André must surely be left wondering what flavour he is..

With a Portuguese league title, Portuguese league cup and European title to his name, André Villas-Boas was certainly on the radar. Young, smart, articulate and lauded by the media as the new Mourinho (his former boss at Porto, Chelsea and Inter), his Porto side played an attractive football that was beating everything in its path. And even Jose Mourinho had not won Porto a European crown in his first year there.

But his move came too soon. He was, for me, the under-beaten egg, left with bad ingredients and given no time to implement his style.

He was too rushed, both in his own assessment of being ready, and that of his future chairman. He wasn’t proven enough to come to such a league and do what the background voices wanted (bring back the glory days, phase out the old guard) and not only what was initially thought by many.

Was he going too quick for his own good? He paid tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson and his 40 years of service to football management, stating that he “could not see himself managing a club beyond my 40’s”. He really didn’t see it coming, poor chap.

His key ingredients? Well that would be like adding leftover lemon juice from the fridge into the mix. The potential talents coming from the youth academy were probably going to come good, especially if Daniel Sturridge was anything to go by. The club though in their infinite wisdom, let a talent like Fabio Borini leave, only to see him prove himself capable of breaking into the senior Italy team through his performances for Roma. And what about the current crop? Their apparent acidic aspersions in public and private were leaving a sour taste, for AVB this would only give one problem on another; for Michel Roux this would be a soufflé not worthy of adding to a buttered and sugared ramekin.

There are those that will argue until the cows came home that AVB was given enough time with the current squad to start implementing the style of football he wanted. The majority, myself included, would disagree. How could you show your worth, in any job, let alone something as transgenic as a football manager, in only nine months? Very tough. Andre needed the time; I’ll let you decide if he got it.

If André Villas-Boas was a soufflé, he’d be a ginger, passion-fruit and mango one. Doesn’t sound like something you’d want right now, but given a few years, more time to develop and the right ingredients, it would be the talk of the town, and with just cause.

Featured Image Source – zimbio.com

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The business end of Champions League is about to begin. Get the lowdown on each team and each tie with Debojyoti Chakraborty

2011-12 has been a landmark year for the Champions League as it has probably taken a step to show it is no longer an elitist domain. With no fewer than nine countries being present at this stage, the UEFA President can boast of his Spread the Game campaign. One time undisputed superpower, Italy has the envious record of having at least three teams – and this time the only country to be so – for the seventh time in a row. Other giants in European football – England and Spain – are going through one of the worst seasons for years as they have only two representatives. That is the same number Russia have achieved this year, for the first time in their history, along with the usual attendees like Germany and France. Russia should not feel lonely as Eastern Europe has another representative in the form of knockout stage debutants APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus. Together with FC Basel of Switzerland, the other knockout stage debutants they have shocked quite a few with their strong showing in the group stages and it would be dangerous to demean their chances in the business end. Joining the league of debutants is the rejuvenated club from Italy, FC Napoli who are basking in Champions League glory for the first time ever. They could do well to emulate Real Madrid who is making a record 15th consecutive appearance at this stage of the competition, followed closely by Arsenal with 12th straight show down. Not surprisingly, Real also holds the record of winning the title for a record nine times. Milan is at second place with seven winners’ medals to their name. Current champion and hot favourite Barcelona have won this competition four times, same number as that of Bayern Munich, another giant in European football. Following the pack are Inter (three titles), Benfica (two titles) and Marseille (one title). When the round of 16 draw was made in Nyon, Switzerland about two months back, everybody knew that the teams from same group or same country could not be drawn together, but very few would have anticipated such delectable ties.

 

APOEL FC vs. Olympique Lyonnais

 

14th February, 2012

Stade de Gerland, Lyon (FRA)

GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)

7th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Zenit St Petersburg (H) 2-1

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 1-1

AFC Ajax (A) 1-1

Real Madrid CF (H) 0-2

FC Porto (A) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 2-1

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 2-0

AFC Ajax (H) 0-0

FC Zenit St Petersburg (A) 0-0

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 0-2

Real Madrid CF (A) 0-4

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 7-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Surprise package of the season. With a paltry annual team budget of €10 million – close to the amount Emmanuel Adebayor earns from Manchester City, and he is not even considered good enough for a substitute role – this small club created history by coming this far. They are the first team from Cyprus to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League. They are not favourites to win this tie but they were not tipped to top the group stages either. Rode their luck to a great extent as two perfect results on the final matchday of the group stages saw them through to the knock out stages. But their second half display against Dinamo Zagreb on that day, when they unleashed six goals en route a 7-1 win, showed they meant business. A few were suspicious of this unlikely result, specifically with the second half showing, but that should not distract Lyon much. Hugo Lloris has been sensational for them under the bars with the most number (30) of saves in the competition so far. Except for the games against Real Madrid, he has conceded only once in four matches. Lyon faces an uncomfortable second leg away from home and hence should try to seal the tie in the first leg itself.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. FC Barcelona

 

14th February, 2012

Bay-Arena, Leverkusen (GER)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

14th February, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

Valencia FC (A) 1-3

AC Milan (H) 2-2

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Chelsea FC (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating the best team in the world, or arguably the greatest club team ever to embrace the game of football, is not a cakewalk. But they have scalped one Spanish side in the group stages already and that should give them some hope.  Still it would need much more than the famous German steel, the undying spirit of a certain Michael Ballack and a great bit of luck – and a Bengali in the form of Robin Dutt at the helm of things – to come out of Nou Camp with their heads held high. Barcelona have not been beaten this season in the Champions League and it seems this record won’t be broken any time soon. Leo Messi and company could have got a trickier tie but they would settle for this with the second leg at home. Their La Liga form is not spectacular, but it would take some doing for any team to beat them over a two-legged tie. Their midfield has not come to the party as yet in this competition but this should be the ideal stage to stamp their authority on Europe.
 

FC Zenit St Petersburg  vs. SL Benfica

 

15th February, 2012

Stadion Petrovskiy, St Petersburg (RUS)

Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

APOEL FC (A) 1-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 1-0

Manchester United (H) 1-1

FC Basel 1893 (H) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 3-1

APOEL FC (H) 0-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 1-0

Manchester United (A) 2-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 2-2

FC Porto (A) 0-0

FC Basel 1893 (A) 2-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 1-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

This would be the home coming for the Portuguese duo Bruno Alves and Danny. Zenit would like to take the full advantage of the first leg at home under freezing Russian weather, but that’s not their only talking point. They have two of the top defenders in the Champions League this season in Nicolas Lombaerts and Tomas Hubocan with most number of balls recovered so far. Besides the return of influential star striker Alexander Kerzhakov from injury would be a major boost for them. However, Zenit would severely lack match sharpness as their domestic season will start only days before the second leg match. Topped the group which had Manchester United and thus were able to avoid other group toppers. They have also been fortunate not to be drawn against some strong runner up teams from the group stage like Milan or Lyon. A trip to Russia will not be a stroll in the park though a second leg at home might just suit them. Nicolas Gaitan has eclipsed his more illustrious contemporaries to become the most influential playmaker in the tournament with the most number of assists so far and Benfica would look upon him as an inspiration.
 

AC Milan vs. Arsenal FC

 

15th February, 2012

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

The Emirates Stadium, London (ENG)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Barcelona (A) 2-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 1-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 1-1

Olympique de Marseille (H) 0-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Barcelona (H) 2-3

Olympiacos FC (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (H) 2-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 2-2

Olympique de Marseille (A) 0-1

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-3

Talking Point

Talking Point

A battle of experience vs. youthful exuberance, a tussle between composure and agility – this is a mouth-watering clash. Milan started the campaign brightly with a 2-2 draw at Nou Camp. But they faded off afterwards and managed only two points in the last three matches. That did not prevent them from qualifying for the next stage but they finished a good seven points behind the group winner, Barcelona. They have been presented a second leg away from home which may very well suit their counter-attack based football. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored in all the CL matches he has played so far and Milan will hope that this trend continues. Arsenal have been historically drawn against tough oppositions quite early in the recent years of Champions League draw. This time too they feature in The match of the round like last year. Arsenal could enjoy a free flowing passage of play against Milan but they have to be careful of their defensive lapses which could well be exposed by the counter-attacking threat of Milan. It raises a few eyebrows if Robin van Persie does not feature in the score sheets. It will be good show down with Ibra, but can his young and inexperienced teammates see Arsenal through? The second leg at the Emirates could well be the decider.
 

PFC CSKA Moskva vs. Real Madrid

 

21st February, 2012

Stadion Luzhniki, Moscow (RUS)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 2-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (A) 0-0

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

FC Internazionale Milano (H) 2-3

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 0-2

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 3-0

FC Internazionale Milano (A)   2-1

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating Inter at their own backyard was not the only requirement; CSKA also needed a draw between Lille and Trabzonspor on the final matchday to secure a knockout stage berth. Fortunately CSKA got the result they wanted but their luck may run out against a rampant Real Madrid. They are a decent side who like to play open attacking football. Seydou Doumbia is one of the leading goal scorers in the tournament with five goals in five appearances and he would love to portray his skills in front of a wider audience. But even a star shot stopper in Igor Akinfeev could prove to be not much against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Also they are handicapped by the same problem as that of Zenit – lack of match sharpness. Real has been in superb form and their statistics prove that. They have scored nineteen goals in the group stages – only archrivals Barcelona have been able to better that by one goal – and have conceded two goals, the least by any team. Sergio Ramos Garcia has been a star performer as Real are yet to concede any goal in 400+ minutes with him on the pitch. Real have proved that they are much more than Cristiano Ronaldo alone as they have marched past the last two matches without their star striker. But Jose Mourinho should not take this Russian side lightly. They are favourites to progress and they should, unless complacency gets the better of them.
 

SSC Napoli vs. Chelsea

 

21st February, 2012

Stadio San Paolo, Naples (ITA)

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Manchester City FC (A) 1-1

FC Bayern Munchen (A) 2-3

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

Villarreal CF (H) 2-0

Manchester City FC (H) 2-1

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bayern Munchen (H) 1-1

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Napoli had attracted quite a few eyeballs at the start of the season. They have done their reputation no harm by entering into the knock-out stages in their debut campaign at the expense of cash-rich Manchester City. They were in the Group of Death but their inexperience might just catch up with them here. Star forward Edinson Cavani could be in his last season at Napoli before the cash-rich clubs snatch him away and he could leave his mark before bowing out. Chelsea are having a rocky season in the Premier League, but they have a very strong record at the knockout stages of the Champions League in this decade. Their new manager Andre Vilas Boas may be a newcomer to England, but he is no greenhorn in Europe having already won the UEFA Europa League with Porto last year. Chelsea are going through a transition phase, but getting a debutant team at this stage may just see them through.
 

Olympique de Marseille vs. FC Internazionale Milano

 

22nd February, 2012

Stade Vélodrome, Marseille (FRA)

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-0

Arsenal FC (A) 0-0

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 3-0

Olympiacos FC (H) 0-1

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

Arsenal FC (H) 0-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 3-2

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

Little known players from Marseille have caught the eyes of Europe. Surged by a strong defence, they have propelled through to the knockout stages of Champions League, but they will be underdogs going into this tie. Surely they preferred an easier opponent; at least a second leg advantage at home would have given them some hope. Inter are peaking at the right time. After starting their campaign with a shock defeat to Trabzonspor at home, they bounced back to top the group. They are not likely to be overconfident against Marseille as they bowed out to Schalke FC last year under similar circumstances. And it might be time for Wesley Sneijder to settle in and start imposing his authority again.
 

