How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann?

While “The Red Devils” locked horns with “The Eagles”  in the 135th FA Cup, Subhajit Sengupta spun the clock back to take through one such FA Cup final encounter at Wembley when Cù Sìth came to Birmingham’s rescue but was kept at bay by the “The Citizens” custodian, Bert Trautmann.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

– Bill Shankly must have had a face-off with Bert Trautmann right before he said that. However, his story is not all football centric in nature.

Source: www.mancityproject.in
Source: www.mancityproject.in
Although English clubs had seldom proved to be a fecund land for Germans, Bert Trautmann remains a name written in golden words in the English FA history. Despite his world class goalkeeping ability, he had to endure a series of agonising controversies from the English fans due to his censured past but Trautmann, by then an altered and far more matured personality, won their hearts and became one of their own. When he took the field on 5th May, 1956, a packed Wembley leaped to its feet in support of their foreign star as “The Citizens” from Manchester were lining up for their second consecutive FA Cup final.

Manchester City F.C. posing for a team photo before 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley (Source: www.mcfc.com)
Manchester City F.C. posing for a team photo before 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley (Source: www.mcfc.com)

Bernhard Carl “Bert” Trautmann was born on 22 October 1923 to a lower middle class family in Bremen. His father used to work in a fertiliser factory by the docks of Walle in west Bremen. The desolate financial struggle in the early 1930s left his father with no choice but to sell their place and moved to the working class area of Gröpelingen. The young Trautmann had a keen interest in outdoor sports especially in football, handball and völkerball (another form of dodgeball). To fulfil his appetite for playing in the green field, he joined the YMCA and football club Blau und Weiss. At a time when the Hitler youth movement was gaining widespread momentum, caught relentlessly by the spirit of the nation, the self-confident, lively but short tempered boy joined the Jungvolk, a precursor to the Hitler Youth. However, the radical political propaganda never interested him as most of his energy was spent in a wide range of sports. He was awarded a certificate for athletic excellence in 1934 signed by Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany. But these certificates didn’t earn daily meals for his family. So, at the onset of the Second World War, Trautmann, as the elder son of the family, took the job of an apprentice motor mechanic. Soon after the war broke out, he joined the Luftwaffe as a radio operator in 1941. During his training, he showed little aptitude for the job which resulted in a transfer to Spandau to become a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper).

Known for his unorthodox sense of humour, Trautmann had paid the price several times. The worst of it came when he was stationed in occupied Poland. One of his practical jokes involving a car backfired on him which resulted in a sergeant burning his arms. As a result, he was court-martialled and received a three-month imprisonment. However, this dark sense of humour helped him in the later course of life to survive the outrage of fans and become an entertainer in the Manchester City dressing room. In October 1941, he re-joined the 35th Infantry Division at Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Despite his unit  being hit hard by the Soviet counter-offensive force which forced the Germans to withdraw their troop, Unteroffizier (corporal) Trautmann won five medals for his bravery on the Eastern Front, including an Iron Cross First Class and was later promoted to Feldwebel (sergeant) rank. During his time in the German army, he was caught thrice by the Russians, the French and the British soldiers. Though he managed to escape from captivity twice, he did not attempt a third escape from the British army as the war was drawing to a close. During his captivity under the British soldiers, he was imprisoned with other Nazi prisoners and transferred to several Prisoner of War (PoW) camps on different occasions until his final destination at PoW Camp 50 in Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire.

Football was an immensely popular game amongst the prisoners of war and almost instantly Trautmann found his lost love back. He became a regular outfield player for the camp team and widely popular by the name “Bert”, as the English had trouble pronouncing “Bernd”. However, while playing against amateur team Haydock Park, he suffered an injury that forced him to switch his centre-half position with goalkeeper Gunther Luhr. Since then he made 553 senior appearances for three different clubs.

Bert Trautmann dives through the air to tip a shot from Wolves’ Ronald Flowers past his post (Source: www.mcfc.com)
Bert Trautmann dives through the air to tip a shot from Wolves’ Ronald Flowers past his post (Source: www.mcfc.com)

After the closure of the PoW camp, Trautmann declined an offer of repatriation and stayed in England. He took a job in a bomb disposal unit in Huyton but his love for the game started to write a different future of fame for him. The first of which came his way in August of 1948 when he signed for the non-league Liverpool County Combination club in St Helens Town. Over the season the big German’s reputation grew steadily and, almost inevitably, he became the centre of everyone’s attraction. He pulled up a record number of crowd to witness his acrobatic display between the posts regularly contributing to the club’s revenue. With his success, St Helens Town got promoted to second division of the Lancashire Combination League in 1949–50 season and Trautmann caught the eyes of the leading first division clubs. Burnley initially became favourites and landed him at Turf Moor; but in November 1949 Manchester City acquired his signature, and within a few weeks, Trautmann found himself in first division action. Moreover, his friendship with Adolf Dassler, founder of the German sportswear company Adidas, helped him to become the first sportsman in Britain to sport Adidas.

As the news of the big German’s signing spread across the media, all of England including the home fans reacted furiously. Season ticket holders threatened to boycott, and various groups in Manchester and around the country flooded the club with protest letters. Adding to the difficulties, Trautmann replaced Frank Swift, one of the greatest keepers in the club’s history and that turned out to be something unacceptable to the fans. The club captain Eric Westwood tried to minimize the hatred amongst the home crowd by announcing “There’s no war in this dressing room”. Dr Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester wrote an open letter stating “Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits”. Yet the situation continued to worsen in the away matches. This reached its peak in January 1950, when City travelled to Craven Cottage, which was also Trautmann’s first visit to London. The match became the centre of widespread media attention as most of the leading British press were London-based. Amongst the crowd, several leading sports writers came to watch the German in action for the first time. During the 90 minutes of action, the crowds yelled “Kraut”, “Nazi” and “Heil Hitler” chants as Fulham managed a narrow 1-0 victory in the end. After the final whistle a different chant surrounded Craven Cottage. Trautmann’s magnificent display resulted in the majority of the crowd giving him a standing ovation and the Fulham players formed a spontaneous guard of honour as he left the pitch.

Bert Trautmann takes to the skies to deny Fulham at Craven Cottage in 1950 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Bert Trautmann takes to the skies to deny Fulham at Craven Cottage in 1950 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

In spite of this wide spread hatred and his cult image, he remained calm. His dignified reaction spoke volumes for his strength of character. Only few would have known how much the war had changed him. The deaths and bloodshed that he faced tore him inside out. Talking about the true horrors of war, Trautmann recalled the memory of one dark cold night in Russia in October, 1941 when he and his fellow paratrooper Peter Kularz went out to investigate the sounds of shooting and they saw an area in the forest lit up with floodlights. “It was hard to take in. There were trenches dug in the ground about three metres deep and fifty metres long, and people were being herded into them and ordered to lie face down, men, women and children. Einsatzgruppen officers stood above, legs astride, shouting; a firing squad was lined up at the edge of the trenches, shooting into them. For a while everything went quiet, then another group was ordered forward and the firing squad shot another salvo into the trench”. Both of them crawled away from the place and ran for their lives as there could not be any witnesses. But these scenes made a deep impact on his later life and views. “Of course it touched me seeing this. If I’d been a bit older I’d probably have committed suicide.” But luckily he lived and became one of the most-loved and widely respected artists of the beautiful game.

