Well, well. It’s the third part of the current series, and the one that some people will actually care about. So who, in my ill-informed and ever-changing opinion, will be crowned the Champions of the Premier League in 2014?
Well, nobody, because they don’t make you a monarch for winning it. But anyway, here goes…
They’ve been the pacesetters for most of the season but injuries are just starting to tell in this Arsenal side. With Theo Walcott out for the rest of the season, and the team thus lacking the threat his pace and finishing abilities, they might not quite have enough in their lockers to sustain a challenge, especially with the tough run of fixtures they have around the Bayern Munich ties. They’ve been reverting to a kind of past-Arsenal stereotype in recent weeks, passing the ball prettily but without penetration and having a couple of wobbles in defence; the ball doesn’t seem to be sticking to Giroud as much as it did earlier in the season, and they miss Aaron Ramsey (a sentence I never thought I’d type). Of course, they can always fall back on Niklas Bendtner…
As much as I genuinely hate preening arrogance-machine Jose Mourinho-and it is genuine hate, burning up in my gut like a bad vindaloo- he’s a pretty good manager, all told, and I can’t see Chelsea finishing lower than the top two this season. They’ve not been particularly convincing this season, and should definitely have been better to watch with the creative players they have, but with Matic (re-) signing, they’ve actually got a midfield now, rather than having to rely on Frank Lampard, who I’ve been informed is eligible for a free bus pass at the end of this season. It is a bit saddening to see genuinely amazing players of the past struggling as much as Eto’o (til the last few games) and especially Torres have this season; it’s like watching Elvis in his final few years, when the burgers started catching up with him. But they are increasingly solid at the back and seem to get away with nasty niggling fouls more than any other team in the league, with that combination, and Hazard and Oscar’s current form, set to see them challenging right to the wire.
1st: Manchester City
Some might accuse me of trying to please my one reader here, but seriously, Man City are the best team in the league by fair, and one of the most entertaining teams to watch as well. Granted, any defence with Martin Demichelis included is asking for trouble-he dives in more than a scuba team- but going forward, I can’t see how any team can honestly hope to stop them scoring. They have the best midfielder in the league in Yaya Toure, a superb foil for him in Fernandinho, and the forward line is second only to Liverpool’s in terms of lethality. Their home form is frankly ridiculous, and though they might drop a few points on their travels, where they’ve looked a mite patchy, it won’t be enough to stop them lifting the Premier League Trophy (again). What with Man Utd’s current travails (read: shitness) and my obviously 100% certain-to-happen prediction, City fans must be pretty happy right about now…
They aren’t going to win the Quadruple, though.
Well, then. Already doubting the relegation predictions (Stoke would go and sign a proven goalscorer, wouldn’t they?), it’s on to the predictions for the top 6. In reverse order, to provide the illusion of tension…
6th: Manchester United
Without wishing to add to the seas of people who are saying Moyes is out of his depth, United (I make no apologies for calling them that, you know who I’m talking about) do have the feel of a sinking ship about them this season. Nautical allusions aside, they’ve been god-awful under their new crazy-eyed manager, with the Fergie-laden fruits of an ageing and imbalanced squad really ripening over the festive period especially. They obviously still have some quality players, and their chances of proving me massively wrong aren’t hurt by the signing of Juan Mata, who is just amazing; the problem they have is that their midfield is old and slow, their defence is looking shakier and shakier and contains Chris “did the ball just fly over my head again?” Smalling, and Wayne Rooney is just a massively bad egg in the dressing room, it seems. Whether his ego can withstand being third string to a Spaniard who couldn’t get into the Chelsea team and an 18-year-old Belgian/Albanian/English wunderkind taking diving lessons from Ashley Young , well, only time will tell. They have big problems in their squad and, already 5 points behind current Everton, I can’t see them getting any better than maybe-in-Europe-if-loads-of-convoluted-events –all-happen, also known as 6th place.