FC Basel 1893 vs. FC Bayern Munchen

 

22nd February, 2012

St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 2-1

SL Benfica (A) 1-1

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Manchester United (A) 3-3

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 3-2

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

SL Benfica (H) 0-2

Manchester United (H) 2-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

FC Basel’s shot to fame was knocking out Manchester United from the group stages on the last matchday. This may end up being their high point in this year’s campaign as they look to lock horns against Bayern Munich in their inaugural knockout stage appearance. Alexandar Frei & Marco Streller have both played in Bundesliga before but their influence may not be enough. Bayern Munich, a heavyweight in Europe will be favourites against FC Basel. Sheer professionalism of the German team would be a bit too much for Basel. Bayern would have taken a major boost from the timely return of midfield lynchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger, but his return to field was short- lived as he suffered a torn ligament in the German Cup quarterfinals. His partnership with Mario Gomez, top scorer so far in this year’s CL having scored 6 goals in less than 400 minutes in the pitch, should prove deadly going forward.

EPL Mid-Season Review

Last August, we had presented a season preview. Come New Year, Debojyoti Chakraborty is back to review his predictions and update the prophecies

Prelude

Happy New Year! English football enters a new year with the hope of establishing itself as the football powerhouse of Europe, especially after the lackluster performance in the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. At the start of the competition, the clubs from Manchester looked like strong bids – one for their (recent) history, and another for their new found cash injection. Surprisingly, they have to trade their horses with the poor-man’s-Continental-Cup – the Europa League. Back home though, they have not disappointed the books and are tied at the top spot to set up a fascinating second half for the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League. Earlier in the season, we had come up with a season preview and now look to review our own stance – how far have we got it right and where our predictions have gone awry.

League Table

POS

CLUB

P

W

D

L

GF

GA

GD

PTS

1

Manchester City

19

14

3

2

53

16

37

45

2

Manchester United

19

14

3

2

49

17

32

45

3

Tottenham Hotspur

19

13

3

3

37

20

17

42

4

Arsenal

19

11

3

5

35

26

9

36

5

Chelsea

19

10

4

5

37

24

13

34

6

Liverpool

19

9

7

3

24

15

9

34

7

Newcastle United

19

8

6

5

26

25

1

30

8

Stoke City

19

7

5

7

20

30

-10

26

9

Everton

19

7

3

9

19

22

-3

24

10

Aston Villa

19

5

8

6

22

24

-2

23

11

Norwich City

19

5

7

7

28

34

-6

22

12

West Bromwich Albion

19

6

4

9

19

27

-8

22

13

Sunderland

19

5

6

8

23

22

1

21

14

Fulham

19

4

8

7

20

25

-5

20

15

Swansea City

19

4

8

7

18

23

-5

20

16

Wolverhampton Wanderers

19

4

5

10

21

34

-13

17

17

Queens Park Rangers

19

4

5

10

18

33

-15

17

18

Wigan Athletic

19

3

6

10

17

37

-20

15

19

Blackburn Rovers

19

3

5

11

28

41

-13

14

20

Bolton Wanderers

19

4

1

14

23

42

-19

13


Arsenal FC

The season started in the worst possible manner for Arsene Wenger. He could not hold on to his star players; there were no big signings to assure fans; one hell of an injury crisis – particularly in the defensive ranks – culminating in a brutal assault by one of their arch rivals. But things have changed for the better since then. Arsenal changed their recruitment policy and brought in some established players rather than looking for greenhorns. Thomas Vermaelen came back from injury and provided some much needed solidity to the otherwise fragile defence. Mikel Arteta grabbed his last chance of playing for one of the elites of modern European clubs and orchestrated a till-now-shaky midfield. He was ably supported by Alex Song, who rose to the occasion in the absence of long-term injured Jack Wilshere. The enthusiasm of new recruit Gervinho helped matters too. To top it all, a certain Robin van Persie thought that it was not a bad time to surpass the club record of Thierry Henry by scoring the maximum number of goals in a calendar year. Still, Wenger is not in a good mood, come this new year. Over-reliance on RVP, especially considering his injury-prone history, and imminent departure of players for African Cup of Nations, are worth a concern.  Calling back an ageing Henry as a cover is showing signs of panic in management. It remains to be seen how Arsenal deal with these issues while the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool breathe down their necks. I am sticking to the pre-season prediction of missing out on a Champions League place (and may be, RVP!).

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 5th

Final Prediction: 5th

Aston Villa 

After the summer exodus of a lot of regular first team players, Villa was sure to get a rocky start to the season. But Gabriel Agbonlahor has struck gold this season as a senior member in the team. Not only is he the highest scorer for the Villans, he has played a perfect ten to his striking partner Darren Bent. Along with Stiliyan Petrov, he looks set for his best season for the club this time round. But lack of experience in the midfield has limited penetration in the attacking third. Mediocrity has embraced the club and the same is expected to prevail in May.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 10th

Final Prediction: 10th

Blackburn Rovers 

A change of ownership; fans demanding the head of the current manager and even carrying banners to get the former incumbent back in charge, team rooted to relegation throughout the season – this has been a forgettable league campaign for the Rovers. The only highlight has been the star forward, Yakubu Ayegbeni with 12 goals in the campaign – he is among the top five goal scorers this season. Christopher Samba seems the sole warrior in a fragile defence that has leaked more than two goals per game. It is not clear why Steve Kean is still at the helm of things, but it seems Blackburn can only survive if teams above them encounter a freefall. Tough times ahead!

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 15th

Final Prediction: 18th

Bolton Wanderers

Manager Owen Coyle changed the way Bolton used to play last season. The results were encouraging, with Bolton fighting for the European spots last season this time. But they have hurtled on a downhill journey since, without any road blocker. Things could get even worse with the imminent departure of defence stalwart, Garry Cahill in the transfer window. For a team with the worst defensive record in the league, this will be a massive blow. When going forward, they have been much better though. The midfield trio of Chris Eagles, Nigel Reo-Coker and Martin Petrov are doing quite well for themselves but not so much for the team – they seldom give out a collective performance. Up front, Kevin Davies has been the target man as usual, with strike partner Ivan Klasnic, enjoying his best season for the club. But Bolton needs to have something extra to survive in the top flight. January would be a crucial time for them with some loan signings in the form of Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran expected to join in. I am betting on Owen Coyle to make Bolton stay on in the Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 16th

Final Prediction: 16th

Chelsea

It is a rocky time. Star players are ageing, and they have warmed the bench this season with high profile signings proving a major flop. It is a new side with a new manager in charge, but time is running out fast. Consistently inconsistent – this should sum up the season for Chelsea. Petr Cech is underperforming regularly and some costly howlers this season has meant he has kept only four clean sheets thus far – not enough for a top class goalkeeper. Chelsea have played six matches last month and have kept a clean sheet only once, conceding seven in the process. This vulnerability may be somewhat explained by the new high pressing style adopted by Andre Villas Boas, but not the individual mistakes by the defenders, like Terry slipping against Arsenal!

A new look midfield has performed well for Chelsea though AVB has, at times, been indecisive on where to deploy Juan Mata, their most creative player. A free roaming role like that of David Silva of Manchester City seems to suit him well rather than a wide forward in a three-man attack. Daniel Sturridge has been superb in that role and Chelsea would have done well had they found a central striker, netting goals regularly. Yet, seeing the form and depth in squad of Liverpool and Arsenal respectively, Chelsea should get a Champions League berth.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 2nd

Final Prediction: 4th

Everton

David Moyes has done wonders for Everton working on a shoe-string budget. This season is no different. Nothing spectacular about them – they have secured points where everyone expected, and dropped points where no eyebrows were raised. Leighton Baines has been excellent in a well drilled unit, which has one of the best defensive records in the league. They have had to struggle going forward though. Lack of creativity in the midfield and regular injuries to star striker Louis Saha have seen them creating very few chances and converting even fewer. Earlier, we had predicted a seventh spot finish for the Toffees, but then the midfield lynchpin Mikel Arteta left for Arsenal. So we are modifying our predictions and now see them just holding onto a top-half finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 7th

Final Prediction: 9th

Fulham

Fulham has underperformed thus far. Defenders have failed to maintain a clean sheet, forwards have failed to find the net. Midfield has been the only bright spot with the duo of Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy pulling the strings. Dempsey is the highest scorer for the team with six goals. Apart from a 6-0 drubbing of Queens Park Rangers, they have failed to score more than two goals in any of their remaining 18 matches. Bobby Zamora has failed to deliver time and again. The defence is not doing its job properly. The experienced pair of John Arne Riise and Brede Hangeland has failed to pull its weight into the team. The team still has enough experience and it would be unwise to predict that their poor run will continue for the rest of the season. So, I am going with a mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 11th

Final Prediction: 13th

Liverpool

Cagy! A word that describes Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. They are a fine team playing against stronger teams as they can sit back, wait for opportunities to come by and exploit them in the counter attack. But against less ambitious teams, where the Reds are expected to drive home the advantage, they fail to do so adopting the same approach. Hence, in spite of conceding the least number of goals this season, they have a high percentage of draws. This shows the lack of influence their midfielders have on the game. In spite of big summer signings, absence of lion-hearted captain Steven Gerrard, Charlie Adams, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have resulted in a lacklustre performance. Besides, Dirk Kyut and Lucas Leiva – the main players to orchestrate Liverpool’s comeback last season – have got limited playing time in a crowded midfield and thus have hampered their rhythm. Add to that the ban on Luis Suarez and we don’t see them improving much in the later stages of the league unless any new signing strikes gold. I am predicting a seventh place for the Reds, i.e. no European spot next season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 3rd

Final Prediction: 7th

Manchester City

With the squad they have, Manchester City may have got more Google hits this season than the cumulative hits of the last decade. And with the historic 6-1 mauling of Manchester United, Roberto Mancini showed that they have surely arrived. Joe Hart has cemented his place as the best goalkeeper in England with eight clean sheets; the defence looks solid under Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and company. David Silva has masterminded the midfield with some skilful and towering work force around. The forward line is led by a certain Sergio Agüero, and in case he has a bad day in office, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli have ensured that a certain Carlos Tevez remains in oblivion. So what does that leave us with? Most number of goals, most number of clean sheets and second best defensive record, maximum number of assists made by any player in the league – what more can one ask for? On a cautious note, in recent encounters they have failed to score against West Bromwich Albion for the first time in the season and have been handed their first defeat of the season in the hands of Sunderland. Yet, they look good money to win the league and create history.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 4th

Final Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

By his own admission, this has been the most difficult time Sir Alex Ferguson has faced in Manchester United for a long time. With the departure of Edwin Van der Sar, a void was created under the bar, which is yet to be attended to. The once dominant pair of Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic is now weary and not getting two games in a row. Injuries have taken their toll throughout the squad. But the biggest problem has been lack of creativity in the central midfield area. All their goal mouth actions have originated from the flanks supplied by Antonio Valencia and Nani. Tom Cleverley had shown glimpses of genius but it remains to be seen how many games he can play at a stretch without getting injured. Phil Jones has used his adaptability well to be slotted across the pitch with Wayne Rooney leading the charge up front. This might not be enough though, to retain their crown.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 1st

