I said no to dictatorship on every level: Carlos Caszely

We all come to a crossroad in life where we have to choose between what is good for us and what is good in general. Not sure how many of us chose the right option, but here is a story of a rebel who certainly listened to his heart rather than his head. Debojyoti Chakraborty portrays  Carlos Caszely just the way he is –a man of strong principals, on and off the pitch.

“When the ball rolls wide off the post, you can cry about that. But when you lose your freedom, do you cry … or fight?”

Eric Cantona

This is the story of  another rebel in the football pitch, just like Eric, the enigmatic genius, himself. Nicknamed Rey del metro cuadrado (King of the square meter) for his amazing close ball controlling skills,  he cemented his place   in footballing folklore for  his idiosyncratic rather rebellious off-field actions. This is the story of a footballer who had no fear of losing everything he had for not bowing down to one of the most atrocious dictators of the 20th century. This is the story about that refused handshake which became a watershed event in the history of the country.

Carlos Humberto Caszely Garrido, one of Chile’s most important players, was a prolific goal scorer during his career spanning from 1969 to 1986. But he is known more for his political consciousness. Born in a left-wing communist family in Santiago on July 5, 1949, Caszely was brought up never to shy away from expressing himself. He was certainly different from his peers – he was an active member of the Players’ Union while most professionals in those days opted to stay aloof and apolitical Not only that, Caszely was very transparent and opinionated about his political inclinations, especially towards Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government: “Since I had use of my own reason, I have liked the Left and I am not thinking of changing my ideals.

Carlos Caszely
Carlos Caszely in action, 1982 [Source: Sport Bladet]

Caszely rose through the ranks of Chile’s most famous club team Colo Colo and eventually joined them in 1967 as a 17-year-old. The kid became a goal scoring sensation during his six-season stay there as he netted 66 goals in 123 appearances. Apart from winning the Chilean League in 1970 and 1972, Caszely ruled the continental stage as well  as the top scorer in the 1973 Copa Libertadores (Colo Colo narrowly missed out on the trophy to Club Atlético Independiente in the extra time of the decider after the two legged final tie ended in a stalemate). Caszely’s exploits had not gone   unnoticed and he joined the newly promoted Levante UD in Spanish second flight. Unfortunately Levante got relegated but Caszely continued his goal scoring spree finding the net 15 times in the league from 24 appearances and finishing in the top five for the race of Pichichi in the Segunda División. These were just his footballing exploits; the iconic moment was yet to come – that which changed Caszely’s life forever during this time.

28 years before the dreaded 9/11 brought up the face of international terrorism to public focus, Chileans had to experience a shivering 9/11 of their own when a military coup overthrew Chile’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. That upheaval started the dictatorship regime of General Augusto Pinochet that lasted till 1990. It was the beginning of a curse for the entire country as the Chilean military imprisoned anybody alleged of opposing the dictatorship. Thousands went missing, several were tortured and killed. The country went into oppression, the air was filled with the smell of blood, and somehow people had to adjust to their fate.

Only a couple of weeks after the coup in 1973, Chile was to face Soviet Union in the World Cup play-off game for an entry into the gala event in Germany next year. There was a minor problem though – the venue for the match, Chile’s National Stadium in Santiago, had been transformed into a detention camp since the wake of the upheaval. So now, the shrine of the beautiful game was serving as a torturing ground for the 7,000 political prisoners!

augusto-pinochet Carlos Caszely
“Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood” – Augusto Pinochet [Source: activenews.ro]

The Soviets refused to play in a stadium “stained with blood.” Alarmed by this, FIFA sent its team to inspect the situation and tour the playing conditions. The prisoners were somehow kept hidden and mum at gunpoint during the officials’ visit.  Unfortunately the FIFA representatives did not find anything suspicious and hence the match was deemed fit to play.

They kept us down below, hidden in the locker rooms and in the tunnels“, a prisoner in those days can clearly remember the nightmarish conditions even today. Pinochet government could ill afford to reveal the detainees in front of the World.  That too in a stadium, which was meant to showcase the beautiful game! The dictator knew that it would have been the worst image he could have portrayed of himself to the outside world and hence the prisoners were completely isolated from the visiting party. It was as if they were in two different worlds, the stadium became a metaphor of Pinochet’s dictatorship. A few days before the game, all the captives were relocated to the north of Chile, to a salt mining town in the Atacama  Desert.

It was not a simple protest by the Soviets  though; there were bigger things at stake.   The erstwhile FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous was notorious for favoring the UK nations. He had previously pulled the strings to shift  the venue of a Northern Ireland vs Bulgaria match from Belfast to Sheffield citing security issues within Ulster. The Soviets sensed that quite a few Socialist countries would boycott the World Cup if this match is played at the Estadio Nacional. That would eventually allow England who had failed to qualify for the tournament, a backdoor entry into the competition. East Germany made a tongue-in-cheek comment that it is no different from playing at the Dachau concentration camp. Beyond football, it was  rumored that the coup was sponsored by the US government. Soviet hierarchy, already in cold war with them, wanted to stand strong and showcase their antipathy towards the oppression.

So the match started on November 21, 1973, ten weeks after the coup, in an almost empty stadium. If that can be called a “match” as the Soviets, expectantly, did not show up in protest of the oppression. The referee blew the kick off whistle, 11 Chilean players on the field looked a bit bemused without any opponents. They dribbled a bit and shot into an open net. No one cheered, no one said a thing from the stands –that was anyway almost empty, afraid of being singled out and prosecuted, only the scoreboard stood there with head held high – Chile 1, Soviet Union 0. Chile  was through to the World Cup finals with a muted acknowledgment.

Caszely with his Chile team before the fateful match
Caszely with his Chile team before the fateful match

Caszely, a national star by then, did not want to play but had to take the field for his family’s safety. He had gone across the continent to ply his trade because he thought it wasn’t safe for him or his family to be in the country in the wake of the oppression. But that day he was ashamed of his and his team’s action,

That team did the most ridiculous thing in history. It was a worldwide embarrassment.

This frustration boiled over a few months later when in June 1974, Pinochet beckoned the team for a send-off before their departure to Germany. On that fateful day, Caszely recalls how he had  felt with the approach of a man wearing a cape, dark glasses, and a hat: “A cold shiver went down my back from seeing this Hitler-like looking thing, with five guys behind him…When he started coming closer I put my hand behind me and didn’t give it to him.” A reaction resultant of his courage to protest ,embedded in his mind since his formative years.

4

That snub to Pinochet was one of the first public acts of remonstration against the dictator. Caszely had to pay the price though as his mother was imprisoned and tortured for his son’s political views. “I said no to dictatorship on every level: no to dictatorship, no to torture . . . So they made me pay for that with what they did to my mother.

They could not prepare properly as no team wanted to visit Chile for friendlies. During the entire tournament in West Germany, La Roja  was treated like prisoners. They were surrounded by Pinochet’s military men and not allowed to speak to any outsiders. It was hardly an environment to play the game of football. And the inevitable happened eventually. Things took a toll on Caszely as he lost his temper in Chile’s very first match against West Germany and was sent off by the referee Doğan Babacan. Chile lost the match and Caszely was recorded in the history books as the first player to be given the marching orders. Notably, red and yellow cards had already been introduced in the previous World Cup (1970), but no one had the dubious distinction of being sent off as of then. Chile eventually bowed out of the tournament from the group stage failing to win any of their matches.

After the World Cup, Caszely played four more seasons in Spain with RCD Espanyol where he did reasonably well. He though reached the pinnacle of his game in his second stint with Colo Colo (1978–1983). Caszely won the league thrice in this period and also became the league’s highest goal scorer in three successive years from 1979 to 1981. Latin American audience too were not deprived of witnessing his mesmerizing skills as Caszely was named the Best player in 1979 Copa América. But continental glory again  eluded him as La Roja missed out to Paraguay after a seemingly never-ending three match final tie.

That has been the case with Caszely, always. He was never able to taste team success beyond his country. He probably would have had the best shot at World Cup in 1978 but for Pinochet’s intervention which prevented him from getting selected. Caszely got a final chance to redeem himself at the 1982 World Cup. Lady luck seemed to finally smile on him as Chile was awarded a penalty for a foul on Caszely in their first match against Austria. Ignoring the coach’s instructions from the side-lines, Caszely stepped forward to convert it but ultimately dished out an awful kick. Again, Chile bid adieu without winning any of their group stage matches, in fact they were defeated in all three.

Sport is a cruel adventure. Fans can suddenly be asking for the head of their beloved and that is exactly what happened with Caszely. His missed kick from 12 yards out transformed him overnight from a national hero to the biggest   turncoat the country has ever seen. He was accused of playing it safe for his country, not putting the adequate efforts and saving his energy for the club teams where he was earning big. Caszely, though continued his impeccable domestic career and called it a day in 1985 after notching up 105 goals in 170 appearances during his seven year spell at Colo Colo. By then he had also found the net 29 times in 49 appearances for the national team. But his biggest day on the field was yet to come.

Caszely was to play his farewell match before calling it a day as professional footballer. The venue was the famous National Stadium, Santiago where everything began more than a decade back. Contrary to the near empty stadium on that day, more than 80,000 people flocked in, cheering for Caszely. Fury against Pinochet had gathered much momentum by then and the government was feeling the heat. This match had all the ingredients to turn into a political protest saga and hence not a single TV channel dared to broadcast the game. But that did not dampen the spirit of the crowd.

Very few prisoners were fortunate to have been released by then. Majority could not see the sun for their entire life; many were not even counted for. But those free now,  could ill afford to miss the match that was way more than a simple game of football. Politics had shrouded the game by then. It was an outburst of a country suffering from oppression for decades.  Caszely was one of   them; he had dared to stand tall against the power even at the expense of his loved ones. Caszely was more than a footballing hero,he was the symbol of bravery his countrymen were very proud of. Everyone wanted to be like him, but they could not dare to – that day was their chance for redemption.  Earlier Caszely had put his country down by being red carded, by missing the spot kick, and unfortunately he did not get a chance to  hold his head high. But his country did not want to squander this opportunity. It was may be a unique way to say sorry to their beloved son for making him a scapegoat, and ridiculing him and his family for his failures at the World Cups.

The congregation in Caszely’s farewell match has been recorded as one of the first mass gatherings of regime opponents. It happened at a crucial juncture for a nation that for over a decade had been bullied by the bullet and the torture chamber. Three years later, in 1988, Olga Garrido, Caszely’s proud mother, publicly opened up to the torture and humiliation she had gone through. Things were so intimidating that she could not, till that point, disclose those to her own family. Caszely, sitting beside his emotional mother during the live show, called for the notorious dictator’s expulsion. All this culminated in Pinochet being dethroned as the Chileans voted against him. That match had ultimately reached its crescendo and rose above all hurdles to utter Chile’s most famous words Nunca mas (Never again). A person, courtesy of his immense self-respect and determination, had woven the seeds of a revolution. The National Stadium in Santiago since then has been in the news only for sporting purpose. None bigger than being the venue for the nation’s first international accolade, Copa America 2015.

Caszely happened to meet with Pinochet at a reception at La Moneda in 1988. Out of sheer courtesy, this time Caszely greeted him. Pinochet, by now a waned, spent force and well aware of his impending exile, asked Caszely for a photograph to portray an improving image. But, Caszely refused to pose for the picture. His ideologies had not changed.

For me it was a tremendous joy to say ‘no’ to the dictator on behalf of Chile. It was a stern protest to many years of horror, torture and human rights violations. Caszely was content to have helped his motherland in his own little way to return to democracy.

Caszely seems at peace with himself today, he anchors numerous sport-related TV shows on Canal 13, a Chilean-based TV station.  Caszely is very close to his roots. In his idle time, he still enjoys a game of football at an amateur level for a team called “Colo Colo 1973”, comprising former Colo Colo players. His work to promote Latin American football was acknowledged by the continent in 2009 with the Award of CONMEBOL.

carlos caszely
Carlos Caszely during 1968 [Source: Mercado Libre]

Ever since I was a little boy and I started walking, holding my father’s hand, in the district where people play against a wall, against a tree, against a mound, against a big stone, against your opponent, with a football, a plastic ball, a rag ball, a paper ball, even a tin can, if there’s nothing else . . .” he always found a way to play. Despite the regime’s repression and intimidation, Caszely’s conscience and his passion for the game could not be silenced.

Follow the story of football rebel Carlos Caszely, as he returns to the stadium which served as a concentration camp during the military coup –

Referense:

Feature Image Source:  michellebachelet.cl

Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller – Conjoined Twins

Two great servants of the German national football team, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Müller, had and is having – respectively – fabulous careers. But, somewhere down the line, these two modern greats, in spite of being a generation apart, share some uncanny similarities. Debojyoti Chakraborty pens down a unique tale of Conjoined Twins here at Goalden Times.

What comes to your mind when one mentions the name of Miroslav Klose? A decent forward, known for his prowess with his head in the World Cups. Anything else? Ok, a smaller set might acknowledge the fact that he is the top goal scorer in the World Cup history. Next? An even smaller set would point out that he is also the all time top scorer for Germany. Not bad, is it? And whose records did he break to achieve these feats? Ronaldo of Brazil, and Gerd Müller of (West) Germany – two greats intheir own rights. Now think about Klose, the person who currently holds both of these amazing records on his own. Does he even get an iota of the recognition that he deserves?

Miroslav-Klose-15

Klose was an old school number 9 for the German national team. He is the only footballer in the history of World Cup to have four podium finishes including the 2014 winner’s medal. En route he has netted 16 times. Come to think of it, many would be in dreamland after scoring only once at the biggest of the stages, and this lanky fellow has done that 16 times!!! Time and again, with ease, in a World Cup career spanning across 12 years and four editions. Klose is also the lucky charm for Die Mannschaft – they have never lost a game in which Klose has scored.

Top goal scorers (at least 10 goals)in the FIFA World Cup
Top goal scorers (at least 10 goals)in the FIFA World Cup

Klose has achieved the feat in way more matches compared to others featuring in the top goal scorers’ list above (* = the player was in the squad but did not feature in the edition). But can we really compare two separate eras? How can one conclusively take into account the style of play (which was more open in the pre-war days till the ‘70s), different rules and regulations (fouls, suspensions, substitutions and offsides to name a few) and other variables and compare these greats? One can also put the counter argument in favour of Klose. If anything, his perseverance – he is the only one to take the field on four editions – should place him right up there in the list. His adaptability to fit into different systems under different managers and among diverse sets of colleagues is truly remarkable. Give the man some credit where it is due! By the way, have a look at the last man on the list, Thomas Müller, more about him will be discussed later.

