The more astute of my readers (disclaimer: I have no justification in making that word plural) will have noticed that I haven’t updated this blog in a long time. This is for a variety of reasons, but mainly because Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea caused such intense psychological damage that it’s taken several months and several hundred counsellors to get over it (though that is still probably less time than it will take Stevie G).
Anyway, I’m back, at least until Gerrard slips again. And now that the new season is almost upon us, it’s time for some almost-certain-to-be-wrong predictions. To that end, I’ve manage to rescue Mystic Matt from the hideout of some nice gentlemen in Russia (it was like Die Hard V only I have hair), and he’s agreed to write some out as long as I don’t reveal the location of his safe house.
So without further ado, his predictions for the Top 4…
1st: Manchester City
Oh boy, oh boy. Let’s face it, it’s between Man City and Chelsea for the title, all the way through. They have the best squads, the best first elevens, the most money, and though it pains me to say it probably the best managers too. City won the thing quite easily in the end (MAN ON STEVIE! MAN ON!), and have only strengthened their team since. Bacary Sagna and Eliaquim Mangala have come in to replace Joleon Lescott (the man
with the world’s largest forehead) and the poster-boy for overhyped and English, Micah Richards; midfielder Fernando has replaced Javi Garcia, the one Spaniard who can’t play football*, and Willy Caballero has come in to challenge Joe Hart, who is no longer Head and Shoulders the best‘keeper at the club. All excellent players in their own right, all improving a squad that was easily the best in the League last season, and all coming in quietly and with little fuss. If Pellegrini can keep Jovetic injury-free to ease a little of the burden on Sergio Aguero, I can’t see them dropping many points to anybody. Except maybe…
Another side that have strengthened significantly over the summer, Chelsea are going to push City all the way this season. Having managed to get
rid of liability David Luiz, who during the world cup showed all the footballing skill of Sideshow Bob, for a ridiculous €50 million is already the best transfer deal of the year. When you consider he’s been replaced by Felipe Luis (which will in turn allow Azpilicueta to push across to right-back and Ivanovic into the centre), well, they aren’t going to be letting in many goals this season, especially with Thibault Courtois between the sticks. Admittedly this wasn’t Chelsea’s problem last year; they deservedly finished behind Liverpool thanks to their inability to break teams down or play anything like pleasing football unless given space to counter-attack (NO STEVIE, MAN ON!). The signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa should help there, you’d think, especially if Oscar can be reintegrated alongside them. Mourinho, for all his personality flaws, remains an excellent and proven manager, and will be confident of leading his team to success… but they’ll come second, because despite Costa’s arrival, you won’t win a league when your back-up strikers are Fernando “How did he miss that?” Torres and Didier “How old?” Drogba. They’ll score more goals this season, yes… but it still won’t be quite enough.
3rd : Arsenal
And so onto the least remarkable of all the Top Four positions, second loser. Though on many internet message boards the arrival of Messiah Van Gaal has persuaded football fans that Man Utd will claim this spot, Arsenal are clearly a superior team, and for once have recruited pretty damn wisely in the transfer market. Alexis Sanchez has a good shout of being the best player in the Premier League this season, he really is that good; with Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey and Walcott around him, not to mention excellent support acts in Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners are going to play some lovely and what’s more effective football. They look a little light at the back-Debuchy in for Sagna is reasonable, but asking Calum Chambers to deputise for all four defensive positions is a little risky- but like Liverpool last season, an irresistible attack should make up for any shortcomings there. They haven’t quite got the squad depth to mount a consistent title challenge, not with the way Chelsea and City’s squads have lined up; but with Liverpool losing Suarez, and Man Utd retaining Chris Smalling, they should have enough to finish a comfortable third.
Right, that’s it for the top 3. I’m off to cry about Liverpool again. More predictions to follow, if Mystic Matt can keep a low profile….
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.
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.
Now that I’ve overcome the seething tide of anger at Howard Webb and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, I thought it would be fun to have a little look back over some of the festive premier League games. The ones I watched, anyway. And, in the finest traditions of football journalism, I’ll throw in some grandiose claims based on a tiny sample size and crow about them mercilessly if they are shown even for a second to be in any way accurate.
So, onto the things I saw (I won’t say “learnt”, because I’m not the Guardian and I suspected a lot of this stuff anyway).
1) Man City are going to win the league.
