An evening with Bryan Robson – a Goalden Times exclusive

Manchester United is gearing up with exciting plans for Indian fans. Just before they made the official announcement on December 17th, 2015, we at Goalden Times were privileged to get an exclusive interview regarding the same from none other than the club legend Bryan Robson.

Football is getting growing recognition in India and the time might not be far away when superpowers of world football start playing here. At this juncture, Goalden Times were fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at Manchester United’s plans and how the club is very excited to welcome and engage with its growing fan base in India.

One of the biggest football clubs in the world, Manchester United recognizes India’s fast growing fan base and seems keen to spend time with this audience to encourage this wave. The club already has an ongoing presence in the country through their various commercial partners and they had a fantastic response to the fan viewing party they hosted in Delhi earlier this year. The success of this event has led to India being at the top of their list of destinations for 2016 events.

And who can be a more appropriate person than the club legend and current club ambassador, Bryan Robson!!! Sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation with us.

Robson

Goalden Times (GT): Welcome to India Mr. Robson. Fans in India could not wait any longer to see you. Now, considering Manchester United have already toured in South East Asia, when can we see the Red Devils play in India?

Bryan Robson (BR): The club would love to travel to India as part of its pre-season tour, as we know how passionate our fans in India are. We have 35million followers in the country and it would be great to travel over with the first team. However, given the times in which the Premier League plays, it hasn’t been viable for us. Our tours are to prepare for the season ahead and it is very important for team management to ensure that this is done using the right facilities in the right climate.

The club would love to travel to India as part of its pre-season tour, as we know how passionate our fans in India are. We have 35million followers in the country and it would be great to travel over with the first team.

We tour in July and I believe it can be a little wet over in India at that time of year, which you could argue is no different from England, especially Manchester! But I think it is a different kind of rain! We haven’t completely ruled out India as a destination and you never know, if we can get the right infrastructure in place then we may be here someday. In the meantime the club feels it is important that they do have a presence in the country and are constantly in contact with fans, engaging with them through events like ILOVEUNITEDINDIA, which launches in Bangalore on the 17th January at the Amphitheatre, UB city. My colleagues, Dwight Yorke and Quinton Fortune will be visiting the city and watching the Liverpool game with fans. The event is free and fans can apply for a ticket at www.ManUtd.com/ILoveUnitedIndia, but they must sign up and have a ticket to enter.

GT: India is long being hailed as the sleeping giant of World football. But there are problems galore. What, according to you should be of paramount importance for improvement of the game in the country – infrastructure development across age groups, more funding (better pay out to players and officials to attract the youth), or train the trainer approach (educate local coaches / bring in foreign coaches and be patient with them to nurture young footballers).

BR: I think a little bit of everything. You need to have a decent league in place to give the kids playing something to aspire to, but at the same time you need that buy in and enthusiasm from a young age so there an audience for the professional leagues to play to. They both feed off each other.

I think if you can inspire young players and have good coaches in schools then you are half way there. The ISL is becoming more and more popular and I know the club has seen a massive surge in the popularity of football in India in the last few years. We were here earlier this season hosting a similar fan event to ILOVEUNITEDINDIA and the response was fantastic. There is definitely an appetite for football and if the country can approach it the same way it does cricket, well then they will be right up there with the best leagues and the best teams in world.

GT: Have you heard of the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL)? What is your perception of such an initiative?

BR: I have heard of it. I cannot confess to seeing a lot of games, but I know it has attracted a lot of ex- Premier League players. Mikael Silvestre who played for United played in it for a season and has said he really enjoyed the experience. I know that FC Goa are up at the top, closely followed by Atletico de Kolkata, which I believe is a big footballing city.

GT: Have you ever received / heard of any fan mail from India?

BR: Yeah I have over the years because there is interest in football and the fans that do send you things over are passionate and knowledgeable about football. It is always a pleasure to receive fan mail from supporters in India and to learn their take on the game.

GT: What are the future plans for Manchester United to address the growing fan interest in India? Are there any plans from the club to have more fan interaction (through social media or any other avenues)?

BR: The club constantly interacts with all its global fans through social media and its website etc. United also works closely with its commercial partners to connect with fans and a lot of sponsors have been in India with various campaigns, ranging from Manchester United Soccer Schools or other coaching initiatives, so various product campaigns. It is important for us to connect with our fans in India and the fact that we are returning not once, but twice in the New Year is testament to how important our fans there are. We were also in Delhi earlier in the season, so for the club to host three major fan events in one country, in one season says a lot.

I know Quinton (Fortune) and Dwight (Yorke) are really looking forward to visiting Bangalore for the first ILOVEUNITEDINDIA event on 17th January and I hope that all our fans can get behind it and come and enjoy the event. It’s much more than just a screening of the game, which in itself is great. There will also be loads of other activities, competitions and prizes for fans to get involved in.

GT: Thank you Sir, thanks for your time.

