Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 1

The bullet’s merciful passage through the Emirates Cup and similar friendly match competitions marks yet another transition to the unofficial arrival of late summer. Accompanying the ominous return of shortening days and premiere of countless television shows doomed to fail, fortunately, is the advent of a new Premier League season.

Particularly in the context of American sports landscape, Premier League club aspirations seldom fail to transcend the realities of economic mobility: the privileged and bandwagoners alike dream of top four finishes and league titles, several more visualize the hand of fate that reveals a top-10 table finish, and the remainder simply hope for survival in the 1% cavalcade of Premier League television deals.

Will the embarrassment of riches, shared among those wanting hardware (Arsenal, Manchester Blue/Red, Chelsea) to those hardly wanting (newly promoted sides, teams that begin with “West”) lead to a vague return of parity not seen since the late 1980s/early 1990s? Probably not. While FFP has finally flexed its might (albeit with the unrelenting force of a thick rubber band), club prestige, ability of top clubs to consistently secure satisfactory ROIs, and the intrinsic pulls of corporate sponsorship appears to scrawl out a league plutocracy for the foreseeable future.

Upstream and Downstream in the Mid-Major Channel

The greatest hope for the return of club equality rests in the continued ability of mid-major clubs to loosen the clasps on league control through superb player development, resource allocation, and management. Everton and Southampton, despite the latter’s unceremonious fade in the season’s second half, projected this formula in the 2013-14 season.

Despite its furious accumulation of capital through sale of top players at or above market value, Southampton has gone from the club equivalent of a 3d printer to a floored venture capital project. While the team’s (at the time) current talent level only accounted for an 8th place finish in the league last year, the Saints – as recently as two months ago – was flush with young talent. Flush.

First blood was marked by Coach Mauricio Pochettino’s agreement to sign with Tottenham. A few days later, Ricky Lambert’s £4 million transfer to Liverpool was finalized. Even at that early stage, there was no real harm done. But then…

Luke Shaw. £30 million plus to Manchester United. Gone.

Adam Lallana. £25 million to Liverpool. Gone.

Dejan Lovren. £20 million to Liverpool.Gone.

Calum Chambers. £16 million to Arsenal. Gone.

The remaining club photographs of the former Saints growing up through the various youth teams, promotional posters, leftover bobbleheads, etc. that were scattered throughout the St. Mary’s clubhouse and stadium? Liverpool took those too. They’re Brendan Rodgers’s memories now.

On the other hand, you see Everton rising like a phoenix from Tottenham’s 5th place ashes and preparing for another strong campaign. And why not? Securing Romelu Lukaku’s services for the foreseeable future, locking up Gareth Barry and Seamus Coleman, signing Muhamed Besic to join Barry and James McCarthy at the pit of midfield, and welcoming back Darren Gibson and Arouna Kone* from long-term injury spells are all what us football pundits like to call “good things.”

*If Kone stays healthy and returns to 100% fitness, he will provide much improved cover for Romelu Lukaku over the likes of Nikica Jelavic and Lacine Traoré. he scored 13 goals for Wigan in all competitions during the 2012-13 season, (missed all of last year). He could be an X factor in Everton’s upcoming hunt for Champions League football.

The only semi-significant loss is Gerard Deulofeu, who Martinez will certainly look to replace with at least one loan signing as the team prepares for the persisting maelstrom that is the Europa League. Between Tuesday evening matches sprawled all across the European continent, modest revenue streams, statistically wrecks havoc on a team’s Premier League success, the Europa League offers no favors for its participants. While progressing to the quarterfinals, semifinals, or final would surely bolster team morale and club reputation, an early exit may be a blessing in disguise for league hopes.

This team has unrecognizable measures of depth from two seasons ago in a progressive sense, counter to Southampton’s sputtering on-field regression. With a full season of experience for Lukaku, Ross Barkley, and Roberto Martinez under their respective belts, even with higher expectations and a daunting challenge ahead, how can Toffee fans not help but feel optimistic?

The Mid-Major Middle Child

Chairman Daniel Levy operates the Tottenham Hotspurs’ transfer policy like a veteran FIFA user in Manager Mode: sell stars well above market value and diversify investments. Tottenham has had a very middling return on investment success in recent seasons and this was never more evident than last season, when only Christian Eriksen arguably projected Champions League worthy talent on a weekly basis.

When six or seven players arrived into White Hart Lane as the platoon replacement of Gareth Bale’s services last summer, nary anyone had much of an idea how they would fit together or adjust to the Premier League. Apparently, neither did Andre Villas Boas, who continually tinkered with the line-up until his due sacking halfway through the past season.

Lewis Holtby, Paulinho, Erik Lamela, Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, Moussa Dembele, Sandro, Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon, Nabil Bentaleb, and Etienne Capoue. These are the heavy hitters in the Tottenham midfield. In FIFA, an ensemble of good talent is very good to have. Yes, any 14-year old can tell you that such depth prevents fatigue.

In real life, a Wu Tang Clan-sized panel of good players in the middle of the pitch does not catapult a team into elite territory. It allows you to beat up on bad teams en masse, which has overwhelmingly been the Spurs’ lone forte in the past several years. You know, apparently besides West Ham.

The team’s lone star – Hugo Lloris – stands between the posts and the defensive unit, which was already susceptible to massacres by the hand of any of the elite teams and West Ham, reportedly faces an exodus.

As it stands, the team desperately needs an upgrade over Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose at left fullback and another center back to join Jan Vertoghen. Younés Kaboul was a primary culprit in several of Tottenham’s periodic collapses, like against West Ham. Chiriches could be a worthy partner after a decent first season, but is rumored to be on the move again.

If Morgan Schneiderlin becomes the newest Spurs player and latest Saints exile (although recent rumors dispute the ongoing development), it simply stands as another good, but not great, player set to join the midfield ranks. A proper challenge for a top four spot in the league necessitates star players, which Tottenham – despite its flurried waves of personnel moves – remains in severely short supply.

With all that said, however, the arrival of Pochettino connotes a carte blanche. It has to, right? There must be some cause for optimism for a team that consistently finishes in the top six, right? Anyone?

Anyway…

If Tottenham’s major shortcomings – at least in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch – originate in schematic error, rather than inferior talent, and Pochettino finds a way to inspire the squad’s two highly paid strikers – Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor – to prolonged goal-scoring form, then there is certainly cause for hope.