Yes, they are. I know that the team who’s top of the league at this time of the season has gone on to win it for the last four years, but this is going to be the year the trend is well and truly bucked. City are just, obviously, the best team in the league at the moment, definitely the team with the best midfield and attack and the best options in these positions. Admittedly, their victory over Liverpool was a bit contentious (read: that linesman was wearing an Aguero shirt under his black top), and relied on a miss from six yards by sex addict Sterling (he’s got 3 kids! 3! At 19!), but still, they were good for at least a point. Maybe. Or at least the kind of fawning over a “good performance” that Liverpool got after being cheated out of badly-needed points for the first time this Christmas…
Ahem. Seriously though, the variety of City’s attacking play at the moment is second to none; they have serious defence-springing ability from Nasri (and who’d have thought I’d be saying that this time last year?) and Silva, in Navas they have devastating pace on the counter-attack, superb, physical forwards in Dzeko and Negredo, flair in spades from Aguero and Jovetic (still to make an impact-watch this space), threat at set-pieces, muscularity from midfield… Liverpool gave them a proper game, a real spectacle, but you could just see the Man City experience giving them the edge on Boxing Day. And, what’s more, their keeper is back and performing, and they’ve even started to get stupid, match-changing decisions going their way, the sign of destined champions.
Not that I’m bitter. And on a completely different topic-does anyone have that linesman’s address?
2) Mourinho’s definitely back
Whilst I’m not being bitter, let’s get this one out of the way. Liverpool’s match against Chelsea yesterday took me out beyond the fields of anger into the sea of absolute fury, as well as proving to the world that Howard Webb’s ego has definitely grown to the point where it’s obscured his vision. Not only should Liverpool have had two penalties, the second one as stonewall as you will see with Webb standing about three yards away, but Eto’o, scorer of Chelsea’s winning goal (courtesy of another Mignolet weak hand, by the way-this needs to be sorted promptly by Rodgers)-Eto’o should have been off the pitch after his assault on Henderson. And for once, “assault” isn’t hyperbolic; well after the ball had gone, the Cameroonian raked his studs down Henderson’s legs, and this after three minutes of the game.
People are trying to defend Webb for his ridiculous decision not to award anything other than a free-kick for this, saying it would have ruined the game as a spectacle for a player to be sent off so early on, but I’d say it ruined the game as a spectacle to have Liverpool’s second-best performer in recent games hobbling around unable to make his imperious driving runs because he’d been crippled, wouldn’t you? Anyway, this had all the hallmarks of a Mourinho-game, where his team are instructed to kick the crap out of a technically superior side and get some goals on the counter. Oh, and just to wrap it up-Oscar should have gone, too, though it doesn’t excuse Lucas’ reaction.
Hey, maybe I’m not over it yet. Oh well, moving on…
3) Arsenal need another stiker
Yeah, yeah, heard it all before. But it’s still true; Arsenal are going to pay, and recently have been paying, for the lack of cover for Giroud. I think the Frenchman’s importance in Arsenal’s performances early in the season has been really underplayed; he was genuinely excellent up until December, bullying and occupying centre-halves so that Arsenal’s tiny midfield goblins had space to run the show, and chipping in with the goals too. But he’s been looking really tired and jaded in recent weeks, only to be expected given the physical nature of his role, and Arsenal have been suffering for it.
They’ve ground out a few results (and Walcott looked pretty good against West Ham and Newcastle, I’ll admit) but they’re really missing that battering ram up front, and have started doing that typical Arsenal thing of passing it around nicely in front of a defence without penetrating, as in previous seasons. Podolski is a different type of player to Giroud, and not the answer (though, as his performance against the Irons shows, an excellent option to have); and with Ramsey missing for the next few weeks, and Ozil too, a forward who can lead the line and give Giroud a break is looking more and more important for Arsenal’s title fight.
4) Fulham are going down; Sunderland and Palace might not
Oh, Fulham. To let Hull-that’s Hull City, whose best player hadn’t scored for two years previous to the Fulham game and who play Danny “how did he miss that? Oh wait, it’s” Graham up front- score 6 goals in one half is just pathetic, there’s no other word for it. A midfield of Parker, Sidwell and Karagounis just doesn’t have the legs, even if it has the determination, to run around in a Premier League game for 90 minutes, especially when allied to the laziest forward line-up ever assembled (Taarabt, Bent, Berbatov and Ruiz? So we’re defending with 6 men, then?). Hull were great, don’t get me wrong, and the Hudd in particular was brilliant… but Fulham are in serious trouble now.
