United lay down title gauntlet



Manchester United’s destruction of rivals Manchester City may have set the tone for the coming Premier League season. City, who have been tipped by many to win the title, were forced to surrender in the Community Shield on Sunday despite a two goal lead.

While the result underlined the fact that Utd are the team to beat this season it also highlighted their rosy future ahead with youngsters Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck both impressing.

With City still to intent on playing defensively – in spite of their embarrassment of attacking riches – and Chelsea very much a work in progress with Andres Villas-Boas trying to trim the years away from an ageing squad, the Red Devils look the team to beat once again this season.

Arsenal transfers frustrate fans

In the summer break Arsenal have made three signings; two of them attacking – Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – with the only defensive addition 19-year-old Carl Jenkinson from Charlton.

Obviously, the new faces are not what the Emirates faithful had hoped for. With Arsenal still yet to end their trophy drought serious pressure will be on Arsene Wenger for the first time.

The Gunners are not short of creative midfielders, with Japanese starlet Ryo Miyaichi also gaining a work permit after being on loan at Dutch club Feyenoord last season, so the inability of Wenger to bring in new defensive recruits is even more baffling.

If Arsenal fail to sign two from Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Christopher Samba and still do not improve on their ability at set pieces serious questions will be asked by the fans.

Newcastle sell off the family silver

While Arsenal’s transfer policy is confusing Newcastle United’s seems to be kamikaze. Kevin Nolan has been allowed to leave the club for West Ham, while Joey Barton, arguably the Magpies best player last term (apart from Cheick Tiote) and Jose Enrique could be heading for the exit.

Many of the players that have been bought in such as Yohan Cabeye and Sylvain Marveaux are unproven in the Premier League and their early form will be watched eagerly by the St James’ Park faithful.

However, fans will not be enthused by the arrival of Man Utd misfit Gabriel Obertan. Expect another difficult season on Tyneside.

End of season review: Ton-up Chelsea scoop title

Although the title race went the distance there is no doubt that Chelsea were the best Premier League by some way this season.

Despite losing six times, Chelsea still managed to beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd home and away, managing to hit the back of the net a PL record 103 times on their way to a third title.

Carlo Ancelotti must be praised for finally exercising the demons of Jose Mourinho, while Florent Malouda, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba hid the deficiencies of a stuttering Chelsea defence.

However, this season is a massive missed opportunity for Arsenal and Liverpool, who have both come close in recent seasons, to chase down their major rivals who had been weakened by age and the sale of key players.

While the Gunners and the Reds stuttered, credit must be given to their city rivals Tottenham, who claimed a place in the Champions League preliminary round, and Everton – for shrugging off a poor start to narrowly miss out on the Europa League.

The surprise package of the season must be Birmingham City, widely tipped for relegation, managed to string together a 15 game unbeaten run, held together by the impressive performances Scott Dann, Roger Johnson and Joe Hart at the back.

The bottom half of the Premier League was as poor as ever with Wigan (who conceded 55 away goals) and West Ham (only seven away points) undeservedly staying up and Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth well off the pace resigned to playing Championship football next season.

Player of the year
Didier Drogba

The official award went to Wayne Rooney but Didier Drogba managed to scoop the Golden Boot with 29 goals despite missing most of January at the African Nations Cup.

Manager of the year
Roy Hodgson / Carlo Ancelotti

If it was on both league and cup form the award would go to Roy Hodgson for leading Fulham to the Europa League final and to a comfortable 12th place finish.
But Ancelotti has been the best league manager, transforming Chelsea into a more attractive side and bringing much more stability to a side which has had four different mangers in the last two seasons.

Most improved player
Florent Malouda

The former Lyon winger looked like a completely different player for Chelsea this season after finally settling in England. Honourable mentions go to AstonVilla’s Richard Dunne, Man Utd’s Nani and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora.