It is essential that Pochettino finds a rotation of 15 or so players and stick with it. Weekly squad instability ultimately beleaguered AVB and Tim Sherwood last season.

If the Argentine manager brings the 4-4-1-1 line-up to London, I think Holtby and Bentaleb/Dembele should form the central midfield, with Lennon and Lamela on the wings, and Eriksen behind Soldado.

A 4-3-3 with three central midfielders seems to cater to Tottenham’s current roster, in which case Holtby/Paulinho, Eriksen, and Dembele/Sandro would appear to be the most worthy candidates of early playing time in midfield to start the season.

Whichever way the team eventually lines out, the fact remains that Lamela and Soldado were brought to London last year to be the stars. Even if the team’s current defensive frailties and uncertainty (not to mention staunch league opposition) makes a Champions League berth almost impossible, marked improvement by the two beleaguered attackers may be enough to keep Spurs in the hunt for much of the season.

 

Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 2

Who Will Deliver the Red Devils from Purgatory?

Perhaps drawn from the team’s unparalleled polarizing quality, but expectations for United’s upcoming season appear to alternative sharply between the perception that there will be an unrelenting return to top four prominence in the wake of the Moyes fiasco and the belief that last season simply signaled the team’s deep-lying roster problems, for which there will not be an immediate turnaround.

While Phil Jones could develop into one of the league’s better center half backs within the next few seasons, Chris Smalling has shown few signs of similar potential and shaded closer to (Kolo) Toure than Terry last season. The center back position has not improved, nor has the situation directly in front of the defense. Signing Fellaini to supplant Fletcher and Carrick in center midfield was like spending $10 on a $5 scratch-off, multiplied by 3 million or so.

For the time being, any combination of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Darren Fletcher will probably cover the three man center midfield of Van Gaal’s preferred 3-5-2 formation, but the squad still needs a No.6 to protect the defense from the countless charges through the middle that opposing teams enjoyed all last season.

The additions of Herrera and Luke Shaw will certainly help the skeletal structure of Manchester’s roster to the extent that gauze remedies a severed limb. Now that Ferdinand and Vidic have limbed away into the sunset, the need for defensive reinforcements is particularly urgent.

Signing the likes of Vidal and Thomas Vermaelen would automatically make United a odds on favorite to return to the Champions League after next season, but a failure to sign at least one will place an immense amount of pressure on United to finish among the top three in goals scored next season

…which shouldn’t be a problem. Even if Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson do not take a step forth in their development this season, the team has no lack of scoring options, so long as the Moyes favorite – Operation: Deepcrossapalooza – is disregarded as a viable attacking strategy. Mata and Herrera project as a furious duo at the head of midfield; Rooney and Welback should score around 30-35 goals combined (across all competitions).

With that said, Robin van Persie’s health following the lengthy post-World Cup layoff will be key in dictating the manner of United’s return from 7th place indignity. Two seasons ago, RvP accounted for 18 points when only considering the goals he scored that either brought United level or ahead in league matches. Last year, he missed long stretches of matches, periods which coincided with the worst epochs of Man United’s season.

United will still score plenty of goals if van Persie suffers from further injury episodes, but his ability to consistently tog out at the pinnacle of United’s attack will make the side among the most formidable in the league. In the team’s current state, defensive vulnerability will give the team a Europa League ceiling. With Vidal and another center back signed before the deadline, and only domestic competitions to focus on, 3rd or 4th place becomes a strong possibility.

Two Steps Forward and…

Simply by the loss of Luis Suarez, Liverpool will almost certainly take a step back this season after a rather surprising second place league finish this past May. With all the additions in mind, Daniel Sturridge remains the most equipped player on the roster to fill the massive void created by the Uruguayan’s departure. In a limited sample size, Sturridge was sublime at the focal point of Liverpool’s attack. Stretched to a full season, it’s near impossible to imagine him enjoying a similar rate of success.

Like the Tottenham board, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s chairmen also diversified their transfer targets by design of variety in position and developmental stage. Players like Adam Lallana and Emre Can bolster the midfield considerably. Although mild reaches in terms of price for the pair, the former fits a need as one of last season’s best bridges between the midfield and strikers; the latter as a space clogger in front of the defense.

Lazar Markovic, one has to imagine, was a player that Brendan Rodgers had his eye on for a while. As a primary right winger, he will push Raheem Sterling for playing time, set up on the opposite side of Philippe Coutinho or Sterling, or even play directly behind Sturridge or Ricky Lambert on occasion.

These new options, however, will still quake in the face of the immediate challenge to replace Suarez’s 31 goals and 12 assists. While Can provides improved protection for the defense, it is difficult to determine how Liverpool’s defense significantly improved. Dejan Lovren (who was probably acquired for closer to market value than Adam Lallana) will strengthen the heart of Liverpool’s defense, but the defensive unit as a whole has likely not improved enough to offset the imminent offensive regression.

Rodgers is an excellent coach and, in turn, will maintain the passing philosophy that has served his side so well in his first two seasons in command. His ability to build the team’s depth, particularly in midfield, will prove to be a necessity for Liverpool as it deals with the rigors of Champions League football. The added dimension that it brings, however, combined with the loss of Suarez will make a return to the top four extremely difficult as Everton and Manchester United bang on the door. The time to deliver is now for Sturridge.

The Two Rich Blue Teams

Two of the favorites. Manchester City, the reigning champions, improved one of its strongest position – right fullback – by signing Bacary Sagna. Chelsea signed Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, essentially in place of Ba/Lukaku and Frank Lampard. It also acquired Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid and brought Didier Drogba back after his two year pilgrimage in China and Turkey (not a religious statement).

Which team improved more?

The loss of David Luiz should hardly be felt with Matic and Mikel providing cover in front of the defense. The biggest worry for both teams is a common one: an over-reliance on the health of each team’s respective captain: Vincent Kompany for City and John Terry for Chelsea.  Looking beyond the two center backs, Chelsea has better depth at most positions, save for right fullback, striker, and center midfield.

If there was another place to look, it has to be at the goalkeeper position. Chelsea arguably has two of the best ten goalkeepers in the world under contract and City has Manuel Almun…I mean Joe Hart.