Klose has never been an out-an-out fan favourite, some attribute this to his lack of style. But does not he make up for that with the most important aspect in football – goals? Not sporadically ,rather in a consistent pattern,netting when his team is in an awkward position. How can a man, who has scored for fun in the biggest stage of all, lack the entertaining factor? And talking about style, apart from his trademark somersault celebration, very few have embraced the actual essence of the beautiful game. In the modern age of competitiveness and playacting, where an honest player is very hard to come by on the football field, Klose’s act of unselfishness stands out and proves the beauty of the game. While playing for Werder Bremen in 2005, in a Bundesliga match against Arminia Bielefeld, the referee thought that Klose was fouled inside the opponent penalty box and hence awarded a penalty kick to Bremen. Klose walked up to the referee, and clarified that it was a clean take by the goalkeeper. It allowed the referee to reverse both of his decisions – the penalty as well as the booking of the goalkeeper.  Then again in 2012, he had the guts to admit his handball that had eventually led to a goal. The referee cancelled the goal following his confession, Klose’s team Lazio lost the SerieA match 3-0 against Napoli on that day but surely football had won. The German became an instant hero – actually he already was – among everyone present in the stadium as well as all around the world for his honesty. Later that year, Klose was rewarded with a fair play award from the German FA. No wonder, he has always been admired by his fellow players.

Klose retired from Germany’s national team on 11th August 2014. Towards the end of his career, he saw the rise of a young talent who would go on to emulate some of his successes – Thomas Müller.

Müller, a small town boy from Pähl, slowly but surely has established himself as one of the key performers in the deadly Bayern Munich side. Ironically, , Müller made his debut for the club in 2008 in a Bundesliga match against Hamburger SV, coming in off the bench for Klose.

Müller started his career primarily as a midfielder but eventually he has been deployed in more advanced positions. Today, he is regarded as one of the best attacking all-rounders, a player who can be used in a variety of forward positions. While this has opened up more opportunities for the player and his managers, the same quality sometimes hinders his rise to the optimal greatness. Müller is typecast as Jack of all trades, whereas he could have been – actually, with age on his side, he is only 26, he still can be – the Master. Both at Bayern Munich and in the Germany national team, who usually play with the favourite modern formation of 4-2-3-1, Müller is deployed as one the three attacking midfielders behind the lone striker. His versatility with both feet, creativity, vision, running into spaces, passing and ball distribution skills mean that he can play in any of the attacking midfield roles. So he is seen playing more centrally for Bayern Munich, sometimes even as a secondary striker, but on the right side for Germany, either as a right winger or right attacking midfielder. Even after that, Müller has 10 World Cup goals, more than combined figures of two of the best players of the current generations – Lionel Messi(5) and Cristiano Ronaldo(3).

487071665AH00020_Borussia_D

He admits that he is not good at taking on the defenders one-on-one or dribbling past them, but more than makes up for it by finding gaps in the opposition defence and making intelligent runs in the channels. No wonder, he interprets his role as Raumdeuter, meaning “interpreter of space”.

Müller is a modern day player coming out of the mighty Bayern youth system with extraordinary maturity for his age. His composure, technique, opportunism,game awareness and positioning in the field augment his blistering pace. Add to that his mental strength and coolness in front of the goal, the end product is as deadly as it gets. Even after scoring and creating goals for fun, Müller is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses and areas where he can improve. He admits that he is not good at taking on the defenders one-on-one or dribbling past them, but more than makes up for it by finding gaps in the opposition defence and making intelligent runs in the channels. No wonder, he interprets his role as Raumdeuter, meaning “interpreter of space”. Germany manager Joachim Löw also seems to agree, “Müller is a very unorthodox player and you can’t really predict his lines of running, but he has one aim and that is ‘how can I score a goal?”

Müller vsRobben in last few years
Müller vs Robben in last few years

The figure above compares Müller with possibly the most talked about attacking player in his club, Arjen  Robben. Please keep in mind that the years in the graphic, since 2009-10, puts up a naïve and young Müller against a seasoned campaigner Robben, playing at the peak of his prowess. Yet, Müller has quite clearly outclassed Robben in terms of goals scored and created count. Yet, Robben is considered arguably the most potent attacking threat in Bayern Munich’s arsenal, not Müller. Müller’s contributions are often termed as being “lucky”, being able to be present at the right place at the right time. This is why Müller is never considered a prime contender for Ballon d’Or – an award given based on “opinion” of national team  coaches, captains and journalists worldwide. He is not even considered the best player in his club or team – Robben or Neuer often gets all the accolades. That too after bagging FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup Best Young Player award and FIFA World Cup Most assists recognition in 2010. That too after being featured in the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team, as well as in the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2014. In the same world cup, he became the second German, and third overall (the other being Teófilo Cubillas during 1970 and 1978 editions) to score at least five goals in two different editions. Guess the only other German to do so! Yes, Miroslav Klose.

Miroslav Klose holds the record for scoring most number of goals in World Cup. Klose marvelled at the national stage at a time of transition for German football, where they rarely had a strong midfield to feed him. But did he get his due? Is he  regarded as one of the best goal scorers of his generation at least, let alone of all time? Same is the case with Thomas Müller, the likely man to dethrone Klose in the near future. Both are extremely humble and can be showcased as brand ambassadors of fair play. But may be they lack the aura, the flamboyance, the showmanship – and any scandal or controversy – and hence are overlooked in favour of their peers. Müller is slightly more fortunate to be around in an age of social media and hence his name still goes around. But be it his club Bayern Munich or the German national team, Müller is always overshadowed by his more glamorous peers like Robert Lewandowski, Robben, Manuel Neuer or Mario Götze. People criticize Klose saying that all of his World Cup goals were scored from a distance of 12 yards or closer. But then again, Klose is a true reflection of his era, a typical no. 9, fox in the box striker akin to Filippo Inzaghi, Ronaldo or Ruud van Nistelrooy. No wonder, he has scored majority of his goals from inside the box. Similarly Müller is a modern day wide forward, with the responsibilities of a 9 and an a half – or sometimes 8 and a half. His fluid role demands him to drift wide, start from deep into his own half to create spaces as well as finish the chances when they come. So his goal per game ratio cannot be compared with that of an out and out striker. But even then, his overall contribution to his team as well as the end product – goals – are simply too good to be ignored. So the question remains, are these two the most underappreciated German footballers ever?

4

Let me end the article with a famous quote by ex-England international and current football pundit Gary Lineker: “Football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans always win.” Both Klose and Müller, who resemble the tale of conjoined twins  for being underrated in their respective eras, epitomize this killer instinct and winning mentality of Die Mannschaft. May be that is why they did not bother about their personal glorification. But who cares, after all, they have a combined cabinet full of trophies to be proud of. Underrated? Well, may be sometime in future, students of the beautiful game will applaud them with the appreciation they truly deserve. Even if not, Klose and Müller will hardly be bothered. They played the game in its right spirit, won everything there was to be won, what else can you ask for!

Sources:

I am not a man, I am Cantona

“I am not a man, I am Cantona”. Eric Cantona is a legend of English Premier League and Manchester United. Inducted in the Premier League hall of fame, there is hardly  any doubt about his footballing abilities. But there is much more to the man than his footballing heroics. Debojyoti Chakraborty of Goalden Times with the help of some jaw-dropping illustrations by Dan Leydon, explores the man who always lived, and is still living, his life on his own terms and never hesitates  to pour his heart out.

There are footballers who are being worshiped as God. There are legends whose statues are built and followers pay their tribute there. But there are not many who find themselves immortalised in the English literature. The number is even less – to be precise, the number is only one – for his lines to be quoted by someone from Hollywood. That’s exactly what happened when controversial US actor Shia LaBeouf stormed out of a news conference in February last year, not before what is henceforth known as, doing a Cantona.


When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.


A gnomic utterance, as described in the Brit dictionary, finds its place as something that is short, mysterious, and not easily understood, but often seems wise. Well wise it must be to be uttered after a couple of decades later, in a different continent, by a person as alienated to the sport as vegetarians are from beef ribs.

The man whose quote was used here, Eric Cantona has also inspired Dan Leydon, an Ireland based illustrator  specializing in football and portraiture. There are not many who dedicate their lives towards illustration of football’s iconic images; Dan is one such man. A majority of Dan’s work revolves around football where he puts in his knowledge about the beautiful game to its maximum use. His artworks have been used for Nike’s social media campaign, for a studio to develop their last World Cup ad campaign. He has also conceptualized LA Galaxy artwork for Gerrard’s transfer, Graham Hunter’s award winning Barcelona book and its follow up about the Spanish national team. More of his works can be found here.

Dan has also devoted four years of his creative life to illustrate Eric Cantona’s colorful life through his drawings. To start off with, he had drawn Cantona’s face in 57 different ways over a few days and finally decided to freeze the minimal look. Quite remarkable, isn’t it? We shall peep into his genius works throughout this piece and reveal the marvels of his illustrations.

Cantona’s iconic quote through Dan’s imagination
Cantona’s iconic quote through Dan’s imagination

A quick glance towards his roots and it is not difficult to understand Cantona’s unsettled yet alluring, unconventional but  scintillating life. He was born in a family of immigrants and throughout his life Eric was – or is, still – searching for the correct avenue to express himself. Born to a painter father and Catalan separatist mother, talent was in abundance and in multi-faceted form in him.

Cantona started as a shot stopper, inspired by his father’s short-lived career on the green field, and used to spend his evenings with his two brothers kicking puckered newspapers in their bedroom where the beds doubled up as goalposts. Gradually his natural creative instincts forced him to play higher up the pitch and eventually he became one of the most feared forwards of his era. Cantona though had a logic of his own to play as a striker. People often judge the quality of a player by numbers only – goals scored or assists provided. So it is really difficult to prove the worth of a goalkeeper or defender by the help of numbers. So, that was that – Cantona decided to become a striker!

 From a very young age, it was evident that Cantona was not going to be remembered as just a footballer. He never followed the rules, idiosyncracy prevailed,  inevitably, he found an uncanny pleasure in creating his own methods. Such unpredictability coupled with the enigmatic genius like that of a poet on the footballing pitch made him the darling of the ardent admirers. Others, mostly skeptical about his true intentions, tried to logically deduce his frantic actions, movements on and off the pitch  He polarized millions like very few footballers have done. He was, like any other creative person, a mystical footballing prodigy, enshrouded  in enigma.

His love affair with controversy started at the tender age of 21 when he gave a black eye to Bruno Martini, his senior teammate from Auxerre. He would go on to improve his record the following year by giving a taste of his  assassin tackle to Nantes’ Michel Der Zakarian. You would be amazed to see his reaction after the tackle – something like a child admitting to a rush of blood and surrendering to punishment, which came in the form of three-month suspension. Auxerre rebelled for their jewel and got the ban reduced by a month. Cantona responded to the leniency of French football federation by playing a key role en route to winning the EFA European Under-21 Football Championship, their only championship win till date.

Such was Cantona’s precarious talent, that he was given his senior national team debut even before this, in August 1987 against West Germany under erstwhile manager Henri Michel. But barely a year later, poor Henri felt the wrath of his emotional outburst. After being dropped in September 1988, Cantona referred to him as a “bag of shit” in a post-match TV interview. Michel banned him indefinitely from all international matches. Cantona was not one to take the punishment lying down – he vowed to never play for France till Henri Michel was in charge.

Auxerre got their due for standing by their prized possession through thick and thin in the summer of 1988. Eric Cantona, a hardcore Marseille fan was transferred to the club of his dreams for a then national record fee. Almost 15 years after witnessing the magnetic atmosphere in the Vélodrome, perched on his father’s shoulders, Eric now had the chance to reconstruct the same buzz all over again – this time with the ball at his feet and 50,000 spectators eager to be treated. But his emotions again got the better of him. During a friendly game against Torpedo Moscow, he was frustrated at his substitution. So how would one react? Just kick the ball into the crowd before taking off your shirt and throwing it on the ground in utter disgust. That is, if you are a certain Eric Cantona.

The dream was becoming a nightmare for the boyhood Marseille fan. Fines, bans and suspensions continued but who cares! Never did he shy away from expressing himself and thus an unyielding Eric gave the newspapers a reason to make a living out of him. The shirt-ripping incident handed him a month-long ban. Cantona responded by disappearing from public eye all of a sudden, Fed up with his antics, Marseille managed to convince Barcelona for a transfer deal. But as luck would have it, the then Barcelona manager, and Cantona’s boyhood idol, legendary Johan Cruyff backed out at the last moment in favor of his protégée and fellow countryman Marco Van Basten.  Basten did not come but by then it was too late for Cantona. And we are left with the thought what if Cantona had gone to Catalunya! A potential  tempestuous love story that never took place!

But Marseille had had enough of Cantona. They offloaded him to Bordeaux on a six-month loan. Bordeaux was desperate for a saviour amidst a disastrous season and they thought their messiah had arrived. It was February 1989, Bordeaux was in the penalty shoot out in Coupe de France against Beauveais, a Second Division team.

Stage was set for Cantona as he stepped up to take the final shot. Cool dude that Cantona was, he first juggled with the ball, placed it on the mark and then went for an atrocious panenka. The kick was so feeble that the goalkeeper even after going in the wrong  direction could turn back and stop it. Things that bloopers are made of!

The shocking penalty kick
The shocking penalty kick

Cantona’s Bordeaux stint was over and he  started a fresh search for his new home. His next stop was Montpellier on a year-long loan. It did not take long for the disturbed  kid; he was still only 23, to get into another trouble. After losing to Lille, Cantona got involved in a fight with teammate Jean-Claude Lemoult and threw his boots towards Lemoult’s face. The hapless owner Loulou Nicollin could only lament:

“…this is the first time one of my players has hit a teammate. It’s serious, it’s unacceptable – you’re fired.”

The ban was short lived as several team mates including Laurent Blanc and Carlos Valderrama were instrumental in getting him back in to the team. Cantona went to win Coupe de France with Montpellier and Marseille thought of trying him out once again. But the cracks in this marriage were already too wide to be hidden. Cantona had his fair share of problems with chairman Bernard Tapie and new coach Raymond Goethals. A league title also could not heal the wounds and finally in 1991-92, Cantona was transferred to Nîmes …. to ignite a fresh controversy!

Cantona was a proud man and naturally he was not very happy to move to an average club like Nîmes. He was seriously considering  calling it a day even at a tender age of 25 and his frustration spilled all over creating a mess. In December 1991, having been infuriated by the referee’s decision during a match he threw the ball at the referee. Cantona was charged of misconduct and was summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the French Football Federation following a one-month ban. Cantona appeared for the hearing and let everyone hear him. He walked up to each member of the hearing committee one by one and called him an idiot. His ban was increased to two months. Cantona had seen enough, he was not motivated at all and he responded by announcing his retirement from football on 16th December 1991.

Cantona, however brat he was, was not a fool. He had grown up in the house of a psychiatrist and he himself was consulting a psychoanalyst to control his emotional outburst. This is when one of the great footballers and administrators of modern era, Michel Platini lent a helping hand. On his and the psychoanalyst’s advice, Cantona decided to move away from France where he had gathered such a bad reputation and looked for opportunities elsewhere. But it was mid ‘90s and the world was no longer a big place.