The opening season at the Maine Road went dreadfully for Trautmann as City were relegated to the second division but Trautmann and company bounced back immediately. They were promoted to the first division again in the next season. By then the German had caught the eye of the country and even further. Trautmann was heavily influenced by the Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics who used to create attack by throwing the ball to a wing-half. Trautmann’s huge commanding figure combined with agility and sharp reflexes along with his fearless attitude made him a showman. His astonishing ability to grab powerful shots calmly into his enormous arms and the precision with which he stopped spot kicks made him a worthy successor of Frank Swift. Over the course of his career he stopped 60% of the spot kicks he faced. Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don’t stop to think where you’re going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.” Almost a similar statement was recorded from his fellow club mate Neil Young: “the only way to beat him with a shot in training was to mis-hit it”. All these testimonials only enriched his career but he was still yet to enter the football folklore.

Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don't stop to think where you're going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.”

In 1955, City went on to the FA Cup final for the fifth time, having won only twice in 1904 and 1934. Les McDowall and Don Revie’s newly formed system “Revie Plan” had worked out their way and they were only 90 minutes away from ending the two decade draught of winning the trophy. Unfortunately, Doug Livingstone’s men turned out to be even stronger than “The Sky Blues” of Manchester. Foggy weather and nerves got the better of McDowall’s men. Jackie Milburn took only 45 seconds to give the lead to the “Magpies”. Jimmy Meadows’ injury after 18 minutes added further to the problem as City were left with 10 men for the remaining 72 minutes as in those days the substitute rule hadn’t yet taken effect. The match ended in a comfortable 3-1 victory for Newcastle. Trautmann became the first German to feature in a FA cup final but he was still a long way from the glory.

Bert Trautmann turns his back on the play as snow is whipped into his face during Manchester City’s chilly FA Cup tie against Luton in 1955 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Bert Trautmann turns his back on the play as snow is whipped into his face during Manchester City’s chilly FA Cup tie against Luton in 1955 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

City captain Roy Paul promised after the defeat that he would return to lift the trophy himself 12 months later and with him Trautmann also made a promise to himself: One must cross a mountain between the sticks to help the ball cross the white goal line. They both kept their words. City reached their consecutive second FA Cup final in 1956. City’s road to the final had drawn more sweat from them than Birmingham, the other finalist in that season. They had several close finishes, and even had to play a replay against Liverpool after failing to break the deadlock at Maine Road. On the other hand, Birmingham scored 18 goals in their last five games to reach the final. Quite naturally they were considered “firm favourites” to win the tie but despite the struggling run, Roy Paul and company vowed that they would fight till the final whistle all guns blazing. Who would have thought that their custodian Trautmann, who became the first goalkeeper to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award only two days before the match, was about to create history.

Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann bows his head as he is introduced to HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Phillip) before the 1956 FA Cup Final (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann bows his head as he is introduced to HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Phillip) before the 1956 FA Cup Final (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

Both teams implemented similar formation typical of the era, 3-4-2-1. However, they deployed different tactical approaches. Birmingham, with a strong their defence, relied on powerful tackling and strong final challenges. They had a conventional open direct English approach: getting the ball to the outside-forwards as quickly as possible. But City successfully deployed their “Revie Plan” this time. The system involved using Don Revie in a deeper position than a traditional centre-forward in order to draw a defender out of position. City took only three minutes to break the deadlock. Don Revie created the move, exchanged quick passes with Roy Clarke and then back-heeled into the path of an unmarked Joe Hayes who rattled the back of the net to shake Birmingham’s confidence.

1 – 0 to City.

City kept pressing Birmingham with a series of counter attacks resulting in a number of corners but the opponents replied on the 15th minute mark. Gordon Astall poked a loose ball to Eddy Brown who suddenly felt optimistic and fired a powerful inbound shot which took a deflection off a City defender into the path of Welsh international inside‑forward Noel Kinsey. He fired home through Trautmann’s far post.

1 – 1.

With the sudden blow, Birmingham gained momentum and kept the pressure on City for the remainder of the first half. Eddy Brown twice netted the ball but both times he was ruled offside. In the second half, City made some strategic changes in their play. They concentrated on a possession-based football that made their opponents chase the ball, while Ken Barnes maintained a high line of defence and started to play in a more advance role. The change of plan worked for them. Right after the hour mark, Bobby Johnstone and Jack Dyson struck twice to take the lead to 3 – 1 in City’s favour. Just when it looked like City were going to lift their third title, something unexpected happened. With 17 minutes remaining, Birmingham forward Peter Murphy outpaced City defender Dave Ewing and rushed into the 18 yards box. Trautmann made a decisive call and dived at the feet of Murphy to win the ball only to end up suffering a fatal collision as Murphy’s right knee hit Trautmann’s neck with a forceful blow. Trautmann was knocked unconscious. Referee Alf Bond stopped play immediately.

The save that could have cost Trautmann’s life (Source: www.theguardian.com)
The save that could have cost Trautmann’s life (Source: www.theguardian.com)

City trainer Laurie Barnett rushed on to the pitch and treatment continued for several minutes. Barnett knew that Trautmann would not be able to continue for the remaining part, hence full back Roy Little was chosen to keep the goal and while they would play with ten men as substitutes were not permitted in those days.

Manchester City trainer Laurie Barnett checks on the condition of groggy goalkeeper Bert Trautmann during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Manchester City trainer Laurie Barnett checks on the condition of groggy goalkeeper Bert Trautmann during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

When it seemed that City’s hope for the silverware had been dealt a big challenge, Trautmann did something supernatural. He stood up on his feet dazed and unsteady and insisted on keeping goal until the final whistle. City defenders tried to clear the ball as far as possible whenever it came near the box but in spite of that, Trautmann had to make two further crucial saves from Eddy Brown and Peter Murphy to deny Birmingham from coming back into the match. One such save resulted in another collision with City defender Dave Ewing that left Trautmann in complete agony. After the final whistle, City registered their third FA Cup title, ending the two decade drought and with it, Bert Trautmann entered football folklore. As the players left the field, the crowd sang a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as a tribute to Trautmann’s bravery.

Bert Trautmann is escorted to the touchline by his Manchester City teammates after injuring himself in the line of duty during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City at Wembley (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Bert Trautmann is escorted to the touchline by his Manchester City teammates after injuring himself in the line of duty during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City at Wembley (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

Three days after the final, doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary revealed that he had dislocated five vertebrae, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life.

Trautmann took a long time before coming back to the field again which resulted in him missing a large part of the 1956-57 season. Even after he regained his place in the starting XI, he lacked his confidence. The following 1957-58 season, City became the only English first division side till date to both score and concede 100 goals in a season. He could sense that he was not the same keeper he used to be but he didn’t give up. He slowly picked up the pieces and in 1960, he became the first German to be selected for the Football League, an honour compounded when he was awarded the captaincy.

 Manchester City after winning the 1956 FA Cup (Source: www.mcfc.com)
Manchester City after winning the 1956 FA Cup (Source: www.mcfc.com)

Being a football romantic, I’ve considered this question many times. How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann? A man having his hands stained with the blood of innocents. Should I detest him for his actions as a German soldier or should I respect him for the artist he was on the green field? Then Trautmann answered “I volunteered when I was 17,” he said. “People say ‘why?’, but when you are a young boy war seems like an adventure. Then, when you’re involved in fighting its very different, you see all the horrible things that happen, the death, the bodies, the scariness. You can’t control yourself. Your whole body is shaking and you’re making a mess in your pants.” He also recollected how England had changed him. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.” Bert Trautmann showed us the way of reforming ones character. Of course he made terrible mistakes in his life. Being a part of Hitler’s army that killed millions of innocent people, leaving behind Margaret Friar, his first wife while she was pregnant…they all seem unforgivable sins but we must remember that human beings tend to make mistakes and the greatest example of humanity is set only by learning from the mistakes and rectifying them. Trautmann did exactly the same. He became such an icon whom people followed, not only for his goalkeeping excellence but also for his humanist ideology. Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, England international Gordon Banks, these are some of the names who had cited Trautmann as their inspiration. What’s interesting is that in order to come back to a normal life, he chose a lifeless object that over the ages had spread life into countless lives. Football.