Signing of the season
Thomas Vermaelen

The Arsenal defender was bought into the club to fill a Kolo Toure shaped hole and was assured throughout the season despite being written off for being to small.
Man Utd’s signing of Antonio Valencia from Wigan and Sunderland stealing Darren Bent from Spurs also come close.

Terry, tough tackling and the two finger salute

Terry’s armband gestures aimed at Fabio?

It is hard to convey the precise meaning of Terry’s celebrations during Sunday’s FA Cup clash with Stoke but they could be interpreted as message to England manager Fabio Capello.

Following his goal, the deposed England captain rolled up his sleeve and furiously pointed to the captain’s armband on his bare forearm. He then sat in the post-match conference shirtless, still sporting the same armband.

In typical 5Live fashion DJ Spoony and Gab Marcotti lambasted a 606 caller who suggested that Terry‘s mysterious actions could be interpreted as dissent of Capello’s decision to strip him of the captaincy.

Funnily enough the same Marcotti, was strangely silent when the same point was raised by his Times colleague Allyson Rudd on The Game podcast yesterday.

Terry has clearly been affected by the Wayne Bridge incident, his form has dipped noticeably in the past few matches and his recent behaviour has only raised further questions.

Terry said that the celebration was for the fans but the fact that his Chelsea captaincy has never been in question makes his actions all the more baffling.

The only thing this latest incident proves is that Capello was right.

Ryan Shawcross: That sort of player?

Aaron Ramsey’s horrific leg break against Stoke earlier this month has led to another round of stinging criticism for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

Following the game, Wenger accused teams of singling his side out for rough treatment, citing previous injuries to Eduardo and Abou Diaby as examples.

Ryan Shawcross who is “not that sort of player” was then roundly comforted by pundits, bloggers and journalists alike as if he were the victim of the tackle.

However, the issue is wider than the Shawcross, Wenger, Stoke and Arsenal but more of a problem of excess aggression which strikes at the roots of the English game.

The overly-muscular, hard tackling approach has been endemic in English football for many years, with the mantra of many old school managers to “go in hard” demanding “reducer” tackles as standard.

Maybe this is why we get more career threatening tackles in the Premier League than any other top European league. In Italy the well-timed sliding tackle is an art form that often results in a ball-winning challenge without even touching the opponent.

Ramsay will recover in time but whether the English game will learn its lesson is a different matter.

Gerrard and the two-finger salute

Is it just me or has Steven Gerrard’s body language been different this season?

The often mentioned summer sale of Xabi Alonso has meant that Gerrard has been forced to play deeper than the support striker role which brought Liverpool success last season.

However, it seems that this id not Gerrard’s only problem. I had the pleasure to watch him first hand at the Emirates during Liverpool’s 1-0 reverse against Arsenal and he looked dejected for large chunks of the game.

In seasons gone by Gerrard has pulled his team out of the mire by the bootstraps but on the evidence of this season he doesn’t have the will to do it. And his two-finger salute to the referee last night summed up his ultimate frustration.

If Liverpool fail to make the Champions League this season they might have to do the unthinkable and cut their losses on the star.

The three horse title race, Birmingham City and England’s World Cup chances

The three-horse title race

During the past week Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all has their turn at the top of the Premier League.

Despite all the talk of the bug four dominance there has not been a genuine title race with more than two teams since Liverpool pushed Newcastle and Manchester United close in 1995/96.

Currently at the top of the table, with more than half the games played, just three points separate the top three sides.

Although Chelsea are favourites, United have hung in there despite their poor form and injury problems and if Arsenal can pick up a decent haul from their next four games (when they face Aston Villa and Liverpool in addition to Chelsea and United) the title could go right down to the wire for the first time in 15 years.

Birmingham continue to impress with cup win

While Birmingham were many pundit’s favourites to plunge straight back into the Championship they continued to prove doubters wrong with an away win at Goodson against a resurgent Everton side on Saturday.

The FA Cup victory set-up an away tie with second-tier strugglers Derby County but more importantly stretched the club’s record unbeaten run to 15 games.

With Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez looking impressive up-front, Joe Hart solid in goal and Lee Bowyer recapturing his Leeds United form City look a good bet for a top 10 finish.

A real test of the side’s credentials will come on Wednesday when they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

England World Cup bid already in doubt

Most sensible fans would probably tip Spain and Brazil for this year’s World Cup but anyone brave enough to back England would already be fearing for their chances.

While it might seem odd to write-off one of Europe’s better sides before a ball has been kicked, the current state of the squad must be a worry.

No-one has seized the number one jersey, with David James unsettled at Portsmouth, and the defence might creak with Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry suffering from injury and loss of form.

In midfield, Steven Gerrard has been well below his best and it is unclear who will start on the flanks, while the only player on good form at the moment is Wayne Rooney.

The upcoming game against Egypt in March will be an important barometer for Fabio Capelllo’s men and will give some players a chance to book their seat on the plane to South Africa.

Arsenal throw down title gauntlet

Despite being heavily tipped for a finish outside the Champions League places in the Premier League this season Arsenal fired a warning shot to their rivals with a thumping 6-1 reverse at Everton.

Arsene Wenger’s charges outplayed the home side at Goodison Park who remain largely unchanged from last season when they took 5th place.

While many pundits, notably Steve Claridge, have doubted whether Arsenal can still compete with Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool (and the nouveau riche Manchester City) the Gunners showed that they can amaze as well as frustrate.

It is easy to get carried away with on the opening day of the season and it is important to remember that the season is played over a full 38 games but Arsenal showed that they are too good to be taken lightly.

Combine that with the fact that Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd were all unconvincing in their opening games and we could be on for one of the closest title races since the Premier League began.

Tinkerman Abramovich hands title momentum to Man Utd

Even the most ardent football fans with anti- Man Utd sentiment would agree that the newly crowned champions have been immense over the last three seasons.

The Red Devils have picked up three Premier League titles on the spin and appeared in two consecutive Champions League finals.

While it was Liverpool who pushed them the closest this season, the recent demise of Chelsea has eased United’s path to domestic dominance.

Rewind to 2005/06 and Chelsea were on their way to their second consecutive title under Jose Mourinho with an emphatic 3-0 over United at Stamford Bridge.

But just a year later – after failing to win their own hat-trick of titles – Chelsea and Mourinho parted ways.

The departure of Mourinho in itself did not set Chelsea’s slump in motion but dithering at the top certainly has.

Today’s arrival of Carlo Ancelotti marks the fifth manager at the since September 2007 and, in that time, the club has only picked up one FA Cup.

With Grant, Scolari and Hiddink all passing through the revolving door Chelsea must now stabilise if they are to regain the ground they lost to Man Utd (and to a lesser extent Liverpool) in the last three seasons.

They have the squad and, perhaps more importantly, the money to pick up where they left of in 2005/06 – as long as Ancelotti is given the room for manoeuvre.

Big Four?…Big Two

Just two games into the season there is further evidence that the Premier League big four is in fact rapidly becoming a big two.

Chelsea made an impressive start to the season with their 4-0 demolition of FA Cup holders Portsmouth and their battling away victory at Wigan.

Double-holders Manchester United have perhaps been less fluent but considering the injury of Cristiano Ronaldo and the lack of an out-and-out striker they have scrapped hard for their four points.

And like last season Liverpool – who have had two incredibly lucky opening matches – still look like coming up short.

Gerrard had to come to the rescue again against Middlesbrough at the weekend and another great Torres goal sealed a nervy victory against Sunderland on opening day.

Most disappointing of all has been the first two performances by Arsenal. The Gunners dominated West Brom on the opening day but an inability to create clear cut chances contributed to narrow one goal win.

Fans hoping for more this weekend were treated to an inept performance on Saturday evening saw Fulham take all three points at the Cottage.

Wenger and Benitez need to have a long hard look at their midfielders – with Arsenal lacking a string presence in central midfield and Liverpool in need of two quality wingers – if they want to get anywhere near winning the Premier League title this season.