City will almost certainly remain in the top four simply by virtue of its formidable attacking force and the central players directly behind (David Silva, Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho), but I do not expect Etihad F.C. to repeat. 2nd or 3rd will be the probable final place. If they do, it will be thanks to another great and injury-free season for Sergio Aguero; 30 goals scored between Stevan Jovetic, Negredo, and Edin Dzeko in the league; good health for Kompany, Martín Demichelis, Fernandinho and Toure; a return to top form for Joe Hart.

As for Chelsea, I consider it to be the favorite to win the league this upcoming season. Even if Diego Costa/undead Didier do not adequately remedy Chelsea’s underachievement at the striker position, Andre Schurrle, Willian, Eden Hazard, and Oscar will supply service and goals. If Costa nets at least 15-18 goals in the league, it should be enough to sufficiently complement the other scoring sources on the roster and possibly even appease Mourinho’s expectations.

Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 3

The Title Track

Mathieu Debuchy, Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers. A direct replacement, another step, and a wild card, respctively. For a team that has hung on to 3rd and 4th place in the league for most of the past decade, these moves don’t quite feel like emergents past a threshold. At this premature stage, Arsenal only knows that it has added a star player in Sanchez and hopes that it might have unearthed another in Chambers, in whatever position he eventually settles.

Sanchez is another player who, in all likelihood, will (or at least should) predominantly play in a more or less central role; near the top, specifically, as a second striker to Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo. When I accounted for Calum Chambers starting both games for Arsenal in the Emirates Cup at center half back, I made the uncomfortable realization that the team structure vaguely resembles prime roast on Wonder Bread.

This is not comparing the roster’s wing players to the processed and bleached delight of Wonder Bread. Rather, Arsenal has crept to the point in which it has an excess of players who optimally function in a central role and few who fit similarly well as wing players.

Wenger has stated that he views Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a future central midfielder (although he looked overwhelmed at times and made critical errors in other times when at the position last season). Theo Walcott, still in recovery from a knee injury, has made no secret of his preference to line up as a central forward. While both of these players will continue to play on the wing for the immediate future, they will hardly assume primarily peripheral roles in the following years.

A common personnel move employed by Wenger last season was to push Santi Cazorla out to the wing, usually on the left side. Coincidentally, the team often struggled when the short Spaniard played in this role. On an individual level, Cazorla lacks the pace and agility that typically suits the modern winger. On a macro level, Cazorla did not provide much as a defender, occasionally exposing Gibbs or Monreal behind him. Going forward, his aforementioned lack of pace mitigates his off-ball prowess in counter-attacks. A central attacking role, in which ability to protect and move the ball in tight spaces has premium value, suits his game infinitely better.

The attacking central role for Arsenal, which Santi enjoyed during much of his first season with Arsenal, is commandeered primarily by Mesut Özil since his arrival from Real Madrid last summer. When Tomas Rosicky played in place of Özil last season, Cazorla and Rosicky alternatively pushed out to the wing, neither with great aplomb.

The predicament grows deeper (in both senses) in the center of the team’s formation. Last season, Mikel Arteta led Arsenal in tackles and completed passes per game, as well as passing accuracy by a midfielder, all by slight margins. Despite these statistical niceties, Arteta does not serve as the central defensive player that is necessary for a title winning team, especially for a squad that has an abundance of skilled passing maestros and has not yet successfully shaken the ‘soft’ label in the Emirates Stadium era.

When Arsenal suffered its worst losses to top teams last season, a common issue was the capitulation of the space between midfield and the top of the 18 yard box.  Arteta simply lacks the physical ability – in strength or energy – to fill space and slow down counterattacks; Mathieu Flamini, on the other hand, provides necessary energy and tenacity, but – as his advanced stats suggest – he lacks the skill, composure, and consistency to properly serve the side on a weekly basis. While Flamini provided a better complementary skill set for Özil, Wilshere, and Cazorla than Arteta, the team needs an upgrade at the base of midfield.

While Arteta, in particular, will continue to regularly start at CDM this season, the hope has to be that Wilshere or Chambers can permanently supplant the Spaniard in the not-so-distant future. If you’re not convinced by the need to change to a more physical presence over Arteta, consider Chelsea and Manchester City last season. In Chelsea’s late contest against Manchester City late in the campaign, Mourinho deployed Nemanja Matic and David Luiz at dual stoppers in front of the defense to slow down David Silva and Yaya Toure.

The effect was apparent. Chelsea came out victorious in a drudging 1-0 result.

In last year’s contests against Manchester City and Chelsea, in which Arsenal was outscored by a total of 9 goals (13 goals allowed vs four scored), City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Matic/Luiz combination consistently reduced time and space in the middle of the pitch for the likes of Ramsey, Özil, and Rosicky. While the two worst defensive performances could be partially explained by an all-out attacking strategy at the Etihad and a red card in Stamford Bridge (the infamous Gibbs/Chambo mix-up), the common link was Arsenal’s inability to effectively pressure on the break.

The need for a more physical presence in CDM is accentuated by the occasional disappearance of at least one of Arsenal’s fullbacks (watch first goal by Eto’o), usually due to aggressive positioning on attacking set pieces. The effect of a successive breakaway had a usual effect of mismatches and disorganization once enough bodies retreated in time, while other times, the two players back were quickly left stranded and a goal was scored in quick succession.

While Ramsey is a guaranteed starter in any formation, Wilshere – the name on every Arsenal fan’s lips three seasons ago – is in danger of becoming an odd man out within the squad. Yet another player well capable of fulfilling main playmaking duties, Wilshere will likely continue to play deeper in the pitch. If he stays healthy this season, he and Ramsey could end up constructing the central midfield base that every Gooner hoped would come to fruition over the past few years.

The health of Ramsey and Wilshere, on an individual level, holds more weight for Wilshere, who has yet to return to his on-field heights from the 2010-11 season. He showed glimpses, but Wenger must resist the temptation to play him out wide in order for him to optimally develop into the position that is his preferred spot and his likely long-term place on the field.

So who does that leave for the wing spots? Walcott, Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Serge Gnabry, and Joel Campbell.

Early in the calendar year, upon his return from injury, Podolski dealt with puzzling cameo appearances with a few minutes left or full game benching from Wenger in league play. While the manager maintained later that these particular personnel choices were made to grant the German amble time to return to full fitness, a preference to play Santi and Ox certainly had a part.