Final Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle United

Alan Pardew should be hailed both by the club management and the fans. He has kept a healthy book and has been producing fair results from his limited options on the pitch. With the departure of Andy Carroll, it became difficult to figure out where the goals would come from. In comes Demba Ba who manages to hog the limelight with one of the leading scores of the league, thus far. Similarly, Yohan Cabaye has filled the boots of Kevin Nolan and added a breath of fresh air in the central midfield. Newcastle have a well organized defence. Tim Krul has kept seven clean sheets and is in the running for being Dutch number one in Euro 2012. Ryan Taylor has excelled at the right back position and added a much needed composure in the back line. They are a good side and I am predicting them to leapfrog Liverpool with Suarez being unavailable.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 13th

Final Prediction: 6th

Norwich City 

They were cautioned for engaging in a dogfight but they have taken our breath away with their attacking flair. Their transition from championship football has been rather smooth and rarely have they looked out of place. Norwich have failed to keep a clean sheet throughout the first half of the league but they have been competitive in most of the matches they have played in – only in the hands of Manchester City have they suffered a defeat in excess of a two-goal margin. Not too bad with the going forward either – only thrice have they failed to enter the score sheet. They lie in the sixth spot in goals scored this season. Anthony Pilkington has done well in the right side of midfield, specifically from free kicks. But a bit more consistency would do a world of good for him and his team. Up front, Grant Holt and Steven Morison have been good and Norwich should be enjoying more goals in the rest of the season. They find themselves just outside the top half of the table this time. They should finish around mid-table if they maintain their composure for the rest of the season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 19th

Final Prediction: 14th

Queens Park Rangers

With only four wins to their name, QPR find themselves just above the drop zone. Start to the season looked promising for the Hoops as they found themselves in the top half of the table after 12 games. That was it though as QPR had notched up all of their four wins during this period. Thereafter, they have been able to get only two points out of a possible twenty-one. QPR have certainly lacked goals and their defending has not helped them at all this season, especially during the barren spell, as they have conceded 35 goals and scored just 19. Only Wigan have scored fewer goals (18) than them. Heider Helguson leads the pack with seven goals but all of them have come in a cluster of 10 matches. It means lack of supply from the midfield on a regular basis. Joey Barton is their most creative player and the most unpredictable too. Adel Taarabt seems to have been mentally disturbed by Barton’s arrival and imminent handing over of captaincy – he is a shadow of his last season’s form. Shaun Wright-Phillips is on a downhill slope and may be past his prime. QPR’s defence has been their strength but Neil Warnock has found it difficult to cope with the high standards of EPL. It will be a rough ride from here.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 14th

Final Prediction: 19th

Stoke City

Stoke had a very successful season last year, and there was speculation on whether they would be able to improve on that. They surely have. Stoke have not got a very good goal difference, and their defence is not leak-proof either. But they have managed to obtain results, which matter. They have been hammered a few times, particularly away from home, but have managed to hold on to their one goal advantage, quite a few times. Ryan Shawcross has been a true leader and a stalwart in defence, with six clean sheets. Much of the attacking threats for Stoke came from the midfield in the forms of Jonathon Walters and Matthew Etherington – together they have notched up seven goals and nineteen assists out of a team total of twenty. Up front, Peter Crouch has been isolated too often and that remains a worry for Tony Pulis. Nevertheless, fellow mid-table dwellers, like Everton and Aston Villa, among others look to be struggling and Stoke City can make a fortune out of their misery.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 12th

Final Prediction: 11th

Sunderland

Steve Bruce has become the first managerial casualty of the season. This was not on the cards at the start of the season, but an outcome of two wins in the first thirteen matches was too much to take for the club. Things did get complicated for Sunderland as they were playing with virtually a new set of team members; it took a while, may be a bit more, to set the right combinations and an understanding among the players. Under Martin O’Neill, they have been on a comeback trail, picking up ten points in the following six matches, and in the process becoming the first team to beat Manchester City in the league this season. Defence has been a worry for Sunderland throughout, with some of the big club rejects forming the core of it. But Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon have formed a solid midfield foundation, ably supported by Kieran Richardson. With reportedly some transfer kitty being made available to O’Neill, Sunderland can surely hope to get their good form going and climb up the ladder through a crowded mid-table. A strong finish is on the cards.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 6th

Final Prediction: 8th

Swansea City

Led by a strong showing under the bars by Michel Vorm – which saw him become the best goalkeeper in the league – Swansea City have performed exceedingly well in the first half of the league. Only Chelsea and Manchester City, both at home, have been able to beat the Swans by a margin of three goals or higher. They have some solid foundation at the back while a rejuvenated Scott Sinclair leads the hard working midfield. Only if they can get some goals from the January transfer window, can they make a very respectable mid-table finish. For the time being, I am considering a high mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 18th

Final Prediction: 15th

Tottenham Hotspurs

Team of the season till now! Spurs started the season with the Luka Modric saga, and looked set to get distracted by these off-the-pitch affairs but kudos to Harry Redknapp for getting us to witness some true spirited performance from its players. They had two back-to-back losses at the start of the season against the Manchester clubs but have lost only once since then. Brad Friedel has been a stalwart under the bar and has kept seven clean sheets. Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto have been dominant as fullbacks, both in defence and as an attacking threat. Gareth Bale has continued his last season’s form as a tormentor down the left flank. Rafael Van der Vaart has been superb too, playing as an ideal number 10. Bale and VDV have netted 14 times over and above having 10 assists to their credit. Another midfield marshal has been Scott Parker, the summer signing from West Ham, who has been instrumental in providing the much needed stability to the side. Up front, another summer recruit, Emmanuel Adebayor has been striking gold with nine goals and seven assists to his name. Things look good and a return to Champions League seems imminent.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 9th

Final Prediction: 3rd

West Bromwich Albanion

Summer recruit Shane Long started the season brightly as he scored against both Manchester United and Chelsea in the opening two games of the season. But the Baggies lost their first three games and this has been a stop-start season for them. Keeping a clean sheet against Manchester City has been a high point for their otherwise fragile defence. Their midfield and attack have both been quite unimaginative and have thus resulted in one of the worst returns in the Premier League. Without any good summer signing, they will struggle for the rest of the season but Roy Hodgson may just see them through.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 8th

Final Prediction: 12th

Wigan Athletic

We predicted a wooden spoon for the Latics and are not surprised by their position mid-way through the season. They are poor in defence, midfield and attack – they are poor all over the pitch. They have the least number of goals scored in the season and have won the least number of matches. Any team would fancy their chances against this Roberto Martinez side. It is time to bid adieu to Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 20th

Final Prediction: 20th

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Like Wigan, there is nothing much to write about Wolves. Traditionally, 40 points have been thought as an entry to safe zone. This time round, 35 points seem good enough. With their poor defence, lacklustre attack and no real leader in the field, even getting to that point will be a tough task. Mick McCarthy has to dig deep to find some crucial points in the second leg of the season. Just as he has done before, McCarthy, the shrewd tactician, might target some specific matches to get maximum points and field weaker sides against teams contesting for the European spots. Knowing his prudence makes me give them an outside chance of survival.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 17th

Final Prediction: 17th


Maximus Tacticus – Chelsea

Induction

Chelsea are fast changing. Even by the fast paced standards set by Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of the London club, there is a buzz around that things are changing fast at Chelsea. There is a new coach at the helm of things, Andre Villas-Boas(AVB). AVB, is only a year or two older than the old custodians like John Terry or Frank Lampard, but that has not intimidated AVB from stamping his authority at Stamford Bridge. Here is a look at how things are shaping up at Chelsea on the field.

History Beckons

Jose Mourinho, as the boss of Chelsea did two noteworthy things – he led them to their first league title for over 50 years; and he did not bother to change his boring but effective ways of winning 1-0. The famous 4-3-3 formation had 3 spines in the form of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Times have changed. Old war-horses are no more spring chickens. Many a famous manager has come and gone after the “Special One” but have failed to replicate the same level of success. However, it seems like history is repeating itself as another Portuguese has won 4 titles with Porto and was promptly snapped up by Roman for the managerial post of Chelsea, although he lacks exoerience and is only 33! Incidently he was the understudy to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and then at Inter Milan – and hold on – the 4-3-3 is back.

Each coach has his own interpretation of the system and AVB is no exception. His mentor, Mourinho, used a 4-3-3 formation with classic wingers and asked the wide players to track back forming more of a 4-5-1 without the ball. Villas-Boas is more inclined to use modern-day wingers, or wide forwards, who would drift inside as a major goal scoring threat, themselves. Defensively, Chelsea are set for a more pressing game this season. They have bought in new players, who are younger, and they have the energy to press higher up the pitch. AVB has openly expressed his admiration for Pep Guardiola and it is not strange that he has strong influence of his pressing game, but under this new system, John Terry, the centre half, has been too vulnerable for his own good – the slip leading to Robin van Persie’s 2nd goal during the 3-5 defeat to Chelsea can have a paramount impact on Chelsea’ title claims. Hence, Alex and Ivanovic have a chance to step up and lay claim for that spot. It will be nice selection dilemma for the coach. The pivotal point in attack remains Fernando Torres. Many believe the old system did not suit him as Torres cherishes through balls played along the ground in front of him (a certain Steven Gerrard will second that). Torres thinks it is the lack of pace in Chelsea’s passing that has augmented his poor form.  To counter this problem, AVB has Raul Meireles and Ramires holding the central midfield together along with the ageing (and sloth, some may say) Frank Lampard. Meireles is preferred to guard the ship sitting back, Ramires is seen as the engine of the team bursting forward on every opportunity, while Lampard tries to have telling contribution playing between these two younger players. It is a fluid midfield where anyone can stay back and the other two can advance forward. In the wing, AVB has bought in fresh players – Juan Mata from Valencia (transfer) and Daniel Sturridge from Bolton, after having finished his successful loan stint there. Ashley Cole from the left and Jose Bosingwa from the right flank would burst forward to drag away the opposition full backs. Combine all of these in a short, quick triangle of passes in the final third of the pitch and Everton will validate their ruthlessness in their recent 3-1 defeat.

Good Old Days of 4-3-3

I Have a Plan B

The above system has its fair share of blemishes. Without an able holding midfielder – Michael Essien is on injury list for a while and he is not getting any younger, John Obi Mikel is good at playing square passes only and thus slowing down the pace of the game, Josh McEachran is too young to pitch in a solid performance week in week out – at his disposal, AVB has deployed Meireles at a deeper role. The recruit from Liverpool likes a more advanced role which is occupied by Lampard. Can he be eased out by the new kid, err boss? Early signs suggest that yes, he can. Lampard can be seen more of an impact player, come the business end of the season. FlorentMalouda can be swapped with the young Sturridge if  need be. Didier Drogba – yes, he still is registered with Chelsea – or Nicolas Anelka, can be seen in a fringe role in what seems to be their swansong season. Also, Chelsea traditionally like to play a high defensive line when in possession. With ageing stalwart Terry at the back, it can backfire against teams having a pacy counter attacking option.

