Usual suspects made to work harder
So the arse-end of a very interesting season beckons and it’s time for a look back at salient points, successes and stumbles. The Premier League is witnessing one of the best end-of-season run-ins for a long time, with a subtle change to the usual suspects in the top ten.
This year, the blue and red halves of Manchester take the title to the wire and right behind come Arsenal and Tottenham, chasing North London bragging rights and a place in Europe, then Newcastle United and Chelsea. The Scousers of Everton and Liverpool are having their own race, with a strangely unexciting Liverpool having the Carling Cup to polish and a space waiting for the FA Cup should they do the unexpected against Chelsea.
Liverpool, despite their success at Wembley, are a side with hot-and-cold strikers in Luis Saurez and Andy Carroll. Questions beckon for Kenny Dalglish: will he give up on the big man next season or will he stretch the patience of the Kop faithful still further? Is the end in sight for the iconic Jamie Carragher, an acknowledged liability as his laborious challenges become ever more desperate?
Even the talismanic Steven Gerrard has looked ever so disinterested this season. Maybe the bigger question is how long will the faithful keep the faith or, if things don’t improve, will Dalglish simply walk away?
I was never a fan of the moptop Marouane Fallaini when he first fetched up at Everton; seeing the awkward Belgian throwing himself on the floor when he wasn’t doing the same to the opposition seemed a waste of obvious talent. David Moyes has patiently shaped him into a pivotal player and surrounded him with a team of believers.
Everton could well be the next-big-thing should an oligarch be looking for a new toy. Moyes has a very good record over 10 years and a cash injection could easily see Everton finally reach their potential as major contenders.
Despite unsuccessful attempts to sell Newcastle and a love-hate relationship with the fans, Mike Ashley’s appointment of Alan Pardew seems to have stabilised Toonside. A line-up that includes Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa and Sammy Ameobi is always going to entertain the faithful at St James’ Park (sic).
The symbiotic relationship that is Arsene Wenger and the Highbury bankers is wearing as thin as Arsenal’s silverware collection and, despite a good average placing during his tenure, I wonder how much longer the miserablist has in the job. It has been an entertaining and brave approach – and cheap – to throw young home-raised talent into the fray but an alarmingly high injury rate must indicate that some were not yet tough enough to compete at this level. If “Van the Man” departs, it’s hard to see where the goals are going to come from at the Emirates Stadium.
Six miles north and the Tottenham faithful are wondering who stole their season as they saw a promising mid-term dramatically collapse to such an extent that, at one time, they may have been lucky to end up with the egg-on-face trophy. Much has been made of Harry Redknapp’s attention being deflected by the FA knocking at his door for the England job but the truth of Spurs’ fall from grace is probably more prosaic – not enough strength in depth.
Despite the stutter, Tottenham look assured of a place in Europe next year, with or without Rednapp. Chairman Daniel Levy has a reported £180 million to offer but how much of that is for staff – and how much for a much-vaunted new stadium – remains to be seen.
The bottom end of the table has seen Wolves too bad at this level but probably too good for the Championship. The blind panic of getting rid of Mick Mac proved how completely pointless is change for the sake of it. At QPR, Mark Hughes’ attempts to dig them out of trouble has just resulted in a deeper hole, despite a few rallying results, but a team more deserving of the drop could be Aston Villa, who have faded into ghosts at this level. A spell in the Championship could be the kick up the arse that their complacency deserves.
A word on behalf of the punter paying for entertainment. If Bolton go, who will miss them? Apologies to their fans.
While winning the admiration of the neutral for his refusal to break in the face of horrendous abuse from Blackburn Rovers’ fans, Steve Kean is unlikely to survive the increasingly likely drop. If he goes, one wonders if the scars will make him an untouchable!
At fellow strugglers Wigan, the fans have shown how important it is to stand by their man and been repaid by a tremendous last quarter that has seen them lifted to safety. With a lot of interested parties looking his way, I can see Roberto Martinez being poached by one of the big-money clubs before long.
There will always be those underfunded teams happy to float in that mid-table safety band. Fulham spring to mind, an historic club with the atmosphere of a faded old boys club. The hospitality I enjoyed there is second to none. Sunderland looked to be one of those teams until Martin O’Neill gave them something to believe in. It will be great to see two strong teams compete for the North-East bragging rights once again.
I fear a second-season syndrome for Swansea and, more particularly, Norwich. Both teams have a very good set-up but, with every passing season, the importance of big financial backers is becoming more crucial.
The rest of the season’s news has been the usual flim-flam of pointless speculation and so-what stories. The tiresome John Terry-Anton Ferdinand feud and the Suarez handshake that never was, the Fabio Capello fiasco with the usual FA cock-ups of leaked replacements.
Harry (in court), Mario Balotelli, Carroll, Fernando Torres, Carlos Tevez – all have strutted and fretted their hour on football’s stage along with racism, homophobia and megalomaniac managers. One positive that has been overlooked is the fading of hooliganism, not so long ago a scourge of the game. With better CCTV and pro-active policing, these scum have become an anachronism.
If some of the passion is now lacking, these cowards won’t be missed.