In spite of being considered as one of the best goalkeepers of his era, he never got the opportunity to represent his homeland. He met with the German national coach Sepp Herberger in 1953 who explained that travel and political implications prevented him from selecting a player who was not readily available but he could consider including Trautmann if he were playing in a German league.

Bernhard Carl Trautmann played his testimonial match for Manchester City in 1964 where more than 47,000 people came to watch the master for the very last time.

Police struggle to get Bert Trautmann through the swarm of fans who mobbed him after his testimonial at Maine Road in 1964 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)
Police struggle to get Bert Trautmann through the swarm of fans who mobbed him after his testimonial at Maine Road in 1964 (Source: www.whoateallthepies.tv)

After his retirement, he had hoped for the managerial role at Maine Road but he was left disappointed. An initial financial setback struck him but his love for the game never faded away. He started his managerial role from Stockport County. Later he went back to his homeland to manage Preußen Münster and Opel Rüsselsheim. Though he lacked silverware as a manager, his work caught the right attention and, subsequently, took him to managing Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and North Yemen. On 19th July, 2013, when Trautmann breathed his last, he didn’t have his Iron Cross with him, but had only the love of the people he earned through his transformed life in the green field.

There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester – Trautmann. Lev Ivanovich Yashin

References:

MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Manchester City

Manchester City have been quite a mystery this season. While at times their attacking play has mesmerized the opposition and spectators alike, at other times, especially on the road, they have been considerably lacklustre. With the tag of one of the most expensive teams to have ever fielded on the pitch, the expectations have been sky high for the last couple of seasons. The appointment of a far more subdued but tactically genius coach in the form of Manuel Pellegrini appears to have signalled the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you with him on a journey to explore the club under its latest manager  

 

Manuel Engineer Pellegrini
Manuel Engineer Pellegrini

Manchester City’s season so far has been a story of two teams. One team plays at home, where they have won everything except one UEFA Champions League group stage match against, well, the reigning champions (and arguably the best European club team currently) Bayern Munich. But their amazing form goes for a nosedive when they travel. In the English Premier League, they have lost four times out of 6 matches – they have been beaten even by the bottom-most team in the league table, Sunderland. While they have racked up all possible 18 points from six home matches so far in the league, their tally of 4 points from six away matches is better than only 4 teams in the competition. Let us try to see what the reason behind this stark contrast is.

Jesús Navas flying high
Jesús Navas flying high

Last year, Manchester City suffered a lot, especially in Europe, from lack of width. They did not have any natural winger and things were worsened by Roberto Mancini’s apathy towards Samir Nasri. It seems both of these are problems of the past. Jesús Navas may not have been the most talked about coup during the summer, but he certainly has added a new dimension to City’s attacking threat down the flank with his directness. A rejuvenated Samir Nasri is a treat to watch. Deployed mostly as an inverted winger / inside left player who would cut inside at his will – a role he made his own in Arsenal – Nasri has so far the most number of assists for Manchester City in Champions League. With David Silva soon returning from injury, it will be an intricate decision for Pellegrini to slot him back in the team which looks well settled now. This is going to be interesting as Silva, along with Yaya Touré, have been the foundation based on which the success of City is built.

At home, Pellegrini is quite comfortable fielding a very attacking 4-4-2. Sergio Agüero generally plays slightly off the line and his movement into pockets is a nightmare for defenders. He is ably supported by the strong and burly Álvaro Negredo. However, the fluidity in the system and growing understanding between the striking duo has allowed Pellegrini to alter their roles with smooth transition, both between and within matches. Central midfield is shepherded by Yaya Touré with licence to venture forward at every possible opportunity. He is partnered more often than not by the box-to-box midfielder Fernandinho in preference to Javi Gracia who feels at home in a more conservative anchorman role. When defending, Negredo generally slots back to make the centre of the park more compact. This paves way for the speedy Agüero to remain the furthest forward and be the focal point of any counter-attack.

City at home - emphasis on attack
City at home – emphasis on attack

But surprisingly, even with such plethora of attacking options available, off late, Manchester City are adopting a defensive strategy while playing away from home. Their problem started with the fact that neither of their central midfielders are out-and-out blockers or anchormen. Hence teams having three in the middle can easily overrun them and expose City’s fragile backline (more on that later). To address this issue, Pellegrini has looked to shift to a more compact 4-2-3-1 system – crowding the midfield with an additional holding midfielder in expense of a frontman. While the holding midfielder, usually Garcia, ensures that City retains possession much better and dominates the passing owing to an extra man in the midfield, it becomes easier for the opposition defenders to mark one frontman instead of two. The partnership with Negredo allows Agüero to interchange positions and drift into dangerous area inside the opponent back-line, but playing as a sole striker he has to look for attacking midfielders to join him from the deep, often providing time for defenders to regroup and cut down all the angles. This certainly makes a difference.

City away – indecisive
City away – indecisive

Manchester City have been struggling to stretch the game wide in away games. This is no coincidence that Navas has had more than 45 minutes of field time only once in away matches so far. Pellegrini has been opting for a congested middle third where the midfielders would provide through balls from central areas, keeping their shape intact. So the blueprint for defending teams has been to deny any space in the middle and force the play out wide. With City lacking in any natural width from the attacking players, this augments well for the opposition.

Let us look at the following numbers to understand their attacking problems on road.

Matches

Goals

Per Match

Crosses

Per Match

Shots on target

Per Match

Conversion

Home

6

26

4.33

92

15.33

55

9.17

47%

Away

6

8

1.33

132

22.00

33

5.50

24%

Attacking record

 
City are League’s top scorer with 34 goals but their scoring rate drops alarmingly (a difference of three goals on an average) when they travel. As discussed earlier in the piece, home teams are forcing them to play wider which is vindicated by high number of crosses in away matches. But lack of a true winger is hurting them. There is clear indication that number of clear cut opportunities is far less in away matches – shots on target are 60% lower and the most striking aspect of them all, conversion rates are 50% of that in home matches. Simply put, open chances are not being created, forcing to shoot from less obvious positions and those are very seldom getting converted. At home, City enjoys far better outcomes. For instance, in the last match against Tottenham Hotspurs, City had only three attempts on target in the second half. And all of them were turned into goals – attributed to their precise positional play which led to those clear cut chances.

Worrying for Hart, City & England
Worrying for Hart, City & England

Defence has been an area of concern for Manchester City. With emphasis on attack, the defensive unit has been unable to cope with less number of holding midfielders supporting them. To be honest, too much tinkering has not helped either – so much so that the entire defensive unit of five (back four plus goalkeeper) had been changed after the loss against Chelsea. Pablo Zabaleta has been the only constant feature for City at the right-back position and his partnership with Navas is flourishing day by day. On the other side, it has been a toss-up between Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov – but neither of them has looked convincing while defending. The injury of Vincent Kompany has meant he has been able to start only four matches this season. His absence has been a crucial one as City have not been able to field the same centre-half pairing in two consecutive matches in his absence. Joleon Lescott has gone down the pecking order, Matija Nastasić is too young to take up the leadership role at the heart of defence, and Martin Demichelis, 33, is still finding his feet at the Sky Blues and may at best be termed as patchy, so far. The problem has been so severe that Javi Garcia had to start as a makeshift centre-back in more than one occasion. But the biggest problem has been the form of Joe Hart. Last year, he was regarded as the best shot-stopper in the League. But his free fall in form – which includes this howler against Chelsea – has forced Pellegirini to bench him in recent matches. This is not an ideal situation for England’s ‘number one’ in the backdrop of the World Cup 2014. This is far from comfortable for the club as well, where Hart, in spite of being only 26, is one of the senior players and an inspirational one at that.