Hybrid 3 Forward

That is where AVB would look to reshuffle the pack, as he had done at times in the Champions league game against Valencia. He has a wealth of strikers at his disposal and none better than Drogba to partner Torres up front if Chelsea go with two up front. The midfield will shape up like a standard diamond with the wide players providing the width. The striking feature with this attacking diamond formation is that, both Drogba and Torres can start upfront. A defensive shield is provided in the form of Mikel in front of the defensive duo. AVB likes to play a short, quick and central passing game near the penalty area of opposition box,hence he will be tempted to feature all of Mata, Meireles and Ramires in the first team, even at the cost of earning the wrath of the Lampard faithfuls. Both the “wide” players would look to drift in and cause problem for their markers. The fullbacks will overlap and draw the opposition fullbacks away, thus creating the space. One of Torres and Drogba will time and again sway like a pendulum, drawing one of the centrehalfs towards the sideline while the other will act as the focal point of attack. To break away from shackles, Chelsea can change to a hybrid three man forward line with the likes of Mata, or Sturridge pushing up considerably.

Man to Watch (1) – Juan Mata

Juan Mata, summer recruit from Valencia, is a typical new breed attacking midfield player. He starts on the left hand side of the midfield as suggested in the team sheet, but rarely chalks down the sideline like traditional wingers. He is more prudent in dropping to the “hole”, shifting position with the overlapping sideback, switching to the other flank seamlessly. He is a perfect replacement for the ageing FrankLampard, though they are as similar players as chalk and cheese!Lampard made his mark as a box-to-box industrious midfield player who can contribute 20 goals a season. More importantly, he turned up in almost every game of the season. Mata is more of a creative force, and like every other creative player, is not so eager in tracking back. He loves to create goals and AVB’s short-n-slick passing game perfectly suits this Spanish playmaker. It is like a breath of fresh air – the creativity which Chelsea lacked so dearly for the last 2 seasons.

Mata Settling into England quickly

Man to Watch (2) – David Luiz

David Luiz, 24 year old Brazilian centre half who arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2011 from Benfica. Assured with the ball at his feet, he is a very good passer of the ball. Besides, he reads the game very well and is an ideal ballplayer at the back to kick-start any attack. Often he is instrumental in making bursting runs through the middle and can provide an additional attacking edge. Hailed as the future Chelsea captain, he is slowly but surely taking it over from the old war-horse John Terry. What has been impressive is his link up play. Andre Villas-Boas prefers a short passing game, but Luiz brings in a bit of variety to the attack. Just look at the graphic below – how often he has tried to play a traditional English long ball to the overlapping fullback. Although he has a very poor success rate at that but don’t forget it is his first season and it is a newish set up at Chelsea. With time, he is bound to improve. He has already shown his mettle with the assist to Daniel Sturridge against Bolton. Another glaring feature is that barring these long balls, he has not put a foot wrong – almost 100% accuracy in passing is awesome for a centre half.

David Luiz trying for perfection in Long Balls

Blue Line – Successful Pass

Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass

White Line – Assist

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Debojyoti Chakraborty is a follower of English Premier League and European football. You can reach him at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com

The ‘Nearly Man’

The world is shrinking fast. And the world of football is shrinking faster.

When I started watching football, there was something distinct in the way each national team approached the beautiful game. The Latin Americans were skillful and fast; the English, the Italians and the Germans more organised and less adventurous; the Dutch, the Spanish and the French a bit of both. With every passing year, however, these traits are getting more and more indistinct.

Take Germany, for instance. The players are believed to be big burly lads; their strategy has always revolved around a strong back line. They are supposed to make up for inadequacies with their physical abilities. They are like literal giants in the world of football. If you looked at the current German squad though, none of what I said would make sense.

They are led by one Philipp Lahm who is 5’7”, an elf by German standards. The core of the team consists of relatively diminutive players like Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Mario Götze. Although Germany is playing quite an eye-catching football it has ever played, the nostalgic in me can’t help but miss the way the old Germany played football.

The reason I miss the old German team most is because they taught me that determination and desire to win can override talent. Gone are the days of the burly lads with more determination than natural flair. Gone are the days of the German giants. Gone are the days of players who stood against the sands of time. Gone are the days of Michael Ballack.

In an age where every other German player (and coach) is earning a nickname ending with ‘i’ – Poldi, Schweini, Jogi – Ballack was always ‘Der Capitano’. One cannot help but wonder how misleading the nickname would have been had this been applied to Ballack though. Lacki (lucky) is certainly not how the world will remember Michael Ballack.

In the world of football, particularly in Germany there have been debates and raging arguments whether MB13 should be inducted into the ‘Hall of Germany’s Greatest Footballers’, where the likes of Der Kaiser, Gerd Müller and Lothar Matthäus find their places. His detractors will point out the fact that Germany has not won a World Cup or Euro Championship under him. His followers will point out that football is a team game.

Germany has always been a powerhouse in the world of football. However, crashing out to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final and finishing last in the group stages of Euro 2000 had left the German national team reeling. With no new stars on the horizon and the old guard ageing fast, Germany was facing a crisis it was unaccustomed to.

Into this impasse stepped Michael Ballack.

Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98
Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98

Ballack was not some child prodigy being trained at a huge club, destined to succeed. In fact, it was his humble beginnings that make him all the more inspiring. Having played in the regional third division and second division, he made his way up the ladder and broke through to the national team in 1999.

Ballack would spend the next three seasons with Leverkusen, and the 2001-2002 season leading up to the World Cup 2002 in Asia would be one of near misses for Ballack and “Never-kusen”– a recurring theme for both.

In 2000, Leverkusen had to only earn a draw against Unterhaching on the final day of the season to win the league. They lost the title to Bayern Munich as they were beaten by two goals; one of them being a Michael Ballack own goal. But that didn’t deter Ballack an iota as he went from strength to strength in the coming seasons culminating unfortunately in what is widely known as the ‘Treble Horror’ in 2002.

Ballack rose to prominence through Leverkusen and was instrumental in Leverkusen reaching the finals of the Champions League in 2002 – their only shot at the top European club football honours till date.

Ballack was by then one of the most influential players at Leverkusen who stood five points clear at the top of the league table with only 3 matches to go. They had reached the finals of the Champions League as well as the German Cup. With a treble in sight, however, Leverkusen collapsed spectacularly. They finished second to Borussia Dortmund in the league, to Real Madrid in the Champions League and also to Schalke 04 in the German Cup.

When the 2002 World Cup came around, Ballack was at the heart of the German team. Sans any notable ‘stars’ with the exception of goal-keeper Oliver Kahn and the ageing Oliver Bierhoff, not much was expected from the Germans. However, stars are made at World Cups and Ballack was no exception. He became the engine room of the team, playing box-to-box, winning tackles, creating goals for Miroslav Klose and winning admiration from peers and fans alike.

Germany won the quarter-final against USA 1-0 with Ballack scoring the winner. In the semi-final against the hosts South Korea, Ballack was booked on the 71st minute for a tactical foul on Lee Chun-Soo to stop his team from going behind. Three minutes later it was Ballack who scored the goal that would take Germany through to the final. However, having been booked earlier, Ballack was suspended from the final; the yellow card had put Ballack unceremoniously out of the game and he had to watch Germany come second to Brazil.

Several big clubs including Real Madrid showed interest in acquiring Ballack’s services at this juncture and Ballack finally signed for Bayern Munich which turned out to be a very profitable venture for both the club and player. Ballack would go on to score forty-four goals in 107 appearances for Bayern. Bayern would go on to win the Bundesliga title in three of the four seasons when Ballack was involved; add to those three DFB-Pokals in that period.

On the international front, however, the picture was bleak for Germany. Euro 2004 was a disappointment as they crashed out again from the group stages. Ballack’s fierce left foot volley against Czech Republic, however, was one of the highlights of an otherwise rather dull Euro. Ballack was named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament. He was the only German to feature in the team, and the only player to feature in the team despite not playing in the knock-out stages.

The Euro 2004 debacle, prompted changes. Coach Rudi Voller was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann and Ballack was made captain of the German National Team. And he led by example. It was as if he was born to be captain – a natural leader who gave his all for his country and expected nothing less from his compatriots.

Ballack had the immense honour of leading his team on home soil in the 2006 World Cup. Germany was in transition now, with the likes of Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger ably supporting the captain. Germany made it to the semi-finals of the tournament. However, it turned out to be a heart-breaking match for the German loyals. Italy scored in the 119th and 121st (120+1) minute of the tie to progress into the finals. Germany eventually finished third. Ballack was again named in Team of the Tournament.

After four successful seasons with Bayern during which he had won 3 “German Player of the Year” awards, he had little left to achieve in Germany, domestically. With his sights set on the UEFA Champions League, Ballack chose Chelsea as his home for the next four years. Although many feel that Ballack was the shadow of the player at Bayern, the Chelsea faithful feel differently. How else can you explain the rousing reception he received at Stamford Bridge when he went there to play for Leverkusen in the Champions League last month?

It is true that Ballack did not replicate his goal-scoring record with Bayern or Germany at Chelsea. That is to be expected, however, with Frank Lampard being given the more attacking role. Ballack had selflessly filled in the more defensive roles, as the situation demanded.

During his second season at Chelsea, Ballack was out of action for eight months due to a career threatening ankle injury. While in rehabilitation, Ballack saw things getting very messy at the club. Jose Mourinho was sacked, enraging the players. Captain and stalwart, John Terry was out injured. Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Salomon Kalou would go away shortly to play in the African Cup of Nations. Manchester United held a healthy lead at the top of the table.

It was Boxing Day. Aston Villa was the opponent at Stamford Bridge who took a surprise 2-0 lead midway through the first half. And when Lampard limped off, injured, it looked like the 71 game unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge was going to come to a crashing halt. Lampard was replaced by Ballack, back from oblivion, playing in the Premier League for the first time in eight months, though he looked as if he had never been away.

Just before the half-time break, Ballack went into the box with one of his trademark runs and won a penalty for his side. Andriy Shevchenko put it away. Chelsea went into the half-time break thinking they could still get something out of this. Flash forward to the fag-end of the game with the score tied at 3-3. Chelsea won a free kick just outside the box and it was time for the German to step up to the plate. He drilled it in the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. One of the commentators said, “He takes free-kicks like penalties and penalties like a German.

The game would, however, end at 4-4 with Ashley Cole sent off in stoppage time. But it was a sign of things to come. Ballack went from strength to strength as the season progressed towards a rip-roaring climax. Ballack was brilliant in this period for Chelsea, scoring vital goals in the EPL as well as the Champions League.

Then came the match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Frank Lampard would be missing again, having lost his mother in the week. Ballack would go on to score twice in the emotionally charged match of high stakes. Chelsea would go on to win 2-1 to set up a cracking finale to the season.

Chelsea finished second on the last day of the Premier League. They lost on penalties to Manchester United in Moscow in the Champions League final. Germany lost to Spain 1-0 that summer in the final of the Euro 2008 championships with Ballack, not surprisingly, having scored the winner against Portugal in the semi-final. So you see, Ballack is not known as the ‘nearly man’ for nothing.

