Sunday, 25 May 2008

Season Review 07/08

What a season!

Chelsea took Man United all the way in both the EPL and Champions league final, which was nerve-recking for some, but good to see for even the neutral out there. Chelsea can feel aggrieved not to have pipped Man United at CL final hurdle as they thoroughly deserved to lift 'ol big ears' for the first time in the club's history. But as they say it's anyone's game when it goes to penalties and all credit to Man United for snatching it so late.

Poor John Terry had a 'banana skin' moment - literally. But I watched him captain England versus USA and he ended up scoring the opener, and seems to be over the 'slip up' in the final.

Now on to the top 4 clubs. The focus is on the impact of the new signings, team and player performances, key points, the manager verdict and next seasons predictions.

Man United - EPL champions and UEFA CL winners

New Signings - Fergie got his spending spot-on this time around. Nani, Anderson, Tevez and Hargreaves cost millions but were worth their weight in gold at the end of the day. Good first season for all of them.

Team & Players - Well Ronaldo scored an amazing 31 league goals, take that out of the equation and things seem different somewhat but he is a world-class act and deserves each accolade. United were languishing in 16th place after just 3 games, and pundits were starting to question the new signings. But they pulled themselves together after beating Spurs 1-0 and things took off from there. Losing only 5 games along the way they also scored the most goals with 80, and only conceding 22 proving that they had the tightest defence in the league.

Key Points - The win against Spurs lifted them. Beating Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield to take them top again. Blitzing Newcastle for six. Steve Bennett spoiling a good game by sending off Liverpool's Mascherano in the 3-0 drubbing at Old Trafford. The last game and season decider in which Wigan were controversially denied a penalty, again referee Steve Bennett was in charge. It could have changed the outcome of the league but Chelsea failed to win their final match.

Manager Verdict - Seems obsessed with overtaking Liverpool's record, but then who wouldn't envy it. With an astute assistant manager in Carlos Queiroz Man United and Sir Alex Ferguson have a good custodian to eventually succeed him. He understands the game, the players, and has brought some new ideas to the team management which benefited the club no doubt. Fergie has a few years left in him but knows that he needs to re-invent the team each season and not get left behind if he wants to continue challenging for trophies again.

Next Season - Won't be as lucky this time around and the other 3 big teams will continue to strengthen and chase trophies which always makes it harder to defend, but as the great golfer Gary Players says you can only create your own luck! Ronaldo might be off to Spain in the summer as Real Madrid continue to pursue interest in the player. Who knows? I hope he doesn't as the EPL is certainly more exciting with players like him around. Fergie will most likely sell Saha and buy a new striker. Scholes and Giggs are ageing but he will hope the new batch will fit into this succession plan. Expect more cash to be splashed on defensive cover as Gary Neville nears retirement. Micah Richards, Sevilla's Daniel Alves and Fabiano, and Cardiff's wonderkid Ramsey all linked with summer transfers. Player to watch next season - young striker Danny Welbeck if he gets his chance.

Chelsea - EPL runners-up and UEFA CL runners-up

New Signings - Chelsea didn't spend that big as anticipated. A few hit-and-miss signings in Pizarro, Beletti, Sidwell, Ben Haim and Malouda. They were all brought in under Jose Mourinho's reign so it's unfair to comment. However, Avram Grant did bring in Nicholas Anelka and defender Ivanovic during the January transfer window. Anelka only managed one goal for the Chelsea so one can hardly call him an astute singing as he was often played out of position.

Team & Players - Chelsea didn't have the best of starts to the season, and along with the high expectations came the inevitable departure of the special one. Avram's first game in charge was against the eventual champions, Manchester United, which ended in a 2-0 defeat. I did mention that United were lucky and this is just one of the reasons. Chelsea lost their influential manager, Arsenal were flying high but with question marks hanging over their young players heads, and Liverpool with their boardroom spat made life much easier for United. Chelsea ambled along and deservedly pushed Man United all the way. Ballack, Terry, Lampard and Drogba were the spine that grinded out results week-in and week-out. It came down to the last game of the season but Chelsea were kicking themselves for earlier mishaps made throughout the season.