Because I’m assuming Tottenham will start to drop points as soon as Emmanuel Adebayor resumes his usual sulk, or opponents work out that if they defend deep Spurs can’t break them down, it’s a toss-up between the two Merseyside clubs for who comes fourth and who comes fifth. I think Liverpool will just beat the Toffees to the last Champions League spot, just because Everton have a marginally harder fixture list, and just as many injuries. They are an excellent team but maybe they don’t quite have the experience of success that at least some of the Liverpool squad have, and with a lot of their creative players currently injured, they might draw just too many games to make it into the Champions League. That said, their defence is genuinely excellent, as is the base of their midfield (and I never thought I’d say that about a pairing containing Gareth Barry), so I can’t see them losing many games either; and with Lukaku, Barkley and Deulofeu in the squad, they’ve got goals in them too. A lot of it depends on how Martinez copes with his ridiculous injury list, though he’s had plenty of practice with that while at Wigan. It’ll be close, is the gist of what I’m saying…
So, onto Rodgers’ Reds, who are in the depths of an injury crisis just as bad as Everton’s, don’t really have a defence and insist on playing Steven Gerrard, the definition of “his best days are behind him”. The loss of Lucas, one of the most underrated overrated players ever (it does make sense, trust me), is a massive blow, but more pressing for Rodgers is the issue of how to incorporate both Sturridge and Suarez in the same team. While he sorts this out, Liverpool are going to ship a lot of goals; but they are also going to score a hell of a lot, as they have been all season, and when you have a player as amazing as Luis Suarez leading the attack, well, even awful performances can be rescued by moments of magic. Assuming he doesn’t do something crazy like bare his enormous testicles at Howard Webb, he’ll probably be the key figure in getting Liverpool into the qualifiers, before fucking off to Real Madrid as they crash out in the first qualifying round to an unknown team from Romania…
Part 3 of this miniseries-the top 3-tommorrow!
We’re halfway through the Premier League Season, nearly at the end of the January transfer window, and I haven’t written anything on this blog for ages. So now seems like a pretty good time to throw considered, cautious reasoning to the wind and make some massively bold claims about what the league table will look like at the end of the season.
This will take the form of three posts. Obviously I don’t have the application to talk about every single team, but I’ll have a go at predicting, based on relative strengths of team and squad, who’ll be relegated this season, who’ll be in the top 6, and then Mystic Matt will shout his predictions through the ceiling of the cellar in which he’s hiding from Russian gangsters. Hope you like them, if not, I’m not forcing you to read them.*
Without further ado, the teams who are gonna go down…
There’s just no goals in the Norwich team. Gary Hooper is willing and a decent penalty box finisher, but nobody seems to be laying on chances for the poor bloke, while Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, despite having the best name in the Premiership, is playing like a poor man’s Cameron Jerome, also known as a Cameron Jerome. The less said about Johan Elmander, who makes a tree look mobile, the better. It still seems odd that the club’s most creative player, Wes Hoolahan, isn’t getting a game, as the perfect player to lay on some chances for their one competent striker, with the rest of the squad just not really looking up to Premiership standard (with the exceptions of Fer and, perhaps, Ruddy). I quite like Chris Hughton, but if he’s pinning his hopes on Jonas Gutierrez, Argentina right-back, providing the much-needed creative spark and goal threat, then (AWFUL PUN ALERT) the Canaries look likely to fall off their perch.
Oh, Fulham. It genuinely hurts to think that a team including the majestic Dimitar Berbatov is probably going to be relegated, but despite the fag-smoking Bulgarian’s genuine class, the team around him is just too geriatric to consistently do well in such a fast-paced league. There’s nothing wrong with experience, but when your two main central midfield players need zimmerframes to get around, and neither were all that brilliant at the height of their careers, well, it’s time to invest in some youth or prepare for the Championship. Add in John Arne Riise, whose “Release the Kraken” moments seem to be far behind him now, as well as Damien Duff, Darren “Missed Again” Bent and the truly awful Philippe Senderos, and…well, the problem’s obvious. Fulham’s squad has some genuine quality, the aforementioned Berbatov and the excellent Martin Stekelenburg coming to mind, but the main spine of the team can’t run, and apparently that’s quite important in football. Losing 6-0 to Hull, and having the worst goal difference in the division at this point, displaying absolutely no confidence in their play… you don’t come back from that.
Now, this one’s difficult. There are plenty of sub-par Premier League teams this season, and pretty much anyone below tenth has a chance of going down; but while it’ll go right to the wire, I think that Stoke are just a little bit worse than the rest. It seems odd after years of Pulis-induced solidity to say their defence is poor, but it genuinely looks leakier than an ill-fitted catheter right now, and the managers’ continued insistence on playing Jonathan Walters in front of literally anyone else, including the ball-boys or indeed Jonathan Walters’ mum, suggests the forward has some serious dirt on Sparky. They, like Norwich, are struggling for goals, and whilst Mark Hughes’ desire to get them playing something worthy of the name “football” is laudable, they just don’t have the players to do it properly. Watching Ryan Shawcross trying to play the ball out of defence, for example, is like watching Anne Widdecombe try and pirouette on Strictly, but with a marginally slimmer chance of pulling it off. They’ve got two great keepers, and a decent striker in stick-figure Peter Crouch, but their traditional goal-struggles are being made more obvious by the lack of organisation at the back, and the other relegation candidates might just pull in front of Stoke because of this.
Well, there you go. Come back soon for part 2: the top 6!