It was only when the team’s injuries compiled most extensively in February that Podolski returned as a regular starter, in which the team’s play improved considerably with the addition of a prototypical winger and additional goal scorer. Against Bayern Munich  in the first knockout stage of the Champions League and against Swansea (H), West Ham (H), and Hull City (A) in the last quarter of last season, Podolski was arguably Arsenal’s most important player.

Joel Campbell, a relatively unknown entity, has done everything in his power – between the start of the World Cup and preseason – to demand playing time before Walcott returns from injury and lays his claim up front on the right. Perhaps Campbell’s placement on the right wing against Benefica foreshadows opportunity at the position once the season commences, but with few other immediate options, Campbell has all of the tools to make an impact at that position – off-ball intelligence, improvement in link-up play, speed, toughness, dribbling skill, considerable finishing prowess – even if more prominent names crowd his own in midfield.

While Wenger has proven the world wrong on countless occasions, he has not missed opportunities to outsmart himself in recent years. Great talent at one position does not necessarily translate to another. While Chambers has the athleticism and molten skill set to potentially fit any outfield position in the defensive half (or even on the wings), playing any of the team’s many central midfielders  – Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, Özil – out wide undermines the respective player’s skill set and effectively compromises the team’s overall ability.

For Arsenal to make another title push, Wenger needs to recognize what he currently has at wing options and use them out wide instead of pulling central midfielders to the periphery, even if he regards the central midfielder more highly as an overall footballer. His trust in Sanogo may eventually serve as another exemplary sample of his ability to unearth talent and inspire greatness when given a proper opportunity.

Particularly in the case of Arteta at CDM and Podolski and Campbell as starting wing options early in the season, Arsene needs to remain mindful of past lessons for Arsenal to make another step forward. The team does not yet seem ready to overcome its fellow title-contending demons and a title would be (improbably) won in spite of this. As the squad stands, another season will likely pass without a league title, but 2nd place will accurately mark a step in the right direction for a club that is finally matching upside with current production.

 

The Shame of Diving

For the first time in league history, the NBA recently implemented rules into its officiating policy in order to discourage the flopping epidemic.  In recent seasons, drawing a foul has become as prevalent for many players on the offensive side of the court as on the defensive end.  The main culprit has been the evolution of the charge: from a defensive mechanism – against offset excessive aggression by the ball-handler, screen setter, or big man with flying elbows – to a weapon against post-ups, drive-and-kicks, and other typically innocuous aspects of an NBA game.

In many instances, the defensive player deserves credit for his willingness to sacrifice the body and his ability to read the play before the offense can properly execute; however, it becomes troubling when players welcome contact as a way of justifying their propensity to fall over in the event of a particularly strong breeze.

Smaller defenders have used the charge call as a progressive equalizer more than ever.  Small guards on the low wing, when posted up by bigger players, have become much more inclined to fall to ground and hope for an offensive foul call, rather than stand their ground and hope for the best (a help-side block or a missed shot).

As stigmatized as players such as Shane Battier and Manu Ginobili have become for their on-court theatrics, J.J. Barea, James Harden, Chris Paul, and LeBron James all exaggerated contact to near-comedic levels last season.  While talking to referees has arguably become as much of a problem, flopping has been a growing issue that essentially asks referees to play a larger part in the game.

Soccer, on the other hand, has an omnipresent diving culture.  The sport’s reputation as a game of divers has only intensified, as punishments for portraying a step on the foot as a minor gunshot wound range from very rare to non-existent.  Luis Suarez has been the infamous poster boy for the transgression but, as we know, it’s everywhere.  Carl Jenkinson has been pulled down by little more than gravity, so has Ashley Young, Mikel Arteta, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard…so yeah, everywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, FIFA vice-president, Jim Boyce, announced diving as the “cancer of football.”  He called on “disciplinary committees,”panels that reviews cases on a week-by-week basis, to ween out the acting.  The chief also sympathized with the job of the referee, who has to make judgments based on split-second, oft-simulated, collisions.

Based on past decisions, committee rule is likely not the best method.  Why, because everyone cares the most when the offense actually happens.  When the committees make the decisions a few days later, most of the emotion produced by a controversial fall to ground has evaporated and, as a result, the effect of the dive becomes marginalized.

There is no clear-cut solution to an act that reflects immaturity as much as it does competitiveness.  In other sports, such as hockey, football, and even baseball, going to ground and showing signs of pain is a tip of the cap to your opponent’s physicality.  More importantly, it’s an indication of your own weakness and your own ability, or inability, to get back up.  In other sports, limping and grimacing doesn’t make you some kind of warrior, neither does trying to play through pain.  When you’re a one percent athlete, that’s simply the expectation.

If that’s unreasonable, I don’t understand why.  We idolize these athletes that have such fantastic ability and perform admirably for our respective teams, yet we actually end up holding them to a lower standard.  Diving is merely a central tenet of a community that tries to incriminate other opponents on the field and readily sacrifices integrity for a short-term benefit, all while lowering the entire league’s reputation.  Coaches like David Moyes and Martin O’Neill have recently denounced this enormous detriment, yet response will have to come from more coaches, players, and fans, particularly against the actions of their own players.

The widespread immaturity of professional athletes in their personal lives is clearly their own business, but it becomes a problem when they reflect that same selfish weakness in their well-paid, highly public professions.  Soccer will never have the tough reputation of other sports, but sadly it has devolved into a sport that essentially glorifies the individual who wins a penalty after getting nudged in the back, provided that the player is on your team.

The NBA has make an attempt to curtail flopping before it becomes an even bigger problem; while far from perfect, it signals intent from the league to protect the league’s integrity.  As far as soccer is concerned, its tarnished reputation has suffered irreparable damage.  Diving will always exist, as players will always be able to exaggerate the effect of contact during a game.

What the league must do is take small steps that affect the game itself: have referees administer fewer penalties (no penalty call is always going to be less of a story than a dubious decision), enhance replay availability, and implement a sort of broken windows policy on the field – book any attempt of case-pleading or dissent and limit the time between which a foul occurs and the follow-up kick is taken to 30 seconds.