BR: It was a pleasure talking to you guys. Hope we shall meet again.

I am not a man, I am Cantona

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shocking penalty kick
The shocking penalty kick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

 Sources:

Manchester United Transfer Saga

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

van_gaal

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

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

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

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

di_maria

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

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

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

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

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

falcao

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

graph1

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

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

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

graph2

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

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

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

 
 

Looking Ahead – English Premier League Season Preview 2014-15

 

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

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

The Title Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Europe

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

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

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

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

The Also-rans

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Relegation Dogfight

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

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

Authors’ Picks

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

Maximus Tacticus : Manchester United

With the retirement of legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, things were going to be different. But the change has been rather dramatic. From being title contenders to mid table dwellers – it has been a fight this season for Manchester United to keep their reputation intact. David Moyes’ boys are going through the worst season in the Premier League era. Debojyoti Chakraborty scrutinises the Red Devils to find out the reason.

In his farewell speech last year, Sir Alex Ferguson asked for the support and patience of club loyalists towards the newly appointed manager, David Moyes. The then Everton boss was preferred over all other big names being speculated upon at that time and thus has been labelled the Chosen One. There was an air of retrospect around Old Trafford. Everyone admitted Moyes was not handed over the best of squads and with the departure of Chairman David Gill as well, it was going to be a transition period for the champions. I acknowledged the same in my Season Preview and scaled down their target to a podium finish.

But it was really hard to predict that this transition would be so painful (may be even the legendary Paul the Octopus, who made a name for himself in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, would agree). It is like a workplace where the newly appointed Board of Directors – Edward Woodward, the Executive Vice Chairman along with the owners, Glazer family – are not able to draw out a smooth change management plan and, in turn, are suffering from low productivity. They might have expected a trophy-less season – notwithstanding the pointless Community Shield – but certainly not a free fall like this.

David Moyes - his usual look these days
David Moyes – his usual look these days

Manchester United are 7th in the table, a position they have never seen in the Premier League era at such an advanced stage in the league. Their league standing makes it obvious that Red Devils’ stats this season will be pretty poor. But in fact, they are even worse! Before the last match against Cardiff City, Manchester United were the only team, along with Fulham, who had failed to score in the first 15 minutes of any match in the league. So it is clear they are not able to dictate terms from the onset. This becomes quite obvious when one gets to know that Moyes has not even once fielded the same team in any two consecutive matches.

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David de Gea, between the sticks, has been one of the very few players who has improved from his last season. But Patrice Evra’s rapidly diminishing form – mainly due to his loss of pace which has impeded him from creating a right balance between attack and defence – has overshadowed the Spaniard’s good showings. To add to the misery, there is no preferred centre back pairing. Or so it seems. Joining Evra in the aging defence are Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic who do not bring in an air of assurance even when they are playing. Their understudy, Johny Evans and Chris Smalling appear to be playing in a club too high for their abilities. But Right Back might be the position which has seen maximum changes this season. Rafael, Smalling, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia – none have given a run of consistent performances.

Moyes has tried to adapt to United’s favourite wing play with two strikers up front, which does not come naturally to him. He was more accustomed to play 4-4-1-1 where inevitably it would drift towards a compact five-man midfield rather than being too adventurous. But he has been let down by the awful display of wingers. Valencia and Ashley Young have been pathetic. They have averaged 27 crosses per game, better than any team in the league but their successful cross ratio remains one of the lowest. Take for example the loss against Chelsea on 19th January, 2014 – United managed to cross 26 times but only 4 of them were successful. Age has caught up with Ryan Giggs and one must admit he has outlived himself. Things have been so bad that a once-in-a-blue-moon performer Nani has been awarded with a five-year contract extension.

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But United’s main problem has been their central midfield. Sluggish movements have meant fewer options for making a key pass in vital moments. Lack of pace and indecision in possession has either forced them to pass backwards or have left them bereft of the ball by their opponents. Michael Carrick has endured an injury hit season and even then he has tried his level best to dictate terms in matches he has played. But lack of creativity from his midfield partners – Tom Cleverly, Kagawa or Marouane Fellaini (playing in double pivot or more advanced role) – has hampered Manchester’s overall build up.

This lack of penetration from the midfield has forced Wayne Rooney to drop deeper and deeper. He is always very enthusiastic and likes to get involved in the build-up. But for his and more importantly team’s benefit, he should have been playing upfront just behind the striker – not in a tranquilista role. Just glance at his overall action areas in the home loss against Everton on 4th December, 2013 and you will know how much out of position he had to play.

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But amidst all this, one thing has stood out – Moyes has very good game reading sense. His strategic alterations – mainly during the interval or even during normal playing time – have injected life into Manchester’s play. Take for example the game against Swansea on 11th January, 2014 at Old Trafford. United looked clueless, lacked energy and were going nowhere in the first half. Moyes pushed Shinji Kagawa in a more central role and asked Januzaj to take on the opponent Right Back, who was already on a yellow card. This tactical switch turned the game in United’s favour. But how one wishes – and not only for this match during the season – that United could have started like that!