The signature turned up collar of Cantona, by Dan Leydon
The signature turned up collar of Cantona, by Dan Leydon

 Cantona was rejected by many English clubs due to his notorious past and it was more of an accident that he found himself in Manchester United in January 1993.

Cantona played a key role in the reincarnation of the myth that is Manchester United today. His turned up collar gave him a cult hero status at the city of Manchester. And in his own words, it just happened – it was a cold day, the collar was up, it felt a little warmer, Manchester won the match and so the legend was born! Cantona became an important figure in the renaissance of the best-decorated club in modern English football, as is the gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson. Today, he is very rightly hailed as a legend at the club, King Cantona, he is fondly known as. But there is much more to Cantona than Old Trafford There is Selhurst Park.

King Cantona, by Dan Leydon
King Cantona, by Dan Leydon

On 25 January 1995, in an away match against Crystal Palace, the referee had sent off Cantona for a kick on Palace defender Richard Shaw after Shaw had pulled his shirt. A Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, had run down 11 rows of stairs to confront and shout abuse at Cantona while he was exiting towards the tunnel. Cantona did not oblige. He believed that he should not be confronted only because he was a footballer. Things do happen on the pitch, but that does not mean that they should happen. Footballers should not be subject to abuse.

Cantona launched his infamous kung-fu kick towards Simmons and followed that with a series of punches. The incident is still labeled as the most violent behavior a footballer has inflicted upon a spectator. Cantona was punished mercilessly. Criminal charge of assault, two-week of prison sentence which later got converted to 120 hours of community service, fine of £20,000 and ban for rest of the season by Manchester United, an increased ban till September 1995 for any game worldwide and a further £10,000 by Football Association citing the incident as “a stain on our game” – the fines and suspensions just poured in. Manchester United eventually lost the Premier League title, Cantona lost his national team captaincy and was never ever called up by France. Ever since the incident  took place more than two decades ago, it has prompted never-ending media coverage, psychological analyses and protests from vehement football fans to crucify a footballer perceived as felonious and treacherous.

The roar and the reaction, brilliantly put together by Dan Leydon
The roar and the reaction, brilliantly put together by Dan Leydon

Fans did support him though. They travelled from Manchester, in the middle of the week, to Croydon for the hearing. Cantona was not someone to take it lying down.

He was beaten, but he did not lose the battle. He called for a press conference and uttered the following in his unique slow and deliberate posture:


When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.


That was all! Cantona then stood up, did not wait for anyone to get the hang of things, and quickly made an exit leaving a room full of dumbfounded and bemused people behind.

Dan's illustration about Cantona's psyche
Dan’s illustration about Cantona’s psyche

 That quote at the conference summed up the stormy relationship he shared with the British media, notorious for interfering in celebrities’ personal lives.  It was his signature style of accusing the press of persistently dissecting his actions and thwarting his freedom of expression. On the other hand, there were some who denied Cantona the tag of a deep thinking philosopher and rather accused him of plagiarism from the work of a little known French philosopher. Michael Kelly, the former head of security at Manchester United, went even further in his book and claimed that the quotation had been put together by a number of people in a London hotel room to fabricate a sympathetic image for the man. Whatever it is, Eric Cantona, the enigma was engraved in history forever.

This even inspired our friend Dan Leydon, who has numerous applaud-worthy illustrations to his credit, for his best creation till date – the ‘Cantona and Seagull’ portrait (shown above). Leydon expresses his satisfaction with his work that subtly captures Cantona’s most famous quote – especially the illustration of the most standout feature on his face, the eyebrow. The portrait is not gloomy or serious; rather it carries a certain coolness which football fans will be able to connect with. Undoubtedly, the entire series is quite awesome, but this single piece would have been worth the effort. The satire is presented in such a minimalistic way, even King Cantona might fall in love with it!

Later Cantona admitted that emotions got the better of him and he had lost it in the spur of the moment. But mischievous as he is, reaffirmed afterwords,  that it was a dream come true for the fans as they don’t get to see such actions everyday in a football ground.


“…it’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people. So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.”


Cantona confessed that it was a mistake but he stood by his actions – he even expressed his regrets for not punching the man harder, considering the kind of abuses he was using that day! Take it or leave it, but that is the man Cantona is. In his own words, “There’s a fine line between freedom and chaos.”

And he moved on. Beyond football, but certainly not far away from the limelight. He was not a person to dwell on his past – he was very  conscious not to become a captive of his own memories, his past. A past that he cherishes, a past that allowed him to get paid for what he would rather himself have paid – playing football. A free spirited person, always eager to break the shackles, Cantona set his sight on beach football, acting and raising social awareness.

Cantona - a true Rock star, conceived by Dan Leydon
Cantona – a true Rock star, conceived by Dan Leydon

 Very few have embraced the green pitch with equal charisma as the center stage of an opera. Very few characters from the footballing field have full series video games launched about their on field heroics. Very few have been so omnipresent in commercials two decades after retirement from professional football.  So much so that they do not hesitate to strip naked (almost) for the cover of a magazine! Probably only one person ticks all the boxes – the Enigmatic Eric, the Charismatic Cantona.

Two diverse avatars - Eric the troubled soul vs. Cantona the magician, by Dan Leydon
Two diverse avatars – Eric the troubled soul vs. Cantona the magician, by Dan Leydon

 Sources:

Impact Of Foreign Players In European Leagues–EPL

Football has truly become a global game. With its spread across the world—never so prominent than in this millennium—every major European league is able to attract hidden talent from every corner of the planet. This has subsequently changed the demographics of the best leagues in terms of its first XI as well as the full squad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings to you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. The fifth and final instalment of this series features EPL.

Prologue

They say save the best for the last. While no one in his/ her right sense of mind would call the English Premier League, the top professional football league in the English football league system, the best in the world, no one can deny its universal appeal. Five EPL clubs find themselves in the top eight of the Forbes’ Richest Football Clubs list in 2015. The top 20 list features eight English clubs, whereas Spain and Germany barely manage to have three representatives each. This is when Manchester United, the top English club in the list, could not make it to the Champions League, Liverpool has appeared in the top continental competition only once in this decade, and poor performances of other giants of English football are about to cost them a spot in the Champions League!

Still, these clubs remain among the most decorated clubs in modern football. A huge following worldwide, especially in the Asian market, has resulted in an incredible TV deal worth $ 2.56 billion (2014–15 figure) for this tournament. The figure for the nearest rival (Serie A) is not even 40% of this, and the combined total for other top four leagues in Italy, Spain, Germany, and France barely manages to surpass this number. Things will get more lopsided from 2016 when a new TV deal is expected to increase the earnings for English clubs by more than 70%! Coupled with this, the investments made by billionaires at the top as well as middle and lowly clubs in England have meant that they are able to attract and offer incredible packages to star players from all around the world. However, is that proving to be beneficial to the clubs? Does an influx of talent from every corner of the globe guarantee success?

Let us try to see how the game has changed in EPL under the influence of foreign signings and how the top teams have performed. For our calculations, we have taken the top five clubs in the league since the 2010–11 season.

Tottenham Hotspur

The Spurs recently achieved the distinction of offering the most number of players to Three Lions in the last three years. While it is an honour,lack of ambition and a questionable seller attitude have left the club in a state of stagnation. Over the past few years they have been constantly revamping their squad—buying greenhorns and little-known youngsters and trying to see if they can be made to fit into the existing setup. This is not exactly an environment that can vouch for stability. Players like Rafael van der Vaart, Sadro, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Vlad Chiriches, and Étienne Capoue have all been in and out through the revolving door. Some might argue that this major overhaul was a direct consequence of the departure of their star player Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in 2013–14. However,the Spurs were already aware of the consequences when they sold him (for a bounty, at that). They have not really done justice to their kitty in the four to five transfer windows that have come around since then.  As a result, they find themselves stagnated just outside the top four berth, agonisingly losing out on the lucrative Champions League spot. The Lilywhiteshave been dismal in cup competitions—both domestically and in Europe—even after steadily increasing the quota of foreign players in their squad. While Bale was around, the North London club had beat both the Milan clubs in the 2010–11 Champions League and reached the semis of the FA Cup the following year. However, nothing has been won since then! It’s a classic case of quantity over quality for the Spurs, and it has not worked so far.

Number of foreign players has increased over the years, but the Spurs have surely stagnated and need to show more ambition.

Arsenal FC

Many Europeans consider Arsenal to be the ideal representative of English football.  They have an abundance of mediocrity, something that today’s EPL is known for. They have not threatened the top spot for a while, but have always managed to hang on to the last couple of places for a Champions League spot. And there, they have never been shambolic enough to crash out of the group stages, but yet not too greedy to venture past the next round. Manager Arsene Wenger ended the agony of trophy drought by winning back-to-back FA cups recently. However, die-hard Arsenal fans would want to see more of their team, arguably the best to watch on field in the country. The club has never been too shy to acquire foreign talents— Wenger created history by fielding the first ever foreign team (including the ones on the bench) on Valentine’s Day in 2005 in a league match. However, compelled by the home-grown player regulation in the league, Arsenal had no choice but to slowly cut down on their foreign adventures. Still,the club has consistently maintained the highest percentage of foreign players in the top English clubs over the years. Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez still form the backbone of the team. On the other hand, selling star players like Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, and Robin van Persie to rival teams did little good to their unwanted tag of “selling club”.However, like their London rivals, the Gunners too seem to miss that zeal or thrust to push the envelope and go for more.

Arse

Chelsea FC

Chelsea revolutionised English football at the start of the millennium, through its billionaire owner Roman Abramovic. Attracting world-class talent and offering them whopping wages became the norm of the day. Success followed, and since then, Chelsea has emerged as the biggest club in London. The club has surely but steadily became the lone flag bearer for the country in Europe. They have also been spot-on in prioritizing their goals—amidst a lacklustre league campaign in 2011–12, they sacrificed the EPL to achieve an unprecedented domestic and European cup (their sole Champions League honour) double win. They followed it up with another continental glory, the Europa League, the following year. Chelsea finally ended their EPL drought by winning it last season after a hiatus of five years. In this period, Chelsea has increased their dependence on eye-catching foreign talents—Thibaut Courtois, Kurt Zouma, César Azpilicueta, Ramires, Cesc Fàbregas, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Diego Costa—. English players, though just a few, have found it difficult at Stamford Bridge. Club veterans and icons like Frank Lampard have been shown the door, John Terry sees his days being numbered, and even the youth products like Josh McEachran and Ryan Bertrand had to leave to look for regular playing times elsewhere. The Blues have got continued success with their talent acquisition model, and there seems to be no reason why they should change it. At least for the time being.

Chel

Manchester United FC

Manchester United is arguably the most decorated of English clubs. Currently, they are in a state of transition.They became the most successful club in England, winning the league for a record 20th time, and then their legendary manager called it a day after more than quarter of a century at the helm. That was followed by an unthinkable turmoil and spending big to buy a champion team—all of these in the space of last five years. But they have to now dig deep into the pool of local talent – even if that costs more – to maintain their tag of “English club”, something they have been very proud of. Rio Ferdinand has been replaced by Chris Smalling, John O’shea by Phil Jones, Ji-Sung Park by Ashley Young, Alexander Büttner by Luke Shaw, and so on. That is why, even after uncharacteristically spending and raising every eyebrow in the transfer market, Manchester United’s foreign player percentage last year (42.02%) was almost the same as it was in 2012–13 (40.00%), its last season with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge. In this period of transition, naturally, their form has plateaued.From title contenders, they have now been reduced to vying for the coveted Champions League spot. The European battle has certainly taken a back seat. The next couple of seasons are expected to tell us if the club can be back on track or not.

United

Manchester City FC

Last but not the least, let’s talk about Manchester City.It is the club that has leapfrogged over many of its established counterparts to become the number one club in England in recent years. Buoyed by their billionaire owner, they just outdid Chelsea in their own game. An FA Cup, two EPL crowns, and two runner-up finishes just sum it for them in the last half a decade. It is true that they have been dismal in the Champions League. However, sample this—they had two eventual semi finalists in their group once, and were twice knocked out by Barcelona, possibly the team that will go down as one of the best in the history of club football. Manchester City today attracts the biggest of names from all around the world. Be it Yaya Touré, David Silva or Sergio Agüero—the Citizens have not been deprived of star signings in recent years. They have boosted their bench strengths with quality signings as well. Even fringe players in this club are better than the playing team of many. All of this has come at the cost of local talent—people like Adam Johnson, Scott Sinclair, Gareth Barry, Micah Richards, Jack Rodwell have all been dropped to make way for more lucrative names. The results are there for everyone to see.

City

Conclusion

6

Manchester United are in transition and it explains the frequent ups and downs in their graph. Arsenal, out of the financial burden of their new stadium, are now looking to acquire global talents to augment their already affluent stock of local youngsters. However, overall, the trend is alarming.

The top five clubs examined in this article are guilty of using the fewest number of UK players.English players today account for less than a third of playing time, as compared to 69% of playing time two decades back.

There has been a growing concern over the lack of English/ UK players in the English top flight. More alarmingly, the top five clubs examined in this article are guilty of using the fewest number of UK players.English players today account for less than a third of playing time, as compared to 69% of playing time two decades back. Amdist this alarming situation, FA chairman Greg Dyke’s commission came up with an“ambitious but realistic” target of increasing the number of English players in the Premier League to 45% by 2022. This is still substantially less than the figure we see in Spain or Germany (which generally hovers around the 60% mark).

Nevertheless, it is a positive outlook. However, when was the last time English top flight saw that figure of 45%? In the year 2000!

Foreign Consignment at Chelsea
Foreign Consignment at Chelsea

English national football has paid the price for such cosmopolitan nature of the league. They have given little or no chance to their young players in order for them to be groomed for the big stage.As a result, they got knocked out of the group stages of the World Cup in 2014. And this is not accident.They have never made it to the last four of a World Cup since 1990. In the Euros, their last semi final appearance was way back in 1996.  So the debate continues—do fans want a league where English players are given more chances to prosper at the top clubs and help the national team? Or does the fan want to enjoy watching some of the best players in the world?

Dyke also wants to convince the Premier League clubs to increase the number of home grown players in their 25-man squads from 8 to 12. Moreover, he wants to have the criteria of homegrown even stricter, so that players need to be registered for three years prior to turning 18, rather than (the current regulation of) 21.

Naturally, Dyke is facing a lot of criticism from the top-flight clubs. Arsene Wenger has hit out at him, citing the poor performance of the national team at various age group levels. If there is talent, it will find its way—just like Raheem Sterling or Hary Kane. However, how many Kanes are going unnoticed due to lack of playing time? Nobody knows.