Let us look at how Manchester City is faring home and away as a defensive unit through some numbers.

Matches

Goal Against

Per Match

Clean Sheet

Blocks

Per Match

Clearance

Per Match

Home

6

2

0.33

4

11

1.83

149

24.83

Away

6

10

1.67

1

8

1.33

139

23.17

Defensive record

 
Well, nothing to explain really. Number of goals conceded has been far too many, only one clean sheet kept in 6 matches; blocks and clearances have gone down too – constant tinkering with the defensive personnel has cost Manchester City dearly in away matches.

To be fair to Pellegrini, it is not only his tactics which has led to a dismal result away from home. At Etihad stadium, the same team looks more charged up, more passionate, more hard-working. The entire team, right from the defence to the frontman, starts pressing the opponent at every inch. The home supporters believe that the home ground is a fortress, and rightly so. If only they can translate the same killer instinct during travel, Manchester City would be looking forward to a terrific season.

The Three Musketeers

The tinkering Man-cini has been trying his hands with a near obsolete formation at the Etihad camp. While he has drawn much criticism from some of his own troops, his strategy could pay dividends if used wisely. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses the tactical switch adopted by Manchester City

For the last few games, Roberto Mancini has surprised quite a few with his new tactical switch by having a three-pronged centre-back system. Some among them are members of that backline.

“We’re used to a straight four and it’s twice we’ve gone to a back five and conceded, but the manager likes it.”

Micah Richards post defeat against Ajax on October 24, 2012

And this raises the question: Why this unusual approach?

Last season, quite a few teams had tried three men at the back with mixed results – while Wigan were caught napping by Chelsea, Napoli did quite well even in the European stages. But this tinkering by Mancini has been quite intriguing to say the least.

Unsettled Backline

Plagued by injuries, indifferent form and versatile nature of his back men, Mancini could not really zero in with a settled backline so far this season. Last year’s centre-back pairing of Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany has been disrupted due to injury to the former. Backup in the form of Kolo Touré has been a shadow of his past and Matija Nastasić is a raw greenhorn to be performing week in, week out at the top level. Aleksandar Kolarov and Maicon have been utilised more and more for their overlapping prowess further up the flanks rather than being conventional side-backs. Coupled with the injury hit season of Micah Richards, Manchester City is down to the bones in their defensive rare guard.

Lack of Wingers

Manchester City has a wealth of talents at their disposal but what they lack are genuine wingers, apart from Scott Sinclair who can hug the touchline. Both Samir Nasri and David Silva are classic examples of inverted wingers who would like to cut inside rather than take on the opposite fullbacks. James Milner can at best be described as the right-sided midfielder and this leaves City sometimes devoid of any width and their attack very one-dimensional. Using their fullbacks as proper wingers definitely spices up the attacking prospects.

Seems Logical then…

So, is it only lack of steel at the back which prompted the Italian to switch to a three-men-at-the-back system? Not entirely. Instead of adding more protection for aerial balls – the most common logic for bigger teams having an extra centre-back – Mancini added an extra man as a sweeper against Ajax to be more offensive. Considering Ajax were playing with only one man up front, it defied all logic. The three centre-back system was abandoned as playing against teams with only one forward, one centre-back could mark the lone striker, the second one could cover him making the third centre-half redundant and effectively making the team one man short in other areas of the pitch.

The tactic was baffling and not surprisingly, Manchester City could not get a result out of the match. Mancini though blasted his own players who publicly confessed their inability to apprehend the system. Never mind, the player in question is a perfect one to make the transition to back three anytime during the game as he is equally adept at being a right-back or a centre-half.

Back to School

City starting narrow against Real (l) Zabaleta’s positioning gave it away (r)

Against Real Madrid in the previous Champions League encounter, Manchester again suffered from the narrowness to start off with. It was a lopsided back four with Maicon visibly more interested in attack down the right wing and Javi Garcia from the midfield covering for the space left behind by him. Yaya Touré was more advanced of a congested midfield which prevented his direct runs from the deep.

With the introduction of Pablo Zabaleta and Kolarov during the course of the match, City shifted to a prominent back three which also saw Touré dropping deeper to influence the game. But poor positioning of the former jeopardised Mancini’s tinkering with the system. He was proactive while City were in possession – this was weird considering City was leading at that time – but strangely stayed more central while defending, giving the wide men from Real a free run. Eventually Real scored from the right side of Manchester City. Maybe the Italian needed some lessons on tactical awareness from his countrymen.

Try, Try, and Try till you Succeed

Against Tottenham in the league, though the system finally seems to have clicked. Pitted against a 4-4-1-1, where Clint Dempsey was playing almost alongside the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor, three men at the back fitted to the tee. Zabaleta was caught napping with his lack of positional awareness last time and hence was deployed as the right-sided man in the backline. Maicon and Kolarov exploited the flanks effectively leaving David Silva to dictate the play from a more central position.

Classic 3-5-2

Solution within

It is not mandatory for a back three to comprise three centre-halfs. Mancini has brought in Javi Garcia, a ball-playing defensive midfielder – entirely different from the combative Nigel de Jong – and one would hope he will slot in as a defensive cover allowing the fullbacks to venture forward while Manchester City like to have a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 system. Barcelona have done this quite effectively under Pep Guardiola with Javier Mascherano, and later Sergio Busquets, deployed as the additional man at the back. But Mancini needs to be flexible yet reasonable – he cannot blindly push his wing-backs higher up the pitch especially against teams playing with a 4-3-3 or lone striker formation. Also he will be well advised to tune his team first with this kind of tinkering at home in the league matches before using the same in Europe.

English Premier League 2012-13: Season Preview

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

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

Arsenal

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

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

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

Aston Villa

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


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

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

Chelsea

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

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

Prediction: Third

Everton

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

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

Prediction: Eighth

Fulham

Manager: Martin Jol

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

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

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

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

Liverpool

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

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

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

Manchester City

Manager: Roberto Mancini

Transfer in: Jack Rodwell (Everton)

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

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

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

Manchester United

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

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

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

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

Prediction: First. Just for their hunger to win

Newcastle United

Manager: Alan Perdew

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

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

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

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

Norwich City

Manager: Chris Hughton

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

Transfers out: Adam Drury (released – Leeds)

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

Prediction: 11th

Queens Park Rangers

Manager: Mark Hughes

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

Transfer out: Paddy Kenny (Leeds United)

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

Prediction: 10th

Reading

Manager: Brian Mcdermott 

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

Transfer out: Mathieu Manset (FC Sion)

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

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

Southampton

Manager: Nigel Adkins

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

Transfer out: Ryan Doble (released – Shrewsbury)

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

Prediction: 20th

Stoke City

Manager: Tony Pulis

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

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

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

Prediction: 13th

Sunderland

Manager: Martin O’Neil

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

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

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

Prediction: 15th

Swansea City

Manager: Michael Laudrup 

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

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

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

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

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Andre Villas-Boas

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

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

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

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

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Steve Clarke

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

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

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

Prediction: Ninth

West Ham United

Manager: Sam Allardyce 

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

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

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

Prediction: 16th

Wigan Athletic

Manager: Roberto Martinez

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

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

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

 

Prediction: They have outlived themselves. 19th

EPL Season Review

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

 

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

Arsenal

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

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He scores whenever he wants to

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

Aston Villa

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

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

Blackburn Rovers

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

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

Bolton Wanderers

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

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

Chelsea

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

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

Everton

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

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

Fulham

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

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

Liverpool

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

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

Manchester City

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

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The New Champions

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

Manchester United

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

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

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The veteran red devils


Newcastle United

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

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

Norwich City

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

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

Queens Park Rangers

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

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

Stoke City

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

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

Sunderland

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

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

Swansea City

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

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

Tottenham Hotspur

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

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

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A dejected spurs journey

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West Bromwich Albion

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

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

Wigan Athletic

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

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

Wolverhampton Wanderers

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

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

Team of the Season

Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker        Vincent Kompany            FabricioColoccini               Leighton Banes

Antonio Valencia              YayaToure           Clinton Dempsey             David Silva

Robin van Persie              Sergio Auguero

What’s the Goalden Word?