In his defence, Moyes can rightly point out that Manchester has been hit hard by injuries to key players, especially their highest scorer last season Robin van Persie. His partnership with Rooney upfront was lethal last year but they could play together only nine times this time round – and RVP was in the field for a mere 33 minutes on one of those occasions. It is no surprise that United has drawn only two and lost none out of those eight (excluding the curtailed appearance of RVP against West Bromwich Albion) matches. Without them? Moyes has been frustrated as United have laboured to only 20 points out of the remaining 15 games.

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As Uncle Ben said, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And how harshly David Moyes is realising the truth! Could he have done something different? Could he have tried a false 9 featuring both Kagawa and Rooney up front? This would have been a viable proposition in the absence of RVP and especially considering the lack of creativity United have suffered at the central areas. But Moyes is not known for being too adventurous and, as we all know, it is easier said than done.

Things did not look too promising even from the outset. The disastrous summer transfer season saw Manchester come close to signing quite a few players but inexplicably failed to land any major stars. Their only signing was Fellaini, but United definitely needed more than that. While the champions stagnated, their opponents became stronger with the influx of new blood and the results are there for everyone to see. Now with the addition of the midfield maestro Juan Mata, Manchester United are looking to get things back on track. But it is too little too late for at least this season.

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

Scouting Network: Ravel Morrison

Scouting Network identifies young players under the age of 21 who have exceptional talent and could be one of the leading players of the future. This month GoaldenTimes profiles Ravel Morrison

Date of Birth: February 02, 1993

Place of Birth: Wythenshawe,

Manchester, England

Club: West Ham United

Height: 175 cm

Weight: 71 kg

Position: Midfield

Nationality: England

Market Value: £650,000

Ravel Morrison is a young lad, highly rated by people who have watched him closely during his limited appearances for Manchester United. Although he is yet to set the stage on fire, Ravel Morrison has surely set the newspapers ablaze – not so much the back page, but certainly ‘Page 3’. Speed, vision, flair, control, strong physicality, goal scoring knack – he has ’em all and some more – not to mention his constant off-the-field issues. He is the latest ’bad boy’ of English football – anybody remembers Gazza? Morrison may be a notch above his predecessors having already received a 12-month referral order for witness intimidation and serving a police caution for assaulting his mother. Mind you, he is but a teenager!

Amidst all this, he had signed as a first-year scholar with his club in 2009 and turned professional the next year, on his 17th birthday. Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to have a gem at his disposal as Morrison put in a string of strong performances across age groups for England U16, U17 and U18s. He is a complete midfielder who has been at his best in the wide left position. He made his first senior appearance later that year in the League Cup win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, coming on as a substitute. Morrison though made his mark in the FA Youth Cup 2010-11. After lighting up the field in the previous rounds and scoring a few, Morrison scored the opener against Chelsea en route to a 4-0 semi-final thumping. He scored a brace – first one with a delightful placement after couple of delightful touches , and the second one after running through the defence – in the finals against Sheffield United which Manchester United won 6-3 on aggregate. Two days later, he again made the headlines – for throwing his girlfriend’s cell phone out of a window during an argument and subsequently being fined £600 for the same. He was soon touted as one of the best young talents coming up the ranks in Manchester United. But off-the-field incidents got better of him and on the final day of the 2011-12 winter transfer window, Sir Alex confirmed that it would be better for him to try his luck away from the limelight at Upton Park. So what if he can do this, this and this?

And it is no surprise that he has not learnt his lessons. He has recently been fined £7,000 by FA (Football Association) for posting a homophobic threat on Twitter. Surely, his social networking skills are not something to boast of. But it seems better than his knowledge of using a search engine: “Who knows west hams official website?” # @RavelMorrison49. He seems destined to be a wasted talent. But one can only hope that Big Sam (Sam Allardyce) would be able to tame this spoilt brat and turn him into a glittering diamond. And going by Morrison’s footballing skills alone, there is no reason why he should not!

Journey to the Theatre of Dreams

Akshay Iyer goes on a journey of his lifetime to a place of his dreams and encounters the experience millions will never forget from the closest seat possible

Being a Manchester United fan for close to 14 years, my dream had been to watch at least one match at Old Trafford – also known quite aptly as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.

 
 

The Manchester United Restaurant and Bar (MURB) in Bengaluru in southern India was organising a trip for fans to fly out to Manchester and watch the Red Devils take on Arsenal at Old Trafford. I was not aware of this initially but when I came to know about it through my sister, I just had to go to MURB and get more details of this trip. My plan for 2012 was to watch at least one match at Old Trafford, but when I chanced upon this unexpected opportunity, the decision to make the trip was a no-brainer.