The arguments will continue. But one thing is for sure—the English Premier League is set to rule the charts at least for a few more years to come. If not the best league in the world, it definitely is the best amalgamation of world-class players across the globe.

This brings us to the conclusion of the series—Impact of Foreign Players In European Leagues. You can read the previous instalments here. . Keep watching this space!

Sources:

How Difficult it is to predict the English Premier League Table – The Nostradamus Way

gt_labs

Football fanatics are abuzz with excitement because a new season of English Premier League has started! Like every season, the diehards will weigh the chances of their favourite clubs and try to be a Nostradamus in predicting their fates. Here at Goalden Times, Debojyoti Chakraborty digs deep to come up with a fairly easy and accurate forecasting model. Or is it? Read on to know more.

Knowing the Unknown, Seeing the Unseen

The urge to see the future is human nature. Thus, it’s not a coincidence that every football lover bets on, either literally or hypothetically, a team to win a tournament even before it has started. We are not talking about loyalty here. We are actually referring to a fan who chooses the winner based on logical deduction. Apart from the self-satisfaction or social recognition among friends, a true prediction brings in a wealth of fortune if translated correctly in the betting market. So, how difficult it is to logically derive any of these so-called forecasting models?

Simple Theories, Complex Route

A few readers might already be aware of various statistical models adopted by the scholars to arrive at some of the most accurate predictions across different spheres of life. Poisson regression (univariate as well as multivariate), trinomial distribution on stochastically balanced model, Bayesian analysis—these terms will excite many a researcher but will definitely bamboozle most football lovers. However, the basic approach for any such model remains more or less the same—predict the outcome of every match to arrive at the final league table. This in itself seems quite an exercise as it amounts to forecasting the result of 380 matches in a season. Various other factors are also considered, e.g., the expected number of goals to be scored in a match, the home team advantage, the home team’s offensive power, the opponent team’s defensive power, and a random factor. Some models are even more intricate as they drill down to the level of shots on target and tackles won per match, weather and pitch conditions during a particular fixture, the proximity to deadline of the transfer window, individual player’s form, fitness, injury concerns, and so on! In fact, even proven models from other spectrums of life, like Markowitz portfolio management that is used widely in stock trading, have been used to predict the outcome of football matches. Needless to say, predicting match outcomes is a complicated exercise indeed.

They Must be Accurate

After putting in so much time, effort, and money, it is, of course, imperative for the results to be accurate. Well, let’s embrace ourselves for a shocking truth.

Diverse Results from Complicated Prediction Models
Diverse Results from Complicated Prediction Models

The chart above shows how each game in the 2011–12 English Premier League season was predicted by using a very intensive model. The model was used by a famous betting house to determine the match odds. Naturally it was supposed to be one of the most accurate ones in order to maximize the agency’s profits. Probabilities of all the possible bets are plotted horizontally against the corresponding odds offered by the bookmaker (the vertical axis is a logarithmic one). Since only the feasible bets are included in the figure, each data point is above the diagonal. Green squares represent the winning bets and red ones stand for the losing bets. They seem to be quite evenly spread, don’t they? So the football enthusiast, the odd person passing by, or the bookmaker agency—no one seems to be very accurate in predicting match outcomes.

Start from Scratch

So, how good can we be in delivering one such predictive model with the least amount of data? Let us begin without digging up a lot of data points. Let us start from scratch, i.e., let us set aside all our pre-conceived notions of team strengths, past records, and financial muscle, and conclude that the English Premier League is a perfect example of a socialist society. In other words, let us assume that every team is equal and will finish with exactly the same points at the end of the season. What does that mean? It simply implies that all the 20 teams would end up securing the same position in the league table. That position or rank can be either at the top or bottom of the table (1 or 20), or at the middle of the road (10 or 11).  Whatever it is, let us see how much variance we end up with.

Calculus

The less the variance, the better it is. In a perfect predictive model, the variance will be zero. So, it makes much more sense to assume that every team will finish in the same mid-table position. From this point on, whatever model we must come up with, the variance should be lower than 25.89. We shall take data from the last five Premier League seasons (2010–11 onwards) and try to get as close as possible to the final results of the 2015–16 season.

Status Quo

One of the most basic parameters that I can think of at this stage is the previous season’s performance. What if we predict that the teams will finish this season in exactly the same place as the last season? It might sound a bit foolish, but think about it. How much difference do we see in the performance of the top-flight teams in two consecutive seasons? Keep in mind that we are talking about all the 20 clubs collectively here. It’s not about a single club anymore.

2

A look at the graph for the 2012–13 season reveals that this prediction would not have done too badly! Teams promoted from the Championship, Queens Park Rangers, for example, were predicted to secure the last three spots in the table, in order of their Championship season’s ranks. Even though the independent parameter (last season’s league rank) is quite crude and limited in terms of providing adequate informative data, the model showed a decent output with a variance of 17.61. Not bad to start off with!

Financial Muscle

What next then? Well, this decade has seen unprecedented financial muscle flexing by football clubs. An insane influx of money, a scarcity of quality strikers, and the simple rules of demand–supply—all have contributed to EPL clubs being the biggest spenders in world football. So, let us also take into account the cash flow of each team, i.e., money spent on transfers as well as money earned from them (seller club anyone?). Let’s note that free transfers are not considered here. Even though these freebies have played a crucial part in the team’s season outcome in some cases, I have followed the demand–supply principle here. If something is given out for free, then it’s not that good!

3

The results look a bit better, but it’s not that different from what we have already achieved. The variance has come down slightly, but there’s still a long way left to go.

More Matches

So, what else can we take into account? Let us analyse the teams’ performance in the league once a number of matches have been played. After a few rounds in the tournament, squad depths get tested, reserve bench strengths are put to use, and sometimes the league takes a back seat. Now, for domestic cups, at least till the fag end, teams generally try out fringe and youth players so as not to hamper the clubs’ chances in the league. The top teams in the Champions League generally have much bigger and better teams for the tournament, which are also known as the first team squads. These teams are somewhat prepared to face the grinding matches twice a week and hence are likely to be least impacted by that. The actual problem arises for those poor souls who happen to be in the gruelling Europa League. A demanding travel itinerary, a never-ending schedule of matches, and frequent lack of financial motivation take a toll on their league performances. So, we took a look at the teams that participated in the Europa league and also took into account their progress in the tournament.

4

The predicted ranks are now starting to look a lot closer to the actual ones. The variance has come down quite a bit to 12.57—a whopping 51.44% reduction from where we started. That is as good as it can get at this stage.

Nostradamus Comes Out

So, let me try to put our model into action and predict the final league standing for the on-going season. As explained above, the model used takes into account three simple datasets as input parameter:

  • Last year’s league position
  • Net cash spent in the transfer market for the season
  • Number of rounds expected to be played in the Europa Cup in this season

As of now, we know that:

  • Southampton got knocked out in the qualifying round.
  • Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are probably exiting in the round of 32 as they really do not give much importance to the competition. They are more focused on finishing in the top four in the EPL and gaining a Champions League spot.

So, the model is run and this is how the EPL 2015–16 table is predicted.

Will this be the Table in May 2016?
Will this be the Table in May 2016?

Now, this is far from a finished product and the prediction should be taken with a pinch of salt.

  • While the variance has been substantially low (12.57) from where it all started (25.89), there is still massive room for improvement.
  • The model has been unable to pinpoint the table position for each club. For the last five seasons, the model has been successful in predicting the final table position for only two to three clubs, on an average.
  • Having said that, the model has been quite accurate in predicting each club’s final position within three places of its eventual table rank.

As we are already a few matches into the season, it looks highly unlikely that Chelsea would be able to retain their crown based on their current form. However, this prediction does not take into account current season form—this is purely based on the data available before the first game week of the season.

Conclusion

If one happens to look at the following figures, the gradual evolution of the model will come clear.

Timespan

As the model has absorbed more and more parameters, the variance has gone up slightly. In fact, with the two-parameter model, a fewer number of clubs finished within three places of their predicted ranks! However, this error was rectified with the latest model.  The two-parameter model, however, scored heavily in the convergence, i.e., the potential to churn out more accurate predictions in the long run. For the time being, though, our three-parameter model seems to have a struck a reasonable middle ground—an acceptable variance and a decent convergence.

Needless to say, as we fit in more and more relevant parameters into the model, it will become more and more accurate. However, this will only come at the cost of added complexity. The principle of diminishing return of utility should dictate our actions here. Should we consider the impact of managerial change, injuries in the overall squad (or even key players), or difficult fixture at the start / end of the season? Can any of these parameters diminish the variance significantly? The search is endless. Considering the effort required to build up this model and the astounding proximity to the eventual final table in the last five seasons of EPL, this looks more than a decent proposition. Disagree? Please leave your comments. You never know, your thoughts may just be incorporated in our next predictive model!

References

Impact Of Foreign Players In European Leagues: La Liga

Football has truly become a global game. With its spread across the world—never so prominent than in this millennium—every major European league has been able to attract hidden talent from every corner of the planet. Subsequently, it has changed the demographics of the best leagues in terms of its first XI as well as the full squad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. The fourth instalment of this series features La Liga.

Prologue

Spain has been on the top of UEFA’s associations’ club coefficients rankings for the past five years. Moreover, since the inception of the system in 1979, Spain has topped the rankings for a total of 18 years—more than any other European association. This is understandable if we take stock of the following achievements:
 
• Most number of UEFA Champions Leagues, the topmost continental glory – 15
• Most successful club in the top-tier continental tournament – Real Madrid (10)
• Most successful club in the second-tier continental tournament – Sevilla (4)
• La Liga is the first and only league to be represented by both finalists in a UEFA Champions League final on two occasions, the last time as recently as in 2013–14
• Most number of UEFA Best Player in Europe awards (3)
• Highest representation in FIFPro World XI and UEFA Team of the Year

All the above facts point to the strong performance of the Spanish club in continental competitions. It is no wonder that with the participation of all these clubs, La Liga has turned out to be one of the best domestic league in the world. Surprisingly, the average attendance in La Liga, a little over 10 million in 2013–14, lags behind that of Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier League. While that has something to do with average stadium capacities, no one can deny the fact that the best of talents are unleashed in La Liga week in, week out.

So let us try to see how the game has changed in La Liga under the influence of foreign signings, and how the top teams have performed. Our sample size is five—the top five clubs since the 2010–11 season.

Sevilla FC

People often claim that La Liga is the best in business based upon its teams’ success in the UEFA Champions League. Well, they can augment their assertion by having a look at the second-tier continental tournament, the Europa League. And no one does a better job of cementing the claim of Spanish dominance than Los Nervionenses, the winner of the competition two years running. This is a sure shot upgrade from their dismal seasons earlier in the decade when they barely managed to hang on to a top-half finish and did not progress much in the continental front as well. What is even more praiseworthy is that Sevilla have been able to hold onto their own despite selling their star players throughout this period. And the replacements, who have either been a young Spanish footballer or a foreign untested player, have almost always gone on to become stars. So, the departure of Alberto Moreno, Álvaro Negredo, and Jesús Navas did not pinch that much as Aleix Vidal, Carlos Bacca, and Kévin Gameiro stepped up to the game. Over all, Sevilla have been able to keep a close-knit group of core players, a decent spread of domestics vs. foreign players, and would look to do the same next season. The Champions League might be a bit too much for them, but then again, they would most likely have the fall back option of the Europa League.

Sevilla

Valencia CF

Valencia, once a dominant force in Europe, have regressed a bit over the years. Too much tinkering with the squad, inability to hold on to star players, and a disastrous transfer strategy resulting in none of their buys living up to the promise have caused their demise. More often than not Els Taronges have looked beyond Spain to bolster their squad. To their bad luck, they have lost to the eventual winners—Sevilla and Atlético Madrid, both from Spain—in the Europa League semi-finals in the last five years. However, it never was going to be easy to find able replacements for the likes of David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, Jérémy Mathieu, and Juan Bernat. Sure, they made some good business over the sale of Villa, Roberto Soldado, and (possibly) Nicolás Otamendi, but that does not win you trophies. In the coming season, they have splashed a huge amount of money—more than €100 million, which surpasses their last three seasons’ combined transfer cash outflow—but it is doubtful how much dividend a fairly new squad can provide.

Valencia

Atlético Madrid

Change of psychology, a desire to break the stereotype, and a board willing to back the team all the way has transformed Atlético Madrid dramatically over the last half a decade. It is no coincidence that it was the same period when a certain Diego Simeone took charge of the club. Rojiblancos have stuck to their game plan throughout—maintain a core group of players, keep an optimal squad size for better team bonding, and don’t hesitate to sign marquee players even if they are not cheap. The results are there for everyone to see—one La Liga title, a couple of podium finishes, one domestic runner-up crown, one continental glory (Europa League) to go with an unbeaten run in the Champions League 2013-14, where they cruelly lost out to Real Madrid in the extra time. Atlético’s transfer policy has to be applauded for finding the right replacements all the time. Sergio Agüero’s departure was compensated by the recruitment of Falcao, David de Gea’s by Thibaut Courtois, and Martín Demichelis’ by Toby Alderweireld. Money has never been a problem for Atlético—they utilized the money earned from the sale of Diego Costa and Mario Mandzukic by scooping up Antoine Griezmann and Jackson Martinez. No wonder they are on the right track.

ATM

Real Madrid

Now comes the giant of Europe—Real Madrid. Famous for breaking the bank every now and then, Madrid has definitely trimmed its squad size over the years. That is very surprising as Los Blancos are always contesting deep into three, or even four competitions. The axe has come down hard on the domestic players, to be precise, as their percentage share in the squad has gone down alarmingly. True, Real won the much-coveted La Decima a couple of seasons back and have featured in every semi-final stage of Champions League since 2010–11. They have also shown decent form in the domestic cup competition, winning it twice in the interim period. However, their foreign contingent has found it tough in La Liga, with Madrid lifting the trophy only once in the same period and even finishing third once in a league often ridiculed as a two-horse show. There must be some very good reasons for letting go of players like Sergio Canales, José Callejón, and Álvaro Morata, but the results have failed to justify them.

RM

FC Barcelona

We wrap up our Spanish investigation with Barcelona, the best modern club around. Well, with two Champions League crowns, three La Liga titles, and a couple of domestic cups, they are actually making a strong case for themselves to be termed the best club team of all time. Fresh from the transfer ban imposed by FIFA and a certain Luis Suarez ineligible to play for the first half of the season, Blaugrana overcame some mid-season mild hiccups and completed the treble in 2014-15. Barcelona always had a very strong Spanish influence in their team, but recently they had to curb that instinct and give the team a more cosmopolitan look. The deadly Latin American trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr., and Suarez is a prime example of that. The dip in the form of Villa and Bojan Krkic, coupled with Thiago’s urge to depart have not helped either. Still, Barcelona have a strong foundation, they are continuously promoting youth from their own academy (case in point, Cristian Tello, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto, to name a few), and there is no reason why they cannot continue to rewrite history in the coming days.