We football fanatics often come across terms and phrases that we start using without knowing its meaning. We hear them on television or read them in magazines wondering what the word is all about. WTGW will endeavour to focus on such terms and their usages helping us create our very own footballpedia. If you would like to know about any such word associated with the football world, do toss in a mail at editor@goaldentimes.org

Poznań[1] : (pɔz̪n̪aɲ) : [Masculine – Noun – Singular]

Goal is something we all love to see. The thrill, the joy, the panache – we love everything about a goal. And we love goal celebrations. Who can forget a certain Roger Milla wiggling in the Italia ’90? Or the Samba team doing a Bebeto in the World Cup of 1994? In this feature, we shall talk about one of the most famous goal celebrations – the Poznań.

The Poznan

Lately in the news for the buoyant Manchester City fans celebrating their hard-earned draw against Stoke City, this unique goal celebrating technique dates back to early last century from the Polish club Lech Poznań, based in Poznań. It is no wonder when the club visited the Etihad stadium in January last year for a Europa League match, the visiting fans embraced the occasion with their very own goal celebrating style. It can be called a dance (really?) of sorts, where a group of people turn around, huddle together and start jumping up and down. Initially the move was restricted to celebrating a goal but with time it has gathered storm and has become a kind of chant to lift the tempo of the game. Poznań has been followed by many countries in Europe like France and Netherlands by the name of Grecque.

These little wonders make a game of football all the more fascinating. The idea to cheer the team by charging up the atmosphere in the stands is certainly a novel one. The excitement, entertainment and ecstasy attain an all-new high. Such a pulsating and throbbing atmosphere makes a match even more rejuvenating. It is like a breath of fresh air where common sense is so rare and supporters love to boo their own players for a mere harmless miss pass.


[1] Poznań (Latin: Posnania; German: Posen; Yiddish: Poyzn) is actually a city located in west-central Poland. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland, and was one of the most important centres in the early Polish state, whose first rulers were buried at Poznań’s cathedral. It is also renowned as the first capital of the kingdom of Poland.

How to get Banned from GT Lottery Syndicate

Gino de Blasio had made moving predictions about the fate of Antonio Cassano and Carlos Tevez back in January and February in Goalden Times. Read what his own fate became, as a result of those predictions!

I am not a gambler. I’ve never been one, but I do love the thought, like anyone else, of winning the lottery. The whole, “you have to be in it to win it” couldn’t be truer. Now with the Goalden Times staff scattered all across the globe, you could perhaps imagine a Christmas party or a summer barbeque to be quite difficult events to attend, but a syndicate on the lottery would be a pretty nice thing.

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I’d suggested that in the virtual suggestion box a few months ago. So far I’ve heard nothing. And now, I think I’ve figured out why.

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When I wrote the words “Mancini had exclaimed that ‘Tevez will never play for this club again” it wasn’t me who said it; that was Roberto Mancini. How was I supposed to know that he’d take him back and make him play the final twenty minutes against Chelsea?

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His return, and in particular in that match, couldn’t have come at a more decisive time for Manchester City. Being knocked out of the Europa League and suffering a shaky form away from home including a loss to Swansea, they needed that extra something to get them out of the slump.

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Carlos Tevez, in the meantime, has been busy training in his native Argentina since his self-imposed exile and making statements like “Mancini treated me like a dog” (in Spanish) – and to ESPN Spain, you know he couldn’t make the whole “I got confused with the foreign language” excuse – which could get you scratched off the Christmas card list in the United Kingdom.

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The rest, you could say is, recent history. He trained, he scored (for the reserve team) and then he made his league return, producing a fine 20-minute display that saw him set up the winning goal with a sublime pass to Samir Nasri.

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If City needed their fix, they received it that night; whether he’ll last, I’ll let you guess.

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And then my second piece of infinite wisdom came when I wrote “Cassano’s prognosis is showing signs of great encouragement and could be back with the squad sooner rather than later.”  That was four months ago, but going by the current circumstances, it’s unlikely he’ll be back before September.

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Now, once again, this piece of information was from a very trustworthy source – La Gazzetta dello Sport. How on earth was I supposed to know they are feeding me garbage?!

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What I can unhesitatingly report though, from an entirely different source, and verified at least 40 times before writing this short piece, is that Antonio is back to training, with his teammates and with the ball. This must give his doctors and trainers confidence in his recovery phase and they may start working on the physical aspects of his game.

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So, for fear of incorrectly predicting anything more on either Tevez or Cassano and being banned thereby from any future job as a football clairvoyant and Goalden Times’ lottery syndicate participant, I wish you best of luck in this week’s lottery; a game I shan’t be playing.

The Last of the Mohicans

He is the last survivor of this species. He is the last character left who fuels our anger and makes us smile in the same blow. Guesses are right, Page 3 brings up today the most discussed footballer of the year – City forward Mario Balotelli. He hits the news today when he was sent off at Emirates after already having escaped from a serious crime at early first half against Arsenal midfielder Alex Song in a 0-1 loss at a very crucial point of League. This talented young man has produced 27 goals for his club already but has been shown 22 yellow cards and 4 red cards along with that too.  As punishment for today’s incident, his season might get over for City and may be also at British soil. We bring back the memory of this lad in a lustrous photo shoot for Vogue with a colourful attire – which just reflects his career in a nutshell.

The Nowhere Man

Carlos Tevez was the name on everyone’s lips for the entire January winter transfer window. Here Gino de Blasio takes the slide rule to the issue to find out what the hoopla is all about. Catch Gino on twitter @ginodb

All dressed up, nowhere to go

Remember high school? The social awkwardness, the struggle to make friends, the isolation that can encapsulate your dreams being burnt like a second year science class before a bunsen burner? Just like the ugly child who no one wants to take to the end of year dance, Carlos Tevez must have been feeling the same, come January 31st.

So how did one of football’s greatest talents get himself into the social exclusion award of the year category, and will he ever make it out in time for his career to fully shine?

Munich – 27th September 2011

Tevez Ignored Mancini

It was a cold autumn night and Manchester City were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage. Away from home and under the spotlight of Europe’s footballing elite, Carlos Tevez was going to commit a cardinal football sin – disobey the manager.

In a sideline dispute with City boss Roberto Mancini, Tevez refused to enter the pitch for a substitution prompting an expletive-charged tantrum for the world to see. The Tevez camp had later claimed that it was all due to some miscommunication – Tevez’s English speaking skills apparently to blame for the fiasco, however, that did not stand a chance. The cold Munich night lay witness to a calm Tevez while Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning.

Tevez sat calmly as Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning

Tevez didn’t get up. Mancini sat down.

The team talk, the flight home, the interviews with the press – all of these constitute modern day football, a tasteful reminder that not only the player has some explaining to do, but the coach too. But it was to be a sombre Mancini, a man who looked destroyed by the whole episode; the stress taking its toll on his verbal capacity to talk, he nonetheless exclaimed, “Tevez will never play for this club again”. To which a nonchalant Tevez expressed his desire to leave anyway as he is not happy to stay away from his family.

Like all great crimes since 1974, this became known as “Tevez-Gate”.