Whilst on the subject of who’s going down, Villa are crap and need to buck their ideas up sharpish. Benteke, who pretty much single-handedly kept them up last season, is looking disinterested, and hasn’t scored in ages; most of Lambert’s new signings are, to put it nicely, shit, especially Tonev, who seems to have had a botched brain operation that makes him need to shoot every time he touches the ball; and now that teams have worked out that Villa can only play on the counter-attack, they’re really struggling. But in better news (for Palace and Sunderland fans), Palace and Sunderland are starting to look like they at least have the grit necessary to stay up. Belasie’s return has really given Palace a boost, they actually look like they have a threat going forwards now and especially with Chamakh returning (after several years’ absence) to form they might actually scrape together some points; and under Poyet’s management Sunderland at least look like they have some guts, fighting back from 2-0 down against Cardiff. With Ki, Borini and Mannone really starting to come good, they could just yet prove lots and lots of people wrong. At least, if they stop playing Jose Altidore, who isn’t even good enough to be called the American Emile Heskey.
Welcome back, Jose. Welcome back.
Well, well. This was incredibly boring. With one team deployed pretty much entirely to negate the other-guess which one I’m talking about-there were barely any exciting moments at all. And here was me hoping for a lovely 3-3 draw with three red cards for each side (preferably Cech, Ivanovic and Oscar for Chelsea, though I’d have settled for Hazard instead). Giroud’s misses aside, and one chance for Willian and a kind of difficult chance for Lampard, nothing happened (football-wise) in this game. Even the block on the line by Azpilicueta at the death seemed boring and lazy, the ball just gently spinning toward the goal and giving the defender all the time in the world to gently flick it away. If we were trying to take away from this game an idea of who is best placed to challenge Man City and (almost certainly not) Liverpool for the title, we’re going home empty handed.
What we can take from this game is that Jose’s back. And not the “Happy One” incarnation, that particular piece of bullshit belied anyway by the grumpy surly way Chelsea’s new old manager has been sitting on the touchline recently. No, the proper Jose, the one who sets his teams up to play paint-dryingly-dull, physical, ugly football, the one who tries to batter the other team down until they can force the ball into the net and hang on for the 1-0, the one who tells his players to get up in the opponent’s faces. By the way, that was something Ivanovic took literally late in the second half, a boot flying very near Ozil’s face and sparking a minor melee, the Serb’s little wink to captain Terry in the aftermath showing he knew exactly what he was doing.
There was no attempt to even pay lip-service to the idea of having possession-based, creative attacking football played at the Emirates. Arsenal tried, sure, and at the end of the second half even managed to play a little. Two chances for Giroud went begging, the first a badly sliced volley after a delightful Ramsey chip (the only thing the Welshman did in the match other than give the ball away), the second a good save from Cech after fine work by Kieran Gibbs. But Chelsea… oh no. Chelsea weren’t going for creativity, despite having a squad boasting Mata (who didn’t get off the bench), Schurrle, Hazard, Oscar, Willian, and Eto’o. They played pretty much exclusively on the counter-attack, with Willian and Lampard (who hit the bar) both having good chances in the first half from this approach, and many other (some other, let’s not exaggerate) chances to launch a counter-attack spurned. It wasn’t especially exciting, it’s fairly standard fare against Arsenal really, but what was good about it was that it represents Mourinho finally coming back into his comfort zone, and in doing so sticking two fingers up at everyone who thinks Chelsea should play some, well, entertaining football this season.
With three midfielders sitting in front of a big, strong, Ashley-Cole absent defence, two wide players working back hard and pretend centre-forward Torres dropping into the midfield when he could (or could be bothered), Arsenal just weren’t given space to attack. Arteta had lots of the ball and no passing options, Ozil barely touched the ball until the aforementioned spat with Ivanovic, Walcott had no space to use his pace… It’s not necessarily the best approach with the players Jose has, of course, and it nearly backfired, with referee Mike Dean missing a blatant penalty after a foul by Willian on Walcott and being very lenient with a couple of challenges by Mikel and Ramires that could have ended their games prematurely, but it is pretty much pure Jose, and after this dour 0-0 draw he finally looked like a Happy One once again.