I was part of a group of six who flew to Manchester from Bengaluru in the early hours of August 25, 2011. We reached Manchester the next afternoon, and the remainder of that day was largely spent going around the town centre.

The real action started on August 27, when we were scheduled to tour the home of Manchester United. There haven’t been too many occasions when I have had goose bumps, but as we approached Old Trafford and walked down the Sir Matt Busby Way, I felt a myriad of emotions including excitement, happiness and unabashed pride.

Among the first sights one sees at the magnificent stadium is the clock which depicts the time of the Munich air crash as well as a mural honouring the players and officials who lost their lives in the tragic event. There are also two statues outside the stadium – one is of the United Trinity of Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best, while the other is of the legendary Manchester United manager, the late Sir Matt Busby.

It was then time to take the tour of the stadium and the museum, which is housed inside Old Trafford itself. Apart from one of the veteran guides to take us around, we also had the pleasure of having the company of Bryan Robson, a former Manchester United captain and now a global ambassador of the club.

The first stop on the tour was the North Stand, which is now called the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, as we were given a quick walk through of the history of the stadium and the stand itself, from where one had a panoramic view of the ground. We also went to the lower tier of the East Stand, a part of which has been marked for the physically disabled and provides them easy access on match days.

Our experienced guide shared many interesting facts with us as we went around, and I also used the opportunity to pick Robson’s brain about his playing days, the current Manchester United squad as well as his role as the global ambassador of the club. ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson said Phil Jones has a bright future, but was unsure if Tom Cleverley had it in him to take over the mantle from United legend Paul Scholes. Robson, though was optimistic that United would win their 20th league title this season, and said: “(Manchester) City certainly have a strong squad, but our experience of winning trophies and Sir Alex’s ability to nurture youngsters and give them the confidence to do well, makes me feel we will be successful in defending the BPL title.” Robson also touched upon his tenure as Thailand’s manager and said, though the players and people of that country are passionate about football, the lack of infrastructure has hindered their progress on the Asian and world stage.

Robson said the game has become faster and more competitive now than in his playing days, but the basics of skill are still central to a footballer’s success. He also mentioned that being at the receiving end of Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer’ ire isn’t a pleasant experience; however, he was all praise for his former manager and the winning mentality he has instilled in the club.

The tour also included a visit to the dressing rooms and I felt an adrenalin rush as we entered the home team’s dressing room and saw the playing gear of United’s squad as well as the screen that Ferguson uses for match tactics. I could feel the sense of history as we walked around different areas of the stadium, and this was one of those moments when I would have been glad had the walls of the hallowed stadium shared their experiences as well!

It was then time to take a walk down the Munich Tunnel and get a glimpse of the tragic days in the club’s history. The tunnel had self-explanatory images that depicted the tragic event, its aftermath and effect on the city of Manchester, and finally the rise of United from the ashes. While these were nostalgic and emotional moments, I was also proud of being the fan of a club that overcame adversity of the worst kind with flying colours. The legacy of Sir Matt Busby and the determination of the players who survived the horrific event, including Sir Bobby Charlton, to make Manchester United a club to be reckoned with were nothing short of inspirational.

We then took advantage of the fact that Robson was with us and managed to take a walk down the tunnel that is used by the home and away players to enter Old Trafford’s green field. While we obviously couldn’t step on the playing surface as it was the day before the match against Arsenal, we went as close to the hallowed turf as possible. It was also an amazing feeling to sit in the home team’s dugout and soak in the vast expanse of Old Trafford from that point.

We bid adieu to Robson and our guide before embarking on a shopping spree at the Manchester United Megastore. The day didn’t end there though as we were joined for lunch by former Manchester United captain Gary Neville at the Red Cafe. Once Neville came, eating was the last thing on our mind and we spent close to half an hour in his company. Neville was also confident that United would successfully defend their Premier League title this season and his respect and admiration for Ferguson was evident each time he mentioned his former manager’s name. Talking about the time when his brother Phil moved on from Manchester United, Gary said it was part and parcel of the football business. When asked about his snubbing of former United teammate Peter Schmeichel’s offer for a handshake in the tunnel before the 2002 Manchester derby, Neville just offered a wry smile. Schmeichel left Manchester United in 1999 and after stints at Sporting CP and Aston Villa, the Danish goalkeeper joined City in 2002 and that earned him Neville’s ire.

The next day – August 28, 2011 – was all about the big match between Manchester United and Arsenal. One could feel excitement in the air on the tram from our hotel to the stadium, which had a mix of fans from both the clubs, but as could be expected, there were certainly a lot more Red Devils supporters than the Gunners. The excitement and expectations only grew as we walked from the Old Trafford Station to the Theatre of Dreams among a sea of people as well as the merchandise and food stalls. And, despite the large number of spectators in the different stands, there was no pushing or shoving to enter the stadium.