A two-week ban, loss of wages, exclusion from followed by forced inclusion into training. Carlitos needed a new home; Manchester City had made it as much clear.

And so Began the Rat Race…

Who was going to take in “the Apache”? More known for his petulance than a history teacher’s velvet elbow padding and more disliked by his manager than the school snitch, Tevez’s saving grace is that when he plays, you forget all of the above.

His work rate is exceptional, his physical diminutiveness compensated by the terrier-like aggression he uses to win and protect the ball; blessed with a hawk-esque vision he can pick out passes from all over the pitch. Any club would find a position for him, even if it meant selling their prized possession to have him.

A Tale of One City, Two Clubs

Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran the story of how Tevez was a step away from Milan

Like an after-school detention featuring the misfortune of sitting and watching your teacher’s marks, Tevez was totally powerless. It was to be the red and black half of Milan to make the first move, a proposition that would give Milan arguably the best attack in the world and bolster their domestic efforts by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Champions League appearances. Milan agreed on personal terms with the player and the move seemed imminent, till City put the brakes on it by not allowing a free move on loan, preferring an outright sale.

When Milan failed on their first proposal to capture the Argentinian ace, it was set to start an inadvertent bidding war with local rivals Inter Milan. A move seen by many as one-upmanship due to the technical abilities which Tevez would bring, rather than the cure to the cold Inter had acquired; Tevez was a solution for Milan, not for Inter.

This was all taking place the week of the Milan derby; no longer was Tevez the ugly duckling, he was the one everyone wanted to take to the ball.

Cometh the Sacrificial Lamb

When Milan’s original proposal was rebuked by Manchester City, they knew the only thing that could win over the North West club was going to be an offer that they couldn’t turn their nose at. Adriano Galliani played out a move worthy of “hell hath no fury like a Brazilian scorned”. Using the media, and relations with the new Paris Saint-Germain coach (former Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti) and sporting director (former Milan scout and manager Leonardo), a series of open contacts were made to Milan regarding the sale of

Alexander Pato to PSG, a move that would bring in the capital required to purchase Tevez outright.

This seemed like the gamble of a century – selling the young, talented but injury-prone Brazilian for an older, temperamental and non-tested-in-Serie A Argentine. Add to that, Tevez hadn’t played since September – whatever form he was in, it wasn’t going to be match-ready.

Young, Injury-prone, Loyal, Promising or Mature, Proven, Disharmonious; which one to pick?

It wasn’t to be.

Pato’s sale was blocked at the last moment making Galliani come out of negotiations with Manchester City surrounding Tevez. So neither did Milan sell their star Brazilian nor did they buy the sidelined Argentinian. Nothing had changed, much to the dismay of the Twitter audiences around the globe proclaiming the sale of one, the purchase of another. Tevez was stranded. He was, yet again, the one the cool kids didn’t want in their group.

And Then…

There were flutters, both from PSG and Inter (again) but nothing concrete. The media circle that had encapsulated the story and run wild across Europe never came to fruition. Milan were without their preferred striker from the market (a last ditch effort to get Maxi Lopez from Catania did happen), Inter and PSG re-enforced and sold in different departments.

The sad truth is, however, Tevez only has himself to blame for the debacle. And who knows if time will teach him a lesson in player-manager protocol; he won’t be joining the diplomatic mission, that’s a certainty.

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


The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football

As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on

Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.

Return of the Prodigal Son

Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.

Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.

And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.

Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.

The Oil League

Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn.  Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.

Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.

But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.

Underdog Story of the Year

Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.

Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.

The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.

Heartwarming Victories

Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.

Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshiko went on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.

Year of the Minnows

Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA.  Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.

Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.

They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.

The Thing About 18

Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.

The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale.  Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.

At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.

Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.

The Era Continues

While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.

1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.

Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986  under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.

Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.

Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.

Transfer Deal of the Year

Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.

Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.

Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunning hat trick against Parma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.

But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.

Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)

Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.

Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.

Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.

That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.

Memorable Comebacks

Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.

Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.

Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.

The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.

I Can’t Believe This Happened

Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.

Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.

The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detail but one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.

Celebrations

Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and  the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.

 Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.

The most whacky   celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympic run. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrate it.

Best Football Performances

Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.

Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.

However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.

Best Performance by a Footballer

This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by with this performance by Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, do this and this and this and of course this makes him a complete entertainer.

Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!

Six and the City

Sex and the City is an American television comedy-drama series created by Darren Star and produced by HBO.

 
Set and filmed in New York City and based on the book of the same name by Candace Bushnell, the show follows the lives of four New York women – who, throughout their varied careers, with all their idiosyncrasies and ever-changing sex lives, remain inseparable and confide in each other.

 
The quirky series had multiple continuing storylines that tackled relevant and modern social issues like sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, safe sex, promiscuity, femininity while exploring the difference between friendships and relationships.

 
A feature film based on Sex and the City, written, produced and directed by Michael Patrick King, was released in 2008. Sex and the City 2, a sequel, was released in May of 2010.

 
This article has allusions to the popular TV series.

Scene 1: 8:20AM, Ms Evans’ bedroom

Ms Evans woke up with a hangover and a very sore lower torso. This was not the first time that she’d woken up in the morning, feeling this way. Usually she would indulge in a tall glass of Irish every time she woke up with a hangover, an age-old practice from her Belfast days.

But this one was a totally different ball game. The pain was excruciating. More than the pain, it was the feeling of having woken up from a terrible nightmare. She collected herself, rolled the comforter over and just lay in bed, in a trance, for a while longer.

Did I really do that? And at my place?” she wondered, as the nightmare kept flashing across her mind. Was there a way to find out?

Scene 2: Flashback early morning 1AM, K2, China Town

The ladies had a business meeting and the boss had taken the team to The Haçienda. It was also a pre-birthday treat for Mrs. Rooney. Ms. Evans, still recollecting scenes from the night before, could clearly remember a clown, who kept toppling prime Belgian beer over his own head in an attempt to impress the ladies around.
Such an idiot”, slipped through her lips. She recalled the sarcastic comments she had deliberately made audible to the big-mouthed, queer-dressed punk and his friends in the disco. What she witnessed in her nightmare was probably just a manifestation of her subconscious.

Scene 3: 8:45AM, Ms Evans’ kitchen

While brewing the Irish in the coffee maker, Ms Evans felt an insatiable urge to figure out whether it really was a nightmare or it did happen. But whatever it was, she didn’t want her mates to know. So, she decided the best thing would be to call up Mrs. Rooney and wish her happy birthday, to begin with. She would then try to piece the puzzle together. She made that call from her new iPhone 4S that was already flashing the birthday reminder. Ms Evans did her best to underplay her anxiety as she spoke to the birthday girl. Mrs. Rooney seemed quite collected, more than she had expected, as if nothing had happened last night. They discussed the party and the boys. It was not until then that Mrs. Rooney mentioned the noisy gang from the previous night, some of whom, Mrs. Rooney had invited to her party tonight as well. Ms Evans was getting it slowly but steadily. The party from last night was not all in her nightmare; part of it was true, after all.

Scene 4: 10:05AM, still in Ms. Evans’ kitchen

Ms. Evans took a long shower, still trying to locate the missing pieces of the jigsaw. Munching her fish and chips, she started gathering her thoughts again. This was not the first time such a thing had happened – earlier she had ended up where she should not have.

“So, what happened then?” she asked herself and noted down how things would shape up if it had really been true.

The boss would be furious – either he would throw a boot at her or shout at her; she quickly scrolled through the missed calls. Nope, he did not call. Had such a thing happened, Mrs. Evra would send her some jokes to cheer her up. But no, the last message was from an unknown number. She opened it quickly and it read, ‘Why always me’. As if the morning was not mysterious enough without this cryptic message.

Good God! What had she got herself into?!?