Regardless of what method is taken, it will have its dissenters and its shortcomings, but it must force players to adjust.  Incorrectly punishing players for dives, particularly in the penalty box, must be permitted as a potential effect if the league hopes to foster substantial reform.  A countless number of games have been decided by undeserved penalty calls and offside decisions (including Saturday’s Arsenal-QPR game).  Targeting players who are associated with going to ground easily must be another step, even if it comes to the dismay of certain fanbases and managers.

Because diving is an epidemic that has led to a rotting of FIFA’s reputation, at least the little that remains for the embattled organization.  Diving goes far beyond a player, a team, or a league.  It impacts almost every game in little ways, which compiles into long-term ramifications over the 9 month span of a season.  It needs to be wrung from professional soccer now, so that the sport can someday return to a game purely reliant on ability, strategy, and a slight bit of luck.

Saint Robin (Finally) Leaves the Emirates

So ends one of the more drawn out and anticlimactic transfer sagas of the summer: another former club hero gets set to begin the new season in a different jersey.  Once again, a sucker punch in the form of an outgoing star player serves to remind the average Gooner of the team’s current position as a wannabe elite club that tries to join the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and now PSG at the top level of the world soccer hierarchy; unfortunately the selection of the few players to join the top-flight clubs typically damns the rest of the club to first-class purgatory.

What made this summer different from past transfer periods was that Arsene Wenger was ready before disaster struck, and not just with another crafty acquisition of a French league player.  Lukas Podolski was as good as signed by March and, even though Olivier Giroud could be viewed as a typical Wenger signing, the lanky Frenchman’s body of work last season in Ligue 1 appeared to surpass that of Marouane Chamakh or Gervinho during their respective times in the French league.

Most impressively, the Arsenal manager secured the signature of top playmaker Santi Cazorla, formerly employed by Villareal and Malaga.  While the team still has very questionable quality at either fullback position (at least until Bacary Sagna is fully recovered), the team has much more depth and quality in its midfield and attacking positions than it had 12 months ago.

Even though captain Robin van Persie reportedly had a change of heart upon hearing about and seeing the team’s upgrades firsthand in Germany, it was always just a report.  His scathing statement in June, which condemned the Gunner brass for a lack of ambition and announced his decision to not sign an extension with Arsenal, only set up for one conclusion – regardless of a change of heart.  Wayne Rooney requested a transfer a couple of seasons ago, but his worries about the club were ultimately assuaged by a talk with team boss Sir Alex Ferguson and an even more lucrative contract extension.  From what we know, money was not the issue with van Persie, but nor could it have been the solution.

Henry had already accomplished almost everything in the Arsenal colors, Fabregas wanted a return home, but van Persie was supposed to be the captain who stayed.  If you will, he was envisioned in the same light as LeBron James was in Cleveland.  Van Persie elevated last season’s team more than almost any other single player would have.  For that reason, he seemingly had to stay and help propel the team back to its former title-winning heights.  Yet once again, a star player proved the masses wrong and revealed a different plan.

What bothers me, more than anything, is the ultimate destination.  While the player typically does not have a voice in the subject of transfers, van Persie clearly had the final choice of whether to stay or go.  I hoped that he would choose the lesser Serie A, or even Manchester City, but for reasons of team fit, current squads, and money, it was always going to be Old Trafford, home to former rivals Manchester United, where van Persie would make his new home.  Rivalries hold as little weight as ever in the new money-centric world of football, and I mistakenly held the captain to a different standard.  

The fans’ reactions to van Persie’s decision to look elsewhere in his future have understandably been very divided over the past couple of months.  While the occasion is sad by almost all fan accounts, there has been overwhelming feelings of bitterness toward the former captain, and even anger.  While his report in June frustrated and disappointed me, I wasn’t particularly surprised – in part due to the signings, but mostly due to his delayed response to the speculation.  Arsene Wenger, whether he admits it or not, always acknowledged the possibility and, as a result, did his best to keep the ship upright and progressively moving.

Unlike the other aforementioned players that left North London for greener and/or more trophy-laden pastures, van Persie’s legacy at the Emirates spans no further than a single season.  As magical as last season was for all affiliated with the club, it was still one season.  One injury-free season, where everything went right for the Dutch center-forward, that almost single-handedly delivered Arsenal to its 17th straight top-four finish.  Despite all those seasons before, on the field and off (due to injuries), the 38 games of the 2011-12 Premier League season will almost exclusively define his legacy, as an Arsenal player and possibly as a professional footballer.

I will always appreciate Robin van Persie for his star role in my favorite period of Arsenal football in the past several seasons; however, that same personal success only compounded the disappointment of Gooners everywhere that accompanied his statement and his inevitable departure from London.  It didn’t have to end this way, it shouldn’t have ended this way, and it’s a shame for both parties that it does.  As fans of many lower to mid-level clubs could vouch, the money that the team ultimately receives, regardless of amount, is so often only a consolation for what could have been.

The Legacy of the 2012 UEFA Champions League

The soccer world has been a series of hangovers over the past couple of weeks.  The red of Manchester drank to forget a couple of weekends ago, while the city’s blue popped 44-year old champagne in celebration.  Chelsea and West Ham supporters reveled in victory last weekend, while  Tottenham, Blackpool, and Bayern Munich fans are probably still drinking.

The final part of the season is the Saturday night to the Sunday morning of late May and June.  This pandemonium of emotions from all ends of the spectrum leads into the hangover of the soccer year: that uncomfortable period when the season ends and the transfer market has hardly stirred.  The noise and news reach the highest pitches in the season’s home stretch, then flatline for several weeks after the final Saturday of Champions League football.

Thankfully, Euros wait just around the corner, at the hearts of European soccer: Poland and the Ukraine.  From the excitement of Dutch soccer to the morbid brutality of Irish play to all styles in between, the Euros will rival the London Olympics as the premier sporting event of the summer.

A significant portion of my Champions League viewing experience took place in a quaint pizzeria by my college.  The guy (I will call him Pizza Guy) who runs the place is a loyal Chelsea fan.  Despite our differences in allegiance, he accepts my Gooner loyalties with the jovial nature of a chef who casually spits in the food of his enemies.

When we aren’t identifying Manchester United players as closet members of the Illuminati, we have discussed the two titans of Iberian soccer in La Liga: Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Several weeks ago, before the semifinal contests kicked off, Pizza Guy told me, “I’m biased as a Chelsea fan, but I don’t want another Real-Barcelona match-up.  How do those teams happen to meet up in the finals?”