As we made our way to our seats in the top tier of the East Stand, which is the one opposite Stretford End, players from both clubs were warming up. I had always expected the atmosphere inside Old Trafford on a match day to be magical and electrifying, but to actually experience and be in the midst of it as United fans chanted and sang songs is a feeling that can’t be put into words but suffice to say it’s one of those moments that one can live over and over.

Manchester United would go on to subject Arsenal to a humiliating 8-2 defeat, which was the Gunners’ worst loss since 1896. Six of the ten goals scored in the match were in front of the East Stand – five of those by Manchester United, which made the experience all the more memorable. The save that David de Gea made off Robin Van Persie’s penalty kick was also in front of the East Stand as were the five goals that Manchester United scored in the second half.

The stadium celebrated each of the United goals and De Gea’s penalty save in unison; while the two Arsenal goals were met with deathly silence. It was a festive atmosphere inside the stadium and Arsenal as well as their fans were taunted as the goals went in and whenever they lost the ball, with songs and chants.

All eight United goals were a joy to watch, but the pick of the lot were Rooney’s two goals from free kicks and Ashley Young’s curling finishes to the top corner. The picture of the match though was Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny going down on his haunches after Young had scored his second and Manchester United’s eighth goal; and that was an apt reflection of the Red Devils’ dominance in this match from start to finish.

We lingered outside Old Trafford for a while after the match and soaked in all that was possible of the post-match celebrations. Those two days were by far the most memorable of my life, and these are experiences that money just can’t buy. I’ll cherish these moments and experiences for the rest of my life and this trip to Manchester has only increased my resolve to watch as many live matches at Old Trafford that I possibly can.

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!

‘Glory’ – We, the Hunters

‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell.’

~ Sir Alex Ferguson

Most of us in India would remember 1999 for an event far from being closely associated to the beautiful game we call football – the Cricket World Cup: Sachin Tendulkar’s injury which could have prevented him from playing the Cup or Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid’s record partnership at Taunton. I was no different. While counting down to the days, I read every article that came on the sports pages of newspapers with immense interest, making fantastical permutations and combinations as the likes of a nine-year-old would be akin to carrying out.

In a country where zealous fan(atic)s worship cricket as a religion, it is hard to stay away from its lure. However, that May 27, 1999 newspaper carried another snippet that almost went unnoticed, except to this nine-year-old’s keen eye. A team called Manchester United had won the Champions League, from being one goal down and without their first-choice midfielders. Although my memory serves as an impediment here, I can very well recall a grainy black and white picture of the players and an aged fellow, who looked like my grandpa, lifting a Cup. And to this nine-year old underdog, that is me, it was a tale of gut and gumption; this come-from-behind story of a team called Manchester United held my admiration. I did not know of them earlier, all my knowledge was limited only to FIFA World Cup matches and Golden Boot winners – Davor Šuker being the latest of them. All things considered, it was shallow and shallow still on the day of May 27, 1999. But, a team called Manchester United etched itself in my memory, firmly. That was the beginning of my becoming a Red Devil, possibly a glory-hunter.

A glory-hunter is a euphemism for foreign supporters of a particular football club who are spread world over. It is particularly acute amongst fans of Manchester United. These foreign fans have been the target of jibes by rival supporters and locals alike. What exactly defines a glory-hunter? For one, a glory-hunter is not a local fan, a person from the same place of origin as the club, a “big club”. Even a Cockney-speaking Londoner supporting Liverpool is at risk of being called one. Accusations range from having no connections with the club and choosing it only because the club will safely be amongst the best for years to overusing the club mottos (‘Glory Glory Man United’ or GGMU in the case of Manchester United). They are also criticised for their lack of knowledge regarding the club’s history, culture or chants. They are always the ones susceptible to switching allegiances when their club is going through a torrid time, might even switch back and forth. A glory-hunter’s attack on a rival club or a player is more vitriolic (using names such as Chelsh*t for Chelsea etc.) than a local. These and so many more points make the workings of a glory-hunter.

Ever since the English Premier League hit the Indian television screens, there has been a surge in its viewership. Needless to say, Indian fans make a sizeable chunk of the global fan support of Premier League clubs. True, there is the domestic I-League with matches happening all year round but what makes an Indian football viewer, irrespective of the glory-hunter status, watch EPL, and openly support a foreign club having no prior attachment to it?

A majority of the football fans in India only know of ‘The Big Four’ of England — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Only recently Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and the likes of those who are constantly pushing for a place in the ‘Big Four’ bracket are winning some favour, too.

Moving over to southern Europe, there exist only Barcelona, Real Madrid, A.C. Milan and Inter Milan.  Names like Juventus, A.S. Roma, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia have been only heard of. Juventus for Alessandro del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon, Roma for Francesco Totti, Atletico Madrid as the club who previously had Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero before they were stars, Bayern Munich for the (Arjen) Robben-(Franck) Ribéry duo, Bayer Leverkusen for Michael Ballack and Valencia having been home to two Davids –  Villa and Silva.