While running through other options, what struck her was the young Latina. Definitely the hairiest Latina she had ever come across, but now is not probably a time to laugh at her looks. She needed her. She dialled her number and ended up reaching her voice message.

Scene 5: 12:35PM, Ms De Gea’s residence

Ms Evans did not waste any more time thinking, quickly gobbled up the remaining breakfast and zipped out. The only time she could spare was to decide the colour of her stilettos. She then rushed through the busy Manchester traffic and reached Ms. De Gea’s residence on the other side of the city. She parked the car outside their apartment and walked up to the door only to find it locked.

So she is out and not receiving calls either – wonder what this new girl is up to,” thought Ms Evans. She was about to leave a post-it on the front door with a message to call her back, when the next door neighbour looked at her inquisitively.
You amigo of the gal?” asked the lady, with a broken half-Italian-half-English accent and
oddly sporting a scarf indoors. What she then told Ms Evans was shocking. Ms De Gea was in a city hospital. She had been abused, beaten black and blue and robbed by a bunch of hooligans after her friends abandoned her post a late night party.
Ms Evans’ face turned pale. She went back quietly, wishing she’d never dropped by to find out. It was all coming back to her now.

Scene 6: 10:35PM, Boss’ office, Beetham Tower, City Center

The view from his 19th floor office would be worth walking miles for anyone else, but when you see it every day from your cabin, it loses its charm. The old man stood quietly, his eyes looking beyond the Manchester skyline. He had gotten used to this view for 25 years now. Everything always seemed so small from his 19th floor office.

The doctor would not recommend him working so late at 70, but today that was the least of his concerns. He had tried hard to concentrate on his work all day, but was continuously distracted by the loud music from the office next door. They were having a party to celebrate some great feat. This was not a stray occurrence though, the once quiet and low key neighbours had started having these loud parties quite often in the past couple of years, and it was increasingly becoming a challenge to work peacefully. But today he wasn’t able to take his mind off how his girls had let him down – they should have been more careful. It was so humiliating, he felt like one of those tiny dots on the pedestrian crossing from the 19th floor. He was missing the services of his senior officers who had retired last year. Mrs. Vidic had also called in sick at the last moment. Could they have controlled the girls and prevented the situation from getting out of hand? He had also thought of appointing some efficient middle managers to keep things in control, but alas, his company was no longer the highest paymaster in town and could not afford them.

Just about then, a spine-chilling thought crossed his mind and his hands started shaking like it had happened that day. Could he have approached the game differently? Was it in his power to avoid the shame that was?

There is only one way to go, Alex,” he said to himself.

The grim jaws chewed on the no-more sweet gum as the long-shot faded off in the distant sky.

Deep Pocket Style Revolution

Some questions that have been looming large in the minds of football followers across the world: “Will the beautiful game continue to speak Español in future? Or will we witness a counter revolution in the way the game will be played?
 

La Rojas have been flying high in international and club football for quite some time now and there seems to be no stopping them. The Catalan crusade to purify the sport is quite clichéd by now. With hardly any success to show, the resurgent Merengues challenge can be categorised as “still taking shape”. Add to that, football followers across the world are desperately seeking a strong opponent for L’equip blaugrana, for the sake of healthy comparison.
 

Allow me to look beyond Spain as I switch my focus to the English game, and the direction it is heading towards. To talk about the English game, one has to start with Manchester United because of their sheer consistency with silverware. Any English club which has its eyes set on the Barclay’s Premier League glory has to perforce adapt to a life with United in topflight.
 

But what did we see a few weeks back? The Noisy Neighbours making The Red Devils appear like strangers in Old Trafford. Manchester United’s home form until that match was something the fans would brag about. Yet, the 6-1 drubbing was achieved with consummate ease and oomph. Mario Balotelli even took off his shirt to ask a very rhetorical question to the crowd in the Theatre of Dreams.
 

Mario Balotelli showing off a t-shirt saying ‘Why always me?’ after scoring against Manchester United

 
And since that weekend, while everyone was talking about it, the thought definitely crossed my skeptical mind:
 
Is this a shock win?
 
Is the club following in the footsteps of its deep-pocket peers like Chelsea and the more recent addition, Anzhi Makhachkala?”
 
“Is money doing all the talking here?
 
For me, the answer is, “No.
 
Manchester City may have the money but their game is not shaped by it. They have achieved handsome victories since this season began. All this time I had been holding my judgement, saying it could be the bank that was the source of their proficiency. But half-a-dozen goals against Manchester United are proofs of a much greater determination. Mercenaries, that is, footballers hired for huge sums, are experts at what they do and they do it with élan. But it would take more than a pack of mercenaries to ram in three goals in the last 5 minutes. Though Manchester United did not help themselves with a so-called gung-ho approach, the killer instinct and sheer professionalism showed by City cannot be ignored. The desire to establish themselves was clearly visible. The coup de grace that Roberto Mancini’s men delivered on that fateful Sunday will be spoken of for a long time in the history of football in Manchester.
 
Sir Alex Ferguson believed that what cannot be obtained with money, can be more than made up for with desire. The Manchester United eleven, irrespective of who features in it, are driven by that desire to win. But the Manchester United determination astonishingly went missing in a derby match. Wayne Rooney was there to orchestrate the attack, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra to marshal the defence and Anderson, Nani, Darren Fletcher all raring to go – what was on the cards was a routine Manchester derby. The game unfolded kindly for Manchester United – more shots on goal, a wee bit more possession and definitely more purpose in their sallying forth. Manchester United had to deal with Jonny Evans getting sent off though. It appeared Manchester City was struggling to cope with Manchester United’s pressure early on but what it actually turned out to be was that they were soaking up the early pressure and biding their time. This, football lovers, is the counter revolution I was talking about. The men in blue patiently built up their game.
 

Manchester City Routs Manchester United 6-1

The Counter Revolution

A club founded on money is trying to make good on philosophy. Although it is the riches of the owners that is the wind in City’s sails, Mancini seems to be trying to mould their game with astuteness, adroitness and assiduousness. And there can be no doubt that the former Internazionale coach has the sense and understanding to achieve something like what he did for Inter. An example of it is the way he has gone about handling the mercurial Balotelli.
 
The enfant terrible of Italian football has the reputation of being something of a rake but Mancini appears to have impressed upon him the fact that when you are paid to play the game you better deliver on the money. No less astounding was his way of handling Carlos Tevez. He has portrayed the strict disciplinarian in him and everyone around knows who’s the boss.
 
And for those who have always sneered at money as an important tool for team building, this result is a worrisome sign. The theory that money cannot buy you a prize-winning team is fast turning out to be a myth that needs reappraising. But it’s still early days as far as City’s rise to glory is concerned. Sure, they are yet to win the laurels in England and in Europe but it is their approach to football that seems to me to be a new vocabulary of style – “Rich kids sweating it out, earning it.” If this marriage of money and desire is consummated, then clubs which rely on power, determination and/or panache, will have a serious bogey to reckon with.

History of football is, however, full of episodes of rich clubs squandering away their capital and culture, and eventually turning out to be a bad investment for their owners and a sad excuse for a football team. But there is everything to be said for this revolution, that is, if it is one.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________
 
Name: Swaraj Mir
Game: Journalist
Age: 27
Location: Hyderabad
Sports: Football, Soccer, Futsal
Soundtrack: Take a Look Around (Limp Bizkit)
Possibilities: Explorer
Contact: swarajmir@gmail.com

Maximus Tacticus – Manchester City

Induction

Manchester City has opened the age-old debate of “can you buy a trophy?” With the cash deposit at their disposal, the Blue side of Manchester is taking galloping strides in English Football. It is a testimony of their strength that everyone, if given a chance, would have avoided them in the Champions League group stages. Rarely a newcomer to the elite club competition of Europe has got such an admiration from its rivals. With Roberto Mancini at its helm for barely 15 months, a top 4 finish in the EPL, if not a top 2, is a certainty according to most of the pundits. It is really something – to break into the coveted Top 4 in Premier League and cement its own place. In doing so, Man City have not replaced any top teams, rather they have created a new place for themselves. Having said all these, let us have a look at how they are likely to shape up this year with all guns blazing.