*Please read them. This is the closest thing I have to a social life…
So, after watching several FA Cup games over the weekend, though not the Liverpool-Oldham game I wanted to because it wasn’t being broadcast anywhere on the planet, I’ve come to the following conclusion:
If there was any FA Cup Magic flowing around, in the good old days of leg-breaking challenges, proper English No. 9s and the flat 4-4-2 (more on that later), it’s definitely all drained away by now.
Look, it’s still nice to have lower league teams beat higher-league teams. Big congrats to Notts Forest in particular, since they thoroughly deserved their 5-0 win over West Ham, who are… well, looking like an entire team of Stewart Downings, frankly, willing enough and with the knowledge that talent is there but unable to show it and ultimately, a bit disappointing. Oh, and with the players (including Downing himself) getting a lot more money than they deserve. Sorry, it’s so hard not to get carried away with Downing analogies; they always promise so much and deliver so little. Where was I…
Oh yes… the FA Cup. Well, it’s still nice to have giant-killings, but when the killers themselves are playing for a draw (I’m looking at you, Macclesfield) in order to get a well-paid replay… well, there’s no shame in a struggling club doing that, but it’s hardly magical. What with West Ham’s line-up and the general attitude of teams (other than Wigan) towards the FA Cup, there’s an argument that the League Cup is now seen as more important to teams; there’s both a feeling that there’s more chance of winning it, that it’s a little less bloated, and that exciting youngsters get a chance to shine (rather than being forced into the line-up when they aren’t ready, a la Big Sam Allardici).
And when the one interesting tie in the round (two if you count Swansea beating Man Utd, which made me laugh a lot) turns out to be pretty uninteresting in the end, well… the magic’s definitely fading away.
The interesting tie I’m talking about, of course, was Arsenal vs Spurs, Wenger vs Tactics Tim, and definitive proof that 4-4-2 doesn’t work against even a vaguely decent team. Dembele and Bentaleb actually didn’t play that badly, but facing three midfielders and two technically competent (OK, brilliant) wingers drifting inside, they didn’t have a hope. They weren’t helped by Sulking’s Adebayor refusal to drop into any kind of space to create a passing angle, by Eriksen’s invisible man performance or the fact that Danny Rose has come out as a secret and devoted Gunner, or by an admittedly excellent Arsenal performance, but… The kind of boxy 4-4-2 Sherwood is trying to implement, as a way of gaining favour with supporters, just isn’t going to wash against teams with well-drilled and technical midfielders, because they’ll just happily pass the ball around the isolated Spurs midfield whilst always having a spare man to intercept the kind of square balls 4-4-2 forces a team to play. Any half-decent midfield 3 is going to completely dominate Spurs once the initial “new manager” furore has run out.
Which brings me on to Man Utd, who lost to Spurs in the League recently and lost again to Swansea. It’s hard to see what Moyes can do at Man Utd, really; he seems to be lacking ideas, his players don’t seem to be motivated, his midfield is still looser than a sphincter after curry night and his defence are wobblier than drunk jelly. They’ll still probably challenge for fourth in the League, if only because so many of the bottom teams are just dire, but… it’s not the same as when Fergie was there (the manager, not the Black Eyed Peas “singer”). Obviously, the players are missing his influence, and there’s an argument that the older ones (ie most of the squad) over-exerted themselves a bit in Fergie’s final season and are paying the price for it now, which is hardly Moyes fault, but it does get me a-wondering if Moyes’ appointment wasn’t made precisely because Fergie knew his successor was doomed to fail.
Hear me out (well, read me out. Or don’t, I don’t care that much really). We’ve heard that Moyes was Fergie’s choice, and we also know Fergie is pretty much the master of manipulation, mind games and tricks, and also dedicated to Man Utd like very few others (for evidence, see every single Premier League season). We also know, and so does Fergie, that any manager replacing him was going to have a massively tough job, probably second only to the England job in terms of impossibility, and in all honesty, whatever their talent, wouldn’t last long. So, it didn’t make sense to appoint a really top manager-they were doomed to fail anyway- but it also wouldn’t do, for Man Utd’s future success and for the marketing brand, to appoint a genuinely, notoriously shit manager to take the fall while Fergie-love and Fergie-memories were still at their peak.
So step forward David Moyes; a perfectly understandable choice, easy to sell to the fans as a good choice because of his success with Everton, but not, with all respect, amongst the very top bracket of managers (Guardiola, Klopp, Mourinho even though he’s a hypocritical wanker). He’ll do an OK job-the club won’t slide into ruin under his watch- but when he’s moved on, in a couple of years’ time, it won’t cause any great ripples. The idea, as I see it, was to appoint a guy to keep Man Utd around the European places, so that, when the time is right, a truly excellent manager can be appointed to lead them onto success. Moyes fits the bill perfectly, and it’s hard on the guy that he’s been given such a poisoned chalice.
Having said that-I almost cried with laughter when Bony scored. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.