The knowledge is shallow and I won’t mince any words about it. Football has suddenly transformed from a sport in India to also a form of ‘peacocking’. The more you flaunt what you know, that is rattle off names, tactics, formations and player names, the ‘cooler’ you are. Yes, I have been a part of it too. But, if you have your national team languishing at the lower rungs of the world rankings and a domestic league which can be called mediocre on its best day, people will always look for options.

Inspiring moments in this millennium have been sporadic. The only ones worth mentioning are perhaps East Bengal’s ASEAN Club Championship win way back in 2003, Baichung Bhutia’s stint at Bury F.C. in England and Sunil Chhetri’s at Kansas City Wizards of the MLS in the USA; and to say that the country was arguably the best team in Asia from 1950 to 1962 is a matter of shame.  There is no glamour in it, neither for players nor for the fans: a once thriving club culture is all but dead. This is why Jose Ramirez Baretto is not as hated in Kolkata as Carlos Tevez is in Manchester, and why Steven Dias’s #8 jersey has no takers while Steven Gerrard’s #8 sells like hot cakes. And when you have competitive football matches of the highest order, players of world repute being beamed in your television screens every weekend, why would one want to pay and go watch a local football match in a decrepit run-down stadium?

Another accusation that comes the glory-hunter way is that they don’t attend matches ever. I stand guilty as charged, myself. Yes, United takes pride in its working class roots, from its inception as Newton Heath of yore to the Manchester United it is now. But, a two-way ticket to Manchester and back will knock the stuffing out of any middle class Indian home. Add to that, a currency that depreciates considerably in comparison to the Pound-Sterling. Thus, it is not feasible for a fervent United fan to watch a match and come back without burning a hole in his or her pocket. If United rules your heart then no matter where you belong, irrespective of the colour of your skin, you will take pride in your team even from your bedroom. My ooh’s and aah’s have constantly woken my neighbours on Champions League nights as it is almost morning by the time the telecast ends in India.

But fans’ glory-hunting charges notwithstanding, here’s another side of the story. Why did Andriy Shevchenko leave A.C. Milan for Chelsea in 2006 when he was easily the first choice striker and also the second highest goal-getter for the club? Why did he, instead, choose to be a part of Roman Abramovich’s lavishly funded Jose Mourinho squad? Whiffs of glory-hunting exist in players as well, I say, sticking my neck out. There are more examples like Dimitar Berbatov who moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Manchester United for a record-breaking fee a few years ago after being the club’s top scorer. Also, add David Silva, Yaya Touré and the Manchester City bunch. Everyone, inherently, wants a share of fame and glory. Add to that, whopping salary packages and you have an offer you can barely refuse. No one really remembers John Terry’s missed penalty in the Champions League final at Moscow in 2008 except in statistics. Players are human beings as well. The lure of top-flight football and expectant silverware is too much for them to resist. Even within that, a Serie A or the Bundesliga club pales out in comparison to their Premier League or La Liga counterparts, given the more attractive pay-packets and squads that allure them.

To know United, one must first know of Newton Heath – of February 6, 1958 and The Busby Babes, of Bryan Robson, George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Eric Cantona period. If you love a club, you fiercely support it no matter what and this is what the glory-hunters lack along with the basic knowledge of the club they “support” – its workings and history. Oh, and please, let’s not get into the clichéd million-dollar question perennially doing the rounds on social networking sites, as to who is better, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. I have followed United faithfully ever since that fateful day, from Roy Keane to Ruud van Nistelrooy, the departure of David Beckham to the coming of Ronaldo, from Owen Hargreaves and his injury woes to Sir Alex bringing in the new guard; the da Silva brothers (Fábio and Rafael), Phil Jones, Javier Hernandez, David de Gea and others. I sat perplexed, like every other Red Devil in the stadium when Sir Alex subbed Park Ji-Sung for Patrice Evra in the thrilling draw against Everton last year; a game we should have won. United makes my weekends and dictates my moods – it’s my love. So, I am most welcome to take that glory-hunter tag with a pinch of salt.

I fervently dream of going to Old Trafford and following the team around on their travels for an entire season. Someday, I shall. Like Arthur Miller once so rightly said, “A lot of good things have come out of dreaming.

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

The Next RED KNIGHT

 
Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson took over the reins as the manager of Manchester United Football Club on November 6, 1986 after the board sacked Ron Atkinson when the team was in the relegation zone. It has been close to 25 years since United had anybody else other then Sir Alex at the helm. A generation of United fans doesn’t know how it feels not to have Sir Alex blasting the living daylights out of referees from the touchline. Ferguson inherited a dispirited team of underachievers who had consistently, to their supporters’ discontent, failed to break Liverpool’s domination.

For the first few years, United didn’t win a trophy under him till 1990, when they tasted success with the FA Cup win. It is said that his job was under serious threat before the third round tie against Nottingham Forrest. Since then, there has been a never-ending supply of glories and trophies with 12 League titles, five FA Cups, two UEFA Champions League, one Club World Cup, one European Cup Winners Cup, one Inter-Continental Cup, one UEFA Super Cup and nine charity shields – in total 32 trophies.