Squad Depth

Manchester City has added a plethora of options going forward. Actually they have been blamed for taking in too many players. Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Philips, Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, Steven Ireland, Jo – all of them have been bought in and then subsequently shown the door. May be it is lack of planning, vision or something else which is beyond explanation. However, surprisingly, they seem very lightweight at the back. Joe Hart is a very good shot stopper and he is getting the finer aspects right with every game he is playing. But they do not have a decent #2 as a cover. Stuart Taylor has a long history of Premiere League experiences, but none of them are worth mentioning. It is albeit strange, considering they once had Shay Given in their ranks as the second choice shot stopper. Contrasting options are available on the attacking third – many suggest their 2nd XI would be good enough to secure a top 6 finish! Without a shadow of doubt though, those players would feature regularly in most of the EPL sides.

Preferred Strategy

Mancini is spoilt for choices in the attacking front. To add to that, everyone let alone the owners, want to see Man City winning the league this season. So, this is what seems like the preferred line up for Mancini.

Free Flowing Man City

This is a variation of 4-2-3-1 formation where one of the holding midfielders, Yaya Toure, will be playing further up front. Sergio “Kun” Aguero will play as a classic No. 10, dropping into holes, drawing out opposition centre backs. With Carlos Tevez unsettled, Edin Dzeko has grabbed the opportunity with both hands to cement his place as the focal point of attack and he will continue to do so. David Silva will be the main playmaker enjoying maximum freedom. Samir Nasri will add flair on the right hand side, cutting inside, laying out delightful through balls, making it quite like an inverted winger. It is not surprising, after all, he is French and hails from Arsenal aka a certain Arsene Wenger. This system has the potential to capitalize on the slightest of mistakes from the opposition. This was showcased in the Premier League game against Tottenham – they did not opt for a holding midfielder and City ran riot through their back line.

I Love Diamond

Mancini had a successful spell at Inter Milan, deploying a 4-4-2 diamond system. It seems he will try his hands with this beaten-to-death strategy this time too. It means less protection on the back four, more pressure (or, freedom as one may call it) on the full backs to supply the crosses as there are no other wide midfielders/traditional wingers. So Man City may field such a line-up in domestic cup matches or against lower-mid-table league oppositions. Kolo Toure will be used after his long layoff from the game, giving some much needed rest to Vincent Kompany or Joleon Lescott. Mancini has admitted he can rotate his wing backs at will and he will definitely do so at every given opportunity. More expressive options like Aleksandar Kolarov will be heavily involved under these circumstances. Nigel De Jong or Gareth Barry, if he is preferred, will be the only defensive screen in front of back four with James Milner joining Yaya Toure as a central midfield playmaker. Their duty will be to hold the ball, pass it into triangles and look to feed in the front runners as the pivotal point of attack. When they lose the ball, both of them can slot in beside De Jong to have a more compact midfield line in front of the back four. This formation will be very interesting if Tevez and Aguero play together up-front. Both of them like to drop in the hole or drift to the wide areas, making the formation as fluid as 4-6-0. Mario Balotelli can be used in this system also if Mancini wants to see how his team performs with one player sent off during a tight game.

Diamond Formation

Europe Calling

Manchester City has qualified for the Champions League this time round. They will be a bit watchful as the competition demands a bit of cautious approach, especially for big away matches. Mancini, a veteran of European clashes, will be trying to be compact at the back even at the cost of missing some of the flair going forward. This is a classic 4-2-3-1 formation. Fullbacks are more expressive in this system than the flat 4-4-2. They will not only add width to the system but will also compel the opposition players to drop back, thus allowing them to play a high back line. This is something Barcelona play to perfection – attack aggressively and retrieve the ball high up the pitch if they lose possession of it. The defensive midfielders can drop back and spread a bit to create a pseudo four-man defense. They will also be forming a lot of triangles – between the centre halfs as well as the lone central midfield player. The two wide men will not be classical English wingers, but rather more contemporary inverted wingers. They will cut inside, and shoot at every opportunity (a la LM10 or CR7), leaving the crosses to be delivered by the wing backs. Having players like Silva, Nasri, Aguero, Tevez certainly helps – they are intelligent, can play on both wings and their link up play is flourishing day by day.

One problem which Mancini may face in the coming days is the lack of width. Barring Adam Johnson, Man City does not have any natural winger in their squad. Most of the midfield players like to play or drift into central positions. This will make the pitch narrow and rule out wing play to unlock defenses. Defensively also, this will pose a big threat to their two side-backs against teams who indulge in overlapping fullbacks to go with flying wingers.

Triangles all over the field

Crazy Crazy World

Mancini was ruing the fact he lacks squad depth. One may wonder what else he needs even after having a reserve bench capable of beating any top side on a given day. But I believe the maestro has something unique up his sleeves. Don’t be surprised if he fields a team as below one day:

Where are my back-up players!

Just imagine what would happen if someone in the attacking front gets injured – the poor lad does not have anyone to call up! So one can understand why the Italian desperately needs to add to his existing squad.

Man to Watch (1) – David Silva

David Silva is pivotal to Man City’s success – he will definitely be the first name, along with Joe Hart, to be picked by Mancini for any match. Silva’s first touch is excellent – receiving the ball on the move facing the opposition goal, and his short passing is a joy to behold. His technical ability makes him a regular starter for the current Spain squad which has the players of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas warming the bench. It is important to note that Silva was equally impressive with his passing in the games where Man City went rampant or where they failed to impress. The following graphics – blue lines for accurate passes and red lines for the rare miss passes – show that he had an incredible passing accuracy of 90% in both the matches.

David Silva Pulling the Strings

He is a prized asset for Manchester City – a player who can play wide as well drift inside so as to share the work load with the central playmaker. Even better, he can be similarly effective from either flank – or play in the central midfield role.

Silva started 15 times on the left flank and 14 times on the right, last season. Mancini would love to pair him with a proper overlapping full back. In the role he plays, Silva will drift inside very quickly and hence he needs the cushion of a constantly overlapping full back to stretch the opposition, and find acute angles to thread a killer ball for Aguero or Dzeko. This is why, Gael Clichy, accustomed to play a short passing game at Arsenal, would be a perfect foil for Silva down the left. Aleksander Kolarov, though is equally expressive, but his passes are more direct and hence predictable.

Man to Watch (2) – Kun Aguero

Aguero has arrived and he has announced his arrival in a big way. He has formed a deadly partnership with David Silva. They are on their way towards becoming one of the legendary partnerships up front, reminiscent of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres during their Liverpool days. Liverpool narrowly missed out on the title that season – Eastlands will hope to better that.

As is evident from the graphic, Aguero likes to drop deep and links up well with the creative midfield trio of Silva, Nasri and Toure. To add to that, he has a lethal touch in front of the goal. 8 goals from 5 matches is an ominous sign for things to come. The most important fact is that he has gelled really well into his new team. He works off the front man, can lead the line (though it is less likely that he will be asked to do so), has the trickery to bamboozle his marker and has some real venom in his shots. He is a dream number 10 and Mancini certainly could not have asked for more. Such has been his imminent impact that last season’s top goal scorer, and City’s talismanic captain, Tevez has been sidelined – though he has only himself to blame for this, but that’s a different story altogether.

Surgical Aguero

                                                                                                                                                          

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