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.

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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.

Benitez faces must win Portsmouth clash; West Ham in serious relegation trouble

Benitez faces must win Portsmouth clash

Liverpool’s 2-1 midweek victory against Wigan at Anfield may have gone some way to easing the pressure on Rafa Benitez but anything less than all three points at basement boys Portsmouth on Saturday will spell trouble for the Spaniard.

The Kop have already lost six games this season (having lost just two for the entire campaign last time out), including four on their travels and a further defeat could see them slip below the top eight.

The majority of critics are adamant that Benitez will be kept at Anfield as the American owners – Tom Hicks and George Gillett – can not afford to sever his contract.

But with Guus Hiddink and the increasingly disillusioned Jose Mourinho rumoured to be seeking new posts Benitez will have to turn things round if he wants to save himself.

West Ham in serious relegation trouble

Last September Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke rode into Upton Park on the crest of a wave with West Ham fans believing they finally had the dream management ticket.

With the help of a decent squad inherited from Alan Curbishley, the duo were able to guide the Hammers to a respectable ninth placed finish.

But what a difference, 15 months makes, with Carlton Cole injured and the team leaking like a colander at the back, they are in the relegation zone and are playing like a team bereft of confidence.

While they are clearly a club with very little money, the sacking of Curbishley – much like Charlton’s sacking of the same man – looks even more ridiculous in hindsight.

Is it Alonso? Or lack of depth?

Liverpool’s indifferent start to the season has had pundits waxing lyrical about the departure of Xabi Alonso.

Alonso performances last season in a playmaker role – with Javier Mascherano playing the holding role and Steven Gerrard roaming just behind Fernando Torres – were a joy to behold.

But it is easy to forget that Liverpool fell short of the title last season because of the lack of depth in their squad.

The Reds fell short after dropping too many points at Anfield – largely because injuries robbed them of their best players at crucial times.

Rafa Benitez did his utmost to raise funds by selling Alonso at the beginning of last season, even offering him to Arsenal for £12m, before realising how needed he was.

And at the beginning of this season, after Real Madrid had registered their interest, Benitez did his best to convince him to stay.

It is all too convenient now to blame Liverpool’s poor start to Alonso’s departure, there is no doubt that he will be missed, but pinning the form of the team on this is papering over the cracks.

When players such as Lucas, Nabir El Zhar and Andriy Voronin are close to the Liverpool first team there is an underlying problem at the club.

And until that problem is addressed that they will never win the title – with or without Xabi Alonso.

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.

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.

Heroic Havant put joy back into the FA Cup

The supposed magic of the FA Cup is something conjured by the BBC to wrestle some viewers from Sky.

But the heart-warming tale of Havant & Waterlooville brought a smile to the face of even the most hardened of football cynics.

For the most part the FA Cup is like the Premier League, the top four have dominated the trophy with Everton the last club outside the upper echelons to lift the trophy after their triumph in 1995.

However, this season the tale the side six divisions below their lofty opponents brought an element of sorcery back to the old tournament.

And for an element of added cup drama, for the first 20 minutes Havant looked they could really play,

Although the cup is a predictable affair, often viewed as a costly distraction for some of the Premier League’s less ambitious teams, for a fleeting moment it was lit up by the little side of Hampshire.

If only we could have such romance every season.