As his rather illustrious career seems to have run its course with Joachim Löw shrugging him out of the national team and with him playing again in a bits-and-pieces role at Bayer Leverkusen, chances are that Ballack will end his career without an international trophy to his name. He may be the only player in the history of football to have won silver in the World Cup, Euro Championships and the UEFA Champions League without winning any of the gold. He has, however, won 6 domestic trophies with Bayern Munich in his four-year stint at the club.

Ballack was the Rolls-Royce of any team for which he played; low on noise; high on efficiency. Still there was always a maddening quiet about him. A man who gave his all for Germany, who epitomized German football when it was struggling for identity, surely deserved more than what he finally got.

Many believe that Ballack should have accepted the offer to play his farewell game against Brazil; that he was being too much of an egoist. What they do not understand is that “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress”, Michael Ballack’s ego was surely the fountainhead of the German national team’s progress in a period when Germany was destined to lose itself in the doldrums.

Year of Reckoning – Manchester United & Chelsea

Manchester United and Chelsea have been winning the Barclays Premier League between them for last half decade. This season too they are expected to challenge each other for the title right down to the wire. Both clubs have made significant changes to their set up in terms of players or coaching personnel. What do the fans of these clubs think their prospects this season? We find out.

Manchester United – Looking Forward

So here we are, barely 2 months after the mauling in the Champions League final by Barcelona, Manchester United is barely a week away from starting another season at the Hawthorns against West Bromwich Albion (WBA). The wheel never stops turning; yesterday’s success and failures are quickly forgotten and there are new challenges to meet in the future. The nine point difference with
which United won the title is a thing of the past.
The atrocious away record and the jaw-dropping home record are seen as history. In the most of cynical of industries, yesterday’s

failures and glories are cast aside. The painful episode of Wayne Rooney’s October Revolution is quickly forgotten and the terraces are again singing his songs.
The new season, in contrast, brings innocent hope and aspirations that culminates in the kick-off at Hawthorns against WBA, and hopefully for Sir Alex, one of the many away victories in the coming season.

The Squad: A Fresh Look

The new season is also marked by a youthful feeling to United’s squad. In the summer, Sir Alex has spent more heavily than recent years and overseen a huge turnover in the squad, more than any other season under the old fox’s watch. The new look United squad is partly due to retirements of Edwin Van Der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes and the release of Owen Hargreaves (after 3 years of false hope).
Out go long-serving United players, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Both became surplus to requirements after the emergence of the Da Silva twins, Chris Smalling and the addition of Phil Jones sealed their fate.
Goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, now also surplus with Anders Lindegaard being fit and Darron Gibson are certain to be sold before the transfer window shuts. Mame Biram Diouf will also be sold if the club finds a suitable buyer for the Senegalese striker who has failed to impress in his stay in English Football.
Interestingly, the sale of six senior pros has released around 20 Million Pounds of wages/a year from the Old Trafford. This, more than the raw cash in the banks from the Christiano

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Ronaldo sale and payment received from the AON shirt sponsorship deal, has enabled Sir Alex to spend heavily this summer.
In have come three players with age in their side; typical Glazeronomics (Infuriating for some fans, it means players with a good resale value), the cynics will say.
specialist and Young brings in the promise of good deliveries in the box from corners and free-kicks. But it is difficult to see him as anything but a back-up to Nani and Antonio Valencia. There is a concern that Young offers nothing new but another wing option and improves the quality of the squad rather than the first team. Meanwhile returning from loans Danny Welback,
In David De Gea, Sir Alex has bought a ‘keeper who has genuine promise of becoming the best in the position. But the Spanish Stopper is not there yet. He is young
and talented but there will be mistakes and the United management should be patient with the shot-stopper. It is a very bold acquisition nonetheless. In Phil Jones, Sir Alex has signed a future England star, team leader and a flexible defensive option. There is little doubt that Sir Alex would have liked to wait one more season with this signing, but as before with Rooney and Smalling, United was forced into action with interests from other clubs. Finding enough playing time for the 16 Million Pound acquisition will be one of Sir Alex’s key concerns in the coming season. Then, there is the acquisition of Ashely Young. This signing has divided opinion within fans and pundits alike. No doubt Young offers flexibility in attack in various positions. In the 7 years since David Beckham’s departure, United has lacked a good dead ball Tom Cleverley and Federico Macheda adds a youthful vigor to United’s squad. Each has enjoyed some amount of success in United’s pre-season tour to the US.
Two key areas in United’s squad haven’t been addressed, till now. United lack a genuine creative midfielder and a midfield destroyer who carries the team through difficult phases of a match. The failure to land any of the one from Luca Modric, Wesley Sneijder or Samir Nasri or for that matter any creative midfielder is a concern with the United squad.
Then there is the inexplicable failure to replace Owen Hargreaves, leaving Michael Carrick to do the defensive duties in the center of the park, which he clearly doesn’t relish. With Darren Fletcher’s fitness problems, Sir Alex’s scouting network will be on a high alert for any options opening up.
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The 2011-12 Season: Looking Forward

Premier League

Domestically United’s pre-eminence was sealed in a superbly professional fashion at the end of the campaign. The nine point gap did not really tell the whole story of the campaign but arguably United were worthy winners at the end. Changes have taken place in the summer that alters the dynamics of the coming season but United are still in a strong position to defend their domestic crown.
The main challengers to United for the title this season are Chelsea, City and Arsenal. Chelsea has appointed a new manager, again, in 33 year old Andre Villas Boas. He might be a bit inexperienced at the top level but last season he has overseen a treble wining campaign at Porto so he has enjoyed success. Chelsea’s chances will depend a lot on how quickly Villas Boas can impose his style of management on the ageing Chelsea squad, can he make Fernando Torres rediscover his form and make the Drogba-Torres partnership work? These are questions to ponder about.
Roberto Mancini has assembled a fantastic squad, at Manchester City, that can seriously challenge for the title and in Sergio Aguero they have added some star dust to the City squad. Whether Tevez stays or not, City has some frightening attacking options in Aguero, Balotelli, David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Adam Johnson.
Arsenal’s pre-season has been dogged by the annual Barca-Fabregas saga and to add to that

Samir Nasri’s contractual problems. A lot will depend on what squad Arsenal will finally end up with after 31st August. They need a quality central defender and have been linked with Christopher Samba and Phil Jagielka.
As discussed earlier, United has assembled a good but a relatively young squad for the season that seems good enough to defend the Premier League Title. The back-lined and the strike-force were United’s strength and it will remain that way for this season too. At the back Van Der Sar (VDS), Neviile, Brown and O’Shea have left the club but in Jones, Smalling, Evans and the Da Silva twins, United have good young defenders to call upon in addition to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand’s experience. In the goalkeeping department de Gea has been signed to fill the boots of VDS. He is young but very good prospect for the future. A lot will depend on how quickly he can build the understanding between the defenders.
The strike-force of United comprises Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatove, Michael Owen, Danny Welback and Kiko Macheda. A good mix of experience and youth in the department will allow United to rotate according to the needs. Hernandez had a stellar debut season, scoring 20 goals in all competitions last season. He and Rooney formed a deadly partnership in front of goal at the fag-end of last season. Rooney on the other hand had a topsy-turvy season. He had a horrendous start to the season, where he looked lost and out of form and touch; then occured the ‘October Revolution’ and the events that followed. In the last 2-3 months of
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the season he found his form back and formed that deadly partnership with Hernanded and started influencing games by playing in the ‘hole’ between the striker and the midfield. Rooney has looked very sharp in the pre-season and looks all set to have a big season for United both as a scorer and creator .Dimitar Berbatove had an unusual season. He carried the team during Rooney’s bad patch and was the joint top scorer in the Premier League with 21 goals. But his form and place to Hernandez in the lst 3 months of the season and couldn’t really influence games in where he started. The crushing blow came when he was not in the playing squad for the Champions League final and in his place Michael Owen was picked. That brings us the Owen, who made enough appearances to win his first Premier League medal but rarely played too many minutes to have any kind of influence. Danny Welback is coming back from a successful loan stint from Sunderland and hopes to make his mark at United and Macheda had a horrendous loan experience at Sampdoria where he a scored a solitary goal and the team was relegated from Serie A.
With Hernadez out for 2-3 weeks with an injury Rooney and Welback might form the partnership upfront with support from Berbatov and Owen. How Welback can get into the groove early in the season and form a reasonable partnership with Rooney, will be something to watch out for. Berbatov has lost his place in the starting 11 but how he reacts to the whole situation will be something that will intrigue some of his fans. Can he force his way back to the starting berth??

Champions League:

The real test of United’s progress or otherwise this summer will come in Europe. The humiliation at Barca’s hand, last May, is not forgotten easily and the intention-as stated by Sir Alex- is to match the Catalans. In reality United has done nothing in the summer to close the gap on Pep Guardiola’s brilliant side. This despite United friendly win against the under-cooked Catalans at Washington in the pre-season tour. Barca on the other hand has added the brilliant Alexis Sanchez and may add Cesc Fabregas by the end of the transfer window. In fact they have already added quality to an already brilliant side.
There is no guarantee United might emulate last season final run, let alone winning trophy. Real Madrid has done smart business with the addition of Nuri Sahin, a deep lying creative force, Raphale Varane, a youthful defensive addition, Fabio Coentrao will solved Madrid’s problem at left back and Hamid Altintop will provide experience in the middle of the park.
Inter’s probable retention of Sneijder, and possible recruitment of Tevez, will boost the Italians’ hopes. Gian Piero Gasperini’s old-fashioned looking 3-4-3 formation will certainly take some opposition by surprise over the next few months.
Meanwhile, 2010 finalists Bayern may well be dark-horses for a decent run in the competition following turmoil at the Allianz Arena last season. Gone is confrontational Dutchman Luis van Gaal, replaced by veteran coach Jupp Heynckes along with sensible summer

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recruitment in Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng.

Cup Competitions:

Domestic cup competitions will again be used by Ferguson to blood youngsters and ensure fringe squad members gain minutes on the pitch. Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Macheda and Welbeck should all feature heavily. Many supporters will also look out for members of the FA Youth Cup winning squad – notably Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison – each of whom should play some part in United’s Carling Cup campaign.
In fact youth may be the theme of United’s

season, with the average age of Ferguson’s squad somewhat lower than a year ago. With it comes vibrancy but also the potential for error. How much United has lost with experienced departures may only be felt in the closing weeks of the coming season. The progression of younger players in lieu of genuine world stars – especially in central midfield – may be the key to United’s success or failure in the coming months.
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Krishnendu Sanyal is a Manchester United fan and worships Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane. Krish is a management grad by education and an accidental entrepreneur by occupation. He can be reached on twitter @kriacked
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Chelsea – Challenging the Champions

“YOU ARE FIRED”-the last words that Carlo Ancelotti would get to hear from the Chelsea boss, Roman Abramovich, after an unsuccessful attempt to either retain the Premier League crown or bring European glory to Stamford Bridge. He was the fifth manager since 2003 to be shown the door by the most impatient club owner ever known to English Football. It’s been over two months since the 2010-11 Premier League season ended, but the Stamford Bridge faithful is still finding it very difficult to cope with the disappointment of a trophy-less season. The 2011-12 soccer calendar is due to kick off in a few days and everyone around Chelsea is once again eager and desperate to win all that’s available and shout at the top of their voice, “We are the Champions”.