Season after season, United have landed trophies under the great Scotsman; but after him, who? Many believe last season’s league triumph and Champions League final appearance was only possible because Sir Alex was at the helm, as the squad was poor compared to other title winning United squads. The managerial cacophony that took place after Sir Matt Busby stepped down, is etched in the memory of United fans. So, as Sir Alex completes 25 years in charge of United, the next managerial change in United will be crucial for the future of the club and will be one of the toughest decisions that the CEO of Manchester United Football Club would have to take.

It’s said that no one person is bigger than the club. When it comes to players, it holds true. But what if someone’s philosophy and direction defines the club in the modern age? Nothing of importance that happens at Manchester United goes without Ferguson’s knowledge or approval. He is as close to impossible to replace, as any manager could be. Good luck following this act.

Like everybody else, I have a speculative list of three people who I believe has the potential and credibility to take over from Sir Alex, as the manager of United. The following three managers are relatively younger, but experienced enough and successful in their own rights. In my view, the next United manager will be young, as United would certainly opt for a long term successor instead of a stop-gap arrangement, to fill the big boots of Sir Alec.

Jose Mourinho:


 

José Mário dos Santos Félix Mourinho or simply Jose Mourinho is a name that divides football fans and pundits alike. If anybody has the personality and charisma to take over from Sir Alex, then this is the man. He has worked as an assistant manager and interpreter with legendary English manager, Sir Bobby Robson at Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and then at FC Barcelona.  His managerial career started with Benfica, then he moved to Porto, where he won the Champions League, and then his first big move came when he took over at Chelsea from Claudio Ranieri, in 2004. Armed with Roman Abrahamovic’s financial strength, Mourinho built a Chelsea side which won its first league title in 50 years in the 2004/05 season, thus breaking the Manchester United and Arsenal hegemony at the top of English football. He also won the treble with Inter Milan and is currently manages Real Madrid.

Strengths:

He is an ‘attention-to-details’ manager. A Jose Mourinho side cannot be accused of being under-prepared. Invariably all the Mourinho teams are well-drilled with a fantastic backline. He builds his team from the defence and firmly believes in the theory that offence wins you games but defence wins you championships. He is regarded as one of the most tactically sound managers in Europe and studies the opposition team thoroughly. He is known for building personal relationships with his players and so he automatically owns the dressing room and commands fierce loyalty from his players.

Weaknesses:

Jose Mourinho is widely known for playing winning but pragmatic football which directly goes against the traditions of Manchester United. United is known for playing entertaining and free-flowing football, and the Old Trafford crowd demands not only winning football but easy-to-eye football.

Mourinho is known for playing the pantomime villain, all too well. In some cases it might take the pressure off the players, but on the downside, instead of the players, the manager may enjoy the media spotlight a bit more than what is expected in Old Trafford.

Verdict:

Jose Mourinho is the top contender from taking over from Sir Alex. He has the managerial acumen and the required charisma and personality to fill the big boots of Sir Alex. He shares a fantastic rapport with the great man, and as David Gill has stated that Sir Alex will have a huge role to play on his succesor’s choice, so Mourinho is one of the, if not the front runner for the post. Will he be ready to commit his long term future to Manchester United, build another dynasty and play the kind of football the Old Trafford demands every time the successors of the ‘Busby Babes’ take the field? 

Josep Guardiola:


 

Pep Guardiola enjoyed a stellar playing career with FC Barcelona with 263 appearances and won numerous trophies, including the European Cup in 1991-92 season. He finally left Barcelona in 2001.

His rise to become one of the most coveted managerial talents is nothing short of astounding. He was appointed as the coach of FC Barcelona B team at the start of the 2007-08 season. Under his guidance, the team subsequently won Tercera Division and qualified for the 2008 Segunda Division Playoffs, which the team won and was promoted. He replaced Frank Riijkard as the manager of Barca at the end of the 2007-08 season.

Before the start of the 2008-09 season, he made some sweeping changes to the Barca side by off-loading starts like Ronaldinho and Deco and brought in fresh players like Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Gerard Pique. In his first season with the Catalan giants, the young manager won an unprecedented six trophies, an astonishing achievement for such a young manager. He is also the youngest manager to win the UEFA Champions League and he won it TWICE, in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. He has already won three back-to-back La Liga titles. Now that’s an outstanding record for a young manager.

Strengths:

Under Guardiola, Barcelona has developed and mastered a mesmerising passing game that sometimes leaves their opponents chasing shadows in the midfield. His players are so adept in keeping the ball to their feet that the opponents are just left with no choice but to withstand all the pressure and hope to hit them back with a quick counter-attack. Another feature of Guardiola’s Barca team is the pressing game that they play, which rarely allows the opponents to settle down with the ball. The football that Barca plays is beautiful to see but extremely hard to execute and physically demanding on the players, so Pep’s players are extremely fit and he rarely rotates his team, barring injuries. Although he spent a lot of cash bringing new players to the club, he is ready to give youngsters in the club a shot at the first team, which is quite similar to Sir Alex’s and United’s philosophy of providing the youth a chance.