As Pizza Guy suggested, FIFA is corrupt.  It’s a known fact (Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup.  Qatar!).  While the scheduling for the semifinal games (Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid in one leg, and Barcelona vs. Chelsea in the other) could have been chalked up as a coincidence, it seemed too perfect.

The two Spanish teams were neck-and-neck in the La Liga league race at the time, and the sides seemed as equal as they had been in years.  If you have two of the world’s most marketable teams, along with the two most marketable players in the world – Messi and Ronaldo, and combine that with  the most watched annual soccer game in the world, you get a more views, higher ratings, and more money.

FIFA undoubtedly knew this, but whether it factored into the drawings was ultimately inconsequential.  In the two-leg series, Chelsea survived its own Charge of the Light Brigade at the Camp Nou and Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid in the soccer version of Russian roulette: penalties.  The result was a final game that most people (including me) wanted.

A final between two underdogs – offensively dynamic Bayern Munich and resolute Chelsea.  Throw in the fact that both teams were missing several defensive starters, and the game seemed destined to be one of high-intensity and a high goal total.

“I don’t always choke, but when I do, it’s in front of a global audience.”

Tragically, this was not the case.  As often is the case, the promise offered by memorable semifinal series led to a disappointing game.  More than anything, this game has been heralded as the Moby-Dick to the Bavarian Team Ahab.  Robben choked – this time, on the Mount Everest of club soccer matches, rather than world soccer.  Ribery suffered an injury that must have felt a lot worse than looked, and Mario Gomez mucked the bed in front of goal.  Bayern’s 39 shots on goal, while a bit of an apparition, emphasizes the stranglehold that the German giants had on so much of the match.

While the Bayern players were largely responsible for wasting their best chances – ultimately manifested in the penalty shootout, Chelsea did just enough to frustrate and hold off many of Bayern’s advances.  As inconsistent as Cech has been this season, he stepped up when it mattered in the end.  He carried over his sublime play from the Barcelona series to this game, all the way to the penalty shootout.

The shootout fittingly ended when Cech got the slightest touch on Schweinsteiger’s shot, which deflected off the post, and when Drogba scored the final penalty.  While the Cote D’ Ivorian player tends to dive with the grace of a swan with two broken wings (not to mention wreck Arsenal defenses), I can’t help but admire the guy.  Unlike Lampard, Drogba has shown hardly any signs of aging in his play.  His all-out effort in the the second half of the season, especially in the second leg of the Chelsea-Barcelona game, was unbelievable.  He played better as a left back than Ashley Cole had for stretches of the season.

Hard work has alway been the way with Drogba.  He spent seasons on the Chelsea bench contending with the likes of Eidar Gudjonsson and Andriy Shevchenko for playing time before earning his way on to the field through drastic improvement. He responded to the £50 million acquisition of Fernando Torres, which many people saw as a surefire sign of owner Roman Abramovich/Lord Sidious pushing Drogba out the Stamford Bridge doors, by substantially outplaying him.

Most impressively, he also played a vital role in promoting peace in the Ivory Coast and played for his country in the 2010 World Cup with a broken arm.  In that respect, it was a perfect moment when Drogba scored that final penalty – an actual storybook moment, in a world full of media-injected Cinderella stories.

With all this said, Bayern lost because they became another example of a team that doesn’t take its chances and put the game to bed.  They did not, in part because their big guns shot blanks in the pivotal moments, but also because Chelsea was Bayern’s foil, in a sense.  Chelsea was a “the team of destiny,” as many American sportswriters like to say.  The Blues held off the heavily favored (and battered) Kings of Catalan is stunning fashion and had been a phoenix risen from the ashes since Di Matteo became The Sith Lord’s latest puppet.

Since Di Matteo’s hiring, Chelsea ditched pretty boy Andre Villa-Boas’ free-flowing style of play.  Frank Lampard played in a more defensive role, passing became more centralized, and Di Matteo used more consistent lineups.  Simple adjustments, really, but the change in results was undeniable.  The squad felt more stability and played with its trademark physical, albeit unflattening, style of play.  Even without John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic in the lineup against Bayern, the team stuck with what had been working and ended up with the UCL cup.

What struck me about this game was not only the lack of quality – the game’s only goals, by Muller and Drogba, should have been saved – but that, ultimately, this was a game of vindication for Chelsea.  Chelsea had deserved to beat Barcelona three years ago, but did not due to horrible officiating.  After the few peaks and many valleys that decorated the Chelsea season, the revenge at Camp Nou and the victory at the Allianz were long-awaited measures of poetic justice for the Blues.

Even though Torres obviously declared his displeasure with his role on the team, especially on that day, we all saw him with the Chelsea banner draped bandana-style over his head.  In many ways, the victory was vindication for Torres too.  He achieved elusive glory with Chelsea after an extremely difficult 18 months with the Blues.  In that moment, at least, there was no regret nor frustration for the one formerly known as “El Nino,” only jubilation.

At the end of that Saturday night in Munich, the legacy, no matter which way you look at it, rested with the 34-year old Ivorian.  Drogba capped his legacy with Chelsea with another goal to doom a North London side.  This time, however, it was not Arsenal.  Tottenham fans, by all means, continue to drown your sorrows, both now and in the Europa League next year.

Premier League Round-up

It has been a long time since my last Premier League article (have I even had one?  If so, its’s probably devolved into a tangential rant, ultimately having nothing to do with the Premier League, or soccer).  But in the words of John Mayer, I’m done with the old me.

I’m not off to a good start.

On February 5th, after watching the Senegalese Demba duo of Ba and Papiss Cisse place another pin in the Alex McLeish voodoo doll and Chelsea relinquish a 3-0 chokehold on Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, I told my friend that Newcastle would take the 4th and final Champions League spot by the end of the season.  This was a day after I watched my beloved Arsenal tear apart a despondent Blackburn, but 4 days after the Gunners had dragged themselves away from Bolton’s Reebok Stadium with a single point.