Key Points - The fortunate draw against Liverpool with a dubious penalty being awarded to them by referee Rob Styles. The departure of Jose Mourinho. Loss to Spurs in the Carling Cup final. The 1-1 draw against Wigan at Stamford Bridge gave United some breathing space. The 2-1 victory over United ensured a grand finale to the season. And of course the last game with a draw against Bolton. Unlucky at times but showed loads of character from their more senior players.

Manager Verdict - Mourinho's increasing unhappiness with not being able to dictate transfer dealings, and the owner's ever-increasing frustration with boring football meant that the gaffer would always be the first to be shown the exit door. His record before leaving was won three; drew two and lost one - not good enough for a team that cost millions. Avram Grant didn't have the best of starts but he eventually endured himself to the Chelsea fans as the team started banging in goals. Question marks around the Anelka signing and then playing him out of position. Not a bad season after all and unlucky not to be there next season.

Next Season - The owner, Roman Abramovich, will no doubt loosen the purse strings in what could possibly be a mini-revolution with players moving on, and with new players surely to be signed by the new manager who has yet to be appointed. Rumours are out that Mourinho wants Lampard, Drogba and Carvalho at Inter Milan. The club have already secured Jose Bosingwa. Other players on the transfer shortlist include Robinho, Kaka and almost every other top player across Europe so who knows. Will again push the other 3 big teams all the way and will have to settle quickly under the new manager in order to mount a serious challenge. Player to watch next season - midfield maestro Ballack although one can't tell with all the changes expected.

- 3rd place in EPL and UEFA CL quarter-finalists

New Signings - Sagna was the only real success for Wenger this season. Unfortunately for Eduardo da Silva he suffered an horrific injury that could well have been a deciding factor for the Gunners. Wenger's policy of not signing big players most certainly played it's part in a trophy-less season at the Emirates. He also failed to strengthen in the January transfer window and has taken criticism from leading pundits who feel that he failed to mix both youth and experience in order to go all the way, and it showed.

Team & Players - Apart from Adebayor who netted an impressive 24 league goals, and Fabgregas who grabbed seven from the midfield, Arsenal just couldn't find another match-winner to help challenge for the title. After grabbing and cementing first place after just five games the expectations were very high, and it was always going to be case of maintaining championship form. The loss of Van Persie early on and the unfortunate leg break of da Silva meant that players like Flamini and Hleb stepping up to the plate now that the ever reliable Henry was no longer at the club. Gallas as captain was a disappointment. Wenger's insistence with playing Senderos as opposed to Toure at centre-back was perhaps and error in hindsight as the Gunners fell apart and surrendered top spot to Man United. Even though they only lost three games it was the 11 draws that dented their season hopes.

Key Points - The 3-1 drubbing of Spurs at White Lane. The 2-1 loss to Middlesbrough in early December. The 2-2 draw at Birmingham where the Gunners not only lost da Silva, but also their momentum. Climbing back to 2nd spot after snatching a late 3-2 win at Bolton. And lastly the 2-1 loss at Old Trafford that virtually ended their title hopes.

Manager Verdict - The rumours are out that PSG want Wenger to take the club back to their glory days. His policy of fielding youthful teams as opposed to blending the team with more experience was possibly the mistake that he will never admit. The defensive shuffle late on caused an imbalance in the team. Wenger had the chance to bring in some cover in January but instead decided to stick to the afore-mentioned policy which cost the club at the end of the day. High hopes turned to empty trophy cabinets and he will need to go back to the drawing board if he wants to re-emerge with any credit.

Next Season - Wenger needs to strengthen the midfield now that Flamini has left, and with Hleb possibly on his way to Barcelona. He also needs to find a partner up front for Adebayor as he can't carry the goal-scoring duties on his own. Perhaps big name signings could do the trick but then again that has never been Wenger's 'transfer policy'. Player to watch next season - Theo Walcott if he starts.

Liverpool - 4th place finish and UEFA CL semi-finalists

New Signings - Fernando Torres was no doubt the newcomer of the season. Babel had a few cameo performances and players like Lucas and Benayoun weighed in with a few average performances. Voronin & Itandje were sadly both flops but it was great to see young Skrtel settle into the back-four as if he has been playing there all his life.