Flashback: What went amiss?

The defending champions of the 2010-11 EPL campaign started their title defense with style. They were mauling their opponents with ease

off a possible thirty with an impressive score of 27 goals, conceding only 3. Chelsea opened a healthy convincing lead and was breaking away from its challengers. What happened from November to the first week of January was really baffling. During this period, Chelsea played 11 times and managed only 2 wins with 5 losses and 4 draws. They scored 9 times and let in 16 goals. Injuries to key players during these two months proved disastrous and exposed a serious lack of bench strength. Ancelotti could not find able replacements for injury stricken Lampard, Essian, Drogba, Terry, Alex, Zhirkov, Benayoun and Ivanovic.
When football is played at the highest level, injuries cannot be accepted as a reason for failure. The failure of Ancelotti to nurture young players as well as providing sufficient match time to other players in the squad was quite apparent. Playing the same 15-16 players day after day risks injuries to these players and also affects the player morale of the remaining players in the squad. As a result, when the manager needed these players to deliver him the result during Nov-Dec-Jan, they simply were not able to respond. This phase in the
through attractive and effective football. Chelsea was looking like a well oiled, lethal winning machine, steam rolling anyone on their way and scoring at their will. The first ten encounters saw them winning eight games with only a draw and a loss. 25 points were scored Championship run simply cost Chelsea the title and Ancelotti his job. Interestingly the departure of Ray Wilkins, the first team coach, at the start of November coincided with the beginning of the great Chelsea slide. The controversial departure of a much respected
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coaching staff from the Chelsea ranks may have unsettled the team as well. Trying to bring back Chelsea to its winning ways, a desperate Abramovich opened the coffers and bought David Luiz and forced a deal for Fernando Torres, breaking the club transfer record in the January transfer window. From January onwards Chelsea made a strong comeback with most of the injured players back in the squad, but it was too little too late. David Luiz immediately made a mark with his good performances throughout the latter half of the season. Fernando Torres though, was the biggest disappointment. Ancelotti failed to make Torres and Drogba come to terms with each other. Torres lacked the sharpness in front of the goal and could finally score after 10 games.

Throughout the season the performance of the team against the top six clubs was also disappointing. They could only manage four wins, two draws and six losses against the top half teams of (1) Manchester United, (3) Manchester City, (4) Arsenal, (5) Tottenham, (6) Liverpool and (7) Everton. The away record was even more dismal with out a single win. The team defending the championship could only salvage 7 wins, 5 draws and 7 losses from away fixtures. The Champions League Quarter Final
loss against Manchester United and the FA Cup exit against Everton were the final nails in the coffin.

The New Era: Andre Villas Boas comes to Chelsea


The unprecedented success achieved by Andre Villas Boas at such a young age with FC Porto brought him to everyone’s attention. The stunning European and domestic performance of Porto was unanimously attributed to the ruthless but measured attacking style of football masterminded by Andre Villas Boas. He was delivering the result with attractive football and won almost everything possible. The vacant top job at Stamford Bridge was up for grabs, and finally Roman Abramovich made his move with a record breaking £13.3 million offer. On June 22, Andre Villas Boas was presented as the Manager of Chelsea. In his first press-conference he made it absolutely clear that he was not going to make any hasty decisions. He was not going to storm the transfer market and make unwanted purchases without understanding the current squad. He reiterated

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that managing Chelsea is not a one-man job and stressed that he always relied on his back room staff. He called himself “The Group One”, confidently shrugging off the comparisons made with his mentor, Jose Mourinho and refused the title “The Special One V2”. The Chelsea fans could finally sense stability and calmness in the days ahead. His previous stint in Chelsea as a deputy to the Special One, Jose Mourinho, and his fluency in English was a big advantage. Villas Boas seemed the perfect person to manage Chelsea. His infectious love for the game and the ability to make each and every member of the squad feel needed and important was felt by everyone. Villas Boas’ strength is his ability to study each and every opposition player to the minutest details and decide on match strategies likewise.
The Portuguese League is not the strongest of the Football Leagues. The 15 team League is a two horse race with Benfica, the traditional challenger. One can argue that his total of two years experience in professional coaching and management is a concern. His philosophy of playing attacking football irrespective of any match situation is truly unique and brave. But in a highly competitive league like the EPL with four or five teams breathing down the neck, this strategy may backfire. Sometimes he may have to preserve a lead against strong teams and play deep.
However the Europa League performance of FC Porto gives the Chelsea fans a lot of hope. The performance of FC Porto during this tournament showed his maturity and adaptability during a match. The stunning revival against Villarreal, after conceding early goals and the
measured approach against Braga’s solid midfield in the Europa League Final shows a lot of character.

The 2011-12 Premier League Season: Charging ahead

Andre Villas Boas started the Chelsea calendar with a few warm-up Pre-Season matches. The first few matches against Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth and Malaysia XI were not impressive at all. They were jittery throughout the match, failed to create proper chances in front of the goal and the shooting in front of the goal lacked sharpness. This was not the kind of start Villas Boas was looking for. Finally in the later matches against Thailand XI, Kitchee and Aston Villa in the promotional Barclays Asia Trophy, Chelsea could make a mark. The team was beginning to take shape. In the final pre-season friendly against Rangers, Chelsea had appeared to be in shape.
The reluctance shown by Chelsea in the transfer market to buy established players confirmed what Andre Villas Boas was saying all along. He was counting on the existing squad to deliver him the results. The presence of a lot of 16-18-20 year olds in the pre-season friendlies made it clear that he is keen to nurture young talents and bring young legs to the already ageing squad. He wants to build a squad for the future. The only summer transfer purchase was of Romelu Lukaku (FW), Thibaut Courtois (GK), Oriol Romeu (MF) and Lucas Piazon (MF). On the other hand, he sold out Yuri Zhirkov and Michael Mancienne, amongst a host of other players.

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In almost all the pre-season matches, Villas Boas stuck to a classical 4-3-3 formation with a holding defensive midfielder staying a little deep and providing the link between the defense and the midfield. He heavily relied on Joshua McEachran for this position. The 18 year old was impressive during the matches. The calmness and composure shown by him at this position is truly remarkable. John Obi Mikel, the other contender for this position will face some stiff competition for a first team place from this 18 yr old kid. The central defensive line was formed by John Terry, Ivanovic and Alex since David Luiz was injured during these friendlies. The left wing belongs to its rightful owner, Ashley Cole who is extremely reliable in his defensive positions and quite potent
in overlapping during an offensive move. For the right back position, Paulo Ferriera is a better defender but Jose Bosingwa is much more effective during an attacking move. A fit David Luiz will have the defence in a better organized and effective formation with Ivanovic taking the right back position with John Terry and David Luiz controlling the central defence. Frank Lampard is the playmaker in the Central Midfield. The injury to Essien at the beginning of the season has more or less confirmed Ramires as the player alongside Lampard in the midfield. Ramires’ ability to provide a sudden accelerating and penetrating run in the opposing defense with Frank Lampard following behind with his stealthy late run-in the box can be menacing for the defending team. The final three positions look promising. The kind of players available with Villas Boas gives him the freedom to try out different formations. The pre-season matches saw Fernando Torres team up with Solomon Kalou on the left and Sturridge on the right. Sturridge was the stand out performer providing support to Torres and also making defense splitting runs to trouble the markers. Fernando Torres is still a big let down and a worry for the team. His off-the-ball movement, swift turns and first touch is still very good, but he lacks that final shot on the goal. Didier Drogba is still the player to vouch for. His physical presence ahead of the formation creates opportunities for the other two attacking players as well. His ability to play swift passes with the wingers creates more chances in front of the goal, and the goalkeepers still find his snap-shooting difficult to block. When Drogba is on the field, Villas Boas can also look for Anelka, Malouda or Kalou
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on either side of him. The match against Rangers saw how effective the formation Sturridge-Drogba-Kalou can be. While defending, Chelsea prefers a 1-4-1-4 formation. The two attacking players from the wings join the two midfielders to make the middle line with the defensive midfielder dropping between the back four and the midfield. The middle pressing starts with Ramires leading the charge with Lampard following close behind from the left and Kalou from the right. McEachran / Mikel generally stay deep and provide support and fills in the free spaces when attacked round the wings. They are also in a position to support the central defenders when overwhelmed by a strong attacking combination.

The 2011-12 Premier League title challenge begins

Chelsea’s challenge for the 2011-12 Premier League totle begins with an away fixture at Stoke on 14th August. Andre Villas Boas has already managed to put together a team capable of challenging the defending champions, Manchester United. The stability that he has brought to this club with his measured approach will be put to test against other big teams of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City through out the championship race. A combination of young legs and experience is available to Andre Villas Boas to bring Chelsea success with style. Beware; Chelsea will be back with a vengeance.
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Tamal Kanti Santra loves Spanish football and is a die-hard Brazil fan. He is an amateur writer taking keen interest on the technical aspect of the game. You can follow Tamal on twitter @Tamal_Santra

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English Premier League 2011-12 – A Preview

Arsenal FC

Nickname: The Gunners
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Stadium: Emirates Stadium
Last season’s league position: 4th
Final Verdict: 5th

Players In

Players Out

Gervinho (Lille, £10.6 million), Francis Coquelin (Lorient), Pedro Botelho (FC Cartagena), Armand Traoré (Juventus), Carl Jenkinson (Charlton, £990k), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton, £12.14 million) Jens Lehmann (End of career), Mark Randall (Chesterfield, free transfer), Gaël Clichy (Man City, £6.82 million), Denílson (São Paulo), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Ipswich, £1.1 million), Pedro Botelho (Rayo Vallecano)
Season’s predictions:When Arsene Wenger took over the North London club, fans were clamouring for more attacking football. “One-nil to the Arsenal” was the chant of the day, but the fans wanted more. 15 years on and Arsenal play some of the most attractive football in the Premier League, but, crucially, it doesn’t quite get the job done. Arsenal conceded the highest percentage of goals from set pieces last term, and this will have to be corrected in order for them to get back to challenging for the title once more. The seemingly never-ending transfer saga of club captain Cesc Fabregas, and the results of the dissatisfaction of Samir Nasri will also go a long way to deciding how strong a challenge the Londoners can mount this season. Signing a strong, commanding centre-back like Robert Huth (Stoke City) or Christopher Samba (Blackburn Rovers) that takes no prisoners would help immensely. Look for Arsene to avoid signing one of those types, and for Arsenal to flatter early, but fade away by February-March. Top 4 finish will be a struggle this season.

Aston Villa

Nickname: Villains
Manager: Alex McLeish
Stadium: Villa Park
Last season’s league position: 9th
Final Verdict: 10th

Players In

Players Out

Shay Given (Manchester City, £3.5m), Charles N’zogbia (Wigan Athletic, £9.5m) Stewart Downing(Liverpool, £20), Ashley Young (Manchester United, £16m), Brad Friedel(Tottenham, free), Nigel Reo-Coker(released), John Carew (released),Moustapha Salifou (released), Robert Pires (released), Isaiah Osbourne(released), Harry Forrester (released), Arsenio Halfhuid (released).
Season’s predictions:After a rocky start last season, due to the departure of Martin O’Neill, Villa did well to finish the season in the top half. Having lost two of their key players, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, the Villains will do well to equal or better their accomplishments last season. New manager Alex McLeish will instill some defensive cohesion so look for Aston Villa to build from the back this season. Having crossed the divide in England’s 2nd city only 2 months ago, McLeish will also have to work hard to win over the fans. His every mistake will be scrutinized intensely. Top half finish will be difficult, look for Villa to finish between 10th and 12th.