Barca

Conclusion

In 2010, Jose Luis Astiazaran, the then La Liga president, proudly claimed that more than three-fourths of players in the league are eligible to play for the national team, whereas the number stands as low as one-third for the English Premier League. And how times have changed since then! In March 2015, the Spanish national team coach Vicente del Bosque expressed his concern on the increasing number of foreign players in the top flight. This came in the backdrop of the lack of Spanish forwards in the league, as most top teams are currently reliant on foreigners to score the goals. And the story does not end there. Football clubs from Spain have brought in 352 foreign players under the age of 18 in 2014, according to data released by the ruling body’s Transfer Matching System AG, also mentioning that 48 more transfers were turned down. Investing on minors go a long way not only in their development but also towards saving on transfer fees later. While this has had legitimate implications and bans have been imposed by FIFA later on, needless to say, this restricts the opportunity for the local talent. So, ironically enough, Spain has recently been falling into the same trap they had ridiculed others for before.

Football clubs from Spain have brought in 352 foreign players under the age of 18 in 2014, according to data released by the ruling body’s Transfer Matching System AG, also mentioning that 48 more transfers were turned down.

Club Correlation between Percentage of Foreign Players and League Standing

Trap
As is evident from the above table, success is not always guaranteed by foreign invasion. The Big Two might have done better had they persisted with their home-grown talent. The story is different for Atlético and Sevilla, who have reaped the rewards by bringing in quality foreign players and climbed up the ladder. Valencia’s negative correlation clearly demonstrates their selling club mentality—they have found it really tough to replenish the stock of quality players, even if they have imported a few from outside Spain.
 
A special mention here for Athletic Bilbao—Los Leones is world famous for their transfer policy of bringing young Basque players through their ranks, and hence, do not feature in our analysis. Even then, they have done considerably well in La Liga as well as domestic cup competitions.
 
That is it, then, for the Spanish Armada. Keep watching this space for more in our next installment!
 
Feature Image Credit – GOAL.com

Manchester United Transfer Saga

Like never before, Manchester United have broken the bank to get a complete overhaul of their squad. Not only have they bought in as many as six players, all of them are actually going to feature in their first choice starting XI. Debojyoti Chakraborty elaborates on their transfer activity with Goalden Times.

van_gaal

 
Tons of newsprint and a lot of e-space have been devoted to the whirlwind taking place at a club from Manchester. And surprisingly, the club splashing the cash – sometimes quite inexplicably to meet absurd asking prices – is not the club known for flexing its financial muscles. It is the red half of the city where Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal is all set to unleash his Gaalacticos.

To fully evaluate this crazy transfer window, where United got linked with almost all the top players, we have to go back a couple of years, when Sir Alex Ferguson retired after a reign of quarter of a century. The disappointing David Moyes stint followed where they were beaten by a lot of clubs at home – something which had never happened for a long long time. But finally, in van Gaal, the United faithful seem to have found a father figure to rely upon. Although his start to the campaign has not been very inspiring – no win after three games in the league – there is optimism amongst the fans that the Dutch maestro will turn things around.

And there is more than optimism – having spent a whopping $280 Million, there are six new signings to fall back upon. If the January signing of Juan Mata is also taken into account, that makes it seven players, since start of the year, who have been drafted in straight for the first team. This is in stark contrast to the Manchester United philosophy of grooming home grown, young players and giving opportunities to academy products. But this was long time coming.

The success of – and the obsession with – the famous Class of ’92 which boasted the likes of David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes who ruled English football for over a decade has much to do with it. Subsequent academy produces like Darren Gibson, Ravel Morrison, Tom Cleverley and even Darren Fletcher have failed to reach those lofty standards. Sure, there have been a few silver linings in the likes of Adnan Janujaz but they have been few and far between. May be United fell victim to their own success. Ferguson won the league with kids contrary to the popular notion that “you can’t win anything with the kids”. But he was not carrying any baggage with him – Manchester United had not conquered the top division for more than three decades, the team was begging for stars – he had practically nothing to lose. Fergie introduced the youth policy and made kids into stars. To follow that tradition was a tough ask and the next rank of youngsters had a much tougher road ahead of them. Players like Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi and Paul Pogba craved for regular first team places but could not (or United did not want to?) go past the established stars. Sadly, they left to pursue their career elsewhere and created a big vacuum in Red Devils’ supply line.

di_maria

Manchester United was managed, and quite supremely at that, by the legendary Ferguson. But whatever may have been his contribution to the club, England or the world of football, even he has to accept that he left the club in a very bad shape. He could not find a replacement for the sturdy Roy Keane when the midfield maestro hung up his boots. After some average signings like Quinton Fortune and Eric Djemba-Djemba, he tried to convert Alan Smith, a forward, into a combative ball snatcher. Smith did give a few memorable performances, especially against the league winners Chelsea in 2005, but he could not maintain that level consistently. Owen Hargreaves was bought with huge expectations from Bayern Munich but his troublesome knee ensured he was sidelined with lengthy spells of injury. Anderson was tried for a few seasons, so was Kléberson but neither could hold fort like Keano.

With the retirement of midfield stalwarts Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs changes were eminent at Old Trafford. But Fergie did not prepare well for their replacements.. Michael Carrick can at best be described as the poor man’s Scholes – in terms of his movements, eye for a gap in the opposition defense, precise passing, and long diagonal Hollywood balls.  Park Ji Sung did bring a lot of energy and work-rate in the midfield but was never that creative midfielder United always craved for. Moyes also had his blooper moment when he signed Marouane Fellaini for an incredible $42 Million but even after a season, the Reds are still struggling to find an ideal position for the Belgian.

Similarly after Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, neither Nani or Ashley Young – or Bebé, or Gabriel Obertan if anyone still remembers them – failed to inspire the team with mesmerizing dribbling and runs down the flank. Antonio Valencia stayed honest to his duties but he gives more of industry and defensive cover than panache in attack.

The mass exodus of defenders – Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra – at the end of last season – also did not help. They were ageing and again the club failed to bring in someone of equivalent calibre or have someone as an adequate understudy. After a long long time, the Reds will be without their favoured defensive lynchpins and the sight of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans guarding the defense does not inspire confidence.

Strike force is one area where Manchester United has regularly beefed up. Be it Ruud van Nistelrooy, Diego Forlan, Carlos Tevez or Dimitar Berbatov – Wayne Rooney always had at least one world class forward to partner him. Some have succeeded, some have failed, but the club has always been very proactive in bringing in quality players to score the goals. United’s enthusiasm in the market also lead to signing a certain Robin van Persie from rival Arsenal to protect the budding Danny Welbeck and the super sub, Javier Chicharito Hernández. Van Persie repaid the faith by scoring 26 league goals and helping the Devils reclaim the Champion’s crown. But his resurfacing injury scares proved that the 30+ striker was always going to need a bit of cover in coming days.

falcao

So, even though Moyes was made a scapegoat for the dreadful 2013-14 season which head to his eventual dismissal after less than a year into his six-year contract, a reality check must have crept into the board room at Manchester United – the players simply are not good enough and the squad needs to be rebuilt.

graph1

And add to that the injection of cash by club owners worldwide. Roman Abramovich, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Dmitry Rybolovlev have not only made clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco more competitive, but also increased the demand for the highest quality of footballers. This in turn has skyrocketed market valuations of players; It is now practically impossible to get a decent player from open market at a bargain price.

So, here it is. A shambolic season, departing star players, lack of quality player in the team, lofty player prices:  All of this contrived to United breaking its record transfer fee paid twice in the same calendar year. Yes, Manchester United splurged cash in the market and captured seven quality players in little over than six months – six of them coming in this transfer window.  But a look at the new arrivals and one can understand the rationale behind the purchase.

  • Luke Shaw ($49 Million) – an investment which is seen more of a long term solution for the left back position; quality young English players are a scarcity and Shaw certainly benefited from that.
  • Marcos Rojo ($26 Million) – a left sided stopper who can double up as the left back, coming fresh from a brilliant World Cup.
  • Daley Blind ($23 Million) – another star from the World Cup, a defensive midfielder who is versatile enough to slot in anywhere in defensive areas.
  • Ander Herrera ($47 Million) – the band master to take the game from the scruff of the neck.
  • Juan Mata ($58 Million) – a world class playmaker, most effective playing in the hole, bridging the gap between the central midfielders and the front men
  • Ángel di María ($97 Million ) – the wing wizard, captured for a club record fee
  • Radamel Falcao ($10 Million on loan) – one of the most lethal strikers around, to act as cover for van Persie as well as helping to lift his game up, even though it meant United will be lighter by $16 Million just to pay his wage bill.

graph2

Modern football is reminiscent of a seller’s market – the buying clubs cannot decide the actual worth of a player; they just have to pay what the selling club is asking for. The prices paid might not seem justifiable, but United simply had to go for these kind of players. On the upside, all of them are quite young – except for the loan signing of Falcao who is 28 – and are set to feature in the first team after the international break on September 14th. It seems a practical move by Manchester United to splash the cash. It seems even more justified to boost the morale of a despondent team and its supporters.

Removal of some extra baggage was imminent and that was seen in the form of departures of Danny Welbeck, Tom Lawrence, Cleverly (loaned out), Shinji Kagawa, Alexander Büttner, Bebé and Chicharito (loaned out). The first three exits surely spell a strong statement highlighting the changed mindset – football is no longer about emotions; you have to be ruthless to succeed, even if that means axing your own home-grown players who fail to make the cut. As the saying goes – Football is not as important as winning or losing – it is a little more important than that.

Football has changed radically over the years, may be for the bad. Players have become more professional, romanticism or attachment with a club for the entire career span is hard to see nowadays. Given the lure of attractive package, top class performers are ready to change their loyalty, even if that deprives them of Champions League glory to start off with. But on the other hand, such an ensemble might take some time to gel. With so many new players joining Manchester United, this is a transfer window that could very easily backfire as well given United can not afford to have two consecutive seasons without the lure of Champions League. With this complete new outlook of the team, there is a renewed enthusiasm among the fans. A section of it is asking for instant success, whereas there is a vast majority who want to be cautious after the calamitous 2013-14 season.  This makes sense as there are still concern areas, especially at the centre back position which is badly missing an imposing leader. Also the manager needs to find a system which does justice to the set of players – at least to majority of them – he has at his disposal. But with a superb tactician like van Gaal at the helm, United fans can certainly hope for good times ahead.

 
 

Portugal – Bright Future Ahead

Goalden Times had classified Portugal as one of the dark horses of Euro 2012. Their performance in the tournament vindicates that. Debojyoti Chakraborty reports

Pitted against two star-studded sides in the group stages, not many in Portugal were that much optimistic of a good campaign at the Euro 2012. A few decent players and quite a few completely unknown to the vast majority of football fans worldwide; looking up to ‘The One’ aka Cristiano Ronaldo for inspiration – it was not a script that looked rosy before the tournament started. Moreover, Portugal had not fared well at the 2010 World Cup. More than their results, what disappointed fans the most was their pathetic football which lacked any sort of ambition and imagination under Carlos Queiroz.

The current manager Paulo Bento was not having a happy time either. Defender duo of Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa refused to play for the Seleccao under him during the build-up of the tournament. Over-reliance on CR7 for goals was heavily criticised. But Bento had a vision and he stuck to it. He did not hesitate to start with Rui Patricio ahead of established shot stopper Eduardo and Patricio paid back his manager’s faith by having a brilliant tournament.

Things started pretty badly for Portugal. Not many eyebrows were raised to see Germany beating them 1-0 on matchday 1. But Denmark’s victory over the Dutch made life very difficult for the Seleccao in the Group of Death. In the second match, Portugal made life difficult for themselves against the Danes and had to rely on a last gasp winner from Silvestre Varela to clinch a 3-2 thriller. In the final group match against Netherlands, Portugal needed to at least match Denmark’s result against Germany to progress through. Things looked gloomy for them as Rafael van der Vaart put Netherlands ahead in a must-win-and-hope-for-other-results match for the Oranje. This is when Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been heavily criticized and mimicked for his performance so far in the tournament, came on to his own. His scintillating performance, cupped with a brace, put Portugal through to the knockout stages of Euro 2012.

Punching above their weight

The best footballer in the continent put up another brilliant display to seal a berth for the semis as his goal was the difference between Portugal and Czech Republic in the quarter-final match. They were unfortunate to bow out against Spain in the penalty shoot-out in the semi-final, but nevertheless they have left a lasting impression. Ronaldo may ponder over his whole life what might have been had he not held himself back for the last penalty kick (which was not required!). But he certainly had a very good tournament to be proud of, both as an individual and as the captain of a young and ambitious team.

Can hardly watch it

The results were encouraging and Portugal impressed one and all. Ronaldo took the responsibility and besides his goals and hitting the framework numerous times, charmed football lovers with his play. Joao Moutinho emerged as the star performer for them and looks set to improve as time passes by. Among youngsters, Patricio and defender Fabio Coentrao stood out and they should be nurtured with care for future development.

The core of this team is expected to remain the same for the next few years. Captain charismatic Cristiano Ronaldo does not look like slowing down – why should he, he is only 27 after all – and he will be motivated to win a silverware for his country after winning all-there-is-to-be-won at the club level. Pepe at the back and the midfield trio of Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles will also be around in full throttle for some more years to come. Few players may come in and go out as part of natural footballing cycle but the team seems to be on the right track.

Not anymore a one-man team

One man looking certain to remain with the team is Paulo Bento. Amidst all the controversies before the start of the campaign, he has shown that he knows how to handle pressure. He has stuck to his principles – not selecting disinterested players – and decisions – starting with second choice goalkeeper – and has taken full responsibility for the outcome. He has galvanized the team well and has brought back an attacking flair to the team’s play. This is a commendable impact considering he only took over in the qualifying stages when things did not look all that bright.

Bento has earned the respect of his team

He, though, has plenty of work to do. His work list ought to start with finding a decent central striker. Ronaldo seems more effective if given a free roaming role. He can start wide but would naturally drift in, drop back and can create havoc in the opponent camp more often than not. For that to happen, Portugal badly needs a world class target man up front but the options are not that great. One only hopes some youngsters would develop in the next couple of years to bolster the Samba party. Portugal team seems comfortable playing a traditional 4-3-3 formation. But as the modern trends unfold, this strategy may lose out to the midfield battle against a strong team playing 4-2-3-1 (as seen against the Germans). But Bento cannot try out this new look, at least for now, as he does not have a Number 10 to dictate the game (a la Rui Costa).

Hopes flying high

In back-to-back major tournaments, Spain has proved to be the nemesis for Portugal. But the similarity ends here. If World Cup 2010 was a horror show, Euro 2012 has been the complete opposite. Fans back home and across the globe should not be disheartened with the showings from a young team. They started and ended their campaign with defeats – not too bad considering they were playing against the two top ranked teams in the tournament – but they sandwiched some praiseworthy performances in between. It was good till it lasted; Portugal will certainly hope to make it better next time.