The Manchester teams had been having a party for 2 at the top of the table, with Tottenham knocking on the door.  After that, it was a crapshoot.  Arsenal was coming off one of its worst months in…5 monthes, most of the Chelsea team looked like square pegs trying to fit into the round holes of Andre Villa Boas’ system, and Newcastle was still expected to falter, despite the new addition of Papiss Cisse to lighten the enormous scoring load weighing down on Ba.  Liverpool was actually still in the race.  Yes, that’s how much things have changed in the past 2 months.

In order to avoid negligence of the teams further down in the table, I will break this column down in a series of points.  For the sake of my friend Kieran, I will start at the bottom of the table.

1. Wolves are damned, and ownership deserve the first – and largest – share of blame: namely owner/chairman Steve Morgan.  When he fired Mick McCarthy in early February, the storm clouds hanging over the Molineux grew darker.  While the team had been suffering in recent results and hung on the edge of the relegation zone, McCarthy’s firing came at a time when the transfer period had ended.  When Morgan made his rounds for a new manager, all of his top choices rejected the position: no one wanted the job of having to save a sinking tugboat, especially at a time when they could not even bring in new players.  Morgan had to settle for assistant manager Terry Connor.

While, to the credit of Connor and the squad, the effort has been there by the players, the results sure as hell have not, largely due to untimely red cards (team ranks 3rd from bottom in the league’s Fair Play stats), a weak midfield unable to hold possession, and a Championship-level defense – led by the likes of captain Roger Johnson, Ronald Zubar, and Richard Stearman – that typically can’t withstand the great pressure it has to deal with on a regular basis.  Wolves is almost certainly headed back to the Championship, without Stephen Fletcher, Kevin Doyle, and probably Matt Jarvis.

2. The league’s best goalie does not reside at Etihad Stadium or Carrow Road, or even Liberty Stadium.  Rather, he stands between the posts of DW Stadium.  Judging a goalie solely on goals allowed and save percentage is ignorant.  Wigan’s inability to put pressure on the opposing team’s defense places enormous pressure on its defense and Al-Habsi.  While the team’s drop to the Championship, after years of fighting against the tide, seems very likely at this point, Al-Habsi has made his best efforts to ignore the “For Sale” sign on the team’s Premier League spot, making quality save after quality save.   Expect some team to place a bid for him if Wigan does ultimately get relegated.

3. Redknapp’s eye for the throne of English football becomes a distraction to Tottenham Hotspur or maybe Spurs just aren’t that good.  It’s a job that few people want – one of the most high pressure positions in the sport – and many people are wondering why he would leave the Hotspur team that he resurrected from the bottom position in the Premier League only a few seasons ago, just to enter the epitome of high risk-high reward mayhem as the manager of the Three Lions.  Regardless of whether Harry returns to White Hart Lane, the team needs to retain Adebayor as long as he is willing to take a cut in his salary.

Spurs were within 5 points of Manchester City less than 2 months ago, before the team was hit by a brutal stretch in the schedule.  Spurs’ difficulty to consistently grasp 3 points in games throughout the stretch coincided with the best stretch of Arsenal’s season. The result: Arsenal currently fights with Tottenham for 3rd place.  4th place is, again, an uncertainty, with Chelsea in great form, the Newcastle Demba duo carrying the team’s attack to within a few points of Tottenham and Arsenal, and Liverpool still lurking.  Just joking about the last part, which reminds me…

4. So…how have the Moneyball theories been working for? or When does the King stop being the King?  The Liverpool’s merciful takeover, at the hands of New England sports oligarchs John Henry and Tom Werner, promised stability after the Amityville fit of horrors created under Tom Hicks’ reign.  Ironically, the prospects of “Soccernomics” guru and football director Damien Comolli and King Kenny Dalglish with money to spend has resulted in the team’s worst ever league season in the Premier League thus far, with few signs of recovery.  Why?  While the team has brought its classic mentality of “Beat the teams you should lose to, but lose to the teams you should beat” to new levels, the team also can’t score when it needs to.

I understand that overpaying for a guy who can cross (Stewart Downing) and seriously overpaying for a guy who can head the ball (Andy Carroll) seemed foolproof, but both players have been among the most disappointing in the entire league (Newcastle’s selling of Carroll for £35 million should be known as “The Heist” in Merseyside).  The owners still have money to spend, but far too much has already been invested in the likes of Downing, Carroll, and Jordan Henderson.  The team needs a finisher, in the mold of Adebayor, Athletico’s Falcao, or even Genoa’s Rodrigo Palacio.  Luis Suarez, while very dangerous in buildup play, has the shooting accuracy of a blind dart thrower.  Regardless of the result, Dalglish needs to at least make the FA Cup final, inspire a final surge in the Premier League, or be right with his next transfer target.  If 2 out of 3 points for criteria are not reached at the end of the season, the cries for King Kenny’s head will only grow in volume and number, and he will be removed from the Anfield throne (couldn’t resist) before the next campaign.

5. The recent success of Chelsea and Sunderland has proved, yet again, that the manager can make all the difference.  So Andre Villas Boas wasn’t the new Mourinho?  Winning the Europa League with a Portuguese team is not the same as winning the Champions League with a Portuguese team?  Keeping your team happy is important to its success?  Better late than never for Chelsea to be learning these lessons, as exorcising their Iberian demon (and no, we’re not talking about Jose Bosingwa’s unibrow) has led to a vital shot in the arm in league play and an improbable comeback against Napoli in the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Whether interim coach Roberto Di Matteo is little more than a figurehead coach, holding the title as Lampard, Terry, and Drogba control the locker room, is irrelevant as long as the positive results continue.  The return to form for the team (and Fernando Torres, who has been playing great even if not scoring a ton of goals) since the firing of AVB has defined addition by subtraction.  Just as importantly is the luck that the team has found with di Matteo in charge – as seen in the team’s recent (and undeserved) 2-1 win over a valiant Wigan side.  The breaks that always seemed to go against them with AVB are now falling for them.  Regardless of the team’s recent success, I think that the team will struggle to play well in both the FA Cup against Tottenham AND the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona – placed a mere 3 days apart from one another.

Martin O’Neill, on the other hand, had cemented his place beside David Moyes in the echelon of elite managers outside of the major club circuit.  As every ailing Aston Villa fan knows, O’Neill’s time with the Birmingham club were the most recent Golden Years in the team’s history, and they abruptly vanished with his departure.  He was replaced by Gerard “Le Souffle” Houllier (did I just call a Frenchman a souffle?  You bet your ass I did) and then Alex McLeish.