Blackburn Rovers

Nickname: Rovers
Manager: Steve Kean
Stadium: Ewood Park
Last season’s league position: 15th
Final Verdict: 15th

Players In

Players Out

David Goodwillie (Dundee United, £2m), Tom Hitchcock (Blackburn Rovers U18), Radosav Petrovic (Partizan, £ 2 million) Phil Jones(Manchester United, £16.5 million),Frank Fielding (Derby, £400k), Jordan Bowen (released), Jason Brown (released), Zurab Khizanishvili(released), Maceo Rigters (released), Michael Potts (released), Benjani Mwarurawi (released), Aaron Doran (Inverness Cal.), Michael Potts (York City, released), Zurab Khizanishvili (Kayserispor, released), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04)
Season’s predictions:Steve Kean will have a lot to live up to in his first full season in charge of Blackburn Rovers. He claims his team has what it takes – backed in no small part by their money-laden Indian owners – to reach the hallowed regions of the Champions League qualification spots in 4 years. He will have to do it without Phil Jones, sold to Manchester United for a hearty 16.5 million pounds. And might have to do it without the services of Christopher Samba as well, who is a target of Arsenal. With misfit Senegalese forward, El Hadji Diouf still AWOL, Kean will have a big decision to make even if the talented frontman returns. Narrowly avoiding relegation only on the last day of last season, Blackburn will be lucky if they can better their accomplishment of 15th next season.

Bolton Wanderers

Nickname: Trotters
Manager: Owen Coyle
Stadium: Reebok Stadium
Last season’s league position: 14th
Final Verdict: 16th

Players In

Players Out

Nigel Reo-Coker (Aston Villa, free transfer), Darren Pratley (Swansea, free transfer), Tyrone Mears (Burnley, £ 1.5 million), Chris Eagles (Burnley, £ 1.5 million) Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, released), Jlloyd Samuel (released), Joey O’Brien (West Ham, released), Ali Al-Habsi (Wigan, £ 3.8 million), Danny Ward (Huddersfield, £ 110k), Matthew Taylor (West Ham, £ 2.2 million), Sam Sheridan (Stockport, released), Tamir Cohen (Maccabi Haifa, released)
Season’s predictions:The wanderers should have done a lot better last season than their 14th position concluded. They were often a very entertaining, yet solid team. Owen Coyle’s style of passing the ball along the turf took some time to get going, considering where Bolton’s tendencies were coming from. The loss of on-loan star Daniel Sturridge will reduce the attacking flair somewhat, and therefore it will be difficult for Bolton to consolidate a good first season under Coyle, and push on for a top half finish.

Chelsea

Nickname: The Blues
Manager: Andre Villas-Boas
Stadium: Stamford Bridge
Last season’s league position: 2nd
Final Verdict: 4th

Players In

Players Out

Thibaut Courtois (£7.8m, Genk), Lucas Piazón (São Paulo Futebol Clube B, £ 6.6 million), Sam Walker (Northampton), Slobodan Rajkovic (Vitesse), Matej Delac (Vitesse), Oriol Romeu (Barcelona B, £ 4.4 million), Romelu Lukaku (RSC Anderlecht, £ 19.36 million) Jack Cork (Southampton, £740k), Michael Mancienne (Hamburg, £2.2m), Jacopo Sala (Hamburg, undisclosed), Gokhan Tore (Hamburg, undisclosed), Sam Hutchinson(released), Carl Magnay (released), Jan Sebek (released), Danny Philliskirk (released), Jeffrey Bruma(Hamburg, two-season loan), Sam Walker (Northampton Town, loan), Fabio Borini (Parma), Nemanja Matic (Benfica Lissab., £ 4.4 million), Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid, loan), Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi, £ 13.2 million)
Season’s predictions:The end of another season, and the end of another manager’s reign at Roman Abramovich’s favourite boardgame. Andre Vilas-Boas steps in, fresh from leading Porto to the treble of the League, Portuguese Cup and Europa League Titles; much like his former mentor and boss, Jose Mourinho. It would seem like the script is written for Vilas-Boas, as he’s almost mirrored the movements of the ‘Special One’ in moving from success at Porto to uncertainty at Chelsea. On paper, Vilas-Boas fits the bill to herald a similar sort of renaissance to Chelsea as the man who will likely be his greatest challenger in his first season, Sir Alex Ferguson. The question on everyone’s lips is: will he be allowed the time to prove his worth? Should Vilas-Boas find a way to release the pent-up goal scoring frustrations of Fernando Torres, and mastermind a way to have the Spaniard fit into a team and system that didn’t necessarily need his services, Chelsea could well be on their way to success. AVB is likely to have Chelsea battling with Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City for the title this season.

Everton FC

Nickname: The Toffees
Manager: David Moyes
Stadium: Goodison Park
Last season’s league position: 7th
Final Verdict: 7th

Players In

Players Out

Eric Dier (Sporting, loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), Ross Barkley (Everton Res.) James Vaughan(Norwich, £2m), Kieran Agard(released), Hope Akpan (released), Luke Dobie (released), Iain Turner(released), Nathan Craig (released),Gerard Kinsella (released), Lee McArdle (released), John Nolan (Stockport County, free)
Season’s predictions:Arsene Wenger is known to be a shrewd economist, but surely David Moyes is the best manager around at doing a lot with nothing. Everton consistently have no money to use in the transfer market, yet they tend to always pack quite a punch. Should the injury bug avoid the Toffees’ dressing room for the most part this season, Everton are more than capable of snatching a European spot come May 2012. Key players like Louis Saha, Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta and Leighton Baines all have to remain fit for the Toffees to remain in contention for European spots. Known to be notoriously slow starters, watch out for Everton getting it right from early and becoming a major threat to those seeking European births from as early as August. Top 7 finish may not seem likely, but surely the worst of their injuries are past them.

Fulham FC

Nickname: The Cottagers
Manager: Martin Jol
Stadium: Craven Cottage
Last season’s league position: 8th
Final Verdict: 11th

Players In

Players Out

Dan Burn (Darlington, undisclosed), David Stockdale (Ipswich), Csaba Somogyi (Rakospalotai EAC, undisclosed),John Arne Riise (Roma, £2.46m), Marcel Gecov (Slovan Liberec, £704k), Pajtim Kasami (Palermo, £3.3m) Zoltan Gera (released), Diomansy Kamara (released), John Pantsil (released), Eddie Johnson (released), Matthew Saunders (released), David Stockdale (Ipswich, loan), Jonathan Greening (Nottm Forest, £ 616k), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace, £590k)
Season’s predictions:Attack! Attack! Attack! Fulham’s new manager, Martin Jol, is well known in the Premier League and tends to prefer attack to defence. Fulham already have a solid core of Hangeland, Dempsey and Danny Murphy. Even if the former Merseyside Red is on the wane of his career, he may still fit enough for one last hurrah. The return of Bobby Zamora to the side will seem like a new signing, and if the big England man can reclaim the form he showed in the 09-10 season, Fulham should be able to find themselves somewhere between 9th and 11th this season.

Liverpool

Nickname: The Reds
Manager: Kenny Dalglish
Stadium: Anfield
Last season’s league position: 6th
Final Verdict: 3rd

Players In

Players Out

Stewart Downing (Aston Villa, £20m), Jordan Henderson (Sunderland, £15.84 million), Charlie Adam (Blackpool, £7.40 million), Alexander Doni (Roma, free transfer) Jason Banton (released), Deale Chamberlain (released), Douglas Cooper (released), Sean Highdale (released), Steven Irwin (released), Nikola Saric (released), Paul Konchesky(Leicester City, £1.5m), Stephen Darby (Rochdale, loan), Péter Gulácsi (Hull, loan), Thomas Ince (Blackpool, £ 57k), Milan Jovanovic (RSC Anderlecht, £ 704k)
Season’s predictions:He huffed, and he puffed, and he blew their house down. Sir Alex Ferguson accomplished his self-assigned goal of ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch’ by claiming a 19th title and sitting atop the list of English League title winners. However, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. King Kenny will be into his second season of attempting to break Liverpool’s jinx and carry the Kop to a league title for the first time since 1990. Having sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea in January for a whopping 50 million pounds, and replaced him with Andy Carroll (35 million) and Luis Suarez (22.8 million), Dalglish began constructing a new-look forward line which he hopes will help to bring the glory days back to the Kop. Following on those January moves, Liverpool have already brought in Jordan Henderson (Sunderland), Charlie Adam (Blackpool) and Stewart Downing (Aston Villa) to provide more youth, vision and width respectively. Dalglish will need more time to complete the rebuilding process, but perhaps the removal of the crown of being England’s most successful team will lift a weight off the players’ shoulders and allow them to play with more freedom and less pressure. Look for Liverpool to battle it out with Manchester City and Chelsea for spots behind Manchester United.

Manchester City

Nickname: The Citizens
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Stadium: City of Machester Stadium
Last season’s league position: 3rd
Final Verdict: 2nd

Players In

Players Out

Stefan Savic (Partizan Belgrade, £10.5), Gael Clichy (Arsenal, £7 million), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, £39.6 million), Costel Pantilimon (Poli. Timisoara, £5.72 million) Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich, £11.8m), Shay Given (Aston Villa, £3.3 million) Patrick Vieira (end of career), Shaleum Logan (Brentford, released), Scott Kay (Macclesfield, released), Andrew Tutte (Rochdale, released), David Gonzalez (Aberdeen, loan), James Poole (Hartpool, released), Jo (Internacional), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, loan)
Season’s predictions:Manchester City has a lot of expectations to live up to in their first season in the Champions League. Having piped Arsenal for 3rd last season, they avoid the tricky playoff games and step directly into the CL Group Stage Draw. In addition to this 1st bite of the Champions League cherry, City’s fans will be hoping for continued improvement on their league position, and hence a challenge for the title. They certainly have the money to back any of those ambitions. And having already brought in Sergio Aguero for a club record 39.6million pounds, there’s speculation they could still acquire Samir Nasri from Arsenal to bolster an already bulging attacking lineup. Can they avoid a letdown after their first successful season in 34 years? The ongoing Carlos Tevez Saga as well as the turbulent nature of Mario Balotelli is not helping their pre-season preparations. But, do expect them to battle it out with Chelsea and Liverpool for the challenger spots to Manchester United.