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.

.

.

He scores whenever he wants to

,

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.

.

.

The New Champions

.

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.

.

.

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.

.

.

A dejected spurs journey

.

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

Europa League Final Preview

The second tier club honour in Europe is coming to Spain. Get the showdown of the all Spaniard Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

Athletic Club (ESP) vs. Club Atlético de Madrid (ESP)

Arena Națională, Bucharest

May 9, 2012

14: 45 EST

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 10, 2012)

 

This year the Europa League has been dominated by the reigning European and World Champions, Spain. The finalists, Athletic Club and Club Atlético de Madrid, have dominated the competition this time round – along with another semi-finalist from Spain, Valencia – and it is no surprise that we are set for an all Spanish Cup Final this year. It will be a good time for the less fancied Spanish duo when their more illustrious compatriots failed in the Champions League during the same week. They came through two contrasting semi-final ties. The giant killing Athletic Club, which accounted for Manchester United earlier, had to dig deep to see off a stern Sporting Lisbon side en route to their second ever European Cup finals. On the other hand, 2010 Europa League winners, Club Atlético de Madrid cruised past Valencia for a ticket to the final on May 9, 2012 in Bucharest. Last time an all Spanish final took place was in 2007, at the finals of Europa League (then known as the UEFA Cup), when Sevilla edged past Espanyol on penalty shoot-out after a 2-2 deadlock. It will be a huge occasion for the Marcelo Bielsa managed Bilbao side. Over and above their nail-biting semi-final tie which saw them through by virtue of a last gasp winner, it will be an emotional moment for the club which last made a European final appearance way back in 1977 only to be beaten by Juventus. Elsewhere, Club Atlético de Madrid had taken a huge step towards the final by virtue of a 4-2 first leg win. They merely finished the formalities by winning the return leg also by a solitary goal. They would like to repeat the performance of two years back when they won the competition. The two teams have been locking horns even before the inception of Spanish championships (in 1929) as they met in the Copa del Rey finals in 1921 where the Madrid side was beaten 1-4. This season though, they have won one apiece in La Liga.  They are difficult to separate in the league standings also as they lie side by side in sixth and eighth positions with only two points separating them. One of the most striking features of the Basque club, Athletic Club or Athletic Bilbao, is that all of its players are either born or received their training in the Basque Country and its provinces, a culture it has upheld since its inception. Marcelo Bielsa has really done wonders since taking charge in the last year. Apart from reaching the finals of Europa League and fighting for a European spot in the league, Bilbao has set up a Copa del Rey final clash with Barcelona on May 25. Bielsa likes to start with a pressing 4-2-3-1 formation which is changed to 4-3-3 at times. Gorka Iraizoz starts in the goal with Fernando Amorebieta and World Cup winning midfielder Javi Martinez as centre-half pairing. The full-back positions are occupied by Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe. The holding midfielder role is given to Ander Iturraspe who has formed a potent partnership with the tireless and versatile Oscar de Marcos, playing in a slightly advanced position and given the freedom to venture forward whenever the opportunity arises. Inspirational striker Fernando Llorente is the focal point of attack. With seven goals in 13 appearances, this competition has been a successful one for him and he would definitely like to finish it on a high. He is flanked by Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta with playmaker Ander Herrera playing in the hole.

Bilbao pressing throughout

Club Atlético de Madrid is also helmed by an Argentine, Diego Simeone, and he favours a rather uncomplicated 4-5-1 formation. They have a 6’6” teenage Belgian shot-stopper in Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, who has really impressed one and all. The defence is marshalled by Diego Godin and Joao Miranda. They have a versatile right-back in Juanfran who can also operate on the right side of midfield. Left-back is occupied by Filipe Luis. Mario Suarez and Gabriel Arenas like to anchor the midfield and complement each other in going forward. The right side of midfield has been made his own by Adrian Lopez through his marauding runs and goal-scoring knack. He is matched in the opposite flank by Arda Turan. Diego Ribas is the most advanced of this compact midfield and he supports the lone striker – the man with the golden touch, Radamel Falcao, a perfect #9. Besides netting twenty-three goals in the La Ligain 31 appearances in his debut season, Falcao has scored an amazing ten times in 14 appearances in this continental cup competition. One of his trademark weapons has been his incredible spot jump to add power in the air despite not being that tall. He is no stranger to this stage though, as he smashed a record 17 goals last time en route to winning the trophy for Porto.

Compact midfield of Atletico Madrid

With two dangerous strikers upfront from each side and to continue with the high scoring La Liga pattern, the final is expected to be a high-scoring affair. But stakes are high and it won’t be wrong to predict the coaches to be slightly worried about venturing forward at will. Nevertheless, this should be a good spectacle with a slightly better defence giving the Madrid side an edge.

Maximus Tacticus – Newcastle United

In this feature, Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes the strategies of top EPL sides. This time it is Newcastle United.

Induction

Newcastle United have set themselves a target for this season – they want to make up for lost time. From playing in the qualification stages for Champions League in 2003 they had only gone backwards and even tasted the dogfight in the Championships. No more of those agony stories. They have a settled team, a cool manager at the helm, and as always, a passionate fan base. Europe does not seem too far away this time round.

New Era Beckons

The summer started with much of uncertainty for the Magpies. Known and established faces left the club and the manager refused to splash cash and bring in some star players. Alan Pardew opted for young starlets and his policy is now paying rich dividends. He may not have the strongest of squads at his disposal, he might be lacking a bit of depth in his squad, but Pardew certainly has put together a strong team who can give their opponents a run for their money.

The policy of trusting on youth has rarely been so effective than Tim Krul, the #1 goalkeeper for Newcastle this season. A little known 23-year old Dutch coming from a small club like Den Haag has caught everyone off guard with his command on the game. Krul is a typical English-like goalkeeper who can hurl the ball a long way. He has a good outing sense and likes to punch the ball away and thus initiates a counter attacking move. He may have to work on his reflexes but he is already a valued proposition and a possible transfer target for many big clubs.

Newcastle’s captain this season has been a summer recruit who was no headline when he joined the club in August. But Fabricio Coloccini has provided the much needed stability in the defence with his calm and composed demeanour. He is good with the ball and often comes out of the danger zone with the ball in his feet. With close to 85% passing accuracy, he can easily dictate the game from the back. Coloccini’s partner in crime in a silk-n-steel defensive pairing has been Steven Taylor. A perfect foil for a ball playing defender, he is a no-nonsense stopper who plays a primary blocker and clears the ball out of defence at the first opportunity – eight clearances in each game on an average. His strong physical presence is always an asset in set piece situations – both while defending and when attacking. The star man in defence, though, has been a little Taylor playing down the left flank – Ryan Taylor. On the right back position, Danny Simpson is given the license to venture forward in his marauding runs as Ryan Taylor sits back making it a compact 3-man defence.

Newcastle’s attacking threat

Pardew has opted for a traditional 4-4-1-1 formation in most of the matches. But he has been flexible enough to bring out the best in each of his players. That is why quite often his on-field strategies have revolved around a 3-man central midfield formation of 4-2-3-1. This is to be expected when two commanding midfielders are marshalling the centre of the field – Cheik Tioté and Yohan Cabaye. Both are quite similar in nature with strong physical presence and ability to marshal the midfield by quick ball interception and accurate passing. Cabaye in particular has been impressive with his leadership and ability to dictate the play. He is given a free roaming role at the heart of Newcastle’s midfield and is entrusted with the responsibility of linking the flank with the strikers. Together with the tireless Tioté or Danny Guthrie – deployed as the defensive screen, Cabaye has ensured that Newcastle play to a high tempo, take a direct approach, press high up the pitch but flood the attacking third if the opportunity arrives.

Strong attacking flair is provided by Jonás Gutiérrez from the left flank. A nimble dribbler, he is equally adept at cutting inside, opening up the defence with short interchange of passes or delivering a telling cross. Coupled with Ryan Taylor, he has formed a deadly partnership. Newcastle have missed the same threat from the other flank as Gabriel Obertan has been rarely impressive with his final balls. Another sore point for Pardew is the supporting striker/ attacking midfield position. Hatem Ben Arfa has been inconsistent or sidelined due to injury for most of the time. Leon Best is not the typical #10; he can win some aerial duel but his overall awareness of the game as well as his work ethic quite often lets him down. Shola and Sammy – the Ameobi brothers seem not good enough to play at this level week in week out.

Having covered them all, we come to the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle and how well has he fit in! Demba Ba. It won’t be wrong to say that he has single-handedly propelled Newcastle to the position they are right now. Worrying days await Pardew as others have failed to contribute except him. This might make Newcastle pay dearly in their charge towards Europe when Ba is unavailable owing to injuries or on international duties.

Man to Watch (1) – Demba Ba

He is a perfect striker – good with the ball on his feet, strong physique to win headers and capable of displaying a thunderbolt of a shot to catch the opposition unaware from a distance. To add to that, Ba is playing the football of his life and have rejuvenated a side that was lacking a serious target up front with the departure of Andy Carroll. He is not easy to mark either as he can cut inside to shoot with his reverse leg or can cut through a defence with some slick touches. He has been in lethal form this season and has netted 15 goals averaging almost one goal per game. Playing for a team with limited ammunition going forward, it is a brilliant achievement. But to measure his influence with goals alone would be wrong – he drops back effortlessly drawing his marker along with him. This creates a vacuum in the opposition defence which his team mates can exploit. He is more than a poacher, sometimes even playing as a false nine where he lurks outside the penalty box for the right opportunity. This is evident from his movements in the 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United recently.

Man to Watch (2) – R Taylor

Ryan Taylor, the left back, has been sensational this season on both fronts – two goals, three assists to go along with seven clean sheets. Besides his delightful long balls towards the opponent’s penalty area, he is the stand-out free kick taker for Newcastle. Taylor is a right-footed left back who attacks like an inverted winger. This has made him a very unique player for the Magpies and a headache for the opponents. To summarize his influence let us have a look at his performance against Sunderland. He got a decent 70% accuracy in his passing but most importantly, he was spot on with the balls which mattered. Out of his 14 miss passes/ attempts, 3 each were free-kicks and throw-ins – cases where 50-50 balls are delivered more often than not to open up the defence and hence accuracies are naturally on the lower side. Six of the remaining eight miss passes came along when Taylor was trying a long diagonal, proving he was quite smooth in his own half while defending. To top it up, he also scored the only goal of the match from a direct free kick. Not bad, Ryan Taylor, keep it up!

Taylor’s Influence

   

Blue Line – Successful Pass

Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass

White Line – Assist / Goal

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.

Maximus Tacticus – Swansea City

In this feature, Debojyoti Chakraborty tries to analyze the strategies of top EPL sides

 Induction

Swansea City is the first side from Wales to play in English football’s top-flight since the inception of the English Premier League. Ranked 15th following the first half of the season, they look to be good value for money to remain in the top-drawer in their inaugural season. They have had a remarkable progress – notching up two promotions in the last four years, and do not look remotely out of place against the big boys of English football.

Beautiful Game

Swansea City’s strength lies in their defence. They have made the Liberty Stadium their fortress, conceding only four goals in the first half of home matches. Star shot stopper Dorus de Vries left the club last summer; however, Michel Vorm has been a more than able replacement. We have read”Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles” in the inaugural edition of Goalden Times, in August 2011. Swansea had a solid defence last season in the Championship and they have just taken that form into the Premier League. The Swansea centre back pairing of Garry Monk and Ashley Williams complement each other well. While Williams is a good reader of the game and often comes up with crucial interceptions, Monk, on the other hand, is a very good passer and has completed 92% of his passes – which is quite impressive considering he has been in and out of the team. Angel Rangel, the right back has formed a good partnership with Vorm – more often than not, the Swans start their attack after Vorm releases the ball wide to an overlapping Rangel. The full back converted more passes this season than some of his more glamorous contemporaries, like Ashley Cole and Luis Enrique. Besides, with eight telling crosses into the attacking area, he is a definite threat when he is going forward – an embodiment of a modern day full back. He has a good grasp of the tactics and very alert on the field, often cutting inside skilfully to create space for other wide players to run through the flank.

No matter what their style of play is, it would be inappropriate to mark Swans as a conservative team. What sets them apart from other recently promoted teams is their approach towards the game. Their manager, Brendan Rodgers for instance, has not changed his swashbuckling style and sets out his team to win, regardless of the opposition or the venue. Swansea City does not usually crowd its own penalty box and look to play on the counter. The Swans earned a well deserved draw against Tottenham Hotspurs and Harry Redknapp was not frustrated with the result. Respect, if anything, was his immediate sentiment: “They are a good team, you have to accept that”. No small compliment from a team with a realistic chance of challenging the Manchester clubs for the coveted title.

Swansea’s playing style revolves around keeping the ball. Leon Britton works as the engine of the team by sitting in front of the back four. The other two central midfielders, Mark Gower and Wayne Routledge (or, Joe Allen) enjoy more freedom. Their close passing dictates the pace of the game. When not in position, they drop deep and wide to cover for the opponent full backs. Rodgers keeps it simple and epitomizes the philosophy: “If they do not have the ball, they are not going to score”.  Unlike most of the English teams who indulge in long balls, Swans have adopted a refreshing passing style – keep the ball, move it around with excellent third man runs and off-the-ball movements, culminating in a through pass to unlock the opposition defence. This passing game has caught most of the clubs unawares as they are used to more cagey strategies by newly promoted sides.

Their 86% pass completion rate makes Swansea one of the most attractive teams in the league. But they lack a focal point of attack up front. Danny Graham is their top scorer with only six goals to his credit, so far. Not only have they scored very few goals in the league – 18 in 19 matches, averaging less than one goal per match – they have only managed three shots on target, per game. Unfortunately, most of Swansea’s goals have resulted from an opponent’s mistake rather than a neat finish off a well-structured move. No wonder Swansea failed to beat teams despite having one of the best defensive records at home. And that’s quite a disappointment for a team that cherishes a free flowing game of football.

Compact Midfield of Swansea

Man to Watch (1) – Michel Vorm

Michel Vorm has been by some distance regarded by the EPL pundits as the best goalkeeper of the season. Some achievement indeed, playing for a team which has conceded more than one goal on an average in the first half of the league campaign. 9 clean sheets along with 65 saves have made him one of the top shot stoppers in the game. As he is pretty comfortable with the ball at his feet, Vorm fits into the club hand in glove. Swansea likes to build the game from behind, so it is imperative that the goalkeeper is comfortable with his feet. As shown in the illustration, Vorm can use more short passes to initiate an attack for Swansea City. Not sure if he had the same distribution playing for Stoke City, especially with a certain Peter Crouch up front. Vorm is also equipped to marshal the game well from behind and help in setting up the game from the back. Nicknamed ‘The Penalty Killer’, this super athlete is gifted with exceptional penalty saving abilities. Add to that his agile moves and we can see glimpses of his fellow countryman, Edwin van der Sar.