Weaknesses:

Josep Guardiola is regarded as one of the most, if not the most coveted young manager in the game but all his successes have been achieved in the familiar surroundings of the Catalan giants. Guardiola has played for Barcelona for a long period of time and then returned as their manager. He knows the club inside out and knows the brand of football that is needed for the La Liga. There arise questions as to how he can adjust his style of play in a different club, in a different league. Only time can answer that.

Verdict:

Josep Guardiola will be a kind of coup for Manchester United if they can acquire him. He is young, has promoted the brand of attacking football that the Old Trafford crowd bays for and will be willing to build one more dynasty. But can he adjust to a different club in a different league?

David Moyes:


 

 Had I been the CEO of Manchester United, I would not think twice before offering David Moyes to fill up the managerial vacancy, with Sir Alex not around, but unfortunately I AM NOT! David Moyes is one of the finest British managers in the game right now. He is young, tactically alert and a fantastic man manager.

His managerial career started at Preston North End in 1998, taking over from Gary Peters as the club struggled in the Division Two. Preston avoided relegation and qualified for the Division two playoffs, which they lost. The following season, they won the Division Two title and was promoted to Division One and qualified for the playoffs with largely the same squad that won the Division Two title.

Moyes left for Everton to take over from Walter Smith in 2002. If we take Everton’s budget into account then Moyes has achieved miracles with the club, and unearthed and harnessed talents like Wayne Rooney, Leighton Baines, Jack Rodwell, Seamus Coleman and the latest one, Ross Barkley. Everton achieved Champions League qualification in the 2004-05 season, a remarkable achievement for a club with a small budget.

Strengths:

I haven’t seen much of Preston North End but whatever I have seen of Everton in the last 10 years, I can safely say, that a David Moyes team won’t leave anything behind in the field, whatever the result might be. A trip to Goodison Park is always a tough fixture in the League calendar – an Everton team will hurry and hassle the opponent into making mistakes while displaying remarkable team ethic and commitment. They work their socks off on the field. David Moyes is known for making some smart buys and loan moves, as Everton’s budget is very low. This season Everton’s net spend was NEGATIVE, the only top-flight club with a negative net spend. Players like Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta (who left for Arsenal this season), Royston Drenthe and Steven Pienaar were brought to top flight English football by David Moyes. Tactically smart and a fantastic man manager, David Moyes is a special managerial talent.

Weaknesses:

David Moyes has harnessed his managerial skills at Preston North End and Everton. With no offence to Everton, can Moyes handle the pressure and expectations that come with being the manager of a big club like Manchester United? Over and above, he doesn’t have much experience of playing or managing in Europe, which is tactically a totally different ball game.

Verdict:

If there is one British manager that deserves his chance of managing a top club like Manchester United, then David Moyes is the man. United’s ethos lies in the fact that they try to build the foundation of a team through young players and they put a lot of emphasis on their youth academy. Moyes is known for identifying young players and nurturing them. Wayne Rooney is one of the best examples of a prodigal young player, nurtured by Moyes. He will carry forward the tradition, from Sir Alex, of building a team on young up-starts. He will be keen to build his own legacy at Manchester United and if he achieves success, then United need not worry about another managerial vacancy for a long time. I have discussed the strength of a typical David Moyes team. As opposed to Pep and Mourinho, Moyes doesn’t have the requisite funds but his strength lies in the way he prepares the team, and his penchant for an astute buy.

Year of Reckoning – Manchester United & Chelsea

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

Manchester United – Looking Forward

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

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

The Squad: A Fresh Look

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

Manchester United

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

Chelsea

The 2011-12 Season: Looking Forward

Premier League

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

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

Champions League:

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

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recruitment in Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng.

Cup Competitions:

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

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

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

Flashback: What went amiss?

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

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

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

The New Era: Andre Villas Boas comes to Chelsea


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

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

The 2011-12 Premier League Season: Charging ahead

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

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

The 2011-12 Premier League title challenge begins

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

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English Premier League 2011-12 – A Preview

Arsenal FC

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Aston Villa

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Blackburn Rovers

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Bolton Wanderers

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Chelsea

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Everton FC

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Fulham FC

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Liverpool

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Manchester City

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Manchester United

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Newcastle United

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Norwich City

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Queens Park Rangers

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Stoke City

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Sunderland

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Swansea Athletic FC

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Tottenham Hotspur

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

Players In

Players Out

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

West Bromwich Albion

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Wigan Athletic

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

Players In

Players Out

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

Wolverhampton Wanderers

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

Players In

Players Out

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