Manchester United

Nickname: Red Devils
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Stadium: Old Trafford
Last season’s league position: Champions
Final Verdict: Champions

Players In

Players Out

Ashley Young (Aston Villa, £16m), Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers, £16.5 million), David De Gea (Atletico Madrid, £17 million) Owen Hargreaves (released), Edwin van der Sar (end of career), Gary Neville (end of career), Paul Scholes (end of career), Gabriel Obertan (Newcastle, £300k), Wes Brown (Sunderland, £1.3m), John O’Shea (Sunderland, £3.9m), Rober Brady (Hull, loan), Richie de Laet (Norwich, loan), Bebe (Besiktas, loan), Ritchie De Laet (Norwich City, loan), Joe Dudgeon (Hull, £ 84k), Corry Evans (Hull, £ 502k), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Peterborough, loan), Scott Wootton (Peterborough, loan), Nicky Ajose (Peterborough, £ 300k)
Season’s predictions:Champions and favourites to retain. Manchester United are coming off a record breaking 19th title winning season, but ironically, rarely looked like champions of old in 2010-2011. Their away from was some of the worst for a league champion in English football history, yet they churned out the results needed to become worthy Champions in the end. Having seen Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes hang up their boots, along with Owen Hargreaves being released, Wes Brown and John O’Shea moving on, Sir Alex has strengthened his squad with the youthful additions of goalkeeper David De Gea and versatile defender Phil Jones, as well as the proven talent of Ashley Young to provide competition for Antonio Valencia and Nani on the wings. Those may be all the signings United fans can hope for this summer, however. That said, United played largely below their standards last season, and the current additions to the squad certainly add enough quality to help the favourites for this year’s title get back to some of their best performances.

Newcastle United

Nickname: The Magpies
Manager: Alan Pardew
Stadium: St. James’ Park
Last season’s league position: 12th
Final Verdict: 13th

Players In

Players Out

Yohan Cabaye (Lille, £4.4 million), Demba Ba (West Ham, free), Sylvain Marveaux (Rennes, free), Gabriel Obertan (Manchester United, £3 million) Kevin Nolan (West Ham, £2.9 million), Sol Campbell (released), Shefki Kuqi (released), Patrick McLaughlin (released), Ben Tozer (released)
Season’s predictions:Football is not only a wonderful game played on the pitch any more – it is a business today played in the cool conference rooms. This was proved by the transfer of Andy Carrol – Newcastle’s leading striker and capturing the imagination of a nation rapidly – to Liverpool last season. It remains to be seen how wisely (if, at all) they can spend the money earned from this transfer to strengthen their squad. They seem more inclined to selling players for some weird reasons. Joey Barton, one of the most prolific players in the EPL last season, had done enough to get a national call up but has been showed the door forcibly. Jose Enrirue is also likely joining the Reds on Merseyside. Not much to cheer about so far, except for the ever so loud Toon Army. Prediction – With Kevin Nolan also leaving, life is going to be tough for them. Lower mid-table finish in the range of 12-16 seems more likely.

Norwich City

Nickname: The Canaries
Manager: Paul Lambert
Stadium: Carrow Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 2nd place
Final Verdict: 19th

Players In

Players Out

James Vaughan (Everton, £2m), Steve Morison (Millwall, £2.5m), Elliott Bennett (Brighton, £1.5m), Ritchie De Laet (Manchester United, loan), Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield, £1m), Bradley Johnson (Leeds, free transfer), Kyle Naughton (Tottenham, loan) Matt Gill (Bristol, released), Jens Berthel Askou (released), Sam Habergham (released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released)
Season’s predictions:Welcome to the top flight after 8 years, but be ready for a dogfight. Norwich has made giant strides by winning back to back promotions to reach this far, but the meteoritic pace may be a bit too much for their own good. Like any Championship club, they work on a shoe tight budget and it remains to be seen how much Paul Lambert can extract from his inexperience side. The chairman says “17th will be absolutely fine” – it will be difficult to go even that far I guess.

Queens Park Rangers

Nickname: The Hoops
Manager: Neil Warnock
Stadium: Loftus Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 1st place
Final Verdict: 14th

Players In

Players Out

JJay Bothroyd (Cardiff, free), Kieron Dyer (West Ham, free), Danny Gabbidon (West Ham, free), D. J. Campbell (Blackpool, £ 1.76 million) Lee Brown (Bristol Rovers, released), Pascal Chimbonda (released), Mikele Leigertwood (Reading, released), Joe Oastler (Torquay, released), Josh Parker (Oldham, released), , Georgias Tofas (Anagennisi Derynia, released)
Season’s predictions:Another Championship club finding it hard to rope in quality players to bolster its squad. Especially after a fall out with one of the main co-owners, the Mittals, it is unknown how much budget Neil Warnock would be given to work with. They have a solid defence, masterminded by Neil Warnock to suit his style of tactical play. Now it will be tested in the grind of EPL week-in week-out. If they can manage to get a striker to score at least 10 goals a season, they can finish in the mid table holding their heads high.

Stoke City

Nickname: The Potters
Manager: Tony Pulis
Stadium: Britannia Stadium
Last season’s league position: 13th
Final Verdict: 12th

Players In

Players Out

Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham, free transfer), Matthew Upson (West Ham, free transfer) Abdoulaye Faye (West Ham, released), Eidur Gudjohnsen (AEK FC, released), Ibrahima Sonko (released), Carl Dickinson (Watford, £250k)
Season’s predictions:Have a good solid squad but it will be difficult to move up the ladder in this ever improving league. Taking the Potters any further is doubtful and might prove the toughest to date unless Pulis can refresh and revitalise his squad. Prediction: Some boring mid table finish.

Sunderland

Nickname: Black Cats
Manager: Steve Bruce
Stadium: Stadium of Lights
Last season’s league position: 10th
Final Verdict: 6th

Players In

Players Out

Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham, free), Kieren Westwood (Coventry, free), Connor Wickham (Ipswich, £8 million), Craig Gardner (Birmingham, £5.8 million), Ji Dong-won (Chunnam Dragons, £2.1 million), Wes Brown (Manchester United, £1.3 million), John O’Shea (Manchester United, £3.9 million), David Vaughan (Blackpool, free), Ahmed Elmohamady (Enppi, £ 2.2 million) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, £15.8 million), Steed Malbranque (Saint-Étienne, released), Cristian Riveros (Kayserispor, loan), Bolo Zenden (released), Michael Kay (released), Nathan Luscombe (Hartpool, released), Daniel Madden (released), Robert Weir (released), Nathan Wilson (released), Mvoto Jean-Yves (Oldham, released)
Season’s predictions:Busiest team of the season by far with as many as 9 recruits. Selling Henderson for a whopping $20 million is utilized well by Steve Bruce to rope in a good mix of experienced Premiere League players – the duo from Manchester United was a real bargain. One of the most improved teams over the last 2 seasons. Prediction – A Europa cup spot will be the least the gaffer would be looking for.

Swansea Athletic FC

Nickname: The Swans
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Stadium: Liberty Stadium
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, Playoffs
Final Verdict: 18th

Players In

Players Out

Danny Graham (Watford, £3.5 million), Jose Moreira (Benfica, £750k), Leroy Lita (Middlesbrough, £1.7 million), Steven Caulker (Spurs, free transfer), Wayne Routledge (Newcastle, £2.86 million) Dorus de Vries (Wolves, released), Cedric van der Gun (released), Albert Serrán (AEK Larnaca, released), Jamie Grimes (released), Kerry Morgan (Neath FC, released), Darren Pratley (Bolton, released), Yves Makaba-Makalamby (released), Gorka Pintado (released)
Season’s predictions:First team from Wales to enter top flight football since the Premiere League was set up. They seem to have enough attacking flair in new signing Championship top goal-scorer Danny Graham, pace of ex-Premier League winger Scott Sinclair, and new signing of Jose Moreira. But their defence, which performed above expectation last time round, holds the key for the survival in top flight. Prediction – Relegation confirmed by March.

Tottenham Hotspur

Nickname: Spurs
Manager: Harry Redknapp
Stadium: White Hart lane
Last season’s league position: 5th
Final Verdict: 9th

Players In

Players Out

Brad Friedel (Aston Villa, free), Souleymane Coulibaly (Siena, undisclosed) Jonathan Woodgate (released), Jamie O’Hara (Wolves, £5m), Bongani Khumalo (Reading, loan)
Season’s predictions:Will be pushed to the limits by a rejuvenated Liverpool, big spending Manchester City and some strong & determined clubs like Everton, West Brom, Sunderland and Newcastle. Seem to be quite unsettled by the Modric saga. It may be better to let the player leave. He has already done the unthinkable by openly criticizing the club president. Otherwise, their season could be hampered as was the 2nd half of Blackpool’s due to Charlie Adam- Liverpool tug of war. Prediction – Will just hang on to a top 10 finish.

West Bromwich Albion

Nickname: Baggies
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Stadium: The Hawthorns
Last season’s league position: 11th
Final Verdict: 8th

Players In

Players Out

Billy Jones (Preston, free transfer), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich, free transfer), Ben Foster (Birmingham, £ 1million), Zoltán Gera (Fulham, released), Márton Fülöp (Ipswich, free transfer), Shane Long (Reading, £ 6 million) Ryan Allsopp (Millwall, £ 88k), Giles Barnes (Doncstar, released), Abdoulaye Meite (Dijon, released), Gianni Zuiverloon (Mallorca, released), Borja Valero (Villarreal, loan deal made permanent), Scott Carson (Bursaspor, £1.9 million), Dean Kiely (End of career)
Season’s predictions:Life at Anfield was like a square block trying to get fit in a circular hole for Roy Hodgson. It never worked out – the discomfort of leaving up to the expectation of a bigger club was evident from the out. So, he joined the Baggies. Back to square one – smaller club, little known names, compact defensive strategy of Hodgson and Baggies saw a revival in their fortune. From languishing in and around the drop zone before his arrival, Hodgson made a strong surge towards the end of the season – accepting defeat in only 2 out of its last 12 games – just to miss out on a top half finish. Prediction – Watch out for them, dark horse for a European spot.

Wigan Athletic

Nickname: The Latics
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Stadium: JJB Stadium
Last season’s league position: 16th
Final Verdict: 20th

Players In

Players Out

David Jones (Wolves, free transfer), Ali Al Habsi, (Bolton, £ 3.78 million) Antonio Amaya (Real Betis, £ 250k), Jason Koumas (released), Steven Caldwell (Birmingham, released), Daniel De Ridder (Grasshoppers, released), Joseph Holt (released), Thomas Lambert (released), Thomas Oakes (released), Abian Serrano Davila (released), Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa, £ 9.54 million)
Season’s predictions:Last season they survived by the skin of their teeth but things are looking gloomier day by day. The financial position of the club is in disarray and it means they are forced to sell their best player, Charles N’Zogbia. Prediction – Will get the wooden spoon.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Nickname: Wolves
Manager: Mick McCarthy
Stadium: Molineux Stadium
Last season’s league position: 17th
Final Verdict: 17th

Players In

Players Out

Jamie O’Hara (Tottenham, £ 5 million), Dorus de Vries (Swansea, free transfer), Roger Johnson (Birmingham City, £ 7 million) Jody Craddock (released), Adriano Basso (Hull, released), John Dunleavy (released), Marcus Hahnemann (released), David Jones (Wigan, released), Nathan Rooney (AFC Telford United, released), Steven Mouyokolo (Sochaux, season-long loan), Greg Halford (Portsmouth, £ 880k)
Season’s predictions:Narrowly avoided the drop last year, and will need to invest heavily to avoid relegation. Newly promoted teams will target Wolves for maximum points and truly speaking, they do stand a realistic chance of getting that. Prediction – Mick McCarthy is a shrewd tactician but it might be touch-and-go this time round for him.