Building from the Back

Man to Watch (2) – Scott Sinclair

Ex-Chelsea player Scott Sinclair took a big gamble when he decided to play for a Championship club in the quest for regular first team football. He was pivotal in the Welsh club earning them a promotion to top flight English football last year. He has been instrumental this year too, contributing the most number of assists for Swansea City. Things have changed for the better after Rodgers changed Sinclair from an out-and-out forward to a wing wizard. With his blistering pace down the left flank, Sinclair has shone in a wide forward role. As is evident below, his passing has been superb in this position. But due to lack of depth in the squad, sometimes Sinclair has been deployed in a more central position where he has failed to dictate the game so much. Another criticism for Sinclair has been that he often switches off from the game. Nevertheless, he was in his true colours against Tottenham Hotspur lately. If he can continue his showing as the most creative player for the Swans, no doubt they will hold their heads high by the end of the season. 

                     

Shining in a wide role                                    Not so effective centrally

 Blue Line – Successful Pass

Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass

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


This Month in Football History – November

We look back at the most memorable happenings in the month of November in world of Football

November 01, 1952 – Gillingham’s Jimmy Scarth scored the fastest hat-trick of that era in the English League. In a Division Three (South) match against Leyton Orient, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur player achieved the envious feat of scoring 3 goals within a span of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. More than half a century later, in 2004, Bournemouth’s James Hayter bettered that record by 10 seconds. Though some reports claim that Scarth had managed to get the goals in by a mere 2 minutes, FA is yet to approve that.

Jimmy Scarth

November 03, 1997 – A Malaysian-based betting syndicate bribed the security guards to rig the lights at the Boleyn Ground when the match between West Ham United and Crystal Palace was tied at 2-2. The match could not be started and the betters earned a whopping £30million. The story was known 2 years later when the same betting syndicate tried to manipulate a match in a similar fashion, but was caught this time round.

November 08, 1975 – Referee Wolf-Dieter Ahlenfelder blew the half-time whistle 29 minutes into the match between Hannover 96 and Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion. Fortunately, the assistant referee pointed out the error and the remaining 16 minutes of the half were played. Apparently, Ahlenfelder did not like any unwanted attention as he went into the break and even stuck his tongue out to one of the photographers. He returned in the second half but the match finished without any further drama at 0-0.

 November 10, 1899 – British forces in South Africa were playing a football match at the parade ground of the Gordon Highlanders near Ladysmith in the British Colony of Natal against a team from a local Natal regiment during the Second Boer War. Barely two minutes into the game, an innocent 90-lb artillery shell fired by Boer forces, flew over the playground just to explode harmlessly nearby. Amidst the shock at the arrival of such a guest, one of the Gordon players acted smart and sneaked in a goal. Responding to the objection of the Natal players, the Gordons later sent a letter to the Football Association. They argued that there is no ground for any such objection as per the rule book! FA was baffled, and even today they are looking for an answer.

Gordon Highlanders

 November 11, 2007 – 26-year old disc jockey and a die-hard Lazio fan, Gabriele Sandri was travelling to Milan for a Lazio-Inter match, when he got involved in a clash with a group of Juventini and was unfortunately shot dead by a policeman. Hell broke loose across Italy in protest resulting in cancellation of football matches across Italy. Luigi Spaccarotella, the firing policeman, was convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter and sentenced to six years of imprisonment in 2009.

Fans put up a poster of Gabriele Sandri

November 14, 1973 – Italy beat England at Wembley in a friendly, by a late solitary goal. The goal scorer was a certain Fabio Capello.

November 17, 1989 – Egypt had to win against Algeria at Cairo Stadium to book a place in the 1990 World Cup. The arch rivals had a long history of hatred, dating back to the 1950s when Egypt refused to play matches intended to support Algerian independence. As time passed by, scuffles had become a regular affair in their matches. Egypt were the underdogs for this match but that did not dishearten their fans to pack the 1 million capacity stadium, a good 4 hours before the kick-off to the match. The hosts won, 1-0, but the match made the headlines for the consequent violence that took place, earning it the nickname of “Hate Match.” After the final whistle, Algeria’s players, coaches, and officials encircled the referee and began throwing plants and dirt into the stands. At a post-match conference, Algerian midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi struck the Egyptian team doctor, blinding him in one eye. Emotions were running high and this is evident from the celebrationsoftheEgyptianfans – they were returning to the World Cup tournament after a hiatus of 56 years.

November 18, 2009 – Thierry Henry, or his hand, helped France secure their place at the 2010 World Cup. After finishing second in their qualification group, France took on Ireland in a playoff. They won the first leg in Dublin, 0-1 but were soon 1-0 behind themselves in the second leg in Paris. With the sides dead locked at 1-1 on aggregate at the end of regulation, the match went into extra time, when France forward Thierry Henry clearly controlled the ball inside the Irish half with his left arm, before centreing it for defender William Gallas to score the eventual winner. Neither did the referee spot it, nor did FIFA listen to the Irish appeal for a replay. After the match, Henry admitted to using his hand, but was not feeling guilty as he said, “I’m not the ref.” France’s luck ran out in the World Cup to follow, as Les Bleus crashed out after only one draw and two losses in the group stage.

I am not the ref

November 20, 1988 – The league match between Argentinos Juniors and Racing Club from Argentina saw a staggering 44 penalties. The Argentinean Primera Division had introduced the penalties that season to augment the excitement at drawn matches. The match under consideration ended 2-2 in regulation time, and seemed to go forever as the tie-breaker went on and on. The penalty shootout for only 1 additional was heavily criticized and it was abandoned after only one season.

November 22, 1922 – Wilf Minter of reigning Athenian League champions St. Albans netted seven times against Dulwich Hamlet from the Isthmian League, in an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round replay match. But he must have felt dejected as he still ended up on the losing side. The teams had finished 1-1 in the first leg. In the decider, played in front of a crowd of 4,060 at Dulwich’s Champion Hill, both the teams could not field their first choice goalkeeper resulting in goals galore. Minter scored two hat-tricks – one in the first half hour and one in the last half hour of regulation 90 minutes of football – only to see Dulwich matching St. Albans stroke for stroke. Dulwich struck first blood in extra time, but Minter again fired in one more, scoring his seventh to equalize five minutes from time. But he could not prevent his team losing it 7-8 on that day. Dulwich again featured in another goal festival 7 years later in a 7-7 draw with Wealdstone in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round.

Poor Minter

November 23, 2002 – Luiz Figo returned to Barcelona after his much talked about transfer to Real Madrid for a then-world-record-fee of £37.2 million for the second time. It was not exactly a joyous reception that he received from the Barca faithful. When Figo approached to take a corner, he was greeted with plastic bottles, cans, lighters, AND the head of a piglet and one of a rooster. The referee had to intervene and the match was stopped for about 16 minutes. The match was a pale one in comparison, ending with a scoreless draw.

What a distraction

November 24, 2009 – The Guardian’s Paul Doyle had to go on in live commentary of a Champions League match between Barcelona and Inter Milan despite missing the first 32 minutes. The poor chief football writer for the Guardian website, Doyle, saw his TV getting blacked out just after the whistle. Barcelona went on to score the opening goal in the 10th minute, and Doyle reported, “Word is there’s been a goal by Barca – scored by Pique – but intense study of my blank screen does not offer up any clues as to how it came about. Brilliant.” His TV was up and running by the 33rd minute but there was not much of an action left, by then Barca had gone up 2-0 and had restored to some boring tici-taca passing game for the rest of the match.

November 28, 1999 – José Luis Chilavert, legendary Paraguayan shot stopper, scored a hat-trick for Vélez Sársfield as they defeated Ferro Carril Oeste 6-1 in an Argentina top flight match. This remains the only hat-trick scored by a goalie in any professional match. Chilavert, a dynamic character and an inspirational leader, was a swift dead ball specialist. He used to wear specially designed, a bit smaller on size, shoes to help him score from free kick and spot kicks. In the match against Ferro, in fact, all three of his goals came from the spot. In all, Chilavert scored a whopping 57 goals in club and international competitions during his time. Out of those 9 were for Paraguay, most number of international goals by any goalkeeper.

Lion heart Chilavert

A historic Moment

November 29, 1978 – Nottingham Forest’s right back, Viv Anderson became the first colored player to start for England in a friendly match against Czechoslovakia at Wembley. Anderson paid back the faith of manager Ron Grennwood in him by having a telling contribution towards the solitary goal of the match. In all, he appeared 30 times for England, till 1988 and was elected in the England hall of Fame in 2004.

Hans Gamper, born in Switzerland, was going across Barcelona to visit his uncle to Africa, when he fall in love with the city and settled down. He would then advertise on paper and go on to find eleven more people interested in forming a football club. Thus, on this day, the Futbol Club Barcelona was established in a meeting at the Gimnasio Solé.

November 30, 1872 – The first ever official international football match was played between England and Scotland. Neither side was able to score on that day. Boring British Football!!!!

A Sketch from History

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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

Most Competitive League in Europe

Competition (re)defined

Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared.” Wikipedia defines competition this way. However, it is not so easy to define I guess. How do we classify competitiveness of a European football league? Surely, the most popular football league in the world need not necessarily be the most competitive one. Neither the Galacticos nor supposedly the best ever club team playing in the same league can ensure that.

                                                         

English Premier League                             Spanish La Liga                                     Italian Serie A

                           

German Bundesliga                           French Ligue 1                                           Dutch Eredivisie

Some may feel that the number of winners over the past few years is the best parameter to judge the ruthlessness of any league. But here’s a question. How many of us have heard of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio? Not many, in my opinion. It is the football league operated in San Marino. Since its inception in 1985, it has seen 10 different winners – 5 in the last decade. This league is ranked 53rd in Europe by UEFA. The Swedish Allsvenskan, top division football league in Sweden has seen the trophy taking a tour of as many as 7 different club locker rooms during the same period. There can be several leagues in Europe which do not feature highly in the UEFA league rankings, or are not watched by billions, but they are certainly competitive by this parameter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that EPL or La Liga is the most predictable league in Europe. There are other contenders. Last time the Scottish League was won by a club other than Celtic or Rangers, was way back in 1984/85 – the club was Aberdeen, managed by a certain (not Sir yet) Alex Ferguson. So, let’s not complicate things – just get on with some hard core facts and statistics.

Methodology

In this research, we have made certain assumptions and here is a quick snapshot to start off.

Select Leagues from Europe

For this analysis, top 3 leagues from Europe have been shortlisted – English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga. For the German Bundesliga, French League 1, Dutch Eredivisie fans, I seek an apology. The 3 leagues chosen had the maximum number (4) of clubs appearing in the UEFA Champions League for the past few years. Germany has overtaken Italy this year and will be having 4 teams in the Champions League season 2012-13, but for the time period considered – more on that later – Italy used to have more participants than Germany. Under the parameters considered, the French or German League could have come up with the honours if included, but we have taken into consideration the pedigree of the league also.

Finalize Parameters

Certain parameters have been shortlisted to take the analysis forward. They are:

  • No. of drawn games
  • No. of matches won with a victory margin of 3+
  • Difference in points across the league table
  • Point gap between the 1st and 5th placed teams
  • No. of Goals scored
  • No. of different  winners
  • No. of different Teams featuring in the top 4
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Mid table opponents
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Bottom 5 teams

Data Collection

For the analysis, 5 years of recent data has been collected from the respective league’s official website. There is no need for normalization as the league structure is the same for all the 3 leagues – 20 teams play in the home and away basis, at the end of which 3 teams get relegated. So number of teams, matches played, and the number of survivors in the league – are well synchronized to help our analysis. For the analysis, point deductions or any penalties imposed (most notably in Serie A 2006-07 season for the match fixing fiasco) have been ignored. Subsequently, the league standings have also been altered and updated. For example, Fiorentina was deducted 15 points at the start of the season and hence finished 6th in the League. Had they not been penalized, they would have finished 3rd and that is the place they have been put in for this piece’s analysis. We are dissecting the competitiveness in the field, so any off-the-field implications are best kept away with.

Analysis

It is very difficult to rank the parameters or to decide which factor is to be given how much weightage. So, let us just assess the parameters individually as far as possible and see if we reach a coherent conclusion from there.

1.      Number of Drawn Games

A drawn game, more often than not, depicts the inability to win of either sides playing. Putting it in the colloquial lingo, “they have cancelled each other out… it’s a stalemate.”

La Liga has a lower number of drawn games historically and that too at a downward trend. EPL and Serie A seem to lock horns with each other with the former taking over the mantle from the latter in recent years. This is due to the fact that EPL has an upward trend in number of drawn games, whereas Serie A is quite the opposite. Overall the number of drawn games in these 3 leagues hover around the 25% mark, take one or two percent here and there. So, it means effectively 9-10 drawn games for each team in a season on an average basis. That is pretty high, show-casing the high level of competition in each of the leagues.

2.      Number. of Matches with Winning Margin 3+ 

These score lines have been few and far between in EPL & Serie A

Fiercely competitive teams, when playing against each other, will have a very narrow winning margin. As a thumb rule, a margin of anything over 2-0 or 3-1 or likewise can be termed as a stroll in the park. Agreed, results can be misleading; but in a wide horizon, these anomalies are likely to be ironed out. So, let us see how many thrashing we have witnessed in the recent past.

As expected, Serie A teams have lived up to their reputation of having a tight defence and thus have had fewer experiences of these thrashings. The teams from Italy on an average experience this kind of humiliation only once in the entire season. For the other 2 leagues, the number almost doubles. The number of such matches has, more or less, remained constant over the years for each individual league. La Liga & EPL are neck and neck, although the former is slightly ahead.

3.       Difference in points across the League

Let us now see by how much have the table toppers leapfrogged the last boys? To do that, we have categorized the 20 teams in any league under 3 broad subheads:

  • Top 4 teams – they are the Top teams as they go on to participate in the top tier of European Club Football, the Champions League.
  • Bottom 5 teams –3 of these teams were relegated eventually, whereas the rest are assumed to be involved in a dogfight for survival for the majority of the season. Hence, it makes perfect sense to categorize them in the same bracket.
  • The Mid tablers – rest 11 teams in the league.

Now average points earned by each of these 3 groups have been taken up for calculating standard deviation – a statistical parameter, to measure the proximity of variables under consideration – of points in the league. This gives us a fair idea of how closely the teams, or rather cluster of teams, are finishing the league.

EPL is showing steady decrease in this, meaning the teams are getting ever closer. The figures are more or less constant for Serie A, although with a decreasing trend. La Liga is just the opposite in this regard – the teams are finishing with some considerable point gap among them. This was the scenario in EPL a few years back, but they have become quite competitive over the years. The case of La Liga is simply opposite.

