Friday, 8 January 2010

Premier League – can Liverpool ensure the ‘greatest league in the world’ remains predictable and a foregone conclusion?

At the beginning of the season pundits, fans and casual observers unanimously agreed that the top four places would be occupied by Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, though not necessarily in that order. However Rafael Benitez’ side have been a model of inconsistency since last September, and as a result lie in seventh place in the Premier League, behind Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The consequences of this are potentially disastrous, with the break-up of the ‘top four’ an unthinkable prospect, and the potential opening up of the fourth Champions League spot to ‘lesser sides’ such as those mentioned above cataclysmic. It may perhaps even result in the Premier League becoming competitive; therefore the powers that be have taken urgent action to rebuild Liverpool’s squad, ordering the transfers of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Pato and David Villa to Liverpool in order to prevent such an outcome. Unfortunately for Benitez, and anyone incapable of identifying and comprehending sarcasm, this will not be occurring, but Liverpool will need a goal scorer of some sort to take the pressure off Fernando Torres, perhaps Robbie Keane…or maybe not. Meanwhile multi-million pound signing Alberto Aquilani has been about as effective in the Liverpool midfield as the CIA at preventing terrorists boarding passenger planes, and as such Steven Gerrard has been forced once again to rescue his club from disaster on a number of occasions. Liverpool will be hard pressed to close the four-point gap between themselves and Tottenham any time soon, and with Manchester City under the stewardship of Roberto Mancini and set to spend vast sums of money in the January transfer window, the Merseyside club may be forced to endure a season devoid of Champions League revenue it so desperately requires.

The title race meanwhile is inexplicably shaping up to be a three horse race, with just four points separating first-placed Chelsea and third-placed Arsenal, who have a game in hand. With the Blues having lost four players, including talismanic goal machine Didier Drogba to the often derided, at least by certain Premier League managers, African Nations Cup, Manchester United will be hoping to capitalise on any potential slip-ups. Given that Chelsea’s forward line currently consists of the unproven Daniel Sturridge, Dimitar Berbatov and Nicholas Bendtner appear mercurial by comparison. Obviously Nicolas Anelka is due to return soon for Chelsea, but will owner Roman Abramovich’s obvious desperation to win the Champions League prevent the Blues from giving their all to the title race? Probably not, as by the time the knock-out stages are upon us Drogba will have returned and the panic will be all but over in West London. Arsenal would likely be leading the Premier League at this moment were it not for Robin van Persie’s unfortunate and costly habit of picking up debilitating injuries requiring lengthy spells on the treatment table, but once Fabregas is restored to the Gunners’ midfield surely anything is possible? Finally Manchester United, fresh from their humiliating cup exit to Leeds United on Sunday, desperately need to bounce back, ideally by humiliating a Premier League also-ran by an emphatic score-line, most likely Bolton, Wolves, Portsmouth or Hull. Whilst in late November ago it appeared Chelsea had the title sown up, and Ancelotti was being hailed as a genius, although obviously not as tactically astute as Mourinho, who will forever enjoy God-like status at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea now appear defensively vulnerable and have won only two of their last six Premier League games. I would still back Chelsea’s ruthless efficiency over Arsenal’s frustrating flamboyance and Manchester United’s determined tenacity, but whatever happens this could prove to be the first ‘three-horse race’ for many years at the pinnacle of English football.

Since the advent of huge television revenues in the Premier League the battle to avoid relegation has gained significant attention, with many pundits reiterating and emphasising the importance of staying in the division for financial rather than sporting purposes. This could be a false interpretation, and I may be doing said pundits a disservice, but I severely doubt Paul Jewell’s first thought was of the impending financial reward the club’s Premier League survival. Indeed when West Bromwich Albion pulled off, against all the odds, the so-called ‘great escape’ in 2005 having been bottom of the table at Christmas, the fans flooding onto the pitch would have most likely been celebrating their club’s achievement and another year of top-flight football, instead of multi-million pound payouts. However since this season’s relegation race will likely once again be dominated by the issue of money, I ought to accept that football has fundamentally changed from being about the glory of competing and triumph of survival to the obtainment of rewards with which clubs can afford abhorrently high wages to their often mediocre players.

Without meaning to sound as though I am writing for a certain well-known tabloid newspaper, for Portsmouth Premier League survival is quite literally a matter of life or death. Despite club officials having promised to pay their players wages owed to them for the month of December by Tuesday, a further delay has arisen. Pompey will be further disheartened by the news that they cannot extend Jamie O’Hara’s loan from Tottenham Hotspur due to the transfer embargo enforced on the by the Premier League. Portsmouth have also been informed that a figure of around £7 million, owed to Chelsea, Tottenham and Watford for player transfers, will be paid for from their share of the latest round of television monies. On the pitch the club lies four points off safety, but also off nearest rivals Hull City in 19th place. A recent revival has given fans some hope of cutting the deficit, and Pompey are by no means certainties for relegation. However recent defeats, 2-0 away to West Ham being the most damaging, have halted the club’s progress under Avram Grant. They desperately need to fashion some sort of unbeaten run, and quickly, before those also in danger do the same and leave Portsmouth cut adrift. Hull City should also be tremendously worried, given that they are without a win in six Premier League games, and face Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United in their next three matches. Bolton Wanderers, with two games in hand and Owen Coyle likely to be in place for Saturday’s trip to the Stadium of Light, will hope to extricate themselves from relegation difficulty and drag West Ham, Wigan and Wolverhampton Wanderers into the mix, as well as Burnley who may suffer badly from the shock of losing Coyle. In terms of the unfortunate three destined for the drop, despite my previous optimism the extent of Portsmouth’s financial difficulties means they may remain rooted to the bottom, whilst Hull appear to be nailed-on certainties for relegation. Finally I believe Burnley’s impressive home record could disappear in the absence of Owen Coyle, and as such they could find themselves occupying the final relegation place.

As for the remainder of the Premier League, outside of the European positions, which will be occupied by the top four, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, although probably not in that order, clubs will fight to the death to ensure they receive the largest possible slice of the Premier League money pie. Birmingham City deserve huge plaudits for their efforts so far this season, which in my mind at least make Alex McLeish a prime candidate for manager of the year, along with Fulham’s Roy Hodgson and Stoke City’s Tony Pulis. As mentioned above, the fight for fourth place may well be very interesting indeed, and if Liverpool are unable to overcome the deficit, I would back Roberto Mancini, a man with a proven track record, albeit not in English football, to claim the colossal Champions League revenue that would be but a splash in the Manchester City ocean of wealth. Tottenham should be able to run the moneyed monoliths of City close, but may suffer from both inconsistency and the lack of hundreds of millions of pounds with which to make ‘squad improvements’. All we can hope for is that the Premier League affords football fans everywhere, or what Richard Scudamore would refer to as ‘consumers’, a shock or two instead of reverting to type with a restored top four and an uninspiring, tedious relegation battle.

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