Team & Players - The joint performances of both Gerrard & Torres was perhaps the only highlight of Liverpool's trophy-less season. They have been compared to the legendary Rush & Daglish partnership, and why not they are both truly world-class! Between them they scored and amazing 35 goals. A remarkable 24 league goals from Torres who didn't take a spot-kick the entire season. Liverpool were flying at the start of the season and deservedly occupied first spot after hitting a sorry Derby for six. The loss of Daniel Agger and Carragher during key stages of the season meant that Rafa had to look at old-horse Hyypia for cover until the impressive Skrtel arrived in January. Again Liverpool suffered under Rafa's rotation policy and the lack of depth within the squad meant he often had to pick inexperienced players such as Jack Hobbs. Their form faltered very early on and it was a point of too little too late as the Reds marched on at the business end of the season. Only four losses along the way, but 13 draws sums up a season for Liverpool as they often failed to finish off the so called smaller teams.

Key Points - The penalty awarded to Chelsea to give them a undeserved draw. Both losses against Man United certainly handed them the title. Four draws and a loss which started at the end of December and lasted until early February when Liverpool beat Sunderland 3-0. The draw at the Emirates where Liverpool fielded a virtual second-string team showed the improvement within the squad.

Manager Verdict - His first season without reaching a final means that it was a rather disappointing campaign. Football analysts fully understand the need to keep players fresh as it is no doubt a long season, but Rafa failed to settle with a winning team and formation. Once the gaffer settled on the favoured 4-3-3 formation Liverpool started showing signs of consistent form. He would need to carefully consider this approach come next season. Another frustrating aspect was leaving Crouch on the bench when the obvious tactic was to bring him on to help Torres lead the line against a stubborn defence. Only the manager knows why he makes these decisions but the fans believe in him. But he will have to deliver a title sooner or later if he wants to write his name into Liverpool's football club folklore.

Next Season - It seems as if many players will no doubt move on in the summer as Rafa clears up funds to purchase the likes of Gareth Barry & David Bentley. Crouch might be on his way if Rafa can't guarantee more games next season. Pennant, Riise and Alonso could all find new clubs if the price is right. Benitez would need to sign another world-class striker if he is serious about mounting a challenge. Hopefully the owners will back him as do the owners of Man United & Chelsea whose spending seem endless. Player to watch next season - Ryan Babel will be exciting to watch if Rafa plays him as a striker.

And end to another pulsating season! Hull, West Brom and Stoke City join the world's top drawer league. Will they manage to stay up as the big four continue to dominate? Only time will tell.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Manchester United or Chelsea?

What a game at Stamford Bridge!

An 'emotional roller-coaster' is not the word one can use to describe the feelings on the night, but rather one of hope and belief as I reminisced of the glorious night in Istanbul. But this was not to be as Chelsea deservedly put Liverpool out and make history by reaching their first Champions League final. Chelsea were the better team on the night and deserve to be there. It was the Drogba show no doubt which I wasn't looking forward to, and after Benitez's mid-week comments about 'diving', and the video footage to prove this it was the perfect response from the Ivorian striker who will most likely move on in the summer, with AC Milan and Real Madrid his preferred destinations.

All accolades aside. I don't intend doing a post-match analysis on the actual game as this would certainly tend to be based on bias. So I'll prefer to analyse areas of each team and how they might pan out come May 21st for the pinnacle of Europe's top draw competition.

Vidic & Ferdinand vs. Drogba - they will no doubt be tight at the back but I'm backing Drogba to snatch a goal or capitalise on a rare mistake that might decide the match.

Man Utd midfield vs. Chelsea midfield - it's a tough one to call but again I'll say that Chelsea edge United in this area, simply because of Ballack & Lampard. United have Scholes, Anderson, Carrick and Hargreaves but they lack the Big Match Temperament factor.

Rooney, Ronaldo & Tevez vs. Terry & Carvahlo - i think United have the edge here if Rooney starts. Ronaldo goes to sleep when playing the bigger teams but this just might be his stage to perform and show his BMT!

It's going to be Chelsea and Liverpool fans all against Man United. I'm backing Chelsea to take the CL final with United already having wrapped up the EPL.

Comments to follow after the final!