4.      Point Gap between 1st & 5th placed teams

The team to finish 5th in these leagues are given a pat at the back with consolation. They nearly miss out to an elusive Champions League Football spot. So, let us see how the gap between the Champion and this unfortunate side has evolved over the years.

In sync with the previous stat, the gap seems to get more and more widened in La Liga. This is expected, as their champion team is a certain Barcelona. Also, the spread between the 2nd and the 3rd placed teams are widening quite alarmingly – 5, 10, 8, 21 and 25 points over the last 5 years. Just to put it into perspective, the 21 or 25 points gap is by far the biggest gap between any two consecutive placed teams for these 3 leagues over the last 5 years. In fact 25 point gap encompassed all the teams baring the top 5 in year 2010-11 in EPL. People do not call this league a 2-horse race just for fun. For Serie A and EPL, there is a downward trend in this regard. So it shows there is an increasing competition towards the business end of the league.

Udinese edging out Lazio for the last Champions League spot by goal difference in 2010-11

5.         Points dropped by the Top 4 against Mid-tablers

Depth of any league is measured by the skill, tactics and determination applied on the field by the mid-tablers – teams finishing 6th to 15th in the final standing. More often than not, they fancy their chances against the big boys, especially playing at home, and are capable of getting a point, sometimes even 3. Teams like Sunderland, Mallorca and Palermo have often played a significant part in deciding the fate of the league winner. Stronger these teams, more cut-throat is guaranteed in the league.

In La Liga, the mid-tablers are losing the ground steadily to the front runners – there is a steady decline in the points dropped. EPL demonstrates just the reverse trend, the mid-table toddlers are going from strength to strength. However, Serie A has been the leader by far in this respect over the years. EPL, though, has a sharper trend and may overtake Serie A if the pattern continues. Overall, the top teams drop one-third of points against the mid-table opponents across these 3 leagues. This is quite a hefty proportion – 1 draw every 2 matches.

Mid Table teams look to set the scores straight

6.      Points dropped by the Top 4 against Bottom 5 Teams

The relegation contenders often play a spoil sport. The top teams are expected to win against them, that too handsomely. However, they can sometime cause an upset to the joy of other title contenders. A Fulham can upset Arsenal’s plans of automatic qualification to the Champions League. A Livorno can snatch away the title from Roma. So, let us see how the stats stack up over the years.

Like the previous section, La Liga table toppers are improving year after year against the minnows. On the other hand, the other two leagues are finding it more and more difficult to walk away with the honours against the bottom clubs. EPL though, in spite of this trend, has a lower average points dropped – there the top 4 teams are doing fairly well against the less fancied opponents. Serie A teams have been the front runner in this stat – they are way ahead of the competition and are steadily increasing the gap. Overall, the top 4 teams are performing well enough against the lower clubs – they concede only 10% points in these encounters. However, the position of the league table, the time of the season when they are dropping points – these factors are more important. Like the bottom most team in the league table, Wolves were the first team in the EPL 2010-11 season to beat the eventual champions Manchester United. The defeat set the Red Devils on a poor run of form and Chelsea had the opportunity to cash in.

David v/s Goliath is not always a foregone conclusion

Conclusion

So many statistics and analysis! So where are we now? Can we reach any conclusion? Let us try to recapitulate the results in a nutshell.

In the above analysis, the most competitive league based on each parameter has been given rank 1. The arrow’s direction represents the trend, whereas its colour depicts the competitiveness – green for more cut-throat, red for the opposite and yellow for middle-of-the-road competitiveness. For example, a green downward arrow means that the league has a downward trend as far as the parameter (say, Point gap between the 1st & the 5th placed Teams) is concerned, and that fact (the arrow being green) will make the league more competitive in the coming years.

It is quite evident from our analysis that Serie A is by far the most competitive League. EPL may be just edging out La Liga for the period under consideration. So, what about the hue and cry about EPL being the most competitive league in Europe? What does their dominance in the Champions League (i.e. number of teams featuring in quarters or semis) mean?

One thing going in favour of EPL is the number of goals scored. Serie A, being a defence dominated league, logically has less number of goals. EPL, though not as competitive as Serie A, scores over in this aspect.

A definitive answer lies in the trend analysis of our findings. While La Liga is finding it difficult to remain competitive as per the parameters provided here, EPL is fast catching up with the Serie A. In recent 2-3 years, they have surely leapfrogged Serie A in every aspect of competitiveness. Moreover, number of goals scored in Seria A is shrinking. EPL is quite the opposite – far more goals are scored there and the rate is even better than La Liga. It is not surprising, since the top English clubs are now massive sports franchises which can lure the top players to the Premier league. So, EPL apart from being quite competitive is a fairly entertaining league (after all, a goal is what every football lover wants to see, isn’t it!). If the trend continues for the coming years, EPL fans’ claim will be hard to turn down.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com

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

______________________________________________________________________________________________

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

This Month in Football History – August

We look back at the most memorable happenings in the month of August in world of Football

August 1, 1920 

East Bengal, one of the pioneering clubs in Indian football, was established.

August 4, 1995 

An 18-year old made his professional debut for Bundesliga 2 side Chemnitzer FC. He would go on to win his first Bundesliga title in 1997 along with league and cup doubles in 2003, 2005 and 2006 with Bayern Munich. He won the fourth cup double of his career with Chelsea in 2010. He had already won the prestigious FA cup twice in 2006 and 2008, though. Guess who? Correct, Michael Ballack!

August 7, 1999 

 Defending Belgian champions KRC Genk entered the record books for playing out the highest scoring draw in the history of professional football away at Westerlo on this season opener. The match also saw 5 penalty kicks being awarded along with 4 red cards – equally shared by the teams.

August 14, 2001 

First qualifying match was played for the Women’s Cup, established by UEFA in response to the growing interest in women’s football across Europe. It is till date the only major European women’s club competition and was rebranded as the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2010, to better parallel the equivalent men’s tournament.

August 15, 2009

37-year old Burnley defensive midfielder Graham Alexander became the oldest debutant in Premier League history when he started against Stoke City on the season’s opening day.

 August 17, 1977 

Thierry Henry was born in the Paris suburb of Les Ulis, Essonne. He would go on to be named a five-time French Player of the Year while also becoming the French national team’s greatest goal scorer.

August 19, 1995

It should be very awkward when your predictions get broadcast to millions of football viewers and that haunt you forever. What do you say Mr. Alan Hansen? He famously (!!!) announced on Match of the Day that “You’ll never win anything with kids” after a young Manchester United side lost the season opener to Aston Villa 3-1. Fergie’s team of youngsters including David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt were able to wrestle the title back from Blackburn Rovers, and also win the FA Cup, securing the first of what was to be two consecutive double-winning seasons, a feat never before seen in English football.

August 24, 1949 

Manchester United returned to Old Trafford, playing a League fixture there for the first time in over ten years. Old Trafford, nicknamed the “Theatre of Dreams,” had served as United’s home ground since 1910. But matches were suspended there due to World War II and construction work since 1939. By the start of the 1949-50 season, the stadium was not fully ready, but hosted 41,748 spectators to enjoy United beat Bolton 3-0.

August 27, 2001 

Dutch center back Jakob “Jaap” Stam had helped the Red Devils win three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League and was included in the Team of the Year in all 3 seasons by England’s Professional Footballers’ Association. On this day he was shockingly transferred from Manchester United to Lazio for a then United-record £16.5 million. In his upcoming autobiography Head to Head Jaap had reportedly criticized the gaffer and had to pay the price. Later In 2009, Ferguson admitted that Stam’s transfer was one of his greatest mistakes, noting that the defender continued to play a top level for several years afterward.

August 28, 1994 

It took Robbie Fowler just four minutes and thirty-three seconds to score the fastest ever Premiership hat-trick till date for Liverpool against Arsenal.

August 31, 2005 

Tunbridge Wells FC and Littlehampton Town FC set an English record by taking an FA Cup penalty shootout to 40 kicks in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup replay at the Wells’ Culverden Stadium having drawn 1-1 earlier in the week at Littlehampton. They battled to a 2-2 draw (including two penalty kicks) through the end of extra time, and then advanced to the shootout to took 20 shots each before Tunbridge Wells emerged as winners by the margin of 16 to 15.

Corporates in Indian Football – I

Indian club football received a major shock when former National league winner Mahindra United shut shop in 2010. That was exacerbated when another titan of Indian football and the inaugural national league winner Jagatjit Cotton Mills (JCT) FC also decided to close their football club in June, 2011. Established in 1971, JCT had created a niche of its own in Punjab – sometimes referred to as Pride of Punjab – and later on at the national level. Some of the famous players like Inder singh, Sukhwinder ‘Sukhi’ Singh, I.M Vijayan, and Baichung Bhutia have set the football pitch on fire in JCT’s red and white colours. One of their chief accomplishments was winning the first edition of the National Football League in 1996 and got the opportunity to represent the country in Asian Club Championship in 1997. In a very gloomy and depressing evening of 20th June, 2011, the club announced its pre-mature exit from professional football activities with immediate effect.
This means that there is not a single I-League club in North India, after Indian Arrows, formerly based in Delhi, decided to shift base to Kolkata. Mumbai has lost its place in the I-league but for Air India FC – who are also in a downhill slope – earlier with the withdrawal of Mahindra United. Kerala and rest of the south India seem to be on a downhill road too. So we are left with only two major football playing hubs in the country – Kolkata and Goa. For a country with the 2nd largest population in the world, this is not a good sign.
But things looked bright and sunny in 2008 when JCT FC formed an association with the English Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers for footballers, coaching staffs and academy coaches to make visits between clubs and share technical knowledge. Later that year, AFC Chief Bin Hammam certified that JCT
       
was the one of a handful of Indian clubs to have a good youth development structure with flawless management and a decent stadium to be proud of.

JCT was hit hard as they failed to retain its star players. Fan base for a club grows only after they can connect with a charisma of a player, or playing style of the team. In the past, JCT has been renowned for holding its own when football flourished in Punjab. But subsequently, players started preferring to join other clubs for more lucrative offers. Key players from the first team signed and established themselves in clubs like Churchil Brothers, East Bengal and elsewhere. The last nail in the coffin was the 2010-11 season when JCT was relegated for the first time in their history – the former champions had the worst record – losing as many as 14 matches out of 26 played in that campaign.
JCT joins Mahindra United, another prestigious club which rose to glory in the ‘90s and made an exit from competitive football a year ago at a time when they were sitting pretty in the second place of the I-league table. This incites a doubt about termination of a club, playing professional football in India. There is a school of thought which believes that it has to be much more than just relegation – even the mighty RED DEVILS had faced the music, however unrealistic it may sound now.
The lack of support and TV exposure, especially in North India, compelled the club releasing a statement stating:
“JCT Limited has taken a strategic decision to pull out for the time being till football in India shows some possibility of generating value for corporates and their brands, besides bringing up popularity of football among youngsters“
The club statement also elaborates its frustration to the fact that in today’s world of merchandising, football teams around the globe have become self-sustaining enterprises for which highest level of coverage is a must to build viewership and spectators in the stadium. JCT won the inaugural national league in 1996, where there was high quality TV exposure and widespread public interest. But since then the league has had trifling exposure and the teams’ interests have been ignored. The club statement also briefs that JCT Limited being a corporate entity, needs to substantiate to its stakeholders the effort v/s visibility of the football team.
The rumour was always around the corner for the past few months, especially after the club’s much talked about relegation and flurry of players leaving the Guru Nanak Stadium. The club has gone through major financial crisis in recent years. Dying interest in the sport has forced the authorities to kick off some home matches amidst empty stands and deteriorating pitch condition. JCT, just like Automobile giants Mahindra and Mahindra, issued a very diplomatic statement that they are shifting their focus towards nurturing talent at the grass root level. JCT football club has again ascertained that they have no plans to close their famous academies. Only time will tell how much interest is left in them to run the academy.
       
Former players have raised their concern under these circumstances and they would like to see professional football clubs in India being managed as a commercial entity. They are worried that there would be more clubs following the footprints of Mahindra United and JCT FC, if the ‘not-so-subtle’ problem remains unaddressed. The most prolific Indian footballer for the last 2 decades, former Indian captain, the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia exclaims:
“In 1996, when we won the inaugural National Football League, that was the golden period of JCT football. Myself, Vijayan, Jo-Paul (Ancheri), Carlton Chapman, Tejinder Kumar formed the core. All the stars wanted to play for JCT. But you have got to understand their sentiments. Year after year, they have been spending crores of rupees with minimal returns.”
Samir Thapar, JCT chief for almost 20 years, who is also the president of Punjab Football Federation, holds AIFF accountable for not marketing the game in the right way, even after the booming deal of Rs. 700 crore AIFF signed with IMG-Rellaince last year. The top management certainly cannot wash their hands off from this debacle. In EPL, clubs can get up to 60 or 70 per cent of their revenue from TV rights.
Here, AIFF does not have any formal structure to distribute the revenue earned from the broadcasters to the clubs. The issue is made further complicated by the fact that the I-League does not have a broadcast partner for over a season. This definitely has resulted in poor people awareness and ultimately has led to a fall in attendance at the stadiums to tthe tune of 40-50 % compared to last year, according to a club official.
Just at the time when every Indian football lover felt that Indian football was about to be rejuvenated, this news comes as a shocker to them. AIFF president Praful Patel though was not worried. He dished out an undisclosed list which contained at least 10 corporate houses willing to launch new football teams. He blamed poor management and organizational structure for this untimely demise of JCT and earlier Mahindra United.
The question then comes that if so many corporate houses are looking to venture into the game then why AIFF has not been able to get a sponsor for its development side Indian Arrows in the first year of their conception (Pailan group has come up to the cause recently but it remains to be seen if they can withstand the test of time) and also why I-League matches were not telecast live. These questions have
       
remained unanswered. Despite AIFF’s bold announcements, the corporate(s) think otherwise and many have justified JCT management’s decision.
Most of them believe that AIFF itself is not professional enough in running the game efficiently. One of the main reasons for JCT’s pullout might also be lack of a full-fledged second division. The second division is not a great place to be. Teams play for one or two months in a year – if they do well, they get promoted and if they don’t, they remain in the second tier. The JCT management might have thought that signing players for 12 months and then to play for two months only in the second division of I-league, which will be hardly watched by anyone, was not a great commercial idea.
Mockingly the uneven structure of the Indian football system came to the forefront just when JCT FC announced its exit. Odafe Okolie, the I-League’s most prolific striker, signed a record deal worth over Rs 1.5 crore with Mohun Bagan, while Bangalore’s Xavier Vijay Kumar will pocket a handsome Rs 90 lakh after signing with Churchill Brothers. At the same time the colts from JCT wrapped up the under 19 I-league. Long live Indian Football!
(Next month, we will follow some more experience of corporate in Indian football)
———————————————-
Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com
       

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.