Monday, December 6, 2010

The Premiership Trophy - one careless owner - anyone want it?

So far at least, it's the most open Premiership in years with the break up of the top four due to the implosion of Liverpool, Spurs finally stepping up and the huge injection of cash from the blue half of Manchester. Add this to the fact that Chelsea and ManYoo have for various reasons not splashed the cash the past few summers and we are left with three main protagonists and two outsiders (possibly stretching credibility here) for the big prize come May.

Chelsea in recent weeks have been a shambles, over reliance on ageing key players and a threadbare squad allied with the usual backroom nonsense is putting their challenge in serious peril. They can surely forget the Champions League also.

ManYoo traditionally hit form after Christmas and it is ominous that they are already at the front. Ferguson knows the course as do many of his players but this year they are short on quality and are over reliant on Wayne Rooney - something which Coleen has already found to be not the best arrangement.

We have seen Arsenal in this position many times, great football before Christmas only to fade later in the season. The lack of a decent keeper, a solid central defence and some shaky home form should see them out of it but the fact that Chelsea and ManYoo are both weaker gives them reason for hope. Could it finally be their year?

Spurs for me are rank outsiders. Capable of superb attacking play on their day, they remain short of quality at the back. Redknapp only seems to know one tactic which is that of the cavalier variety. Spurs have given up numerous leads this season not knowing how to close out games or they have spent the first half being hammered such as in Milan. They won't beat Arsenal very often if they keep giving them two goal leads as much as their fans loved every minute of that second half. Redknapp, great motivator and wheeler dealer that he is does not have the tactical nous at this level. Spurs are also not used to competing on the two fronts of the Premiership and Champions League, not good enough I fear.

Manchester City are the most interesting team as they could easily come fifth or sixth but with the talent available they could also win the league. Huge dressing room problems and a manager that is proving a divisive figure will stop City from reaching their potential for the time being and realistically they will be happy with a top four finish  - of which they should have been capable of last season.

So why is this season so different from previous incarnations? There are many reasons. In my view this is the poorest Premiership season almost since its' inception. Vast overspending, the credit crunch, the Pound cratering against the Euro have all contributed to teams generally having poorer squads than previously. The days of teams such as Middlesborough signing the likes of Juninho and Ravanelli are long gone.

Interestingly, the lack of spending power (City aside) by the top teams has made the league infinitely more interesting as the quality gap has significantly shrunk. This is also born out by the relative success being enjoyed by newly promoted teams who had previously been nothing more than cannon fodder with a parachute payment to look forward to the following season.

So instead of a boring but high quality product, we now have an interesting but mediocre one. Whilst English teams have traditionally done well in Europe, the gap between the Premiership and other traditional powerhouse leagues such as the Bundesliga had grown to a ridiculous level. Everything is a cycle and nothing lasts forever. If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s,  could the Italians - when AC Milan effectively had two first elevens - have ever imagined a time when Serie A was not the supreme league?

Football is so popular because of the nature of the product, upsets can and do happen, David can get a last minute winner against Goliath. Once you remove 'competition' from the sport it dies. The dominant teams or countries need the lesser or smaller opponents more than they realise. Take the competition - and hope - out of the matches and the fans zone out.

Whilst the financial situation in Europe has undoubtedly caused a huge downturn, looking at the Premiership, crowds have been dwindling for some time regardless. Years ago you couldn't get a seat at Newcastle or Sunderland if you wanted to. Look at many of the grounds now, rows of empty seats and it is not just due to the cost, the product lost its' attraction. Everyone knew the top four and the likely relegation candidates and everyone else was left just playing for Sky TV money.

As an example I hold up Aston Villa football club. It has always occurred to me that in the current climate, they are the most utterly pointless football club in England. Forty thousand every week, decent team, fantastic heritage and a proud tradition. That's great except every year they will finish between fifth and eighth, qualify for the UEFA Cup and get to a Cup semi final and that's all she wrote. Loyal Villans will show up week in week out because that's what loyal fans do but does none of this sound incredibly depressing to everyone?

ManYoo, Arsenal and everyone else need a strong league in order to keep themselves strong. Barcelona and Real Madrid - wonderful sides that they are - will soon find out that the rest of Spain will tune out from their head to head battle at the top of La Liga as the other teams fail to keep pace. On a smaller scale, Rangers and Celtic have found the same problem in Scotland, their utter domination of the league (it is twenty five years since anyone else won it) has ultimately destroyed the product North of the border.

Whether a more competitive and more varied but ultimately poorer league will bring the crowds back I doubt. Ticket costs and players' wages have to come down to enable fans to start coming to matches again and to identify once more with the footballers who have become so dislocated from normal society that it is no longer believable.

So that just leaves me to pick a winner. Despite my own wishes and desires, I would have to say that ManYoo look the most likely victors just now. Whilst probably the poorest side Ferguson has had in years, his drive in the New Year could well prove the decisive factor. Arsenal may well prove a good outside bet but we have been here before and they need to prove themselves in the head to head games. And keep an eye out for City, they're capable of the sublime or the ridiculous but they're probably still a couple of years away.

On a slightly different note and whilst not wishing to knock someone who is not talking in their mother tongue, am I the only one who has noticed that young Carlo Ancelotti has an obsession with the word 'moment' in any interviews he gives?

Surely the interpreters at Chelsea can come up with an alternative for the man with the talented eyebrow? After all, the 'terrible moment' he keeps referring to has been going on for bloody weeks now. New phrase book for Christmas please Santa!