Pretty much every football blog has some kind of prediction thing going on, and seeing as I’ve never been one to avoid bandwagons I’m jumping right on to this one. In an effort to prove my amazing psychic abilities (and because if I get even one of the games totally right it makes me the best football predictor ever) I’m not just going to predict the scores for the games on Saturday, but also the goalscorers. But not the times of the goals though, because that would just be silly and gimmicky.
Liverpool vs Aston Villa : 2-3 (Sturridge, Aspas; Benteke (2), Weimann)
This is a pretty tough one to call. On the one hand, Liverpool’s attack looks incredibly slick, with them carving through Stoke with ease last week; on the other hand, Liverpool’s defence looks pretty damn shaky, with Toure and Agger being essentially the same player and neither being brilliant at defending against powerful forwards like Benteke. Villa were great against Arsenal and would have won at least a point against Chelsea if the ref had booked in to his much-needed laser eye surgery like his wife told him to, with Fabian Delph in particular looking like he’s really made progress from last season (and Benteke being brilliant too). I reckon there’ll be lots of goals in this one, more of them flying into the Liverpool net.
Hull City Tigers vs Norwich City 0-2 (van Wolfswinkel, Redmond)
Hull Tigers didn’t have a grrrrreat start to the season. (I couldn’t resist. Sue me.) Steve Bruce’s revolutionary strategy of not actually having a midfield didn’t really work against Chelsea, so expect him to start Tom Huddlestone, who is a midfield all on his own. Norwich, on the other hand, were pretty good against Everton, and having significantly strengthened their squad and their forward line in the summer, should prove too much for the Tigers to handle.
Fulham vs Arsenal 1-1 (Bent; Walcott)
Martin Jol is expected to deploy the laziest forward line ever, with Darren Bent probably joining Dimitar Barebatov up front; but these two must fancy their chances against an Arsenal defence that seems desperately short of any defenders. With Sagna starting at centre-back and the customary injury woes, Arsenal might struggle here; they still have big problems with their midfield and attack, with the only silver lining being the form of Walcott, who is far better than most people give him credit for. Arsenal might struggle to get in the top 4 this season but they aren’t in quite as bad a shape as the common consensus would have it.
Everton vs West Brom 1-0 (Pienaar)
With Nicolas Anelka being granted compassionate leave it’s difficult to see where the Baggies might get a goal, even though they’re playing against a back line organised by entertainment guru Roberto Martinez. Everton, on the other hand, looked fairly handy going forward against Norwich, and retain a threat from set pieces, although the form of Nikita Jelavic will be a concern. Hopefully Deulofeu will feature at some point; on loan from Barcelona, this youngster is class, and WBA might find him too much to handle.
Stoke City vs Crystal Palace 1-0 (Walters (pen))
This should be an interesting clash; an ultra-defensive team with a manager promising more attacking football facing off against a gung-ho side whose manager is promising more defensive stability, with the result that neither looked very good at really anything on the opening weekend. Stoke are the ones with all the experience, however, whilst Palace just seem to lack any quality; the Potters should sneak this one, but don’t expect their football to be free-flowing just yet.
Southampton vs Sunderland 2-1 (Lambert, Osvaldo; Sessegnon)
It’s hardly a “revolution”, but despite the loss to Fulham there were encouraging signs for Sunderland in the first game, and Di Canio deserves credit for his attempts to shake up a squad that was stagnating badly last season. Having signed 11 new players, however, they still need some time to gel; Southampton must be pretty glad they are playing this game so early in the season. Having just signed the excellent Pablo Osvaldo, a player who incidentally is very similar to the inspired yet frustrating Di Canio, Saints are in a great position to push on from their opening-day win.
Newcastle vs West Ham 0-2 (Carroll, Collins)
QPR mark 2 face up against former manager Sam Allardyce, and if they play anywhere near as badly as they did last week, will not be relishing the encounter. They were abysmal against City and it’s hard to see the combative Hammers letting them get over their lethargy on Saturday. Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan will no doubt want to prove something against their former club and with Taylor out after his stupid red card it will be down once more to Tim Krul to preserve some dignity for the Magpies. Something is rotten at that club right now; with Pardew destabilised and Joe Kinnear, despite his self-professed intelligence, having not procured any solutions as yet, things might well get worse before they can get better.
Well, there you go; I’m accepting no liability for money lost if you’re gullible enough to bet on any of these games based on my predictions.