McLeish was the former boss of Villa’s Birmingham rival, Birmingham City.  For the Villa fan, he is the equivalent of the guy next door who was a notorious alcoholic and almost definitely sold your lawn mower for drug money that one time, but then claims to have found God and rejects his low-life past.  Unfortunately, the Villa fans have not been convinced by McLeish, as the team has floundered in the mid-low section of the table for a majority of the season.

O’Neill has brought the Sunderland Black Cats from 2 points ahead of the relegation zone at the end of November, to currently within 2 points of 7th place.  The Stadium of Light has become one of the most difficult places to play for visiting teams, and the strong play of Sebastian Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner, along with the emergence of Irish international James McClean, have helped the club immensely.

6. Mark Hughes is lost if he doesn’t have a squad that can essentially beat up the other team.  In all fairness, however, the London squad has, like Wolves, been very unlucky (and in the case of their game against Manchester United, damned) by shameful refereeing.  QPR undoubtedly has the talent to stay up, but Hughes will have to get the most out of that talent.  Will he do it?  I wouldn’t count on it.  If QPR gets relegated, he’ll just go snooping for another Premier League managerial position.

7. A tale of 2 Arsenal teams or a great time for Gooner nation.  It’s amazing how a drop in expectations can ultimately lead to greater satisfaction.  Fans of both Arsenal and Chelsea can both vouch for this, as a Champions League position often becomes so much more appreciated once the League title falls from sight – as was the case for both teams by October.  I’ve run out of ways to praise Robin van Persie throughout the season, especially considering the fact that, for so much of the season, he has had little to no help. Theo Walcott’s  tendency to fluctuate between Good Theo/Bad Theo has served as a microcosm of the team’s bipolarity while Gervinho was on a long-term safari better known as the African Cup of Nations.

The team’s resurrection from mid-table purgatory has been pioneered by the return to health of Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, and, most importantly, center half Thomas Vermaelen.  The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the banishment of Andrei Arshavin to Moscow (where he has also failed to impress) gave the team’s attack the defibrillation that it so desperately needed.  The team’s 5-game winning streak in February and March – especially the monumental wins against Tottenham and Newcastle – drove the team’s push for 3rd place, a place I had believed to be unattainable in January.

While 3rd place means another year without the Premier League title, it has meant more than just a Champions League spot this year.  The team’s ability to pull itself up after tough defeats – as shown in the second leg of the Champions League knock-out round against AC Milan – and grind out wins at the death has given me reason to believe that this is a different, more mentally tough Arsenal side than those in past, trophy-less seasons.

While there is still plenty of the season left to determine the 3rd and 4th Champions League spots, I already see next season as the season in which Arsenal will be THE team (barring an enormous spending spree by Chelsea clown boss Roman Abramovich) to finally overthrow Manchester United from the top of the table.  Maybe my faith in the uncertain (the ability of Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen to stay healthy, Robin van Persie to sign an extension, Andrei Arshavin to stay the hell away) is unfounded and is simply a case of the lovable loser’s “Wait til next year” mentality, but if the team is ready to spend, the young players can continue to impress, and Robin van Persie can continue to grace the Emirates, it’ll be a new (and hopefully not another trophy-less) era for Gooner nation.

8. Two Manchesters, One Cup.  For most of the season, it has been a two-team race for the coveted Premier League title.  For much of the early season, Manchester City seemed to have a comfortable lead over its United rival and the league, while so much was left to be player, was City’s for the taking.

Then control switched hands.  Manchester United went on its predictable run of scrappy 1 or 2 goal victories, fueled by the return of Paul Scholes – to aid a midfield weakened by Darren Fletcher’s leave – and a very healthy dose of luck (most penalties awarded this season), as evidenced in the early stages of the QPR match.  City, on the other hand, stagnated.  Roberto Mancini affirmed my belief that he is little more than a puppet of a manager.  City, on paper, is undoubtedly a more talented side than United, yet the difference lies, as so many have said, in experience and, more importantly, the manager.

Besides having a manager who has struggled to deal with the massive pressure and media attention placed on the club, City has a squad that is clearly divided (partially due to injuries), Carlos Tevez, players who have simply lost form after superb starts to the season – namely David Silva and Edin Dzeko, and injuries to the back line – causing mannequin defenders like Stefan Savic to be forced into action.

Regardless of all these issues, this will be known as the Lost Season for City fans, in which the lead was squandered in a league race that was the most winnable in years.  The losses of both Manchester City and United in the Champions League also speaks about the nature of each club: City has ways to go before being able to handle the pressures of high level European play, while United’s team is suited for English football, but not European football.  A new manager is necessary because Mancini has failed to mentally prepare his club at some fatal point in every competition.  The team needs to purge itself of jackasses, like Tevez and Mario Balotelli, stick with the core it has, and pick up a couple of veterans.  Kompany is the only leader on that team.  The team doesn’t need more talent, it needs heart and resolve.

Balotelli is at the center of the Manchester City drama, clearly.  Throughout the season, Mancini and Balotelli have waged a childish feud with one another through the media.  The young Italian has shown no regard for his coach and teammates, with the most recent display against Arsenal.  The Arsenal vs. Manchester City game sounded the death bells for both Mancini and Balotelli in Manchester – I’m not sure if Balotelli can play on any team without snapping the locker room fibers that are so crucial for team success. Balotelli has been the symbol of Manchester City: loaded with talent, yet absolutely unpredictable and unstable.  Whoever manages City, and Balotelli, next will need the resolve of a judge and patience of a monk in order for the team to finally realize their league aspirations. Good luck.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s absolute superiority to Mancini has been the difference in the title race.  He has ensured that his players avoid overlooking any league games and has been able to get the most out of his side.  The team’s marginal talent level (relatively speaking, in comparison to past United sides) was exposed in the Champions League, but the season-long nature of the Premier League marathon makes the contest a test of a team’s mental strength and focus as much as its talent.  Thanks to Ferguson, United has this strength, while City sorely lacks it.  That’s why Manchester United will win the Premier League title for the 5th time in the past 6 seasons.

Champions League Qualifiers Picks: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea

Relegation Picks: Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Wolves

Champions League Picks: Barcelona over Chelsea, Real Madrid over Bayern Munich, Real Madrid over Barcelona